Revelation and Reason: Understanding and Resolving the
Religions which are revived and presented by a Prophet or a
Messenger of Allah, appear to argue in a rational (i.e. reasonable) manner.
Indeed, such revived religions secure an edge for themselves by pointing out the
irrational and unsubstantiated nature of beliefs and practices in the aged forms
of religion that are prevalent in a society where the Prophet seeks to restore
the original dīn al-qayyim.
But following the death of Prophet, the refreshed religion again starts aging
and in the process loses its rational character. Irrational elements creep in to
the religious beliefs and practices, and finally Tertulian’s argument—I believe
it because it is absurd—becomes a necessity for the devoutly religious.
Consequently, as religion ages in the aging civilization, a higher place is
sought for revelation than for reason in order to protect the irrational dogmas
accruing in religious thought over the course of history; the originally
complementary relationship between revelation and reason no longer remains the
The relationship between revelation and reason is one of
the major epistemological issues faced by the Muslim world today. Muslim
civilization has also experienced aging; as part of the aging process, the
relationship between revelation and reason has become the subject of
controversy. This short paper seeks to identify various positions held about the
relationship between revelation and reason, and the issues that arise if one or
the other of these positions is subscribed to. In the analysis of these
positions, the background which led some people to advocate one or the other
position will also be considered. It is hoped that the paper will allay the
confusions of young Muslims regarding the relationship between revelation and
Identifying the Positions and the Issues
When we discuss the relationship between revelation and
reason, we seek to determine whether revelation is to be given a priority over
reason, or reason is to be given a priority over revelation, or the two are
equally valid and complementary. When any one of these positions is taken, some
subsidiary questions arise. These subsidiary questions associated with the three
possible positions will be identified in the following lines.
If revelation is given priority over reason, then the
following questions have to be answered:
· Can we silence reason when it appears to contradict
· Is revelation rational? Or are there some irrational
propositions in revelation, which cannot be protected unless a higher place is
secured for revelation than for reason?
· Is priority of revelation over reason applicable under
all circumstances? If not, then when exactly or in what sense is revelation
given a priority over reason?
Next, if we give reason a priority over revelation, then
the following questions have to be answered:
· Can reason validate or invalidate the commandments of
· Is an understanding of the rationale behind an
injunction a precondition for compliance by a Muslim?
· Is priority of reason over revelation applicable under
all circumstances? If not, then when exactly or in what sense is reason given a
priority over revelation?
Finally, if one holds that revelation and reason are
equally valid, then the following issues have to be addressed:
· If revelation and reason are considered equally valid,
how would one resolve a conflict between the claims of revelation and reason
should such a situation arise?
· Why would one want to hold that revelation and reason
are equally valid?
An Evaluation of the Controversy
A review of the literature indicates that scholars have
often taken one or the other of the aforementioned positions about the
relationship between revelation and reason; the positions have been thought of
as mutually exclusive. Furthermore, whichever position is adopted is held to be
applicable under all circumstances and in every way. This, however, does not
appear to be realistic.
In reality, each of the aforementioned positions is backed
by compelling arguments, yet leaves some issues unaddressed, as we have seen in
the preceding section. It may be argued that none of the positions is applicable
under all circumstances and in every possible sense. Instead, each of the
position is true in a particular way or under certain circumstances, but
inapplicable in some other ways or under different circumstances.
The whole controversy about the relationship between
revelation and reason can be understood and resolved if one apprehends the fact
that different people have meant different things from the word “reason”, and
have had different preoccupations that compelled them to take their respective
positions. Not only that, but a failure to take into account the other
considerations also led people to preclude the applicability of the positions
other than their own. In the following paragraphs, with the help of a diagram
(Figure 1), we shall discuss the diverse usage of the term “reason”, and the
various considerations that have justified one or the other positions.
The above diagram indicates three different meanings in
which the term “reason” has been used. These are as follows:
1. “Reason” has been used to represent the human
intellectual faculty that processes a variety of information as premises to draw
conclusions thereupon. The premises utilized by the human intellectual faculty
and the conclusions drawn thereof can be identified with one or the other
discipline of knowledge. Moreover, the human intellectual faculty is not merely
considered a processor of information, but is also believed to harbor at least
some a priori knowledge consisting of self-evident principles. In other words,
it has been argued that a priori knowledge of self-evident principles (also
known as the “first principles”) is built-in to human intellectual faculty
unlike other sources of knowledge (such as revelation, observations, transmitted
reports) that are basically external.
2. “Reason” has been used to represent the various types
of premises (reasons) that are employed by human beings in their inferences.
Each of the various kinds of premises represents a source of knowledge, which is
characteristically associated with one or more disciplines of knowledge.
3. Finally, “reason” has been used to represent the
exercise of intellectual faculty in the absence of revealed premises,
observations and transmitted reports. Such exercise of human reason has been
expressed in literature as “pure reason”, “independent use of reason”, “reason
in the absence of revelation” etc. Here, I contend that reason (i.e. human
intellectual faculty) cannot be exercised in a “pure” and “empty” state in the
absence of revelation, observations, transmitted reports, or a priori knowledge
(if that is recognized as a separate source of knowledge). What has been called
“pure reason” actually employs “assumptions”; thus, the exercise of human
intellectual faculty in the absence of revelation, observation and transmitted
reports makes use of “conjecture” as the premise. It appears that such
utilization of conjecture as the premise has not been very clearly identified in
epistemological discourse. At least partly, this is because philosophical ideas
founded on conjecture have often been packaged and presented as “logically
necessary”—something that would necessarily follow from a priori knowledge. Of
course, philosophers would rarely attribute their ideas to conjecture, for this
would strip their ideas of any credibility. If we identify conjecture as the
premise in the exercise of so-called “pure reason”, then it would become obvious
that much of the criticism of “reason” is actually a rejection of “conjecture”
and not of reason per se.
The varied use of the term “reason” is noticeable in the
scholars’ arguments over the relationship between revelation and reason.
Historically, the employment of “conjecture” by the mu‘tazilah and Muslim
philosophers in their use of “reason” has invoked much criticism of reason and
rationality in general. The mu‘tazilah and Muslim philosophers often went on to
answer questions on which revelation was silent and observation was not
available. Although the “logical deductive” discourse of the mu‘tazilah and
philosophers was often based on assumptions and conjecture, their answers to
subtle metaphysical questions were almost always portrayed as “self-evident
truth” that necessarily followed from a priori knowledge. Such use of reason in
the third sense of the word (as described earlier) understandably led their
critics to argue for a priority of revelation over reason. Furthermore, most
critics of the mu‘tazilah and philosophers, failing to isolate and criticize
conjecture as the sole problem in the rationalist discourse, ended up
criticizing reason in general. But at the same time, some of the critics of the
rational discourse did not completely shun reason; instead they suggested a
restricted meaning and role of reason as a tool that merely analyzes and
infers—which essentially meant the use of reason in the first sense of the word
(as described earlier). These latter critics also identified conjecture as the
problem and articulated their criticism of it.
Repulsed by the mu‘tazilite rationalistic discourse, many
of the later theologians and fuqahā’ often compromised on the rationality (i.e.
reasonability) of Islamic beliefs and practices. The aversion to reason and
rationality lasts until today. It is no wonder that contemporary scholars who
attempt to restore the complementary relationship between revelation and reason
are not welcomed. This is because the vast majority of Muslims does not realize
that the rationality alluded to by the contemporary Muslim scholars is not the
same as the mu‘tazilite rationalism. Conjecture and philosophy are rapidly
losing ground even in the Western discourse, and the scope of a priori knowledge
of self-evident principles is increasingly narrowed down to the effect that
presumptive ideas cannot be conveniently presented as matters of logical
necessity. When contemporary Muslim scholars argue for the complementarity of
revelation and reason, they mean reason in the second sense of the word
(described earlier); in particular, they seek to emphasize that human
observation and authentic historical reports cannot possibly contradict
It is possible to articulate a Qur’ānic view on the various
kinds of premises that constitute the sources of human knowledge. A deep
examination of the Qur’ān indicates that revelation, observation, transmitted
reports, and a priori knowledge are acceptable sources of knowledge, but
conjecture and assumptions are unacceptable as a source of knowledge. Thus, the
Qur’ān requires that religious belief be founded on al-kitāb, sultān mubīn,
burhān etc., which implies that revelation is an acceptable, even necessary
source of knowledge. Then the Qur’ān is also replete with āyāt that encourage
the reader to “observe” the natural and physical phenomena that surround him; it
is also repeatedly emphasized that an “observation” of nature would reveal to
the observer the “signs” of the Creator, His Majesty, the Author of the Qur’ān.
This implies the acceptability of observation as a source of human knowledge.
Similarly, Qur’ān questions the reader on different occasions in more or less
the same words: alam ya’tikum naba’u alladhīn kafarū min qabl (has the news of
those who disbelieved before not reached you?),
which implies the acceptability of transmitted reports as a source of knowledge.
Finally, the Qur’ān also endorses the judging capacity of human reason (the
human intellectual faculty). On the other hand, the unmistakable Qur’ānic
rejection of zann, amāniy and iftirā’ ‘ala Allāh indicates the unacceptability
of conjecture as a source of knowledge. With a fresh understanding of the
sources of knowledge endorsed and rejected by the Qur’ān, it may be argued that
authentic human knowledge—reason, in the second sense of the word—cannot
possibly contradict revelation. In fact, the absolute necessity of the
complementarity of revelation and reason could be argued on the grounds that
observation of the physical and the historical phenomena is all that is
available for mankind to ascertain the plausibility of the metaphysical
propositions of revelation.
We have discussed the use of “reason” in various meanings
and the implications of such varied usage of the term in the discussions of the
relationship between revelation and reason. We may now conclude that revelation
and reason are complementary sources of knowledge and that a real contradiction
between the two is not possible. Should there be an apparent contradiction
between revelation and reason, the reader should review his understanding of
both to see if a subtle point has been missed; such practice is expected to
resolve all apparent contradictions between revelation and reason.
In terms of the unity of truth and the impossibility of a contradiction between
revelation and reason, the two may be considered equally valid and complementary
to each other. However, notwithstanding the complementarity of revelation and
reason, an understanding of the rationale behind an injunction is not a
precondition for compliance by a Muslim; once a person becomes a Muslim after
having ascertained the truth of Islam for himself, he is expected to
unconditionally submit to the will of Allah as proposed by Qur’ān and the
authentic Sunnah of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. “It is not
fitting for a Believer, man or woman, to exercise personal discretion after a
matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger.”
In that sense, revelation reserves a priority over human reason. On the other
hand, reason judges between the various religious truth-claims and enables man
to embrace the one that is most plausible and therefore nearest to truth; in
that judging capacity, reason reserves a higher place than revelation.
Confusion in how revelation and reason relate to each other
has grappled the Muslims in the present age. A clear understanding of the
relationship between revelation and reason—how and when one has a priority over
the other, and in what sense the two are equal—is expected to facilitate the
Muslims in moving beyond this fundamentally important theoretical dilemma to
advancement in all fields of human knowledge and resolution of the more
significant contemporary issues facing the Muslim world. (God knows best)