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Belief and Rationalism in Islamic Theology

26 September, 2018 - 03:08

The following is a translation of a section from Nūr al-Dīn al-Ṣābūnī’s al-Bidāyah fī Uṣūl al-Dīn in which he discusses the Māturīdī perspective on whether man is expected to recognize Divine Oneness (Tawḥīd) based purely on reason or if he is only responsible once he hears the Message. This is one of the larger points of disagreement between the two main schools of Sunni ʿaqīdah – the Māturīdī and the Ashʿarī.

Nūr al-Dīn al-Ṣābūnī was a Bukharan scholar of theology who likely lived his entire life in Central Asia. He died in Bukhara in 580/1184.

Īmān and Islām

Ahl al-Qibla have agreed that belief (īmān) in God is mandatory and disbelief (kufr) is forbidden. However, they differed on whether it is mandatory due to the mind’s rational capacities or [when one becomes aware of] revelation. So for he who never received the message, if he died upon disbelief, will he be punished or not?

al-Ḥākim al-Shahīd said in al-Muntaqā that Abū Ḥanīfa said “There is no excuse for one to be ignorant of his Creator when he sees the creation of the Heavens and the Earth and the creation of himself and all other created things.” Abū Ḥanīfa further stated, “If Allah had not sent a messenger, it would have been mandatory for creation to recognize Him through reason.”

The Ashʿarīs said that nothing is made mandatory through reason, but rather one can know the good and bad in things [through reason], and can recognize that the Universe is created in time and the eternality of the Maker.

The Atheists [Malāḥida], the Shīʿa [Rawāfiḍ], the Anthropomorphists [Mushabbiha], and the Khawārij said that one cannot know anything through reason, and [thus] it is not mandatory to believe anything through reason.

The Muʿtazila said that reason necessitates belief in Allah, thankfulness for His blessings, and establishes rulings itself.

As for Ahl al-Sunnah, reason is an instrument through which one can know the good and bad of things, the necessity of belief, and thankfulness to the Benefactor. And the One who causes man to know and necessitates in reality is Allah, but it is through the avenue of reason.

As for a youth who is sane, if he was in a situation which enables him to seek out proofs, is it necessary for him to recognize the existence of God, or not? Imām al-Māturīdī and many of the scholars of ʿIrāq said that it is necessary, while others said that nothing is necessary for him before puberty.

The proof for this approach towards the mind is His verse “Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned” [al-Isrāʾ: 36]. Hearing is characterized by the ability to hear things, sight is characterized by the ability to see things, and the heart is characterized by rationality.

Hearing and sight cannot dispense with reason because the ears can hear truth and falsehood and the eyes can see truth and falsehood, but it is impossible to distinguish between them without the rationality of the mind.

This is clarified through the fact the sayings of the Prophet are lone reports. In essence, a report can be true or false, but it is impossible [in this case] to distinguish between truth and falsehood without a miracle. What distinguishes between a miracle and trickery is the mind. Thus the pivot upon which things are known and made necessary is the verification of reason.

The prophets debated their people with rational proofs specifically. al-Khalīl [Prophet Ibrāhīm] debated with the king, his father, and his people, as Allah mentions in the Qurʾān, “And [mention, O Muhammad], when Abraham said to his father Azar, “Do you take idols as deities?” [al-Anʿām: 74]. And His saying, “And recite to them the news of Abraham, when he said to his father and his people, ‘What do you worship?’” [al-Shuʿurāʾ: 69-70]. And His saying, “When he said to his father and his people, ‘What are these statues to which you are devoted?’” [al-Anbiyāʾ: 52]. The acquisition of knowledge through such rational proofs does not only exist through discussions with the prophets. Rather if they had thought with their minds, they would have known the same. And for this reason Allah urged them to observe and think in many verses of the Qurʾān, as He said, “Do they not look?” [al-Aʿrāf: 185] and “Do they not give thought?” [al-Aʿrāf: 184]. And it is thus known that the mind has control over knowledge of knowable things, and hearing does not have control over anything without the mind.

We do not conclude from the necessity of belief through reason that one necessarily deserves reward for good actions or punishment for inaction if they are both unknown except through receiving the message. Rather, our interpretation is a type of likelihood that knowing one’s Creator is more probable than rejection of Him and recognition of Divine Oneness is more worthy than assigning partners to Him [shirk], since the mind cannot come to both conclusions at once. As such, one’s thankfulness is an expression of blessings from the One who blesses, since one recognizes that he does not assign partners with Him.