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Reason & revelation

Reason & revelation | Jan-e-Alam Khaki

THE nature of the relationship between reason and revelation has been of considerable importance in the context of Muslim societies, though it may be true in the case of other faith traditions as well.

From the early Muslim period, there have been thinkers who have wanted a more powerful role for reason in interpreting revelation. They used different sources to understand human life and its issues than just revelation. John Esposito in The Future of Islam highlights many examples of the issues that had cropped up through the course of history, and continue to engage Muslim intellectuals even today.

The authors of Defenders of Reason in Islam inform us that the debate in early Muslim history has been about the nature and scope of reason as to how to understand, interpret and act upon revelation. There were two major trends in this regard: One was represented by theologians (mutakallimun) and exegetes (mufassirun), who insisted on accepting the beliefs and claims of revelation “without asking how” (bila kayfa).

The other trend was represented by critical thinkers, regarded as Mu’tazila, and philosophers (falasafa), who raised critical questions with regard to revelation to see a consistent perspective, devoid of contradictions.

Revelation can only be appreciated by rational beings.

Somehow, through the madressahs and ulema, the taqlid trend gained ascendancy among the common people, and the intellectuals had less impact on the masses. Also, often Sufis urged their followers to follow the path of ishq, undermining the role of reason. Both these trends tended to belittle the role of reason and made it subservient to the interpretations of the ulema. This does not mean that the ‘defenders’ of reason had no impact or they had vanished; far from it. There have always been scholars who asserted alternative views from the earlier generations.

These thinkers have variously been defined, sometimes called mujaddadin (those who try to take existing religious thought in a process of tajdid, ie, to make it jadid) or islahi (reform) movements, called reformers of religious thought. One of these, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, argues for the “reconstruction of religious thought” keeping in view the new social realities of life.

Today, many scholars take the role of reason more seriously in analysing and reinterpreting revelation by raising issues of its interpretation made centuries ago, living in different sociocultural and religio-political circumstances as opposed to the radically altered geopolitical, globalising, interdependent, and interconnected societies we live in today.

They urge us to realise the realities of our times, and respond to them more rationally, than continuing to mechanically harp on assumptions about our worldviews engendered through polemical, confrontational, and exclusivist perspectives by many traditional scholars.

If we were to look at revelation more closely, it is clear that its recipients (ie prophets) and its subjects/targets were rational human beings, who were supposed to have the capacity to accept, understand, and interpret the message sent to them. Revelation is expected to be accepted and acted upon only by those who have the capacity to think. Inasmuch as revelation is a message of reformation and transformation, it can only be appreciated by rational beings.

The Quran urges the Prophet (PBUH) to invite people towards his message with wisdom (bil hikmah) and good/beautiful counsel (wal mau’izatil hasanah) and best dialogue. Why? Because all these qualities are needed to engage human beings who are supposed to be rational beings and accept the revelation with understanding. Those who did not reflect are termed by the Quran as “…having hearts wherewith they understand not, and having eyes wherewith they see not, and having ears wherewith they hear not. These are as the cattle — nay, but they are worse!” (7:179).

Why is cattle used here as a metaphor for those who do not think? Because those who do not make use of their tools of thinking like keen observation (nazar, ie, basarat with basirat) through “enlightened eyes”, and “awakened hearts” drop to the level of cattle in the eyes of God. This leads us to conclude that revelation is communicated through a rational being (a prophet) to rational creatures, ie, human beings. This is one more reason why the Quran puts so much emphasis on reflection (tafakkur), contemplation (tadabbur), and intellectualisation (ta’aqqul) because man is capable of probing, supplementing and extending the meanings latent in the revelation (through all these processes).

It is, therefore, imperative that teachers and students, whether in madressahs or other systems of education or in general life, should not be discouraged from asking questions about the way religion is understood and practised. It is only through the exploratory questions that one can understand the latent meanings of the word of God (revelation) and the mysteries of the work of God (the universe) as they are organically integrated.

Reason & revelation | Jan-e-Alam Khaki

The writer is an educationist, with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2015

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