Does the Qur'an encourage or discourage the use of reason? What is the value reason is assigned in the Qur'an? Does it impose limits on reason's sound use?
I firmly believe that the Qur’an encourages the use of reason, and also has no contradictions with truths derived by objective reasoning. However there are some that oppose my view. In this essay, I will first compare Quranic reasoning with classic Aristotelian logic. Then I will reference some philosophers and theologians who put their Logic central to Quranic interpretations. Next I will attempt to explain a refutation of this rationalistic view. Finally, I will expound why my view is that the Qur’an endorses the use of objective reason without contradictions using Ibn Taymiyyah’s argument.
Quranic Reason and Aristotelian Logic
It is crystal clear that the Qur’an encourages the use of reason (aql):
“And they will say: Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we should not have been among dwellers of the blazing fire” (Qur’an, 67:10)
In this Ayah, the Qur’an informs the reader that those who use their reason correctly will not dwell in the hell fire. This is significant because, from an Islamic point of view, the ultimate punishment for mankind is the hellfire. Therefore when the Qur’an advises one how to avoid the hell-fire, the reader pays special attention in order to avoid that punishment. Allah also says:
“So have they not traveled through the earth and have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts.” (Qur’an, 22:46)
Again we are told that if we use our intellect properly, then our hearts won’t be blind (we will have guidance). From these verses it is clear that the Qur’an, not only supports, but also commands the use of reason. Furthermore reason is necessary to interpret the Qur’an, however what type of reason? Reason mentioned in the Qur’an isn’t necessarily Aristotelian logic, consisting of syllogisms however we still see words derived from aql being used 49 times in the Qur’an (Akrami, 2017).
Reason in the Qur’an has numerous uses, namely proving God’s existence and getting to know God. One also uses reason in order to judge human actions in accordance to God’s Law. Whilst Aristotelian logic mainly produces truths that aren’t necessarily of a lot of benefit, Quranic reasoning is used for practical things like jurisprudence. An example of a syllogism is: All humans are mortal, Socrates was human therefore Socrates was mortal. This knowledge has less benefit for a military leader determining what to do with spoils of war. The latter would, not only be a more common situation where aql (reason) would be needed, but also would not be accessible to the logician with tools of pure logic. Practical guidance would be needed and the Qur’an is the source of this for Muslims. This is significant, as Quranic aql seems to be of communal benefit and deal with ethical problems that Aristotelian logic can’t access. We have seen situations like this in history. A Christian philosopher Abū Bishr Mattā challenged Muslim grammarian al-Sīrāfī to a debate, promoting Aristotelian logic. After some discussion, the grammarian challenged Mattā to use his ‘logic’ to solve a theoretical problem about land ownership to which there was no reply (Adamson, 2015). Despite historical resources possibly being doubtful, we can still acknowledge al-Sīrāfī’s point.
The point being that classic Aristotelian logic is limited in what it can achieve (whilst at the same time being incredibly useful in secular sciences). Logic is fundamental in the study of some philosophical sciences, being indubitably useful for philosophers. One may argue that this is where Quranic reasoning is limited, in this secular study. However, the Qur’an doesn’t necessarily discourage knowledge of these sciences. We can see this in the practice of early Muslims such as Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali. He was a Muslim theologian and jurist who mastered some philosophical sciences. He also believed, at the time, there was a place for them in Islam. He worked on these subjects with no conflict with his faith. However where does a problem arise? A problem arises on the status and value of non-Quranic aql (knowledge derived from ‘secular’ subjects, as well as subjective human intellect) when interpreting the Qur’an. ‘Secular’ subjects being things like philosophy and Aristotelian logic. (Note that we already established human intellect is necessary for interpretation but to what degree?)
For example, non-Quranic aql was very important for the rationalist-orientated Al-Farabi. Al-Farabi was a Muslim philosopher who took the Aristotelian epistemological stance on certainty. He believed that certainty could only be achieved by burhān (demonstration), which are syllogistic arguments that provide scientific sort truths as conclusions (Adamson, 2015). At the time of Al-Farabi, there were many creeds that had differences of beliefs. Each of these elevated non-Quranic aql to a certain degree. The Falasifa were the philosophers, one being Al-Farabi, who held this to an almost sacred status. They also heavily accepted many of Aristotle’s works on logic and adapted some of his sciences. An example of this is Ibn Sina (Avicenna). He reformed Aristotle’s metaphysics and logic, producing his own philosophies, which dominated the medieval Arab world. His works then went on to influence the early renaissance philosophers, undoubtedly having an enormous impact on philosophy after his time (Gutas, 2016). A famous refutation of the philosophers was made by none other than Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali famously wrote Taha ̄fut al-Fala ̄sifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), a refutation of rationalist philosophers. In this, Al-Ghazali writes that those who use Logic (Aristotelian logic) would fall into heresy (Man Tamantaq-a Tazandaq-a) (Akrami, 2017). This was a stance favoured by Ibn Taymiyyah who we will meet later (Rosenthal, 1970 p205).
Another example of someone who held Logic to a high status, even when interpreting the Qur’an, was the Persian Fakhr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī. Ar-Rāzī was a somewhat-rationalistic Muslim theologian, although he scrapped his rationalistic position to nil near the end of his life. In his short treatise Ta'sis al-Taqdis, he suggests solutions for clashes between aql and Naql (revelation) (Hoover, 2019). In this short paper, Ar-Rāzī intellectually proves a number of things about God’s attributes. He then provides Quranic texts, which appear to contradict with his conclusions (Qadhi, 2013 p88). As a result, the rational thing to do is to interpret the Naql in accordance to aql (the Universal Principle). For Ar-Rāzī at the time, aql can take precedence over Naql. His reasoning for why Naql wouldn’t be superior to aql was that this diminishes the value of aql (reason). This was because, for Ar-Rāzī, aql was a precursor to Naql. Aql leads one to Naql; therefore if aql is devalued, it makes one question the validity of the Naql that aql had once affirmed.
Ibn Taymiyyah and the Value of Aql
One of the main strands of Islamic theology is Sunni Kalam (theology). There were two main groups belonging to this type of Kalam, one being the Ash’ari creed and the other being the Ath’ari creed (Winter, 2008). Ar-Rāzī was a famous Ash’ari theologian, and some of those in this creed would also take this outlook on aql and Naql. Nonetheless there was opposition to this radical view. Ibn Taymiyyah was a Turkish scholar, born in 1263 AD and belonged to the Ath’ari creed. He advocated for simplistic Kalam; based on the authentic Islamic doctrines, namely Qur’an and Sunnah (Actions of the last Prophet of Islam Muhammad PBUH). He confronted the use of speculative Kalam consisting of Logic (Rosenthal, 1970 p206).
Ibn Taymiyyah opposed the principle that Ar-Rāzī documented in the second paragraph above (Qadhi, 2013 p95). The significance of this principle is that Ar-Rāzī believed the Qur’an encouraged the use of reason to a degree that even non-Quranic reason, could surpass the Quranic text. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote 11 volumes in response to Ta’sis al-Taqdis, mainly attacking Ar-Rāzī’s ‘universal principle’. He analysed Ta’sis al-Taqdis, which entailed forty-four points on why he believes the principle is flawed. Moreover, he provides his view on what value aql has against Naql.
I will only present two of the points Ibn Taymiyyah writes about and in the end give his verdict on aql against Naql (reason against revelation). One of the points mentioned in Dar al Ta’arud (Ibn Taymiyyah’s response), is that evidences should be weighed accordance to their value of truth. Not if it is intellectual or scriptural. In Ta’sis al Taqdis, Ar-Rāzī explicitly gives superiority to the aql and gives conclusions based on that. However, for Ibn Taymiyyah, this premise is flawed. An evidence should be accepted because it is true, not because it is scriptural or rational. The binary distinction of aql and Naql is an incorrect way of viewing the world, as they both should be acknowledged based on their value of truth (Qadhi, 2013).
Ibn Taymiyyah also asks the question: what do you mean by Aql? Of course, it is non-Quranic reasoning but he asks the question of what specific aql Ar-Rāzī puts to such a high status. Ibn Taymiyyah then writes that if acquired knowledge is being described, then this changes from person to person and time to time. What is considered as concrete knowledge today, may not be considered as concrete knowledge tomorrow (Qadhi, 2013). We can see this falsifiable nature in science. Ibn Taymiyyah mentions that science and astronomy is one of the most concrete truths one can get to, however our understanding can change. We may consider something scientific fact today, but that can get falsified in the future. He then goes onto say that questions of ethics and God’s attributes are much more philosophical issues than astronomy and science. Therefore, the answers are up for more debate (Salim, 1979-1981). One cannot use pure reason to derive truths of theological issues too often, like God’s attributes. Even if one were to understandings would change and differ, even from person to person. Furthermore, subjects like astronomy and science have never contradicted the Qur’an so how can finer, theological issues like God’s attributes contradict the Qur’an (Salim, 1979-1981).
The significance lies on the conclusion of Ibn Taymiyyah. In Dar al Ta’arud, he mentions that objective aql that leads to truth cannot contradict explicit Naql (Salim, 1979-1981). In other words, objective reasoning cannot contradict the Qur’an and Sunnah (Under the belief that these doctrines are true). He goes on further to say that Ar-Rāzī found a “clash”, because the reasoning he used was subjective to his intelligence. Therefore if one found a verse of the Qur’an that they personally can’t understand, one could interpret it any way they like. This could result in rejecting any parts of scripture they like, as it doesn’t fit in with their flawed interpretation. This makes the revelation then meaningless as it’s acceptance depends on the aql (Qadhi, 2013).
For Ibn Taymiyyah, the danger of this is that one can fall into the same trap as the Falasifa did. This is, putting aql at the highest status and deviating from the Religion by interpreting every single thing in accordance to subjective aql. This would not be restricted to matters of God’s attributes, but also matters of fundamental Islamic beliefs like life after death. One could conclude that there is no life after death, based on one’s own subjective reasoning. It is important to note, however, that Ibn Taymiyyah still held reason to a high status. He didn’t believe in devaluing reason by any means. In some of his treatises, he writes that aql is ‘praiseworthy’ and its absence should be disliked (Qadhi, 2013 p190).
To conclude, non-Quranic reason was fundamental when interpreting the Qur’an for people like Ar-Rāzī (at the time) and al-Farabi. They would hold it to very high stature and let it surpass Quranic text. However for someone like Ibn Taymiyyah, reason would never surpass revelation despite reason being a blessing from God. He also believed that the Qur’an endorsed the use of objective reasoning, and it didn’t contradict explicit scripture (Naql). One could say that he believed objective reasoning and Quranic reasoning is one entity. This view is one I favour, as one can believe in explicit Naql and still value the aql. For me, this is important as many societies today are under the assumption that one must abandon objective reasoning in order to accept Islam. However the reality is that they both never contradict or conflict each other, as Ibn Taymiyyah propounds.
Musa Akrami (2017)
From Logic in Islam to Islamic Logic
Jon Hoover (2019)
Rationalität in der Islamischen Theologie (373-390)
Yasir Qadhi (2013)
Paul Adamson (2015)
Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction. (30-60)
Franz Rosenthal (1970)
Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam
Dimitri Gutas (2016)
Timothy Winter (2008)
The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology
Ibn Taymiyyah ed. Muhammad Rashad Salim (1979-1981)
dar at-ta’arud al-’aql wan-naql - Ibn Taymiyyah