From Islam A Challenge to Religion
THE ROLE OF REASON IN DEEN
By Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez
I. Reason and Passion
The conflict between reason and passion runs through human history. Both are necessary for a full, rich and balanced life, but to reconcile them is an extremely difficult problem. Reason counsels prudence and caution while passion exhorts man to dare and take risks. "Look before you leap" says reason, while passion cries: "Leap and trust to fate. Do not waste time in looking." "Without the Bacchic element," says Bertrand Russell, "life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous."1
In the history of thought, an age of reason has often been succeeded by a period of revolt against reason. Over-confidence in the power of reason has been followed by disillusionment with reason. The eighteenth century was the age of reason par excellence. We are witnessing the violent reaction against reason today. After a long period of unquestioned supremacy, its authority was challenged from various quarters. The poets of the Romantic revival insisted on the inherent worth of emotion and gloried in unrestrained expression of all emotions. The mystics were vociferous in claiming that emotion was a better and more trustworthy guide for man than reason. The philosophers did not lag behind in this outcry against the tyranny of reason. Schopenhauer glorified the blind working through the universe and contemptuously dismissed reason as a mere in its hands. Bergson pinned his faith on intuition and resolutely set his face against reason. They sought the help of the biologists in dethroning reason.
The psychologists, under the leadership of Freud, questioned the view that man is a rational being and orders his life in the light of reason. In the Freudian theory the irrational unconscious plays the dominant role, while reason takes up the humble position of a mere servant. The intellect is compelled to invent specious reasons to justify the irrational operations of unconscious desires. No wonder that, subjected to violent attacks from various directions, reason began to totter on its throne. Men were disillusioned with reason and looked for guidance to irrational elements in human nature, such as will, emotion, instinct, intuition and mystical experience. It is high time we realized that the reaction has gone too far and we must redress the balance between reason and passion. Bertrand Russell wisely remarks: "It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party."2
In defending the cause of reason, we must bear in mind that it is no longer possible to restore to it that position of absolute supremacy which was accorded to it by the rationalists. There is a great deal of truth in the criticism to which it was subjected. Prof. Joad's remarks deserve careful consideration:
Reason tends to be exhibited as a mere tool or handmaid of desire. Its function is to secure the ends which we unconsciously set ourselves, by inventing excuses for what we instinctively want to do, and arguments which we instinctively want to believe. ... Reason is the power of deceiving ourselves into believing that what we want to think true, is in fact true.3
In another place he says: "A man's thought follows his desire much as the feet of a hungry dog follow his nose."4
The Quran too has made pointed reference to how a deceives himself when he is under the domination of a base passion:
Hast thou seen him who chooseth for his god his own baser passion. Wouldst thou then be guardian over him. Or deemest thou that most of them hear or understand? (25: 43-44).
These are the people who have permitted their reason to be perverted by base passions:
Hast thou seen him who maketh his baser desire his god. The result is that Allah's Law of Retribution sends him astray, notwithstanding his knowledge, and seals up his hearing and his heart and puts on his sight a covering (45: 23).
It cannot be denied that reason may often be enlisted in the service of selfish desires and base passions. In such a case, reason, instead of guiding man to the right path, leads him further astray till disaster overtakes him. The Quran says:
(Their fate) is manifest unto you from their (ruined and deserted) dwellings . . . . as they followed their base passions, although they were keen-sighted (29: 38).
It is obvious that reason, when it is clouded by passion, is not a help, but a hindrance in the pursuit of worthy ends. It can guide rightly only when it is functioning properly. However, it is not the fault of reason that it sometimes leads us astray. The fault is ours, in allowing reason to be dominated by our passions. In a well-regulated mind, reason functions properly and gives right guidance. In a mature and solid character, all passions and desires knit into a harmonious whole and are organized into a rational system through the operation of reason. In such a character, reason plays a controlling but not a repressing role. Animal passions and sensual desires are not suppressed but only put in their proper place. On the other hand, a feeble or reckless character is not sustained by reason and, therefore, reason plays in it the minor role of a subservient to passion. Moreover, if reason has to have full play, it must be trained and developed like other faculties of the mind. Reason functions according to the role one gives it. The question is only of giving it the proper role. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with reason as such.
We admit that there may be a conflict between reason and passion. However, the remedy lies not in suppressing one or the other, but in striking a balance between the two. Reason as well as passion are valuable constituents. The elimination or weakening of either will leave a truncated personality. We have to discover a way of introducing harmony between the two and enlisting them in the service of man's best interests. This discovery has itself to be through reason. Passion is blind and can neither restrain nor direct itself. Reason can examine itself and can discover its own limitations. Passion, left to itself, will tend to suppress reason, but reason recognises passion’s rightful place in life and does not grudge it the satisfaction to which it is entitled.
Russell is no doubt right in advising us to refrain front siding wholly with either reason or passion. We agree with him, with the reservation that to side wholly with passion is much worse than to side wholly with reason. The Quran speaks of the slaves of passion in no uncertain terms:
And if they answer thee not, then know that what they follow is their passion. And who goeth farther astray than he who follows his passion without guidance from Allah (28: 50).
II Reason and Revelation
Scientists insist that whatever knowledge we have gained about this mysterious universe we owe to reason. This knowledge may be scanty, meagre and insufficient; nonetheless it is valuable and indispensable. Scientific investigation reveals reason as its best. Slowly and painfully science is increasing bit by bit, our stock of knowledge. However, we may be permitted to ask whether there is any other avenue to knowledge, at least to knowledge that matters more-knowledge of our goal in life and how best it may be attained.
The advice that reason tenders us is based on the knowledge at its disposal. If the knowledge is inadequate, the advice is necessarily tentative, as if reason says: "Try it and see whether it works. If it doesn’t, I would reconsider the matter and suggest something else." Reason can come to the right decision only when all the relevant facts are placed before it. It is helpless when these facts cannot all be obtained. So far as the material world and the human body are concerned, we possess, today, sufficient knowledge. Reason can be relied upon to give the right answer to many a question that may arise regarding the body of man. But man possesses a real self also and our knowledge of it is pitifully inadequate. The real self is not susceptible to quantitative treatment of the scientist. Guidance to it can be given only in the light of eternal verities which transcend reason. Reason cannot apprehend Ultimate Reality and the self of man can realize itself only by the guidance of the Ultimate Reality or God. Hence arises the necessity for man to seek Divine Guidance without which he will remain earth-bound. In affairs relating to the physical world, we should always act on the advice of reason; to reject which would be to court disaster. But when we aspire to fulfil our destiny, we would be ill-advised to place absolute reliance on our reason alone. We should seek the aid of Revelation which is the vehicle of Divine guidance. Reason functioning in the light of Revelation will guide us to the true path. By this view, Revelation supplements reason. In this way we will be fully equipped to tackle the problems of life and we would be guilty of gross ingratitude to God if we refuse to make use of the powers with which He has endowed us and the light (of Revelation) which He has given us.
We can now proceed to the consideration of another important aspect of the question. In practical life, reason helps us in two ways. Firstly, it tells us which of the things we desire are good and useful and which are bad and harmful. It judges things by the standard of self-interest. Things which contribute to self-preservation and the enhancement of life are certified as good, whereas things which are detrimental to life and diminish man's enjoyment of life and impair his capacity for development are declared to be undesirable, or not good. But reason does not merely pronounce its judgement on things. It throws its weight on the side of things judged to be good, and induces man to choose them, even though his inclination and appetite favours the harmful things. When the choice is between useful and harmful things, a man who is guided by reason seldom fails to make the right choice. Science has placed at our disposal the requisite knowledge of the properties of material things and of their effects on man's health. On the basis of this knowledge, reason finds it easy to answer questions about which things are desirable and which are undesirable. In other words, so far as the physical self of man is concerned we are seldom left in doubt as to what things are beneficial and what not. But, as we have seen, man possesses a real self too, and we have only imperfect and fragmentary knowledge of this self. We cannot comprehend the real self, as it transcends human reason. The nature of the real self is unknown to us. It may even be impossible to know. We catch fleeting glimpses of it in value experience and in the consciousness of moral effort. All that we can say about it with certainty is that it is free, that it possesses unlimited capacity for development and that the urge to self-expression and self-development is inherent in it.
We feel in our bones that a grand destiny awaits the self in us which constitutes the core of our being. But when our reason makes the effort to set a clear conception of our final goal, it recoils baffled and perplexed. All we can say is that we can attain the goal provided we live in accord with the eternal verities. These verities are hidden from our view and transcend our reason. We have to be content with the tantalising glimpses we catch of them. No wonder that our reason, groping in the dark, longs for the light which would illuminate the furthermost reaches of life. This light is vouchsafed to us in the Revelation which has its source in God, Who, in the words of the Quran, is "the Light of earth and heavens" (24: 35).
So far, we have been concerned with the question of choice between good and bad. However, we are often called upon to choose between two goods, to sacrifice one good for the sake of another, How far can reason help us in this more difficult choice? Let us illustrate the point with one or two examples. A situation may confront us in which we can save either our life or our wealth. Reason tells us to choose life and be resigned to the loss of our wealth. Again a situation may arise in which we can save our Honour only at the cost of life. Reason tells us, though perhaps not as unhesitatingly as in the previous case, to save our honour rather than life. How does it do so? Obviously it refers to an accepted scale of values. The scale of values helps us to determine which of the two goods is the higher and which the lower. Reason then advises us to sacrifice the lower for the sake of the higher.
The point to be noted, here is that the values towards the top of the scale are not discoverable through reason. Knowledge of these presupposes knowledge of the heights to which the human self can rise in the course of its continued development. Here again Revelation helps reason over the stile. The highest value can be determined only with reference to the destiny of the self. The scale of values constructed by reason is useful, but it is incomplete. Revelation completes it by raising its ceiling.
Finally, science furnishes useful knowledge regarding the means by which we may attain our ends. However, it is silent on the vital question of what ends we ought to set for ourselves. The ends we ought to pursue are those which can fully satisfy our needs. The needs of the physical self are clearly perceived and easily satisfied. Food and water appease hunger and thirst. Reason can help us to secure food and water. The needs of the real self may be as insistent but are only dimly perceived. In the fitful light of reason, it is not easy to see the way in which they can be gratified. Here too reason is forced to lean on Revelation.
The distinction between physical self and real self which runs through the above discussion, needs to be clarified further in the light of the Quran. The distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit, is basic to the teaching of most religions, The, Quran does not support this dichotomy. In the Quranic view, man is not compounded of two distinct entities-soul and body. He is a single indivisible being. If we apply to him the categories of science, he appears to be a physical organism, but he reveals himself as a free being when "value" categories are applied. It is a view which is not dissimilar to the organismic theory developed by Goldstein and J.F. Brown. The Quranic view parts company with the above theory in maintaining the reality of the higher self. It would seem that the real self of man takes on materiality without which it cannot function in the physical world of time and space.
III. Revelation and Values
It cannot be denied that knowledge of absolute values is indispensable for the right conduct of life and the unimpeded development of the self. But reason, the main instrument of knowledge we possess, tells us only about relative values. It cannot even give a definitive answer to the question as to whether there are absolute values and, if so, how can they be known. It tends to define value in subjective terms, only in relation to the particular experiencing individual. It amounts to a tacit denial of an objective system of values, valid for all men at all times. It is easy to see that this view cuts at the root of din. Din involves belief in objective, absolute values and in an objective, absolute moral standard. Reason, with its cautious experimental approach is constantly revising and reconstructing its scale of values and its moral standard in the light of fresh knowledge. Thinking men have, therefore, felt the need of some dependable source of values other than reason. On this point we cannot do better than quote the words of Martin Buber:
The absolute values . . . . cannot, of course, be meant to have only subjective validity for the person concerned. Don Juan finds absolute and subjective value in seducing the greatest possible number of women and the dictator sees it in the greatest possible accumulation of power. 'Absolute validity can only relate to universal values and forms, the existence of which the person concerned recognises and acknowledges.5
Rashdall makes the same point:
That there is one absolute standard of values, which is the same for all rational beings, is just what morality means.6
In the following passage, Rashdall contends that what is controversial is not the existence of an objectively valid Moral Law but only the manner of its existence:
We say that the Moral Law has a real existence, that there is such a thing as absolute Morality, that there is something absolutely true or false in ethical judgements, whether we or any number of human beings at any given time actually think so or not. Such a belief is distinctly implied to what we mean by Morality. The idea of such an unconditional objectively valid Moral Law, or ideal undoubtedly exists as a psychological fact. The question before us is whether it is capable of theoretical justification. We must then face the question where such an ideal exists, and what manner of existence, we are to attribute to it. Certainly, it is to be found, wholly and completely, in no individual human consciousness. Men actually think differently about moral questions and there is no empirical reason for supposing that they will ever do otherwise. Where then and how does the moral ideal really exist? 7
Having reached the conclusion that the moral standard must be based on a universal and absolute system of values, Rashdall proceeds to tell us that such a system can have its source nowhere but in the Divine Mind:
An absolute Moral Law or moral ideal cannot exist in material things. And it does not (we have seen) exist in the mind of this or that individual........ A moral ideal can exist nowhere and no how but in a mind; an absolute moral ideal can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived. Our moral ideal can only claim objective validity in so far as it can rationally be regarded as a revelation of a moral ideal eternally existing in the mind of God.8
For this reason, Brightman says: "If we are to have a God at all, we must have a being that is a trustworthy source of value."9
Bergson discusses the question whether it is possible for human intellect to reach reality and gives a negative answer:
Not through intelligence, or at least through intelligence alone, can (man) do so: intelligence would be more likely to proceed in the opposite direction; it was provided for a definite object and when it attempts speculation on a higher plane it enables us at the most to conceive possibilities; it does not attain any reality.10
Einstein, the most eminent physicist of our time, frankly admitted that science can never give us "spiritual." guidance. He argued that only men to whom Revelation has been vouchsafed, could give us guidance in the "spiritual" sphere:
On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgements with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors . . . . Science cannot create ends and, even less, install them in human beings; science can, at the most, supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals.11
The same view has been expressed by Joad, who, however, prefers the term "Intuition" to "Revelation". Intuition may be subsumed under Wahi, if we bear in mind the wide sense in which it is employed in the Quran. But intuition, it should be noted, is not synonymous with the Wahi imparted to Anbia; the difference between the two is not quantitative, but qualitative. Says Joad:
(Intuition) is its own authority and carries with it the guarantee of its own authenticity. For those truths which we know intuitively no reasons can be adduced, simply because they are not reached by a process of reasoning. Reason no doubt may be enlisted later to produce arguments in their favour.12
As the following passage shows, Prof. Cassirer too does not credit reason with the power of apprehending the highest values:
(In Greek philosophy) the power of reason was extolled as the highest power of man. But what man could never know, until he was enlightened with a special Divine revelation, is that reason itself is one of the most questionable and ambiguous things in the world.13
In short, while the authority of reason cannot be questioned in the world of fact, the realm of ends is definitely outside its jurisdiction. Revelation is the only source of our knowledge of the highest values.
Armed with adequate knowledge of values, we can, if we want, live and act in full accord with the immutable moral order of the universe. The knowledge does not consist in merely the recognition of a value as a value but involves a just estimate of the degree of worth possessed by it, so that it can be compared with other values. Confronted with a situation where we are called upon to choose between two values, we can then promptly choose the higher and sacrifice the lower value for the sake of the higher. Character is strengthened by our voluntary sacrifice of a lower value to secure a higher one.
When a man has to choose between life and money, he does not hesitate to throw away money and save his life. Here instinct backs his choice; but the same man may be forced to choose between life and honour. It is a cruel choice and the man may not reconcile himself to the loss of either of the two extremely precious things. Reason will advise him to save honour at the cost of life, but he may not be entirely convinced by rational arguments. He may even make the right choice but for wrong reasons. He may choose honour, not because he values it more than life, but because he is afraid of incurring social disapproval and recoils with horror from the prospect of being a social outcast.
He has made the right choice, yet has missed the feeling of fulfilment which should accompany the right choice. Choosing the higher value is an act of conviction or Iman; conviction in the Revelation and in the Hereafter. On the basis of knowledge and experience, we may not be able to decide which of the two values is the higher. Reason may counsel suspension of judgement. We can suspend judgement but we cannot postpone action and when we have acted, we have already made the choice. We have no option but to decide on arbitrary grounds or on the basis of Divine Revelation. When the light of reason falls, we should let ourselves be guided by the light of Revelation. Revelation tells us about the ends of the human personality, which, by seeking to attain them, qualifies itself to continue its existence on a higher plane after death. To sum up, our only source of knowledge regarding ultimate values is Divine Revelation.
IV. Iman is Indispensable
We hope that a few words on the necessity of Iman and on its organic relation to reason will not be out of place at this point. Without it, man is like a boat without a rudder, drifting aimlessly and at the mercy of every gust of wind; with it, he is carried forward, step by step, to the objective of self-fulfilment and self-realisation. To the question: Iman in what?" the answer can only be, Iman in God who sustains the universe, which reveals a few of the infinity of His aspects; Iman in the reality of the human self and in its unlimited capacity for development; Iman in the absolute values which set the goal to both human endeavour and cosmic process; and finally Iman in a purposive Universe.
We shall do well to give careful thought to Rashdall's views on the human self and on the purpose in the universe:
The universe itself must have a purpose or rational end, a purpose a perfect reason would pronounce to be good.14
Regarding the self he says:
The self is a permanent reality; that is spiritual in so far as it has a permanent life of its own, not identical with the changes of the material organism with which it is (in whatever way) connected; and that the acts of man really proceed from and express the nature or character of the self for the simple reason that, only if we suppose that the present life of human beings has an end which lies in part beyond the limits of the present natural order in so far as that order is accessible to present human observation, can we find a rational meaning and explanation for human life as we see it; and by far the most natural and intelligent. Form of such a world-end is the belief in immortality for the individual souls which have lived here.15
Substantially, the same view is expressed, in simple and direct terms, in the Quran. The Quran assures us that the creation of heaven and earth has a meaning. "They have been created in truth and for a purpose"(45: 22), in order that "every soul may be repaid what it hath earned" (45: 22). We are advised to reflect on the doings of the man "who has made his base desire his god" and, in consequence, "has lost his way in spite of his knowledge, insight and experience" (45: 23). This misguided person equates the real self with the physical body and pays heed only to the demands of the body. It is men like him who say: "There is naught but our life of the existing world. We live and we die and naught destroys us save time" (45: 24). But the Quran emphatically asserts that "they have no knowledge whatsoever of all that: they do but guess" (45: 24).
The Nabi is advised to "withdraw from them, as they desire but the life of this world" (53: 29). Their mind is imprisoned within the narrow confines of present experience and the vast and limitless spaces of existence are, shut out from their view.
Din, as well as moral life, is possible only for a being which possesses a permanent self. Value is relative to the person who experiences, and a system of absolute values has meaning only in relation to a real self. To deny the existence of a permanent self is to deny absolute values and the denial of absolute values, entails the denial of moral standard too. An ethical code is based on a system of values. By achieving insight into absolute values become capable of leading a moral life. Regarding the absolute values, the only dependable source of knowledge is Divine Revelation. Through intense reflection on Revelation, we can hope to understand the meaning and purpose of creation, the worth of the human self and its possibilities and destiny. We would do well to lay the following soul-stirring verse to heart:
Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are surely signs to men of understanding. Such as keep before their mind the Laws of Allah, standing and sitting and reclining, and reflect on the creation of the heaven and the earth, saying: Our Rabb ! Thou hast not created this in vain (3: 189).
Wahi (Revelation) illumines our path in the realm of values. However, we cannot understand Wahi only by faith, nor through reason alone. What is needed for this purpose is a happy blend of the two. Reason wedded to faith leads us to the inner spirit of the Revelation. The Quran speaks of men who have grasped the meaning of the Wahi, as "men of real understanding" (5: 100). They are the true believers because irrational belief has no value (65: 10). So far as the Quran is concerned, there can be no real conflict between Iman and reason. It speaks of those who believe as "having both knowledge and Iman"(30: 56). They are the twin stars that enlighten the path of man. In the West, however, conflict between faith and reason is a strand that runs through history. The warfare between science and religion (the title of White's famous book) ran its sanguinary course through several centuries. Only recently the truth has dawned on the Western people that reason and faith, far from being antithetical, need, as well as sustain, each other. Locke has made this point clear:
He that takes away reason to make way for revelation, puts out the light of both.16
This is essentially the Quranic view proclaimed in many a verse and reinforced by the clear pronouncements of the Nabi. It should be clear by now that it is not the purpose of Revelation to stifle reason and encourage blind faith to supplant it. The Quran nowhere glorifies blind faith. Far from decrying reason, knowledge, and experience, the Quran insists on our making full use of our intellectual faculties to understand and appreciate the ultimate truth conveyed through Wahi. The Wahi helps reason to reach maturity. The human mind, having reached this stage, not only knows but sees. Seeing, here refers to the clarity of mental vision:
Those who have due, regard for God's Laws, when an encompassing temptation from Shait’an comes to them, they remember the Divine guidance, and Lo! They see (the truth) (7: 201).
Many may know the truth through reason but he "sees" it in the right perspective when the image in the eye of Iman is superimposed on the image in reason's eye. This clear perception of truth helps to lead man to peace and eternal happiness. It helps man to maintain a happy balance between the demands of his body and the demands of his real self. The Islamic way of life has for its goal the development of the human personality in all its aspects. The believer, once be realises this, puts himself in the hands of the Creator and in return asks for the fulfilment of his personality. The Quran referring to this bargain says:
Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth
(9: 111). For those who do good in this world there is a good reward (here) and the Hereafter will be still better (16:30).
In the mind of man, the Quran seeks to implant Iman—Iman in life and in the renewal of life after death.
1. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 34.
2. Ibid., p. 34.
3. C.E.M. Joad, Guide To The Philosophy of Morals And Politics, p. 239.
4. C.E.M. Joad, Decadence, p. 36.
5. Martin Buber, Between Man And Man, p. 108.
6. Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good And Evil, Vol. II, p. 286.
7. Ibid., p. 211.
8. Ibid., p. 212.
9. E.S. Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion, p. 211.
10. H. Bergson, The Two Sources of Religion And Morality, p. 201.
11. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, pp. 25; 124.
12. C.E.M. Joad, Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science, p. 215.
13. E. Cassirer, An Essay On Man p. 9.
14. H. Rashdall, op. cit., p. 16.
15. Ibid., pp. 205; 215-16.
16. John Locke, Essay Book, IV (XIX, 4), quoted by Brightman, op. cit., P. 104.