Brief Overview of the Relationship Between Rationality and Revelation

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Below is a summary of a talk delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah in Kuwait on 6th March 2017. Translated by Br. Muhammed Jaffer

The conflict between rationality and revelation has been a source of great contention between philosophers for centuries and continues to remain a controversial issue to the present-day. In this discussion, we will seek to develop a framework for understanding the relationship between al-‘aql and al-waḥy within the approach of the philosophy of religion. There is a second approach to understanding the relationship between al-‘aql and al-waḥy within the philosophy of jurisprudence, however, we will discuss that at another juncture. We will summarize the four viewpoints in this field and discuss the arguments relevant to each:

First Approach: The Predominance of Revelation

This approach is most conservative in reference to al-‘aql and states we must close the door of rationality to accept revelation exclusively as the source of reality. This viewpoint is summarized in four key concepts:

1) Revelation ought to be the epistemological foundation for understanding existence and reality since it is the indubitable truth from the Creator of the universe.

2) Reason should not be relied upon as the source of our epistemology since it is dynamic and circumstantial. For instance, one day al-‘aql tells us idea X is true, but then tomorrow it revises the whole concept to tell us that based on new data, idea X is not true rather the truth is idea Y. Reason relies on the crutch of sensory perception which is subject to numerous fallacies and illusions. It is upon this principle that two major philosophers of religion—Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas—both adopted this approach. They state there is therefore no way we can make this flimsy epistemology the basis of our understanding of reality.

3) Reason as a tool is a subjective phenomenon: For example, person A has one viewpoint and person B has a completely opposite viewpoint, both claiming that they are relying upon rationality! Hence, both Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī and the founder of the Akhbārī school Muḥammad Amīn al-Astarābādi used this argument to state that there is no way that we can rely on rationality since it is just an illusory certainty and does not represent true yaqīn.

4) ‘Aql is not the bridge to īmān, rather īmān ought to be the bridge to ‘aql. Our premises should be based upon the Divine fiṭrah of belief in God and not the shaky foundation of rationality.

Second Approach: Reason Until Submission to Revelation

This approach states that ‘aql is a proof (al-ḥujjah) and a blessing of God that has been given to us. It is a tool that we ought to use to affirm the basis of revelation: divine theology (al-ilāhiyyāt), prophethood (an-nubūwah), and viceregency (al-imāmah); however, after establishing these foundations, we bid it farewell and rely solely on the epistemology of revelation. If there is ever a contradiction between al-‘aql and al-waḥy, then the method by which it ought to be reconciled is by realizing that one’s rational proof is erroneous and requires revisiting. Since revelation—which is the sine qua non of our worldview—tells us the reality ought to be otherwise, we must accept that there is a hidden fallacy in our logical premises and seek it out. This approach was adopted by ‘Allāmah al-Majlisī in the second volume of his magnum opus Biḥār al-Anwār.

Third Approach: The Predominance of Reason

This approach claims that al-‘aql is the basis upon which we should base our epistemology and is the only method by which one obtains certainty. Meanwhile, revelation cannot give us any true knowledge; in claiming this, they rely upon the school of positivism expounded in the early 19th century at the Congress of Vienna. This philosophy, which would later come to be scathingly critiqued by the likes of Horkheimer in 1967, stated that knowledge must be verifiable and falsifiable. As such, knowledge is only obtainable through the physical sciences, as these are the only ones that are subject to experimentation. Meanwhile, intuitive disciplines such as revelation cannot be verifiable from a sensory standpoint and thus are not to be epistemologically relied upon. Therefore, this group of scholars relegated the role of revelation to solely encouraging moral values and ethical principles. They posited the religious corpus should not be relied upon to understand anything about the nature of reality.

Fourth Approach: Revelation Interpreted Through the Tool of Reason

The last approach is one adopted by the vast majority of Muslim scholars. It postulates that reason and revelation are separate and equal sources of understanding reality. However, it distinguished itself by examining the nature of revelation: namely, it concluded that we no longer have a direct conduit to al-waḥy but rather we have access to religious texts alone that are subject to interpretation. Meanwhile, al-‘aql is an independent tool that we can use to understand and extract interpretations from the religious corpus. If there should ever arise a contradiction between al-‘aql and al-waḥy, then one ought to reinterpret the revealed texts in our possession through the tool of al-‘aql: this is because the import of revelation is subject to interpretation and is not decisive (qaṭ’ī). The question arises as to what should be the approach of exegesis in this framework, and there have in turn arisen three different viewpoints:

1. Linguistic Ambiguity: this methodology was espoused by the Mu’tazilīs and some of the Shī’a scholars in turn. They noted that language in itself is metaphorical and analogical; thus, when contradictions with reason arise, the default should be to re-interpret the scripture in accordance with other linguistic possibilities. For example, in interpreting the verse, “The Hand of God is above their hands” (48:10), they postulate that hand in linguistic sources can mean “power,” and hence this refers to the omnipotence of God in a metaphorical fashion.

2. Symbolic Language: this methodology was adopted by many of the ‘urafā, who noted that the terms of the Qur’ān and Sunnah ought to be looked at with a symbolic significance and may not necessarily conform with physical entities, although they do have a metaphysical reality. Thus, for instance, when the Qur’an mentions al-mīzān on the Day of Judgement, one ought not to imagine a physical scale whereby deeds are weighed. Rather, the spirit of the meaning of al-mīzān is an instrument used for estimation and this is the meaning of the term in the Qur’ānic parlance.

Coming to verse 48:10, they state that the import of the word “hand” can be seen as a symbol for what one uses to accomplish his will. Therefore, 48:10 in their viewpoint refers to the fact that God’s will is above all others. This is the viewpoint that the likes of ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī, Āyatullah Khomeinī, Ibn ‘Arabī, and Mullā Ṣadrā have based their exegetical methodologies upon.

3. Allegorical Speech: this viewpoint surmises that Qur’ānic words and anecdotes ought to be understood as didactic parables. For instance, if the theory of evolution seems to contradict the genesis story of Prophet Ādam, then one ought to re-interpret the verses in reference to this event as analogies and not actual historical events.

In summary, we find four central approaches to rationality in this context: the extremely conservative, the moderate, the extremely liberal, and finally the approach that relies upon ‘aql as a tool for proper exegesis of revelatory texts.