The rationality of religion

Wael Farouk
Sunday 29 Apr 2018

Reason in Islam means freedom and renewal, a lived practice of relationship with God and nature and between the self and others

The Arabic root aqala (from which the word aql, or reason, is derived) appears 49 times in the Quran, and every time except once it appears in the form of a verb conjugated in the present tense, most of the time in the plural, as taaqiloun, yaaqiloun, and so on.

The verb taaqiloun is repeated 24 times and yaaqiloun 22 times, whereas each of the verbs aqala, naaqil and yaaqil, being the first person singular and plural and the third person singular of the verb, appears only once.

Whenever this root appears in the Quranic verses, it is always in the context of an invitation to employ reason to understand nature and human beings, in order to connect with God.

It is said, for example, “Lo! The worst of beasts in Allah’s sight are the deaf, the dumb, who have no sense” (Quran 8:22), and “Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel (yaaqiloun) and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind” (Quran 22:46).

The noun aql (reason) does not appear in the Quran, because it is considered to be neither a concept, nor an essence, nor a perfect or fixed entity.

It is a process of becoming, an action and a practice “here and now”, and therefore it is expressed by a verb in the present tense because we are concerned with its realisation “now” and not in the past or the future.

Moreover, the word is conjugated in the plural because it is something we all share, an element of the unity that guarantees and protects plurality.

In the Quranic context, reason is the bridge connecting human beings with nature and God and the “I” with the “Other”. This is why whenever the verb aqala is negated, it is also accompanied by a metaphor that indicates a break in this connection, such as deafness, dumbness, or blindness.

God asks in the Quran, “Will they then not meditate on the Quran, or are there locks on the hearts?” (Quran 47:24).

The verb “they meditate” (yatadabbaroun) is a synonym for yataaqqaloun (to be reasonable or to use reason), an action without which the heart (where the spirit resides) remains a prisoner.

Without aql (reason) the human being is not free, but on the contrary is the prisoner of prejudices, stereotypes and frozen traditions that forbid life, which in turn is the encounter with God, His creatures and Others. In the Quranic context, reason is a permanent connection “here” and “now” with God and Others.

Reason is freedom and the renewal of creation every day, for it is a lived practice in a reality that renews itself and changes every day.

This interpretation of reason in the Quranic context is perhaps rejected by some Muslims, for it breaks the bounds of the methodology of interpretation followed by the ancient scholars, who refer the etymology of the word aql to the process of “binding the legs of the camel together, so that it cannot move,” whereas its religious and ethical reference is derived from the idea that “aql is called that way because it prevents its possessor from getting into trouble or, in other words, it restricts his movements.”

This is also the reason defined by the mediaeval theologian Al-Ghazali as “the mind which, once it testifies to the truthfulness of the prophet, must cease to act.”

On the other hand, the 19th-century theologian Mohamed Abdou says that “a Muslim must not take his beliefs, or the fundaments of his practice, from anybody, except from the Book of God and the practice (Sunna) of His Prophet (peace be upon him).

Every Muslim must understand from God through the Book of God, and from His Prophet through the speech of the Prophet, without the mediation of any of the forefathers or successors.”

The Quran presents reason as a guarantee of harmony between human beings and nature, worshippers and their Lord, the “I” and the “Other”. Reality, however, presents a different kind of harmony: the harmonious coexistence of contradictions between reason and reality, authenticity and contemporaneity, “I” and the “Other”.

Resolving Contradictions:

What is the origin of this contradiction in Islam today between religion and religiosity, text and practice, reason and freedom?

It is the result of a long-term phenomenon I call “coexisting contradictions”.

What I mean by this is the state in which modernity and tradition are not opposed to each other, but are rather involved in an interplay whose outputs are forms of reciprocal adaptation to one another in the context of a culture that is no longer either modern or traditional.

Modernity has established a complex relation with heritage, in which each has managed to adapt to the other.

This has resulted in a complicated process, in which both the modern and traditional have been constantly reformulated and remodeled, giving rise to both a “fake modernity” and a “fake tradition” embodied by lifestyles, public views and behaviour that can neither be described as traditional nor as modern, but are a distorted mixture of both and in which contradictions coexist.

“Fake modernity” disfigures tradition as much as it disfigures the authentic manifestations of modernity. The best proof of this is the rejection of the rational dimension in both. This leads to the coexistence of (distorted) elements of tradition with (distorted) elements of modernity, merging into a new mixture of both.

In order to clarify what I mean, here are some examples: the separation between means and ends, with the means becoming more important than the ends (the example of the Sharia); the search in the past for legitimacy in the present (for both traditionalists and modernists); the contradiction between form and content (the Islamisation of modernity and liberal institutions justifying tyranny); society’s renunciation of thought, leaving this to an elite; the exclusion of difference or of the different; the identification with models; and the lack of harmony with time and place and the lack of harmony between time and place.

Is there a way out of these contradictions? The only way is education. Without education a society becomes sterile, recycling the past without acquiring its achievements, living the present without realising its potential, and waiting for a future that does not contain a place for it.

However, education is not just about the transmission of values, ideas and beliefs from one generation to another. The word “education” in Arabic (tarbiya) derives from the root r.b.w., which means “increasing”, “growing”, and “developing”.

Thus, true education is the process of adding to and developing values by charging them with new human content, something that must be done by practising them in our daily lives, so that they become the subjects of reflection and interaction. In this sense, the preservation of values and traditions does not mean freezing them, but rather developing them and making them assume new forms that give expression to a new reality.

In this way, the relationship with the past becomes more fruitful. The past should be approached only by means of a living experience and a lived reality.

This is what makes a critical approach to the past possible, because constructive, fruitful criticism does not separate abstract, theoretical knowledge from true, human experience. This is the only kind of criticism capable of reviving values and traditions and adding to them.

The worst dangers facing education are imitation and the inhibition of creativity. What else is education if not the process of exciting curiosity and questioning, stimulating research and knowledge, developing a person’s awareness and understanding of the world, and allowing him to be able to assume a positive attitude towards all that surrounds him? Education is nothing other than building the ability of a person to establish a fruitful relationship with himself, others, and the world as a whole.

Traditions are not made to be “preserved”. They are made to be lived, and living in and through traditions means reproducing them in a creative way. As the German writer Goethe once said, “what you have inherited from your fathers, you have to acquire again, if you want to really possess it.”

Education, then, is not the “preservation of traditions”, but “the interaction with traditions”, which implies the practice of discovering identity and building a personality. Critical self-awareness and the awareness of the world is what protects traditions from becoming clichés, models devoid of meaning, or obstacles to the novelty brought by the lives of the new generations.

It is creative action in relation with traditions, reality, and the Other that shapes human identity and provides the lost harmony between the “now” and its history and the “here” and its surroundings. This is why developing the ability to act and interact should be the highest goal of any education.

Education should not be a simple ritual that society performs on every new generation in an eternal spring. It is a development process that resembles the growth of a tree, whose crown cannot rise to the sky unless its roots are deeply planted in the ground. Any reform which does not combine reason, education and freedom will thus not succeed.

The writer is a professor at the Catholic University of Milan and author of Conflicting Arab Identities: Language, Tradition and Modernity. 

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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