The Legal Value of Reason in Islamic Law

This article was written by Shaykh Abd al-Hakeem Carney (d. 2007) and was originally published on a website he was running called Shiapedia. After his demise, the domain and hosting services were not renewed and the website vanished. Soon after his death, someone had backed up his entire website and I had downloaded all the articles – around 60-70 – from this backup. I will be uploading some of these articles on the blog as some of them contain invaluable information and research. I will only be doing minor edits to the text, leaving the rest as it was originally.

The legal value of reason in Islamic law is one that has been debated by Islamic jurists for centuries. It has been an area of particular controversy amongst Shi’ite scholars, owing to the role that reason plays within the doctrinal framework of the Shi’ite religion.


The Arabic word aql (العقل) is used to refer both to the faculty of intellect (what the Greek philosophers called nous), and to the faculty of reason (what was known as ratio). The concepts of reason and intellect have been jumbled in contemporary English usage, but the terms had a distinct meaning amongst classical Western philosophers. Intellect was always regarded as a spiritual entity, a “Divine mind” in some systems, whereas reason was a much more practical function that was used to make comparisons and judgements between things. The distinction between the two corresponds to the distinction drawn by Max Horkheimer in his Eclipse of Reason and What is Enlightenment? between objective and subjective reason. Objective reason is that which deals with universal, absolute truths, whereas subjective reason is a faculty used by people in pursuing their own ends. Intellect corresponds to the former, reason to the latter. Arab philosophers would refer to intellect/objective reason as al-‘aql an-nazari (العقل النظري), which literally means “reflective reason.” They would refer to subjective reason as al-‘aql al-‘amali (العقل العملي), “practical reason.”

The word ‘aql was used as a translation for both of these aspects. Many early philosophers realized that this was a problem, and were aware of the ambiguities it created. Al-Farabi wrote a treatise on the subject, entitled An Epistle on Aql (الرسالة في العقل). Philosophers generally used ‘aql in the sense of intellect, whereas theologians and jurists usually used in the sense of reason.

The Shi’ite hadith literature generally uses the term in the sense of intellect. Aql, linguistically, means to tie or to bond, such as in the hadith of the famous hadith of the Prophet where he saw a Bedouin who had left his camel untied. He asked the Bedouin why he had done this, and the Bedouin said he was simply going to trust in Allah. The Prophet said: “Tie it (تعقل), then trust in Allah” (تعقل ثمّ توكّل). Aql was considered to be a faculty that “bound” or “tied” a person to good behavior. A person who was classified as a “man of ‘aql“, an ‘aqil (عقيل), was somebody who was not only intelligent, but wise. In modern usage this is not quite the case; saying a person lacks ‘aql is generally equivalent to saying that they are insane. In the time of the Imams, however, ‘aql was viewed as an intellectual-moral faculty. A person who was intelligent, and very reasonable in the sense of their practical reason, may be clever, but was not said to have ‘aql. An example of this is the following hadith from Al-Kafi concerning Mu’awiyah:

قلت له: ما العقل؟ قال: ما عبد به الرحمن واكتسب به الجنان قال: قلت: فالذي كان في معاوية؟ فقال: تلك النكراء ! تلك الشيطنة، وهي شبيهة بالعقل، وليست بالعقل

Someone asked Imam as-Sadiq: “What is the ‘aql?” The Imam said: “It is that by which a servant worships the Merciful [ar-rahman]], and by which a servant earns paradise.” The man then asked: “So what did Mu’awiyah have?” The Imam said: “That was a demonic entity, something that seemed like intellect, but was not intellect.”

The antithesis of ‘aql was not madness or insanity, but ignorance. Ignorance denoted a certain mode of behavior that was against the norms of a civilized society.

Reason within Shi’ite Islam

The Shi’ite hadith books describe intellect as the first creation, a light from which all else was born. Shi’ite jurists of all schools of thought have accepted the principle that religious rulings are based upon maslahah (مصلحة), which means best interest. In this way Shi’ite approaches to religious law differ from that of the ‘Asharite school of theology amongst Sunni Muslims. Most ‘Asharites hold that the injunctions given by Allah do not have to have any benefit whatsoever to the people they are charged with. According to this belief, people may be charged with obligations outside their capacity, that bring them no benefit in this world or in the next. It is simply an arbitrary will of Allah.

Shi’ite hadiths, on the other hand, generally speak of Allah’s injunctions as being based solely for the interests of His people. An example of a hadith on this subject is the following narration of the Prophet:

إن من عبادي المؤمنين لمن لا يصلح إيمانه إلا بالفقر و لا أغنيته لأفسده ذلك و إن من عبادي المؤمنين لمن لا يصلح إيمانه إلا بالغنى و لا أفقرته لأفسده ذلك و إن من عبادي المؤمنين لمن لا يصلح إيمانه إلا بالسقم و لا صححت جسمه لأفسده ذلك و إن من عبادي المؤمنين لمن لا يصلح إيمانه إلا بالصحة و لا أسقمته لأفسد ذلك إن أدبر عبادي بعلمي بقلوبهم فإني عليم خبير

“There are those of my believing servants whose faith will not be correct unless he is poor, and if I were to make him rich, he would be destroyed. And there are those from my believing servants whose faith will not be correct unless they are wealthy, and if I were to make them poor, they would be destroyed. There are those from my believing servants whose faith will not be correct unless they are ill, and if I were to make them healthy, they would be destroyed. And there are those from my believing servants whose faith will not be correct unless they are healthy, and if I were to make them ill, they would be destroyed. Indeed, I manage the affairs of my servants by my knowledge of their hearts, and I am the most knowledgeable, well-informed.”

The intellect is given a huge position within the Shi’ite hadith literature. The first chapter of the work Al-Kafi, for example, lists many of the high attributes assigned to the intellect

لما خلق الله العقل استنطقه ثم قال له: أقبل فأقبل ثم قال له: أدبر فأدبر ثم قال: وعزتي وجلالي ما خلقت خلقا هو أحب إلي منك ولا أكملتك إلا فيمن احب، أما إني إياك آمر، وإياك أنهى وإياك اعاقب، وإياك اثيب

Imam al-Baqir said: “When Allah created the intellect, He ordered it to come, and it came, and then He ordered it go back, and it went back. He then said: “By my Glory, I have not created anything more beloved to me than you. I do not bestow you in your completeness upon anybody except by those I love. To you alone do I issue my commands, and to you alone do I issue my prohibitions. To you alone do I issue punishment, and to you alone do I issue reward.”

This narration, in particular,s important for approaching the issue of reason in Islamic law, since it says specifically that Islamic laws and injunctions are issued solely on the basis of intellect. The other major school of theology amongst Sunnis, the Mu’tazilites, held that the faculty of natural reason could perceive Islamic laws on its own, sometimes without any aid of religious sources. The most extreme camp of the Mu’tazilites, that of Ar-Rawandi, went as far as to argue that if revelation contradicts reason, the revelation is to be rejected; and if it accords with reason then it is merely redundant.

The Shi’ite hadith literature generally come out quite strongly against this position. In one famous narration of Imam as-Sadiq, he says:

“The religion of Allah is not reached by the intellects.” دين الله لا يصاب بالعقول

There was always an intellectual dissonance between this genre of hadiths and the ones sighted above. However, the Shi’ite hadith literature generally takes the position that it is only the completed intellect inside of a person that is able to perceive the injunctions of Islamic law properly. Most human beings, owing to weaknesses in their character, have an incomplete intellect and are unable to perceive things as they are supposed to be. In another narration of Al-Kafi, Imam as-Sadiq speaks about the relationship between character and intellect. He states that the first thing which was created was the intellect, and it was given 70 “soldiers.” The second thing created was its antithesis, ignorance, and it too was given 70 soldiers. The Imam then lists off these soldiers, which are all character attributes: patience is one of the soldiers of intellect, impatience one of the soldiers of ignorance, and so forth. In conclusion, the Imam states:

فلا تجتمع هذه الخصال كلها من أجناد العقل إلا في نبي أو وصي نبي، أو مؤمن قد امتحن الله قلبه للايمان، وأما سائر ذلك من موالينا فإن أحدهم لا يخلو من أن يكون فيه بعض هذه الجنود حتى يستكمل، وينقي من جنود الجهل فعند ذلك يكون في الدرجة العليا مع الانبياء والاوصياء

“All of these soldiers of intellect or not united in their entirety except in a Prophet or the inheritor of a Prophet, or a believer whose heart has been tested by faith. As far as the rest of our followers, they will continue to have only some of these soldiers, not all of them, until they pursue perfection. Once they have cleansed themselves of all the soldiers of ignorance, then they will be on the highest level with the Prophets and the inheritors.”

Early Shi’ite jurists spoke of intellect primarily as a means for understanding revelation, but also spoke of it as having its own, independent views, views which accord with what is in the revelation. Early Shi’ite jurists spoke of intellect primarily as a means for understanding revelation, but also spoke of it as having its own, independent views, views which accord with what is in the revelation. Shaykh al-Mufid (b. 948) did not list intellect as being a source of Islamic law, as later scholars would. He wrote that the sources of Islamic law are three: the Qur’an, the sunnah of the Prophet, and the statements of the Imams. However, he did move on to list three ways in which these three evidences could be obtained: orally, through transmitted report, and through intellect. Concerning intellect, he wrote that “intellect is the way that the proof-value [hujjiyyah] of the Qur’an is confirmed, as well as the signification of the reports.” (هو سبيل إلى معرفة حجية القرآن و دلائل الاخبار). His student, Shaykh Abu Ja’far at-Tusi, discussed some independent rational categories in his Al-‘Uddah, such as the rational obligation of being grateful to a benefactor, the blameworthiness of lying and injustice, and so forth.

Akhbari and Shaykhi Views

Most scholars of the Akhbari school of thought reject any place for natural reason within Islamic law. Scholars of the Kirmani Shaykhi school also reject it, except in the case of a perfect Shi’a whose intellect is completed. The Shaykhi scholar Shaykh Muhammad Karim Khan writes:

العقل الخالص الصريح احب الخلق الي الله سبحانه و لايكمله الله الا في من يحب و هو ما لم‌يتدنس بادناس النفس الامارة و الشهوات المضلة و القرانات المبعدة عن الله صايب يصيب الحق و لايخالفه و كان مع الحق و الحق معه و لايخالف نظره شيئا مما شرع في الدين فيثبت ما اثبته الشرع و ينفي ما نفاه لانه من نور الشارع و شعاعه و النور تابع للمنير و الله سبحانه لايثبت الا ما فيه صلاح الخلق و بقاؤه و ثباته و لاينفي الا ما فيه فساد الخلق و بواره لانه في نفسه لاتنفعه طاعة من اطاعه و لاتضره معصية من عصاه فلايأمر و لاينهي لصلاح نفسه و لا لعبث بل يأمر و ينهي لصلاح الخلق و لما كان العقل من نوره اذا كان علي فطرته يعرف ما فيه الصلاح و الفساد و لذلك سمي الله الفطرة دينا و قال فطرة الله التي فطر الناس عليها لا تبديل لخلق الله اي تلك الفطرة ذلك الدين القيم فالفطرة هي الدين و الدين هو الفطرة فكلما اثبته العقل الصريح الخالص غير المبدل اثبته الشرع و بالعكس و اما اذا تدنس بادناس النفس و اتبع العادات و انصبغ في الطبايع و غلب عليه الشهوات و استفزه الغضب و قاده النواميس و غير ذلك و بدل فطرة الله يعمي عن الحق و يصير الحسن عنده قبحا و القبح حسنا فمتي ما اتبع العادات يستحسن ما اعتاده و يستقبح ما اعتاد علي رفضه كما تري ان جميع الناس يستحسنون ما اعتادوا علي فعله و يستقبحون ما اعتادوا علي تركه حتي انه لو فعل واحد منهم ما لم‌تجر به العادة يستقبحه عقلاء القوم و ينكرون عليه اشد الانكار و الخارج عن عادتهم لايري قبحا في ذلك ابدا ، مثالب قوم عند قوم محاسن ، و الغرقي في هذا البحر كثير من الناس بل لايكاد ينجو منه الا قليل قليل و كذلك قد يعمي العقل بسبب الشهوات فاذا غلبت عليه شهوة شئ يخفي عليه جميع مقابحه و يظهر عنده محاسنه و لذلك قيل حب الشئ يعمي و يصم بل الشهوة تخفي المقابح الموجودة و تثبت محاسن معدومة

“The pure, clear intellect is the most beloved of Allah’s creations. Allah does not give it in its completeness except to he whom he loves. It is that which is not stained by the impurities of the soul which commands a person to evil, nor of desires that lead a person astray, nor any other associates that distance it from Allah. It is that which always reaches the truth, and never disagrees with it. It is with the truth, and the truth is with it. Its view does not disagree with anything that has been legislated in the religion. It will confirm that which the religious law confirms, and it will prohibit that which the religious law prohibits. It is from the light of the Law Giver, and is its radiance, and it follows that which illuminates it. Allah the Glorious does not confirm that except which is in the interests of the creation, and serves its perpetuation and stability. And He does not prohibit that except for which there is harm to the creation. This is because Allah derives no benefit from He who obeys Him, nor does He take any harm by those who disobey Him. As such He does not command anything for his own benefit, nor is there anything arbitrary in His command. He commands and prohibits for the sake of the Creation.

“Because the intellect is from His Light, if it remains in its true nature [fitrah], it will see in what things there lies benefit, and in what things there lies harm. For this reason, Allah has called the true nature [fitrah] a religion [din], and says: ‘The nature of Allah, upon which He has created the human beings, and you will find no change in the creation of Allah.’ He means by this ‘true nature’ the firm religion. This true nature is the religion and the religion is the true nature. As such, everything that the clear, pure intellect confirms is confirmed by the religious law, and vice-versa.

“However, if the soul is corrupted by the impurities of the soul, and it follows customs, and is awash in the physical natures, and is overwhelmed by lust and overjoyed which rage, and follows customary laws, and therefore deviates from its primordial nature, then it becomes blind to the truth. It will see the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful. When it comes to follow customs, it will see whatever is customary as being good and righteous, and it will see as ugly anything contradicts its customary practice. You see this in all people; they regard as praise-worthy that which they normally do, and reject anything they don’t normally do. If one person does something which is not accepted by custom, the “wise people” of that community will condemn him, and reject him with the most extreme rejection. However, those who follow a different custom will never see that act as being evil. As the saying goes, the disgrace of one people is noble for another. Those who drown in this ocean are many, and very few are free from it.

“Similarly, a soul may become confused because its lusts overwhelm it. When lust overwhelms the soul completely, it will not see anything as ugly anymore, and everything will seem beautiful. For this reason, it is said that love is blind. Nay! Lust hides all things which are evil, and confirms beauty that does not exist.”

Shaykh Muhammad Karim Khan, one of the most important scholars on law and mysticism in 19th-century Iran, rejected the idea that a fallible human intellect was able to deduce rules on its known. Nonetheless, the pure intellect, enlighted by God, would perceive everything exactly as it is. He goes on to argue that so long as the soul exists in such a state of pollution and confusion, enslaved to its own desires, its broken intellectual faculty cannot be dealt with reliability. The most it will offer are speculative ideas based on emotion rather than intellectual illumination, and so it will continue leads itself more and more astray until all good is considered evil, and all evil is considered good.

Usuli Views

Scholars of the usuli school of thought have accepted it in principle, and traditionally have listed it as one of the four sources of Islamic law (Qur’an, sunnah, consensus, and reason). In practice, they rarely make use of it. The problem is that most usuli scholars believe that any evidences which are speculative have no intrinsic value in Islamic law. The only evidences that are considered of value are those that are either certain in and of themselves (like a clear and unambiguous verse of Qur’an), or are assigned legal value by another piece of evidence that is, itself, certain. Otherwise, that piece of evidence has no value whatsoever.

Usuli scholars generally divide rational evidences into two types: independent (مستقلة) and dependent (غير مستقلة). Independent rational evidences operate without making any recourse to revelation. The second type are rational deductions made on the basis of canonical religious sources. Reason is then said to define things as either being praiseworthy (حسن) or blameworthy (قبح), and it is said that natural reason automatically perceives certain things to be good, and certain things to be bad. Murder, for example, is seen to be “rationally” evil, and it does not require religious law to make it clear that murder is evil. Others have countered that this is semantics, and is really a matter of double-talk; for murder, by definition, is a killing which “ought not to be done”, and so by saying that murder is rationally evil is not saying anything more significant then reason understands what the word murder means, nothing else. Another, better example would be injustice, which usuli scholars argue is intrinsically evil and does not require any revelatory revelation to establish its blameworthiness. The same criticism is also made of this position: injustice is doing something to a person that shouldn’t be done to them, and so the example would be circular, amounting to the statement “reason sees that it is wrong to do things which are wrong.”

Such rationally independent ethical categories are known as independent rational categories (المستقلات العقلية). They are not created by Allah. Rather, certain things (like injustice) are seen to be essentially evil. When the Qur’an condemns injustice, it is not introducing a new law; rather, it is merely reminding people of what their natural reason already knows.

Because of this, most usuli scholars will only accept rational evidences if they give certainty. This excludes a lot of the types of rational juristic arguments that were made by the Mu’tazilah. The argument, for example, that a person should be allowed to drink nabidh (date-wine) because it will give them a taste of paradise and motivate them towards a better religious life, would be rejected by Shi’ite scholars. The reason for this is that, while that may be a possible benefit (مصلحة), it is not known if the harm (the mafsadah, المفسدة) outweighs the benefit. So long as that is not known with certainty, then such a “rational” argument would not be accepted by Shi’ite sources. In that particular example, the ruling would have to be determined on the basis of whether or not date-wine is an intoxicant. If so, then it would be ruled impermissible, as all intoxicants are. Concerning speculative rational evidences, Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr writes:

الدليل العقلي ان كان ظنيا فهو بحاجة إلى دليل على حجيته ولا دليل على حجية الظنون العقلية. واما اذا كان قطعيا فهو حجة من اجل حجية القطع

“Rational evidences, if they are speculative, then it will require evidence supporting it, and there is no evidence to support speculative rational evidences. However, if it is certain, then it is binding, since all certainty is binding.”[1]

This is a somewhat delicate point. Certainty in Islamic law is usually classified into two types: al-qata’ at-tariqi (القطع الطريقي) and (القطع الموضوعي). The former is the type of certainty that is a mere “path” towards revealing the Islamic ruling in a situation. For example, if somebody is certain that the beverage in front of them is an intoxicant, then their certainty is a mere path unto them knowing that they should not drink it. Other times, however, certainty may be given as a specific condition for a ruling to go effect. For example, the following narration concerning the principle of purity (قاعدة الطهارة) uses certainty in that way: “Everything is clean until you know that it is unclean. If you know, then it is to be considered unclean; otherwise, there is no obligation upon you.” (كل شيء نظيف حتى تعلم أنه قذر. فاذا علمت فقد قذر و ما لا تعلم فليس عليك).” In this case, certainty is given as a condition by which a religious ruling (namely the obligation of avoiding a ritually impure object in prayer and other situations) goes into effect. This is known as al-qata’ al-mawdu’i.

Some scholars have argued that Islamic legal rulings are conditioned by a person not having al-qata’ al-mawdu’i against that ruling. As-Sadr observes that the ruling may be understood on two levels here; either the ruling as it exists eternally (what is known as its ja’l, جعل), or the ruling as actually being activated in a certain case (its maj’ul, مجعول). The second he says, is meaningless, insofar as if a person is certain that a ruling is in effect, that ruling is thereby already in effect, thereby meaning that there is no question about its effectuality being conditioned by having certainty that it is not effectuated. As far as the ja’l being conditioned by the person not having certainty that the ja’l does not exist, this is problematic as well. For it is not possible that the person could be certain about a religious ruling, and for a person to acknowledge the existence of that ruling, and for them to also believe that the existence of that ruling is somehow conditioned by not having certainty that the religious ruling exists. Since they acknowledge that ruling’s existence, then there is no question about it being conditioned by something else. Similarly, the ja’l itself cannot be conditioned by the person having to have knowledge of it. For the ja’l is the very existence of the ruling, and its existence cannot be conditioned by having knowledge of it, for it would already have to exist for a person to have knowledge of it.

Ayatullah Khumayni

Towards the end of his life, Ayatullah Khumayni began to argue for a more liberal use of the concept of maslahah in Islamic law, and allowed for widespread changes in Islamic law, should those changes be deemed necessary by the leader of the Islamic state. This position was known as fiqh-i maslihat (فقه مصلحة). This idea, which was generally not accepted by most earlier Shi’ite scholars, believed that all Islamic primary ordinances are subordinated to larger goals. If the legislated ordinances of Islam are seen to contradict with those larger goals, then precedence has to be given. It is upon the Supreme Leader (الولي الفقيه) to determine what the maslahah is of a given situation, and how Islamic law must be changed in order to accommodate it. In an important fatwa delivered on January 1st, 1988, Ayatullah Khumayni took sides against later Ayatullah Ali Khamenei during a debate within the Iranian parliament. At the time, there was a debate between the left and the right concerning land reform, which would require expropriating large amounts of land from wealthy landowners. Sayyid Khamenei was of the view that this was not allowable, as the government must always act within the confines of Islamic positive law. Khumayni responded with a thunderous declaration that would become the basis of his new thought concerning the value of reason in Islamic law:

“Government is among the most important divine injunctions and has priority over all peripheral divine orders. Your [Khameini’s] interpretation of what I said, that is, the government has jurisdiction within the framework of divine injunctions…is contradictory to what I said. Were the powers of government to lie only within the framework of secondary divine decrees, the designation of the divine government and of absolute deputed guardianship to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon and his progeny) would have been in practice entirely without meaning and content. Let me refer to the consequences of such a view – consequences which no one would accept. For example, the laying of roads that necessitates the confiscation of houses or of the land on which they stand is not provided for within the framework of the secondary divine ordinances. Military conscription and the compulsory dispatch of soldiers to the front; forbidding the import or export of foreign currency, or of various kinds of goods; the prohibition of hoarding; customs duties, taxation, the prohibition of exorbitant pricing, price regulation; the prohibition of narcotics and addiction, with the exception of alcoholic drinks; the prohibition against bearing all kinds of arms; and hundreds of similar measures, none of these, according to your interpretation, are among the powers of the state. I must point out, the government…is among the primary ordinances of Islam, and has precedence over all secondary ordinances, such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage….The government is empowered to unilaterally revoke any lawful agreement … if the agreement contravenes the interests of … the country. It can prevent any matter, whether religious or secular, if it is against the interests of Islam.”[2]

A special government body, known as the Expediency Council (مجلس تسخيص مصلحت نظام) was set up to determine the maslahah operating in a given situation.


  1. ↑ As-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir. دروس في علم الأصول Vol. 2, p. 259.
  2. ↑ Sachedina, Abdulaziz, ed. “The Rule of the Religious Jurist in Islam” in Islam at the Crossroads, Esposito and Ramazani, eds. (2001). p. 136


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