Removing the Conflict Between Reason & Revelation
The theological discussion relating to submission towards the Sacred Texts often sparks a long-standing debate over the possible conflict between what the Sacred Texts say and other influential factors such as preconceived ideas, cultural conditioning, social constructs, base desire and so on.
The Sacred Divine Texts came to enlighten the mind of man and change the course of his life to fall in line with the Will of his Creator and Sustainer. It encapsulates guidance in the most complete and comprehensive sense and thus requires no external sources of influence to help the human mind appreciate and comprehend it. In fact, external influences and preconceived ideas are merely obstacles that the person must seek to overcome in order to benefit fully from the guidance therein. Unreserved submission to the Creator through His Sacred Texts not only makes sense but unlocks the true potential of man to achieve success in the life to come as well as in his worldly life.
This was the founding thought upon which the Early Muslim’s (Salaf) community was built and is the reason why they achieved what they achieved during that era. Later on, groups arose claiming that although unreserved submission ought to be shown to the Divine Texts, there are some instances where a reference to external sources of non-Divine knowledge may be required in order to properly interpret the Text, especially in cases where there is a perceived conflict. This became the precursor idea which led to the formulation of the false dichotomy which states that a conflict between reason and revelation can exist. Each of the various groups that held this to be true then went their own way in dealing with these supposed conflicts.
It was the scholars of speculative theology (Mutakallimūn) who were the first to construct this false dichotomy between reason and revelation. The very notion of a conflict or polarity between human intellect and revelation did not exist in the era of the Early Muslims (Salaf). Human reasoning and intellect were always perceived as being in harmony with the Sacred Texts for both, in reality, come from the One Creator, Lord of both intellect and scripture. If Divine Revelation were to contravene God-given intellect it would be a logical fallacy as both come from the same source.
From another perspective, the Revelation that Allāh sent down can only serve as a message to mankind if their intellects understand it. Without the obvious element of human intellect being a receptacle to Revelation, Revelation would lose all meaning and be similar to a message secured with an unbreakable code. Therefore, the words and expressions that make up Revelation are Divine and the meanings behind those words and expression are also Divine. These particular meanings, as intended by Allāh, are discernible to man due primarily to his intellectual grasp of language and its universal dictates. It is upon the ability to understand and comprehend the message within Revelation that responsibility and accountability before Allāh (Taklīf) is established. This is the reason why those persons who cannot understand the Sacred Texts, such as the senile and the minor, are not deemed to be morally responsible before Allāh.
With these fundamentals in mind, the relationship between Revelation and intellect can be better understood. As for the Revelation (Naql), its words and expressions can convey a variety of meanings such as:
1) A clear and decisive (Qat‘ī) meaning.
2) An obvious and apparent (Dhāhir) meaning.
3) A predominant (Rājih) meaning, though another less probable meaning is also possible.
4) A possible (Marjūh) meaning that is weak and unlikely to be accurate.
Anything outside of these four categories would be deemed as fanciful interpretation and becomes a claim that ascribes meanings to Divine words or expression that in reality is not there. Though this interpretation or understanding is alien to the Sacred Texts it may make sense to the intellect of the one ascribing it; however, simply because such interpretation makes sense it cannot therefore be forcefully read into the Text. The relationship in question is thus more accurately understood to be between sound interpretation and preconceived paradigms of textual hermeneutics, as it is to do with a conflict between reason and revelation.
To explain the two entities, reason and revelation, in a more rudimentary sense, reason will never find a conflict with simple truths such as the whole always being greater than the part. This is the intuitive nature of reason given by God to human beings. Moving then to the matter of the revelation; words or expression found in the Sacred Texts have their correctly understood meaning. Human reason and the correctly understood meaning(s) of Sacred Texts will always come together in harmony without conflict. The problem arises when either reason becomes tainted with preconceived ideas or desires, or when words and expressions found in the Sacred Texts are assigned inaccurate meaning(s). The possibilities are therefore as follows:
1) Reason and correct meaning(s). No contradiction or conflict arises here, regardless of which type of meaning is being referred to.
2) Reason and incorrect meaning(s). Conflict does arise here, when for example the Mu’tazilites claim that the words of Allāh: “And construct the ship under Our Eyes (bi-a’yuninā)” according to the apparent (Dhāhir) meaning would mean Nūh made the boat with the eyes of Allāh. However, this is simply incorrect from a purely linguistic perspective as the apparent meaning is a metaphorical one and not the one they claim. Hence, there is no need to reinterpret this beautiful expression as the apparent is clear.
3) Incorrect reasoning and correct meaning(s). Conflict does arise here when, for example, the Quraysh rejected the Prophethood of Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) by saying: “Why was an Angel not sent down?” According to their reasoning, a Prophet could not be a human but had to be an Angel, yet Allāh condemned them for using false reasoning saying: “But if We had sent down an Angel, the matter would have been decided; then they would not be reprieved.” In similar vein, the Mu’tazilites claimed that the Prophet’s saying that Allāh is fī al-Samā (above the heavens), cannot be taken to mean what is apparent as that would imply that Allāh is contained within His creation. Their reasoning is at fault here as it tells them that assigning a direction (Jiha) to God is to anthropomorphise, as it necessitates that He is within the universe (Makān).
The phenomenon of false, mystical and even fanciful interpretation of revealed scriptures is not something unique to the final revelation sent to the Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Various modes of interpretation have been employed with the Bible in Judaism and Christianity. However, a survey of the various instances wherein the scholars of speculative theology (Mutakallimūn) adopted a false mode of interpretation, such as words and expressions relating to God’s Attributes, reveals that a shared understanding exists between them and the groups that came before them. It further shows their attempt to merge the horizons of the contemporary world, though alien to the religion, with the world projected by the Texts of the religion. These groups took their preconceived ideas about the ontology of the Text, hermeneutics, history, culture, and epistemology and read them into Revelation. Whatever ran contrary to their preconceived ideas was incorrectly perceived as a direct conflict between reason and Revelation when, in reality, it is merely a conflict between reason and preconceived ideas. As such, the scholars of speculative theology (Mutakallimūn) were limited in their thought and ability to faithfully interpret Revelation.
If revelation, with its four measures of meaning, were to contradict or oppose human intellect it would not be a worthy form of guidance. Nevertheless, the scholars of speculative theology (Mutakallimūn) were heavily influenced by a Hellenistic culture which led them to believe that a conflict between reason and revelation was possible. The various groups within this school of thought then differed as to the manner in which they would deal with such conflicts. Some would adopt figurative interpretations when they perceived conflict, others would question the veracity of the particular Sacred Text in question whilst others still would outright reject it. However, none of them sought to clarify whether their initial understanding of the Sacred Text was correct, or whether their reasoning was true and shared by human beings in general and not tainted by preconceived ideas or philosophies alien to the religion.
The consequence of reserved, compromised submission to the Sacred Text is that a person may inadvertently make his intellect (‘Aql) take on the role of the Legislator (al-Hākim) in defining the religion. The opposite is also possible, whereby a person marginalises the role God-given intellect and reason has to play in religion. The consequence of this doctrine is that a person sees no legislative reasoning (‘Illal) behind the Sacred Texts and thereby reduces the scope for legal reasoning (Ijtihād).
The Ahl al-Sunnah hold a position in between these two evil extremes. They addressed both parties from a middle ground clarifying that revelation that relates to matters of the Unseen (Ghayb), theology (‘Aqīdah), as well as matters of worldly dealings (Mu‘āmalāt), are always in harmony with human intellect as Allāh revealed it for a people of intellect. The intellect recognises it to be sound and is ready to adhere when revelation legislates and commands it. Thus, the role of intellect is essentially one of recognising and submitting to the truth found in revelation. The verse of the Qur’anic chapter al-Mulk points to this when it relates the cries of the disbelievers as they enter the Hellfire: “If only we had really listened and used our intellect, we would not have been Companions of the Blaze”; only then do they realise the reason why God had granted them the senses and a discerning mind.
It is not the role of the intellect to legislate and formulate religious prescriptions independent of revelation. Regarding the case of the scholars (Mujtahidūn) who are able to exercise legal reasoning (Ijtihād) based on their intimate knowledge of the Sacred Texts and the legislative reasons (‘Illal) behind injunctions, the intellect plays a greater role here. However, it is still operating within the realm of revelation and not independently. Moreover, revelation itself commands that legal reasoning be applied in certain cases.
True intellectual liberation cannot come from following blindly the philosophies and ideas of one’s mind or from disbelieving nations, for every man errs and makes mistakes. As for the ideas, thoughts, and principles that are found in revelation, they come from a Divine, infallible source. Revelation therefore deserves to be placed over and above human intellect if any perceived conflict was found between the two sources. Furthermore, the Prophets came with knowledge which reason could not attain in and of itself, such as knowledge about the Creator, the Hereafter, the Unseen (Ghayb), and so on; never did they come with what reason considers impossible.
The reality is that reason is a prerequisite to all knowledge as with it we acquire knowledge; however, it is not sufficient by itself. It is only a faculty of the soul, a power like the power of vision in the eye. It works only when it receives light from faith (Īmān) and revelation, just as the eye sees only when it receives light. Therefore, true enlightenment does not come from submission to that which errs, may speak from conjecture, or is prone to external influences; rather it comes from submission to the All-Mighty, the All-Wise.
Ustadh Asim Khan is a published author of 3 books, including the Simple Seerah & the best-selling “The Heart of the Qur’an”, a commentary on Surah Yasin. He is a Hafiz of Qur’an, has gained a Masters in Pharmacy from the University College London UK, and studied Arabic and Quranic Sciences in Cairo, Egypt. His true passion lies in Tafsir studies where you can find numerous online lectures of his on Qur’ān related topics.