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Islamic Rationalism – Concluding Part


By Dr Imadaldin Al-Jubouri

13 November 2017


Scepticism for Alma’arri was more psychological than rational. But Algazel (1058-1111) adopted the principle of scepticism in search of certainty. Nonetheless, the result was the same: Algazel concluded that the intellect is unable to search out metaphysics. In any case, as Algazel affirms in M’iraj al-Qudos (‘Ascent of Holiness’), “Sharia is external intellect and intellect is internal code. Thereby they are both in cooperation and unified”: as God said, “Brightness upon brightness” (that is, the brightness of the intellect with the brightness of the Sharia).

Algazel adhered to this approach, the product of his relentless pursuit of the truth, attaining a realisation of truth after much scepticism, in response to the various Islamic sects and schools, such as the Mutazilites, Hashawites and Dhahrites. For Algazel there was no contradiction between the intellect and the Sharia – they were not separate but united. The intellect stood helpless in the face of metaphysics only because no evidence offering certain knowledge was available to the mind in this context; a purely intellectual approach to metaphysics could lead only to useless doubts. We should not however misinterpret Algazel’s attitude by thinking he wanted to discredit the intellect altogether. His point was only that the intellect was inadequate for this particular task.

In his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Algazel said inspiration and revelation should act as the intellect’s supporters whenever any problem to which the intellect could not provide a final answer left it helpless. From this he argued that the intellect should be an interpreter of revelation and inspiration – so it was imperative to use the intellect for understanding the Sharia. He shared this approach with the Mutazilites, but he valued intellect more moderately than they, although he insisted on applying logic. Algazel regarded logic as an essential tool for explaining the facts of faith because an intellect armed with logic would be able to avoid falling into error. However, he warned against digging too deeply in pursuit of pure facts, on the grounds that the intellect without revelation was not always able to grasp the truth, especially in religious and divine issues.

According to Algazel, in theological issues, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, and those Muslims who followed them, particularly Alfarabi and Avicenna, were all confused and contradicted each other. He asserted that this demonstrated the insufficiency of the intellect (in this field alone). His aim was to achieve a balance and a moderation that would protect religious thinking against any unwarranted innovation or extremism.

Algazel was particularly opposed to founding dogma upon rational thought alone, or confining religion within the principles of logic. According to him the intellect was capable of dealing with mathematics, geometry, logic, physics and astronomy, but not with religion or metaphysical issues, since religion and the facts of faith must flood forth from the heart. The intellect and the heart were designed to deal with knowledge from different sources, the intellect being designed for the theoretical and practical sciences, while the heart deals with religious intuition, spiritual taste and inner revelation. Having limited the capacities of the intellect and the heart in this way, Algazel inevitably ended up with some sharp distinctions in his philosophy.


Averroes (1126- 1198) was a jurist; both his father and grandfather were jurists too; so he was well set up to refute Algazel’s view of religion. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence Averroes charged Algazel with:

1. Relying on unconvincing ‘proofs’.

2. Warping other philosophers’ opinions so they would appear to support what he was saying, and omitting anything inconvenient to his arguments.

3. Writing malicious nonsense.

4. Not being a real philosopher.

To Averroes, learned wisdom and the Sharia are expressing a single truth in different ways, and therefore are not in conflict. Nor need there be dispute or dissension between their supporters, despite the apparent contradictions between them on the questions that had caused scholars such as Algazel to believe there was an irreconcilable difference between religious wisdom and philosophy. To Averroes, philosophy was no more than a means of investigating the world and the universe as proof of the Maker. The aim of philosophy was thus no different from the Sharia, despite their different approaches. Hence Averroes believed the Sharia did not prohibit rational thinking, but on the contrary supported it, as certain verses in the Qur’an made clear: “Then take admonition, O you with eyes” (59:2), for example, urged the use of rational analogy. “Do they not look in the dominion of the heavens and the earth and all things that God has created?” (7:185) recommended the thoughtful examination of all natural and cosmic things, as did, “Do they not look at the camels, how they are created? And at the heaven, how it is raised?” (88:17-18). The words, “And think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth” (2:191) express a special concern for people who remember God in thinking of His creation. There are many verses on this subject.

The Sharia, then, endorses rational consideration of everything in existence, deducing what was unknown from what is known. In other words, our consideration of reality should proceed by means of what the logicians call rational syllogisms. Of the various types of syllogism, the Sharia would clearly advocate the evidential syllogism. This should be considered the most productive type because it starts from a premise certain in itself (evidence) and thus leads to conclusions that cannot be untrue. The argumentative syllogism begins from a premise of supposition and is thus less effective, because its conclusions cannot be regarded as certain. The oratorical syllogism relies upon generally accepted premises to sway people’s feelings. The fallacy syllogism relies on premises appearing to be true but which lead only to unacceptable conclusions. It was important the Sharia should not be approached by the wrong method. The Qur’an says:

“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching, and argue with them in a way that is better. Truly, your Lord knows best who has gone astray from His Path, and He is the best aware of those who are guided.” (16:125)

According to Averroes, anyone who wished to deduce the existence of the Maker and achieve knowledge of Him by considering His creation must therefore first understand the various kinds of proof and be able to distinguish between them. He also said that theoretical research in religious matters could reach no correct deduction except by the use of logic. Thus the rational syllogism should not be rejected as heresy just because it had not been accepted during the early period of Islam. Juristic reasoning in all its various types had developed within Islam, and no-one had called that heresy. No prohibition should be considered to exist on seeking the help of the ancients, even if they were not Islamic, because ignoring an entire period of valuable research would be counterproductive. Logic was simply a useful tool to protect the mind from making mistakes; it had nothing specifically to do with who discovered it, or with the nature of their beliefs. There was no reason whatsoever to shun the ancients’ books (Greek philosophy) or the deductions therein: “If it was right we accepted it with pleasure and thanked them for that; if it was not right we had to point it out, warn of it and excuse ourselves from it.” The Sharia’s injunction to us to consider the creation in order to know the Maker shows that the Hashawites and other scholars were wrong in believing Muslims were prohibited from studying the books of the ancients. According to Averroes, there was no contradiction between religion and philosophy, since “the right does not contradict the right, but agrees with it and confirms it.”

Averroes believed that any apparent differences between the Qur’an and the conclusions reached using philosophical proofs could be resolved by means of proper research. A very similar process had already happened within Islam itself. Long before the problem of religion vs philosophy appeared, scholars had puzzled over apparent contradictions between Qur’anic verses. They had reconciled these apparent contradictions by making a distinction in certain texts between literal readings and real (‘inner’) meanings. This sort of reconciliation, called ‘interpretation,’ subsequently became the appropriate means of resolving the apparent contradictions between philosophy and religion. In short, the Sharia scholar used the principles of rational syllogism ‘inwardly,’ while the philosopher used it intellectually.

Ibn Khaldun

In spite of his experimental and scientific tendencies, ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) rejected Averroes’ attitude and championed Algazel’s treatment. In The Introduction, ibn Khaldun has philosophy lean on the intellect and on logical syllogisms, paying little direct attention to the material world. He believed the intellect to be incapable of fully understanding theology: theological subjects exist beyond the senses, so we cannot reach or prove them. Plato himself said that philosophy does not lead to certainty, but to supposition. What then was the benefit of philosophy if there could be no certainty in it?

Ibn Khaldun followed in Algazel’s footsteps in criticizing philosophers and rejecting their ideas, particularly in metaphysics. He considered to be false the philosophical idea that happiness consisted of a rational perception of the creation, on the grounds that happiness in the soul which does not require any agent such as sense-perception must be a far greater pleasure. Such a state of soul results not from meditation or science, but from ignoring the senses and forgetting all bodily perceptions. The Sufis frequently used just such means to attain a happiness they could not express. The philosophers claimed that anyone who succeeded in perceiving and connecting with the ‘active intellect’ would be happy. According to Aristotle and men such as Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes, such perception and connection must take place within the soul, without agency. This could not happen except by screening out the senses.

To ibn Khaldun the philosophers’ approach was thus inadequate to its real aim, and also contrary to the Sharia. All the philosophers had done was to arrange their arguments to achieve the appearance of philosophical excellence, rather than create anything properly called proof. Their syllogisms and syntheses were constructed according to the conditions they had derived in their logical works. But although the philosophers’ modes of proof were inadequate for every context, they were the best theoretical laws that could be derived.

This last statement shows that Averroes had as much effect as Algazel upon ibn Khaldun, who never dismissed the rights of the intellect, whatever its connection to religion. Like Algazel, ibn Khaldun regarded the intellect as incapable of understanding metaphysics unless the way of revelation and mysticism were followed first. Ibn Khaldun wrote, “The intellect is a balanced scale; its judgements are certitude, without falsehood – but you cannot attempt to weigh by it the issues of monotheism, the hereafter, the reality of prophecy, the reality of the divine, His attributes or any metaphysical issue. All of that is grabbing at the impossible.” There is of course a strange contradiction in ibn Khaldun’s attitude here in that, while criticizing philosophers and rejecting their ideas, he plunges deeply into philosophy himself.

Nevertheless, ibn Khaldun was well ahead of his time. His work and his principles of ‘experimenting’ and ‘seeing’ (comparison) as the only true measures of knowledge had a far greater effect in Europe than in the Islamic world. He was the last fitful true philosophic glow in Islamic civilization.

Read Part One Here

© I.M.N. Al-Jubouri 2006

Dr Imadaldin Al-Jubouri has written several books in Arabic and English, including his History of Islamic Philosophy.