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The Role of Rationality in Religion
Saadia Malik


Men have long argued over the authority that human intellect has in relation to the Divine. The Greek philosophers are known to have impressed upon man’s ability to use logic and thus, make rational decisions. These philosophers endeavoured to induce men to not only use his intellect regarding affairs pertaining to the material world but also to the metaphysical one. A lot of social sciences built up their premises over man’s rationality alone. Essentially, this idea gradually crept into and influenced the understanding of many a Muslim scholar. Some of them, however, rejected the very idea of rationalism; they discovered an ingenious and supernatural source for making sense of the ‘reality’—Ilham (inspiration). Still another group, however, adopted a reasonable approach by not over-estimating their fragile intellect, as concerns its understanding of the workings of the Divine and thus, they effectively confined themselves to rely on the Divine Scriptures to comprehend how the Divine partakes in human life.

Imam Ghazali’s Point of View

According to Imam Ghazali, the rationality that abounds and obsesses many intellectuals is acceptable, but only as relative to the senses. These are, in turn, subject to the necessary truths, provided by the Divine inspirations – a presentation of ‘rationality’ which restrains man’s intellect with the manacles of inspirations. He is reported to have written in his autobiography, ‘Deliverance from Error’:

With regard to sense-perception I noticed that the sense of sight tells me that the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sundial is motionless; but later observation and reflection shows that it moves, and that it does not do so by jerks but by a constant steady motion. This sense tells me that the sun is the size of a coin, but astronomical proofs show that it is larger than the earth. Thus sense makes certain judgements, and then reason comes and judges that they are false.1

Understanding this in the light of his life’s mission, that is, to look for the ‘knowledge of what things really are,’2 his objective of delving deeper into the reality also gives us an insight into the evolutionary processes that his life and belief must have been groomed under. Beginning with philosophy and ending with Sufism, Ghazali sought to explain the difference between ‘inspiration’ and ‘reason’. He would eventually assert, on the basis of his own mystical experiences, that inspiration from the Divine, together with reason could open for men, a world of ‘infallible truths’, previously unattainable through reason alone. He, thus, ended up giving supreme superiority to the divine inspirations over the reasoning faculty of man, not to mention the five senses. It was to him, as if, a light had been cast into his breast by God Almighty – a light enabling him to realise greater Truths.3

Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan’s Point of View

Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, on the other hand, completely rejected this dependence of scientific proof and rationality on intuition. He questioned how two contradicting reports of mystic experiences could be accepted altogether. One had to be right, and for that, no intuition would help as it was intuition itself that bore the responsibility of the paradox. In his opinion, thus, the contradiction of the reports of mystic experience is proverbial. What criterion is there by which we can determine which of them are true and which false? Naturally, we have nothing else but reason to decide the matter’.4

Reason was advocated by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in the sense of empirical faculty in all affairs of faith, belief and action. He called this human reasoning, ‘Aql-i-Qulli’, meaning, a decisively supreme authority. While Ghazali seems to be fearful of mathematical and physical proofs for their capacity to cause deviation among Muslims to the extent of denial of God’s attributes, Sir Sayyid appears to be determined to join the ranks of men like Jamal’ul Din Afghani in supporting scientific proof. He found himself absolutely serious in the validity of empiricism and pragmatism of ideas and beliefs, and advocated science and rational thinking in his reformative endeavours. He is quoted to have declared:

I am fully convinced that the Work of God and the Word of God can never be antagonistic to each other; we may through the fault of our knowledge sometimes make mistakes in understanding the meaning of the Word.5

According to him: ‘It is that inherent capacity in man by which he draws conclusions on the basis of the observation of objective phenomena or mental thinking processes.’6

The Author’s Inclination

If I were to act in an absolutely rational manner, without consciously taking into consideration any Divine source, I would ironically be inclined to accept that both reason and innate inclinations (the God-given a priori considerations, which one cannot seem to part with) would help me make the right decision in matters of faith, rituals and life in general. Alternately, if I were to make reason subordinate to something, I would choose God’s Scripture and His guidance therein, as that ‘something’, again, ironically, without any Ilham (inspiration), as suggested by Ghazali, to be a decisive authority. Both such approaches would be subject to criticism by different scholars of Islam. However, all would agree, and very rightly so, that the Qur’an and Sunnah alone can help us establish a view most authentic in terms of its acceptability by God Almighty.

When the believer recites the Surah Fatihah, he asks Allah for true guidance. Allah answers in the very next Surah that the Qur’an is the source of such guidance, the pre-requisite to which is a sincere and eager heart, which is rich with faithful intent. This faithful intent involves Iman bi’l-Ghayb (faith in the Unseen) that, by its very literal implications, cannot be proven, and thus, finds absolute trust in empirical reasoning much wanting7. Thus, science and human reason alone, cannot be deemed enough to understand all truths, nor indeed, to acknowledge the Truth, as it deserves to be acknowledged.

The Qur’an does, nevertheless, invite its readers to indulge in observing nature, exploiting it to their benefits by all legal means, of which the result is prosperity8. That this can be achieved through empirical reasoning cannot be denied. And that such advancements and observations help appreciate the connected and intertwined fabric of this universe make realisation of the Creator much more achievable has been proven to man during various stages in history. In yesteryears, Muslim rule and society prospered in places like Baghdad and Spain due to this very inclination of its people. But at the end of it all, it needs to be acknowledged that this drive towards studying nature, doing research work, and indulgence in empirical tests by the Muslim world was all because of the ambition that the Divine Word stimulated. Innovative ideas like the digging up of trenches in the Prophet’s times too were a result of this stimulation. Muslims had to take the world along with them, with the ultimate goal in mind, of course.

As far as the help of mystical experiences is concerned in acquiring both worldly and religious guidance, the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws) provides us with no leeway to that end. Furthermore, we look at the lives of the Companions (rta) of the Prophet (sws). They were the best of believers and they faltered like Adam (sws) faltered in the beginning, they observed like Abraham (sws) observed the stars. But as they recited from the Qur’an, they submitted to the Divine Truth; they surrendered the supreme reasoning faculty before the Divine Word and professed faith in Allah and the Hereafter without actually having seen them.  Reason, they did exercise, but as regards the matters beyond the scope of Divine Guidance – an exercise in which they also observed the norms of innate guidance. In summary, reason, in conjunction with innate guidance, does have authority over the senses but Divine Guidance reigns supreme as regards the matters which it has specifically addressed.





1.W. Montgomery Watt, Muslim Intellectual: A study of Al-Ghazali (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963), p. 48

2.. Al-Ghazali, The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali. Ed. W. Montgomery Watt (Oxford: Oneworld, 1994), p. 21.

3. Ibid, p. 25.

4. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Tahdhibu’l Akhlaq, Vol. 2 (Lahore:  1895), pp. 18-22

5. W.T. Barry, Sources of Indian Traditions, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), p. 743

6. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Tafsiru’l -Qur’an, vol. 3, pp. 11-12.

7. See the Qur’an, 2:1-7.

8. See the Qur’an, 3:190; 6:99; 10:5-6; 13:3-4; 16:10-16.

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