Tuesday July 24, 2012
Uniting religion and reason
IKIM VIEWS By Dr MOHD FARID MOHD SHAHRAN, SENIOR FELLOW OF IKIM
It is hardly possible for a civilisation to survive without being appreciative to rational inquiries and intellectual pursuits. For civilisation is nothing but the refinement of human life through rational investigation and experience.
THE incident of a couple attacking a policeman with a sword in front of the Prime Minister’s Department was a front cover story recently. The man, who was shot and later on died, also claimed himself to be the Imam Mahdi.
While the real cause of the incident is still under investigation, immediate reaction was one of bewilderment for such an irrational act.
Since the motive is seemingly religious, the deeper question is, could religion teach us to do such a thing?
To be religious is quite often thought to be anti-reason and dismissive of rational inquiries.
The basic premise is two-fold. First, since religion is based on submission to the absolute will of God, less room is available for thinking and rational justification, and secondly, it is based on divine injunction which is beyond fault, hence, no rational explanation is needed.
The logical implication of this thinking is that what comes from religion will form its own truth, while what comes from reason will form another.
Both of these are irreconcilable and contradictory. Ultimately, this thinking will lead to the situation where every endeavour, which is based on rational inquiry like science and philosophy, is contradictory to religion.
This is based on a few observations: First, Islam has proven itself to be a great civilisation for a long time. It is hardly possible to think of a civilisation that can survive, without being appreciative to rational inquiries and intellectual pursuits.
For civilisation is nothing but the refinement of every aspect of human life through rational investigation and human experience within any framework of a worldview.
In the case of Islam, although the development of its civilisation was inspired by the spirit of revelation and progressed within the framework of religious worldview with tawhid as the central theme, the gradual unfolding of its various civilisational aspects in history took place through diverse intellectual inquiries.
This is reflected in countless great intellectual works of Muslim scholars throughout the Golden Age of Islam. In addition, science and philosophy flourished in the Muslim world while translations by Muslim scholars of great works from the zenith of reason at that time, the Greek civilisation, were very much active.
Secondly, the Quran as the source of Islam is far from anti-reason.
Replete with verses challenging human beings to use their reason, the Quran quite often ends some of its verses with phrases like “will you not use your reason?” and “so that you might use your reason” which are mainly directed at those who are inconsistent in their thinking and actions.
In the same spirit, the Quran does not ever portray people who are reasonable and contemplative as bad and vile.
On the contrary, they are described as those who are on the right path and are close to God.
They are the ones who posses true insight (ulu al-absar), true heart (ulu al-bab), true intelligence (ulu al-nuha), all referring to different aspects of reason (‘aql).
One of the verses pronounces that those who reflect on the creation of heavens and earth will eventually come to the conclusion that such creations are neither made in vain nor without purpose, but rather are signs to higher divine meanings (Quran 3:191).
As a matter of fact, this verse has become one of the motivating factors in the development of science in Islam.
In a few instances in the Quran, God challenges those who do not want to accept the teachings of the Prophet and the truth of religion to provide their burhan to prove themselves right.
The term burhan, which later became a terminology in Islamic philosophy, refers to the demonstrative proof that is the highest level of rational proof based on self-evident premises.
Thirdly, some rational principles play important roles even in the understanding of revelations as explained by Muslim theologians.
For example, before every Quranic verse can be fully understood, it must be qualified rationally for its metaphorical level, if it is specific or general, or if it comes in contradiction with other verses in terms of meaning.
Such are the rational principles which are the prerequisites in understanding revelation.
Following this, another important rational method developed in the study of the Quran, which is the allegorical interpretation in regard to the verses which seem contradictory in meaning.
Such a method derived from the premise that the Quran must be consistent and self contradictions should not arise. In other words, those who read the Quran must be reasonably sound so as to understand that some verses are not in contradiction with others.
Fourthly, in Islam both reason and religion are innate to human beings. Being an essential characteristic, every human being is endowed with reason, and for that matter, the human being is defined by philosophers as a thinking living being (al-hayawan al-natiq). The great Muslim thinker, al-Ghazali, defines reason as a natural disposition in man that differentiates him from other living beings.
As to religion, which in Islam is reflected in the concept of conscious and willing submission to one God (aslama) and true worship (ibadah), they are already inherent characteristics of every child who, according to a saying of the Prophet, is born into this world pure and sinless, hence has already submitted itself to God.
In fact, another Quranic verse reiterates that even all of the children of Adam have submitted themselves to God through their covenant with Him before coming to this world (Quran 7:172).
It is therefore hardly conceivable that both religion and reason, which are innate, can be contradictory in nature.