Certain religious authorities assert that there is no accommodation for “Aql” i.e. reason or intellect in matters of ‘Deen’. They claim that we should not attempt to understand the divine message or the interpretations of our Ancestors on the basis of reason or rational thought, but should humbly submit to whatever they convey to us. Is it true that the use of “Aql” (reason) is prohibited in matters pertaining to the understanding of the Qur’an? Should we humbly acknowledge and blindly follow that which our ancestors have conveyed to us as “religious truth”without engaging in any rational inquiry?
It is entirely wrong to suggest that reason (“Aql” in Arabic) has no place in the context of Allah’s message and that Islam is merely a matter of blind faith. An appeal to reason is explicitly present in many different verses in the Qur’an. .
Let us start by looking at the following.
Without doubt, the worst of beasts in Allah’s sight are the deaf, the dumb, who do not use their ‘Aql’ (reason)” (8:22)
If anything, what redeems man in the eyes of Allah is his rational faculty. According to the above verse, it is at any rate what distinguishes him from lower forms of life. It makes him other than a brute
According to an earlier Surah, moral growth is not possible in the absence of the operation of the mind. A mindless existence makes for nothing short of ‘hell’.
There are many a people, both among humankind and the jinns, who lead such a life as makes it obvious that they are meant for hell. (7:179)
As the Qur’an puts it:
They have hearts with which they discern not, and they have eyes with which they see not, and they have ears with which they hear not ; these are as the cattle-nay are worse ; they are the heedless. (7:179)
The point is again highlighted in Surah Al-Furqan
Do you think that most of them hear or use their reason? They are but as the cattle – nay but they are farther astray. (25:44)
At another juncture, the Qur’an speaks of those who are endowed with minds but do not heed them or simply let them atrophy.
They will (further) say: Had we but listened or used our ‘Aql’ (reason), we should not (now) be among the companions of the blazing fire!” (67:10)
Surah Yasin reminds us of the wages of heedlessness and accidie.
And yet Shaitan has led astray of you a great multitude. Did ye not then apply your reason? This is the Hell with which ye were threatened. (36:62-63)
This suggests that the Qur’an is no enemy of reason and in fact regards it as a necessary means of spiritual advancement. In other words, the message of the Qur’an is not to be accepted unquestioningly and uncritically. Man is urged to reflect on and interpret it in the light of his reason. Time and again we are told that thought is of the essence if we hope to engage with the Qur’an.
Will they not ponder over the Qur’an? (4:82)
Is it then that they do not ponder over what is said.. (23:68)
..that they may ponder over its verses.. (38:29)
Do you not then reflect? (6:50)
Thus do We make the verses distinct for a people who reflect. (10:24)
Certainly We have revealed to you a Book in which is your own reminder; what! Will you not then use your reason? (21:10)
We have made the revelations clear to you, if you will use your reason.” (3:118)
Those who lead thoughtless – or morally irresponsible – lives are not among the blessed.
These are they whom Allah (by His Law of Retribution) has deprived (as a result of their own doing) of the blessings of life and has made them deaf and has blinded their eyes. Will they not then ponder on the Qur’an or there are locks on their hearts.” (47:23-24)
There is no doubt about the appeal to reason of the Qur’an. Interestingly, the messenger of Allah is himself urged not to demand blind obedience from his followers but to exhort them to think and ponder. That indeed is his clarion call.
Say, I exhort you unto one thing. It is that ‘ye awake, for Allah’s sake by twos and singly. And then, reflect..” (34 : 46) .
Allah demands that men think and use their power of understanding. If they do this, they will be sure to follow the right path. This can be discovered and followed only with the combined help of reason and the revelation contained in the Book of Allah. These sources of guidance complement each other. The words of the messenger attest to this.
Say: This is my way: I invite unto Allah upon conscious insight accessible to reason, I as well as those who follow me, and glory be to Allah, for I am not one of those who associate (others with His laws). (12:108)
While the Qur’an identifies the crucial role of the ratiocinative faculty and intellect, it also points to the fact that people are often deprived of divine guidance because they blindly follow tradition in matters of faith. Faith is more often than not seen to be ‘hereditary’ or what one has received from one’s parents and forbears.
Such faith does not allow for a reasoned understanding of the Qur’anic text. People are also discouraged by their parents and the elders of their community from raising questions concerning religion or religious belief and urge them to follow the established faith unquestioningly This has always served as a barrier between man and the Book of Allah since the givens of a society are usually at odds with the truth.
It is seen that, in matters of religion, people mostly follow the sect or cult into which they were born rather than personally approach the Qur’an for guidance:
And when it is said to them:`Follow what Allah has revealed !’ They say: `Nay ! We will follow what we found our ancestors following.’ What ! Even though their Ancestors were void of wisdom and guidance (2:170)
Most messengers are said to have experienced more or less the same thing.
Such is the response Noah gets.
..Never did we hear such a thing among our Ancestors of old. (23:24)
The same is true in the case of Hud.
..Have you come to us that we may serve Allah alone and leave that which our Ancestors served..? (7:70)
I it also true of Salih and Shoaib.
..Do you forbid us that which our Ancestors served?.. (11:62)
O Shoaib, does your Salat order that we leave of that which our Ancestors served. (11:87)
We see much the same in the response to Abraham’.
They said:`Nay we but found our Ancestors doing thus what we do! (26:74)
Joseph delivers an analogous rebuke.
If not Him you serve nothing but names which you have invented, you and your Ancestors.. (12:40)
The response to Moses and Aaron are no different.
..Never did we hear the like among our Ancestors of old. (28:36)
The experience of the Prophet Mohammed echoes that of the other messengers.
This is just a Man whose intention is to oppose you from that which your Ancestors served.. (34:43)
The Qur’an vehemently opposes the following of a traditional faith and urges people to explore religion on their own using their power of reasoning and intelligence. It advances reasons and evidence for its claims (see 4:174,6:104) and also challenges its opponents to come up with proofs (see 21:24, 27:64, 2:111, 37:157). One of its typical positions is this. Traditional faith, which is also in a way the faith of the establishment, is encouraged by Satan since his chief objective is to keep mankind away from the Qur’an:
When they are told to follow what Allah has revealed, they say:`Nay we shall follow the ways that we found our Ancestors following !’ What ! Even if it is Satan beckoning them to the penalty of the blazing (fire)? ” (31:21)
Instead of seeking guidance from the Book of Allah, the disbelievers insist on copying the ways of their fathers:
What! Have We given them a Book before this to which they are holding fast? (43:21)
Nay! They say:`We found our Ancestors following a certain way and we will guide ourselves by their footsteps. (43:22)
Just in the same manner, whenever We sent a Warner before you to any town, the wealthy ones among them said: Surely we found our Ancestors following a certain way and we will certainly follow in their footsteps. (43:23)
It is interesting that plutocrats are mentioned in this context. This serves to affirm that the preservation of a traditional faith has to do with perpetuating the status quo. This is equated by the Qur’an with stasis or spiritual death.
Then their return is to the blazing fire their return is to the blazing (fire). (37:68)
Surely they found their Ancestors on the wrong path (37:69)
So they (too) rushed down their footsteps. (37:70)
The fire will burn their faces and they will grin therein with their lips displaced. (23:104)
Were not my ayaat (verses) rehearsed to you and you did but treat them as falsehoods? (23:105)
They will say:`Our Sustainer! Our misfortune overwhelmed us and we became a people astray! (23:106)
They will (further) say: Had we but listened or used our ‘Aql’ (reasoning), we should not (now) be among the companions of the blazing fire! (67:10)
What the Qur’an is saying is this. We are responsible and accountable for our own actions, not for ‘history’.
They were a people that have passed away. For them is what they earned and for you is what you earn. And you will not be questioned as to what they did. (2:141)
The ‘ancestral’ theme is not one people should harp upon. The ‘piety’ of one’s forbears is irrelevant. That is part of a cultural tradition which has nothing to do with personal morality. According to the Qur’an, contention on such grounds should be shunned as it only makes for sectarian strife. The Qur’an asks us to refrain from engaging in vain disputes and encourages us instead to quest for knowledge.
Do not pursue that whereof you have no knowledge. Verily, the hearing and sight, and the heart, each of these will be asked. (17:36)
The Qur’an stresses the importance of correct knowledge and advises us to accept and act upon this. All else is dismissed as mere guess work which is far from being a trustworthy guide to action.
..A guess can never take the place of truth.. (53:28)
As rational beings, it is our duty not to stop till we have achieved correct knowledge. To be content with a mere presumption is to disavow rationality.
A person should approach the Qur’an with a receptive mind free from preconceived notions, prejudice and bias. The faculties of reason are to be employed to ascertain the truth. According to the Qur’an, these are essential pre-requisites for an understanding of divine guidance. To those who do not approach it in this way, the Qur’an will necessarily remain closed.
But nay! I bring as evidence the positioning of stars. And most surely it is a very great oath if you only knew. Most surely it is an honored Quran, In a book that is protected. None shall have access to it save those who purify themselves (from false ideologies and pre-conceived notions). A revelation by the Sustainer of the worlds. (56:75-80)
To sum up, there is no conflict between revelation, i.e. the Book of Allah and reason: rather they complement each other. The Qur’an asks us to employ our faculties of reason to ascertain its message and to shun ancestral diktat in matters of faith.