Dr. Adil Ozdemir, Dr. Terence Nichols

Reason in Islam

For Muslim philosophy, God is the first mind, al ‘ql al awwal, the primary reason. This is another way of saying that God is the first cause, or the cause of causes. Muslim philosophers in a sense, Islamized the Aristotelian philosophy, instead of rejecting it.  This is why the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is known to the Muslim world as the second Master (Aristotle is considered to be the first).

The reason why Islamic philosophy developed is not because Muslims were interested in the materialistic philosophy of the Greek philosophers, but because they were interested in thinking and talking about God and metaphysics within the framework of reason. In fact Muslim philosophy grew out of theological discussions of Muslim thinkers among themselves to either explain the new revelation in terms of the Aristotelian mindset or to defend it against intellectually materialistic presuppositions.  Such theological and philosophical inquiry in the early days of Islam came into being out of the discussions that arose when Muslims met with the world in which minds were shaped by the logical presuppositions of Greek philosophers.

Just as the new community of Muslims needed to come to terms with the intellectual environment of the Greco Roman world, so as to speak intelligibly and intellectually to their contemporaries, they were also quick to regulate their interactions, whether they were religious, political or economic, according to the dictates of reason. Reason was widely used side by side with the Qur’an, to find out the will of God. Free personal opinion (ijtihad) and analogy (qiyas) are applied in all the legal schools of the Muslim world. Thus the early Muslim community used reason as a God- pleasing act of intellectual struggle in the cause of God. The prophet, on entering a masjid and seeing two groups of his followers there, some praying, others discussing, chose to join the circle of the discussants saying that he was sent as a teacher, and that a single scholar is harder on Satan  than a thousand worshipper who do not think. The prophet so praised learning that he considered a scholar’s sleep an act of worship. In fact Muhammad’s praise of scholarship and learning and seeking intellectual truth is voiced in many of his hadith.

The prophet, who encouraged Muslims to use their reason, said “My Lord has trained me and made my training perfect.”  The revelation he received put the human species above the angels by the virtue of the knowledge that God has taught them. The Qur’an throughout addressed the human mind and asked it to reflect on the truth, credibility, genuineness, originality, and consistency of God’s laws in the universe. It assumed that sound reason and a healthy conscience would accept the truth of the revelation that it is from Allah.

According to the Qur’an God is the most obvious reality. He is the central truth out of which all other truths emerge. God is not a mystery. His existence, goodness and justice are obvious in nature and do not need miracles to be accepted. Those who have reason have enough evidence to find and see and accept the evidence of God in the natural realm. In the Qur’anic terms for those who use their reason and conscience there is enough evidence for His divine sovereignty in nature and in man “We will show you our signs in your selves and in the horizons.”  For those who reject God and His blessings the Qur’an uses such statements as “Do you not reflect?”(…) Have you no sense?” (….). “There are signs in this for a people who reflect” (….). “There are signs in this for those who understand”(…). Those who do not use their reasoning faculty are compared to animals and are spoken of as being deaf, dumb and blind. “They have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear; they are as cattle, nay, they are in worse error”(7:179).

The Qur’an honors human beings by teaching that Allah has honored children of Adam with their best constitution. The Qur’an sees responsibility as the most important characteristic of being human. Reflection on the creation is encouraged as an indication of faith: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for man of sense; those that remember Allah when standing, sitting, and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘Lord, You have not created these in vain’” (3/192). Islamic revelation honors reason by choosing it as its sole addressee. The Qur’an calls itself the best communication, and the settling or the deciding word, the clear exposition or explanation, the truth which is also the one of the ninety nine names of Allah.  In fact God is the supreme knower, His knowledge exceeds all knowledge. “If all the sea were ink and the trees of the world were pens they would not exhaust the word of God. The seas would exhaust before God’s words finish.” The Qur’an praised knowledge by putting those who know above those who don’t. It compared those who know to the living as opposed to the dead, the enlightened as opposed to the ignorant, the seer as opposed to the blind. It repeatedly appeals to reason and denounces those who do not use their reasoning faculty.

This intellectual climate of the Islamic revelation made the Islamic course and experience one of persuasion rather than one of force or coercion. In spreading its message it has prohibited imposition of faith of any kind by force that denies the human dignity and conscience. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2/256). The Qur’an prohibited aggression against any people except against unjust oppressors. Polytheists are not an exception to this rule. “Fight them until terror and persecution (fitnah) is over…There is no aggression except against the unjust” (2/193). Limited fighting is allowed, not against people of other faiths or of no faith, but those who oppress and transgress.   “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress. Allah does not love transgressors” (2/190). The Qur’an forbids forcing religion: ”Yours is only to let know and remind” (3/20; 5/92; 5/99; 16/35; 16/82; 24/54; 42/48), “You are not a forcer, (jabbaar) on them” (50/45), “You are not a dominator (musaiter) over them” (88/22), “Had it been the will of Allah they would not have been polytheists. We have not placed you over them a guardian and you are not an advocate for them” (6/107). “Will you force people to believe?” (10/99).  The value that the Qur’an attached to reason and responsibility led Muslims to contribute to human civilization. Today they are excited about their past achievements and are stimulated to play their role in modern times.


Reason in Christianity

Christianity has been closely allied with the use of philosophical reason throughout most of its history. But there has always been some Christians, such  as Tertullian, Luther, and some present day biblical literalists, who have been deeply suspicious of the use of philosophical reason as a way of explaining Christian revelation. This article will first consider what reason is, then sketch a history of the interaction of  reason with Christianity, and finally offer a portrait of the relation of Christianity and reason today.

What is Reason?

This is surprisingly difficult to answer. One could say that there are many forms of reasoning: common sense, philosophical, legal, scientific, historical, theological, artistic, musical, and so on. The problem has become more acute today, when postmodern and deconstuctive analyses challenge many or all forms of reason as merely rationalizations used to protect power and privilege. Still, in the ancient world, reason meant philosophy, that is, the use of concepts and logic to explain phenomena. Traditionally this began with the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers, with Socrates, and with Plato. We see the birth of conceptual thinking, for example, when Socrates asks what is the essence of courage; examples are not enough, he wants to know the essence of the concept (Plato, Laches). The kind of thinking which philosophical explanations replaced was explanations by stories and myths. The early chapters of Genesis, for example, explain the origin of languages, not by a comparative analysis of languages (as we would do now), but by the story of the tower of Babel. The origin of women and marriage is explained by the story of God making the woman from Adam’s rib. The origin of evil and suffering is explained by the story of the fall from Eden. And so on. For the purposes of this short article, therefore, we will use reason to mean philosophical reason (this includes the scientific use of reason also).

The Bible

Typically, ancient Israel expressed its understanding of the world, humanity and God through stories, histories, legal codes, prophecy, poetry (e.g. the Psalms), proverbs, and wisdom writings, but not philosophy.

Jesus, a Jew, followed the thought patterns of Israel and her scriptures. He typically expressed his teaching in symbols from the Jewish tradition which carried multiple meanings, for example the Kingdom of God or the Son of Man, and through stories and parables, as well as ethical teachings and prophecies. Little or none of his recorded teaching was expressed in what we would now call philosophy, though he does speak about wisdom on occasion. 

Paul, also a Jew, typically used Jewish categories of thought, such as God, the Holy Spirit, faith, love, grace, ethical instruction, and Jewish scriptural interpretation, to convey his thought. On occasion he also used Greek rhetoric. But even Paul, when he is driven to explain the nature of the resurrected body (I Corinthians 15), had recourse to ancient science and Stoic philosophy in his explanations.

Purely Jewish Christianity gradually died out after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., and the future of Christianity was with Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles. This is why the gospels are written in Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew, and why Greek thinking has been so influential in Christian theology. We can see this process even in the gospels themselves, for example, in the first chapter of John. There, in trying to explain the relation of Jesus to God, the author identifies the second person of the Trinity, the Son,  with the philosophical concept of the logos usually translated as ‘word’, but which also meant ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘principle of intelligibility’, and so on.  This refers back to God’s creation of the world through his word in Genesis 1, but it also imports the resonances of Greek philosophy into Christian theology. Indeed, theology itself is the attempt to understand God (Theos) by means of reason (logos).

The Christian Tradition

The Fathers of the Church depended heavily on Greek philosophy to explain the meaning of Christianity to the pagan world.  For example, Justin Martyr (c. 150 A.D.) in his Apology,  identified Jesus with the Logos which is the source of reason itself. Thus he claimed that all those who live according to reason (Logos) are Christians, such as Socrates (Apology I. xlvi. 4). He also wrote: “Whatever has been uttered aright by any men in any place belongs to us Christians; for, next to God, we worship and love the reason (Logos) which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God…” (Apology II. xiii; translation from Documents of the Christian Church ed. by Henry Bettenson [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1943, 1957, p. 8-9]). This Logos  theology was to have great influence in the succeeding centuries.

On the other hand, the Latin author, Tertullian, though trained in classical rhetoric and philosophy, rejected Justin’s synthesis of philosophy with Christian revelation in these words: “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? Between the Academy and the Church?...Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic,’ a ‘Platonic’ or a ‘dialectic’ Christianity! After Christ Jesus we desire no subtle theories, no acute inquiries after the gospel….” (De Praescriptione haereticorum—c. 200 A.D.-- in Bettenson, ibid., p. 10). Tertuillian may be seen as an early representative of those who have opposed the use of philosophy as the explanation of Christianity.

Justin’s attempt to reconcile the gospel with philosophy continued on in both the Eastern fathers, such as Origen, Basil, Gregory of Naziansus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus. But it also continued on in the west, especially in the work of St. Augustine, whose theology wedded the biblical tradition with NeoPlatonic philosophy.

At this point we might ask: why were Christian theologians so dependent on philosophy at all? Why didn’t they simply teach the scriptures? There were several reasons. First, in order to explain the gospel to non-Jewish audiences, it was necessary  go beyond categories of Jewish thought, such as  the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, which would carry no persuasion for non-Jewish audiences. Justin’s aim in using Greek philosophy in explaining the gospel was specifically evangelical; he wanted to explain the gospel in ways that made sense to his pagan audience. Secondly, Christians found that they had to make use philosophical reason in order to reconcile the conflicting statements in the biblical writings themselves. How, for example, were they to explain the relation of Jesus to God? In the end, in order to reply to the Arian heresy at the Council; of Nicaea, they had recourse to a philosophical term, homooousios ‘of like substance-to explain the relation of the Son and the Father. In the same way, the Council of Chalcedon (452) had recourse to the Greek terms for ‘person’ and ‘nature’ to explain the relation of the divine and the human within Jesus Christ.

The philosophical use of reason to explain Christianity peaked during the high Middle Ages, in the writing of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized Aristotelian physics (the best physics then available) and philosophy with Christian revelation and tradition. Aquinas’ massive achievement has ever since remained the premiere model of theology in Roman Catholicism, which has remained strongly committed to the integration of faith and philosophical reason down to present times. Indeed, this ideal was strongly defended in the encyclical of John Paul II, Fides et Ratio

Martin Luther reacted to what he regarded as an over-dependence on Aristotelian philosophy by rejecting scholastic rationalism, and preaching a return to the bible and biblical categories of thought. But later Lutherans reincorporated philosophy into their systems, as have contemporary Lutheran theologians. John Calvin was strongly influenced by Renaissance Humanism and its reliance on reason, particularly historical reason. English Anglicanism was and is a tradition strongly committed to the integration of Christian faith and reason. Probably it was the Anabaptist tradition which was the most suspicious of philosophy and reason, and the most biblically based.

The most striking challenge of reason to Christian faith has come in the form of modern natural science, which from the seventeenth century on has adopted a method of empirical testing and mathematical quantification as the means to explain natural and physical laws. This resulted in some conflicts with Christian teaching--the case of Galileo is the most celebrated example. However, almost all early scientists were Christians or at least theists (Newton believed in God but denied the Trinity), and most of them thought of their scientific work as revealing the marvellous design of God in nature. Robert Boyle, one of the fathers of modern chemistry, wrote:

When with bold telescopes I survey the old and newly discovered stars and planets ... when with excellent microscopes I discern nature's curious workmanship; when with the help of anatomical knives and the light of chymical furnaces I study the book of nature ... I find myself exclaiming with the psalmist, How manifold are thy works, O God, in wisdom hast thou made them all!

This type of thinking still survives in the sciences. What has changed is the advent of evolutionary explanations for the emergence of the stars, planets, earth, living things, and humans. Such explanations seem to provide a completely natural explanation—apart from God--for the order of the world and nature. Still, most mainline Christian churches, including the Catholic church, have been able to make peace between evolutionary thinking and their belief in God and Christian revelation. They cannot endorse the assumption of materialism or naturalism which often accompanies evolutionary thinking, but can endorse the belief that God creates through an evolutionary process (so-called “theistic evolution”). Many so-called evangelical or fundamentalist churches, however, reject scientific evolution altogether. But even these churches use reason to argue against evolutionary theories. Almost no Christian today would ignore scientific reason entirely, and teach, for example, that the world is a flat plate floating on water, covered with a dome or firmament which holds back the waters above the sky. So to one degree or another, all Christian churches today endorse the use of reason, and attempt to integrate it with the revelation handed on in the bible in one way or another.

Points of Agreement and Disagreement

Both Muslims and Christians strongly endorse the use of reason along with revelation in attempting to understand God and God's will. Both ground their appeal to reason in the mind of God; it is God who is the supreme reason, truth, and  knowledge. Because God has created human beings with reason, we have an obligation to use our reason in the service of God. The real question is how much weight to allow reason, and how much to allow revelation? This leads to disagreements within each tradition as well as between traditions. For example, how much can we know about God through reason alone, and how much of our knowledge depends on revelation? Both the Islamic and Christian traditions argue that we can know from creation itself, through reason, that creation has a Creator, God.

Disagreements arise especially concerning how much weight to assign to the scientific use of reason. Does the evidence for evolution outweigh the testimony of both the Bible and the Qur'an that Adam was the first human and had no parents? Some Christians, and many Muslims will say the revelation of the scriptures on this point outweighs scientific reason. Again we can ask the same kind of question concerning the soul. Does the fact that the operation of the mind depends on the brain mean that there is no mind or soul to survive the death of the brain? Or do we take the evidence of the scriptures as superior to scientific reason on this point?

Points for Further Discussion

The balancing between reason and revelation, especially scientific reason and revelation, is a serious challenge to both Christians and Muslims. Both traditions affirm that reason and revelation work together, and that the God who created us with reason is also the God who gifted us with revelation. But the advent of a scientific rationality which seems to explain the origin of human beings and the human mind by natural causes alone, thus leaving out God, is a serious challenge to both traditions, which merits extensive discussion