Reason and Faith – Complimentary Or Antagonistic?
Asghar Ali Engineer
Are reason and faith (imaan) antagonistic or complimentary? Depends from what perspective you look at them. The nineteenth century was century of reason and faith came to be challenged by the rationalists. Even today rationalists denounce faith as mere superstition. Qur’an, however, strikes the middle path and emphasizes importance of both – faith as well as reason.
Today this truth is dawning on us that neither faith alone nor reason by itself, can suffice. Both are needed for a successful and meaningful life. Reason alone can make us skeptical and faith alone can make us superstitious. Since rationalists were severely persecuted by the organized religion, they adopted the extreme position of denouncing the faith altogether and stressed sufficiency of reason.
Qur’an invites human beings to have faith as well as to reflect and think. While reason gives us light faith gives us deeper conviction and, it should be noted, no action is possible without deeper conviction (imaan). The synthesis of reason and faith (‘aql and imaan) can be called ‘rational faith’. As escapticism (reason without faith) can paralyze action, blind faith (faith without reason) can reduce us to unthinking zealot. And both can be harmful to the society.
Islam arose among the Meccan Arabs to begin with who were quite practicable people. The creamy layer in Mecca was indulging in trade and commerce and hence they tended to be practical in outlook unlike agriculturists who tend to be more superstitious as their life depends primarily on natural forces. Thus Arabs believed in practical rationality. They did not have much time for reflection and finer values of life and otherworldly matters. For them everything was here and now – profit, accumulation of wealth and comfortable life. It was the main purpose of life for them. They were least bothered that their way of life was causing misery to the lower classes that were immersed in superstitions.
Qur’an stressed values like equality, human dignity, compassion and caring for poor and downtrodden, something neglected and ridiculed by this creamy layer of Arabs. Thus Qur’anic teachings meant a revolution for them. It gave them light of reason as well as faith to give their life a new meaning and direction.
However, when Islam spread to other countries like Iraq, Iran and Egypt it came face to face with more complex cultures and weltanschauung. Also, unlike the Umayyads, Abbasids depended more on newly emerging Iranian middle class for administrative support and hence Mu’tazila acquired primacy during their rule. And translation of Greek toms of philosophy deeply influenced the Muslim intellectuals as Darul Hikmah became storehouse of wisdom.
Thus reason began to acquire primacy in the Islamic world and philosophers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and others mostly of Iranian origin) great prominence and prestige so9 much so that their books became valuable source of study in European universities also. This caused unrest among a section of Muslim ulama and orthodox scholars. Many prominent ulama refused to accept Mu’tazila doctrines which Abbadis rulers tried to e4nforce with the might of government. The bitter controversy about createdness of Qur’an (the belief that Qur’an is created and not co-eternal with Allah) divided the Muslim world.
The Sufis were also not comfortable with emphasis on reason as against spirituality. Also, there was an interesting controversy that while Mu’tazila maintained that something is good because reason says so and hence it becomes good in the shari’ah law but the orthodox ulama maintained that something is good because shari’ah law says it is good. Thus shari’ah law is absolute and God-given.
The Sufis in general and Ghazzali in particular was quite uncomfortable with widespread influence of reason in the Islamic world at the cost of spirituality and orthodoxy. An interesting debate took place between Ibn Rushd (Averrose) and Ghazzali. Ghazzali wrote a book Tahafut al-Falasifa(Bewilderment of Philosophers) to which Averrose replied by writing Tahafut-Tahafut al-Falasifa (Bewilderment of Bewilderment of Philosophers).
This debate between reason and faith is a milestone in the intellectual history of Islam and masses went with Ghazali, not with Averros. Averros is known only to a few intellectuals and philosophers whereas Gahzzali, like other Sufis, has great following among the masses of Muslims. Ghzzali maintains that reason leads only to doubt and uncertainty whereas faith leads to deeper conviction. Well, philosophers may be comfortable with uncertainty and consider this a price with paying for better understanding. But, many others, with spiritual bent of mind, opt for deeper conviction which faith alone can provide. But Qur’an emphasizes both and one, without the other, leaves us either intellectually blind or unable to act