A False Dichotomy of the Role of Reason in Muslim Traditionalism vs. Rationalism?

In his On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam, Dr. Sherman Jackson states:

Directly related to the relationship between theology and history is the relationship between what Islamicists have termed Traditionalism and Rationalism, the two main approaches to theology in Islam. To date, modern scholarship has been unanimous in its depiction of the basic distinction between these two approaches as residing in their differential relationship to reason. My contention, however, is that it is primarily history that divides these two approaches and that Traditionalism is no more devoid of the use of reason than Rationalism is of a reliance on tradition. As such, these two approaches are better understood as different traditions of reason.

If our community were able to digest and adopt such an (mutual) understanding, we just might be able to move beyond the man-made and self-imposed theological roadblocks impeding a healthy spiritual development so very needed by Muslims (and the world!) today.

The Swords of Self-Discipline

I have been taking the time to re-read al-Ghazzali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din again (as I do from time to time) and always enjoy the anecdotes and aphorisms he sprinkles throughout his prose. One in particular is from Yahya bin Mu’adh al-Razi:

جاهد نفسك بأسياف الرياضة – والرياضة على أربعة أوجه: القوت من الطعام, والغمض من المنام, والحاجة من الكلام وحمل الأذى من جميع الأنام فتولد من قلة الطعام موت الشهوات, ومن قلة المنام صفو الإرادات, ومن قلة الكلام السلامة من الآفات, من احتمال الأذى, البلوغ إلى الغايات وليس على العبد شيء أشد من الحلم عند الجفاء والصبر على الأذى, وإذا تحركت من النفس إرادة الشهوات والآثام وهاجت منها حلاوة فضول الكلام جردت عليها سيوف قلة الطعام من غمد التهدج وقلة من المنام, وضربتها بأيدي الخمول وقلة من الكلام حتى تنقطع من الظلم والانتقام, فتأمن من بواثقها من بين سائر الأنام وتصفيها من ظلمة شهواتها فتنجو من غوائل آفاتها – فتصير عند ذلك نظيفة ونورية خفيفة روحانية فتجول في ميدان الخيرات وتسير في مسالك الطاعات كالفرس الفارة في الميدان وكالملك المتنزه في البستان

“Struggle against your soul with the swords of self-discipline. They are of four kinds: little nourishment, sleeping little, speaking only when there’s a need and bearing wrongs enacted against you. Restricting your eating will be the death of unwanted passions; sleeping little clarifies ones aspirations; speaking little keeps one safe from afflictions and bearing injustices against oneself will help you obtain your goals, for there is nothing more arduous against God’s servant than to grant clemency when one is repudiated, bearing wrongs inflicted on oneself by others. And when your passions begin to stir your soul to unwanted ends and sins, and one feels delight in indulgence, unsheathe the sword of eating little from the scabbard Tahajjud and sleep but little. Strike these desires with the fists of lethargy and silence until they no longer oppress you nor avenge themselves against you and you are safe from their calamities til the end of your days, having purified them of the darkness of carnal desires, so that you escape unscathed from their perilous consequences. From this point you will become pure, immaculate and radiant, subtle in spirituality, free to roam about all that is good, traversing the paths of obedience to God like a fleet-footed steed in the field, like a king promenading in his garden.” From Kitab Riyadhah al-Nafs.

The Role of Rationalism in Immorality and Sin

Proponents of rational thought often look down their noses at religious thinkers because of the latter’s reliance on tradition and revelation in the realm of moral thought. What they may find interesting is reason’s role in immorality and sin.

“Immorality and sin for Niebuhr are not, of course, the same thing. Sin is the more inclusive concept and immorality is only one aspect of sin. But Niebuhr’s major statements concerning sin apply equally well to his view of immorality. Thus, immorality, like sin, is for Niebuhr fully a spiritual phenomenon. This means that immorality is not necessarily irrational. Reason can be intimately involved in the immoral act. In the last analysis, according to Niebuhr, immorality involves an act of the will that is neither rational nor irrational. This is not to suggest that immorality cannot be explained and does not have certain preconditions. Among these preconditions is the fact of man’s finitude, especially as this takes form in his capacity to die. Man’s mortal nature furnishes the occasion for immorality, as Niebuhr says. But neither mortality nor finitude necessitate immorality. Both sin and immorality are the result of free choice for Niebuhr. In this sense, they are not ‘necessary.’ “

Indeed, many arguments are entertained in the Qur’an regarding idol worship, associating partners, rejecting revelation, and all forms of immoral and indecent behavior.

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا

“They will ask you about alcoholic drinks and gambling. Say, ‘There is great wrong in both of them and also certain benefits for mankind. But the wrong in them is greater than the benefit.’ ” Qur’an, 2: 219.

For those who claim the Qur’an does not use or address reason, they simply have decided not to look for it. However, their main objection is that Revelation ultimately trumps reason (this can be found in the writings of al-Ghazzali and others). And while Revelation supersedes reason, it does not disallow it from the human decision making experience, moral, religious or otherwise. It simply seeks to put it in its place.

From Ronald M. Green’s Niebuhr’s Critique of Rationalism: A Limited Validation. Read the full article here.

Muslims, America and the Greater Good

The Muslim community in America has been under fire since the tragic events of September 11th. And yet, most of the efforts of Muslims since then have seemed to focus more on how to get back to the foggy, lackadaisical lifestyle which allowed a great many Muslims to enjoy the comforts of American society without having to contribute very much. Sadly, I feel this still persists. And in the light of a society that is in desperate need of help (of whom the Muslims are also in desperate need!), how can we justify our self-indulgent attitude? I muse on this and a few other items in this podcast.

Further Readings

Dawabit al-Maslahah fi’l-Shar’iyyah al-Islamiyyah by Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti.