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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 42: Reason and knowledge



By Ziauddin Sardar


July 21, 2008


45:567:108:225:58; 7:179; 43:22-23

Madeleine, the Qur'an repeats various verses for emphasis, to expand certain ideas, and to juxtapose certain notions with other notions. Since themes are not mentioned in a single place, the only method I can think of for bringing out some of the main themes of the Qur'an is to zip about the entire text thematically. Granted that some verses may initially seem irrelevant to you - but that's why I am here. To show relevance, make connections, and see what emerges at the end of the exercise.

I have listed so many verses above to show that the Qur'an is generously sprinkled with references to learning, education, observation and the use of reason. Indeed, reason, after revelation, is the second most important source for discovering and delineating the "signs of God". The cosmos is presented as a "text" that can be read, explored and understood with the use of reason: "in the alternation of night and day, in the rain God provides, sending it down from the sky and reviving the dead earth with it, and in His shifting of winds there are signs for those who use their reason" (45:5). Thus, reason as you note Madeleine, is the "path to salvation, it is not something you set aside to have faith, it is the means to faith", a tool of discovery and an instrument for getting close to God.

The Qur'anic notion of reason, however, is much more than simply logical deduction. Reasoning per se can become instrumental and lead to oppression. By simply focusing on the most rational and efficient way of doing things, instrumental reasoning, as critical theorists and social philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas have pointed out, can lead to all sorts of social, economic and political problems. By concentrating on "how" a goal is to be achieved, we often overlook "why" the goal is sought in the first place, and whether it "ought" to be pursued at all.


It is to avoid the problems of instrumental rationality that the Qur'an connects reason to salvation: "They will say, 'if only we had listened, or reasoned, we would not be with the inhabitants of the blazing fire' (67:10)." If reasoned actions lead to salvation, then it follows that they have to be undertaken within a value system: when both the ends and means are just and equitable, when the "how" is connected to "why" and "ought". These questions are best answered, according to the Qur'an, not just by using the mind but also the heart.


It is interesting to note that the Qur'an often uses "reason" in juxtaposition with "listening" - as in 67:10. Every reasoned argument has a counter-argument. While understanding comes from reasoning, it does not come with reasoning alone. We are also required to listen to the counter-argument and take it into consideration in our reasoning process. When the Qur'an says that those who throw scorn at the believers are doing this "because they are people who do not reason" (5:58), it is emphasising that the counter arguments are falling on deaf ears.

We reason, according to the Qur'an, not just with our minds but also through listening and seeing, and true comprehension is reached when all the faculties, including the heart, comes into play. Those "with hearts they do not use for comprehension, eyes they do not use for sight, ears they do not use for hearing" are like "cattle", "entirely heedless" (7:179). Blind followers are not necessary irrational, they simply stick to the paradigm they know and trust: the ways of their forefathers (43:22-23), the traditions of Great Men long dead (43:22), the ideas that "they do not know to be true" (17:36) which have passed their "use by" date. True knowledge, the Qur'an tells us, is produced through arguing and listening to the arguments of others, through criticism, self-criticism and counter-criticism.

So the elitist idea that faith can only be explained and taught by scholars cannot be justified using the Qur'an. I see it as a ploy by religious scholars to control religious thought. Knowledge, the Qur'an makes it clear, is not the domain of a chosen few. Rather, every individual should seek knowledge as a religious duty.

It is with this holistic notion of reason, that employs all our faculties and eschews blind devotion to a single paradigm, that the Qur'an invites us to reflect, ponder and pursue knowledge. The emphasis on knowledge in the Qur'an is quite eye opening: again and again, we are urged to study nature, explore the cosmos, measure and calculate, discover the situation and histories of other nations, travel the earth in search of knowledge, learning and wisdom: "It is He who has made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so you might know the number of year and how to calculate them. God did not create all this without a true purpose" (10:5); "It is He who spread out the earth, placed firm mountains and rivers on it, and made two of every kind of fruit; He draws the veil of night over the day. There truly are signs in this for people who reflect: (13: 3); and "Say, 'Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being.'"(29:20.)

The word used for knowledge in the Qur'an is Ilm. It signifies that knowledge is a form of remembering God. Those who study God's "signs in the creation of the heavens and earth" are remembering God, "standing, sitting and lying down" (3:191). Thus the pursuit of knowledge becomes a form of worship which is according a special status in the Qur'an. Conventional type of worship does not necessarily make the worshipper intelligent, cleaver or wise. (And, I have to say, I know many devout worshippers who are anything but). But knowledge can increase understanding, comprehension and lead to wisdom. That is why the Qur'an asks: "what about someone who worships devoutly during the night, bowing down, standing in prayer, ever mindful of the life to come, and hoping for his Lord's mercy?" And answers: "how can those who know be equal to those who do not know?" (39:9).


The Qur'an seeks to establish a society of "those who know", a knowledge society, a society where reason and reflection, thought and learning, are not only valued but grounded in everyday reality. The situation in the Muslim world today, where science and learning are conspicuous by their almost total absence, where irrationality and fanaticism are the norm, indicates just how far the Muslims have deviated from the teachings of the Qur'an.


The Qur'an's insistence on thinking, reflecting, using reason and perusing knowledge, is as you note Madeleine, a "crucial re-ordering of the faith and reason debate in Christianity". It raises a number of questions. Why does the west insist that all faiths are by definition against reason and knowledge? What should one say to people, on this blog and elsewhere, who insist that the Qur'an is irrational, cannot tolerate criticism and does not promote reason and thought? And the question you yourself asked, Madeleine: how did reason come be seen in opposition to faith in the west, particularly the Enlightenment? I think you are best qualified to answer these questions, Madeleine.






What Does Reason Mean In Islam?


By Madeleine Bunting

July 21, 2008

The first verse you set here Zia (45:5) has a wonderful poetry - that there are signs in nature for those who use their reason. They are beautiful lines which provide evidence of the poetry you have emphasised in the Qur'an. But I have a question because this idea of the signs of nature available to those with reason is then the subject of several of the verses you specify. Does this make the Qur'an repetitive? I think this is the problem about this method of reading the text, zipping about thematically. Can you defend this way of guiding me through the Qur'an? I feel I'm drowning in verses - some of which seem irrelevant, some repetitive.

More importantly, I think the teaching on reason here is crucial. Reason is the path to salvation. Reason is not something you set aside to have faith; it is the means to faith. This is a crucial re-ordering of the faith and reason debate in Christianity. Can you connect the Islamic understanding of reason to the debates of the enlightenment and how reason became in opposition to faith in the west?

But the trickiest aspect of these verses is the emphasis on people using their reason not just following the example of their fathers, the tradition. How far does this democratisation of knowledge go? There is a huge emphasis within Islam - as we have seen on this site - that the faith can only be explained and taught by scholars. It's a form of elitism, isn't? And how can it be justified given these Qur’anic verses?

Finally, I think we need a good explanation of what reason means in Islam. Verse 7:179 talks about how the heart is needed for comprehension. Why is it the heart and not the mind?






Interpretation Must Move With The Times


By Ziauddin Sardar

July 24, 2008

Like Madeleine, I found the Qur'an debate at Islam Expo both fascinating and rewarding. But I do not totally agree with Madeleine about Tariq Ramadan's position. Of course, the Qur'an is an invitation to dialogue - we have discovered this in our blog. And it is obvious that we can only understand the stories of the Qur'an through our own experience. We bring ourselves, our emotions, our personal history and background, and our own mind to understanding and interpretating the Qur'an. That, it seems to me, is stating the obvious with a sense of real discovery.

But where I disagree is Ramadan's emphasis on scholars and tradition. While not denying that the Qur'an requires lot of knowledge to understand and interpret it, I do not think that interpretation is the sole preserve of those who are, as Madeleine put it, "learned and skilled in such things". It is because of that traditional learning that we are in the mess we are in. Moreover, this is a very neat way of preserving the status quo: retaining the power and territory in the hands of a few elite who claim the requisite knowledge.

The problem with tradition is that it is stuck in history. As a critical traditionalist, I believe tradition is important for a sense of continuity, rootedness and a flexible identity. But for tradition to remain tradition it has to be constantly reinvented - otherwise it becomes an oppressive custom. I see tradition as dynamic, something that is reflexive and rethinks itself periodically. The classical tradition of Qur'anic exegesis, in contrast, has no notion of internal reflection, of admitting errors and mistakes, of reframing itself. Go back and peruse this blog from the beginning to see how many times I have pointed out that traditional, classical scholars have taken us up a gum tree. It is Arabic speaking traditionalists, as Miska points out, who are justifying all sorts of abhorrent actions in the name of the Qur'an.

And it is also the traditionalists who insist on Hudud laws. There is no justification of these appalling laws, tradition notwithstanding. They cannot be defended. One cannot have a "moratorium" on them either as Ramadan suggested at one point. They have to be ditched. Totally! I do not know of many traditionalists who would say that.

Madeleine asks an important question: in over 1,400 years of Islam, how come the faith has failed to eradicate so many brutal cultural traditions? There are a number of answers to this question. First, one can be brutally frank and admit that Islam has simply failed.

When I see what is going on in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, for example, I am forced to acknowledge that Islam has had a little impact on brutal tribal practices.

Second, we can take the option offered by directives: these societies have not experienced true Islam. The Islam they practice is a perversion; it is not based on "personal effort (see 29:69), thought and reflection (47:24), a personal study of the Qur'an (54:17) and a life of action based on its inspiration".

Third, one could argue that Muslims are too traditionalist, stuck in an interpretation of Islam that was undertaken in the ninth century and that reflects the conditions of that period. Local traditions and customs, such as female genital mutilation, a brutal example of which we saw in the Channel 4 documentary The Qur'an, are given an Islamic colour and became part of the traditionalist outlook. This illustrates the problems of tradition I am talking about. I think all these positions have elements of truth.

But my favourite explanation is that Muslims have made a categorical mistake. And it is this: that the Qur'an can be interpreted once and for all. I would argue, and have tried to show through this blog, that interpretation is a constant and continuous process. The Qur'an has to be interpreted from epoch to epoch, generation to generation. Old traditional and traditionalist interpretations have to be ditched. New understandings acquired. Living the spirit of the Qur'an means different things in different times - an interpretation suitable for one period can become totally unsuitable for another period. Oppression and inhumanity has become integral to many Muslim societies because the fear new interpretation and consistently fall back on obnoxious tradition.

This point, I think, is the fundamental difference between my views and those of Tariq Ramadan.


URL of Part 41: