PUCL Bulletin, Feb., 2001

Religion, faith, and reason
- By Asghar Ali Engineer

Religion, faith, and reason appear to be contradictory to many, especially to rationalists. Rationalists insist that religion and faith are superstitious and encourage blind faith and uncritical acceptance of dogmas. There is no doubt some truth in this assertion. But it is not whole truth.

It is true that religious authorities impose dogmas on their followers and reject any innovation, fresh thinking and critical review of beliefs. It is because these religious authorities control powerful religious establishments based on certain beliefs, dogmas and institutions and ritual practices. Any critique of religious authority in control of the establishment is considered as critique of religion and core religious beliefs and values. These authorities in charge of these powerful institutions feel quite insecure especially in view of the new researches and advancement of knowledge. Condemnation of critical thinking is a result of this feeling of insecurity. These authorities woefully lack in new knowledge and thus any thing new is like a red rag to a bull. It is not religion per se responsible for such an attitude but rather ignorant religious authorities.

Thus important question is, are religion and science incompatible? And does religion promote blind faith? Is there inalienable link between religion and dogmas? These are important questions to be answered. Some may even ask the question "is religion necessary for human existence?" These are seminal questions to be answered to understand the relation between religion, faith and reason.

To be sure there is deep link between religion and faith. Religion is traditionally defined as an ensemble of beliefs, values, rituals and institutions. But it is not altogether necessary to take religion only in this sense. For some core values of religion are more important than any thing else. However, in practice, more importance is given to certain beliefs, dogmas and rituals than to these core values. In whatever sense we take religion there is an inalienable link between religion and faith. Faith is integral to religion. The two cannot be separated from each other. One cannot think of religion without faith.

But most important question is, faith in what? In dogmas and rituals? In a set of rigid beliefs? Or, in certain values to make life meaningful and worthy of living? The answer will vary from believer to believer. But it must be conceded that most of the believers will give their vote in favour of faith in dogmas and rituals rather than in values though of course no one is going to reject values. It is because of this that rationalists conclude that faith is irrational, superstitious and blind and is dismissive of critical thinking. From this perspective faith is not healthy and is born out of resistance to change. Faith, from
this point of view is negation of change and faith leads to status quo and is always pro-establishment.

Faith has great psychological value. No one can deny the role of faith in human life. Faith, seen from proper perspective, leads to healthy and meaningful life. Skeptics of course dismiss faith as unhealthy. But skepticism, though quite necessary for critical thinking, cannot provide sense of inner certitude and security. Faith provides inner certitude, which is necessary for healthy and balanced life. Conviction is so vital for positive action. One acts with determination only if one has inner conviction. The Qur'an uses the word i`man which literally means inner sense of security. The word i`man is very central to the Qur'an. It is repeatedly used. In fact it is most fundamental concept in Islam. The whole structure of Islam stands on i`man. And one who has i`man is called mu`min. Being mu`min is the highest virtue. Mu`min is one who has highest degree of faith and all his actions are guided by his faith in Allah and faith in higher values of Islam. Such a person is quite contented and lives with inner peace.

What is the relationship between religion and reason? Are they antagonistic to each other? Is the relationship hostile? Most of the rationalists would have us believe so. But it is not, and should not be true. In fact religion provides moral guide lies to human beings. It enables human beings to live a meaningful and purposeful life. A life without reason and void of intellectual content cannot be said to be a purposeful or meaningful life. Religion, as pointed out, is a constant quest for truth and moral uprightness and this quest is not possible without active intellect. In any quest for truth intellect plays very important role. Ignorance or lack of intellect leads to moral degeneration.

Qur'an describes ignorance as darkness and knowledge 'ilm as light and poses the question can darkness be equated with light? Also, it teaches Muslims a prayer rabbe zidni 'ilman, i.e., O Sustainer, increase me in knowledge (20-114). Now acquisition of knowledge is not possible without the help of reason. Knowledge and reason go together. It is reason which produces knowledge. Thus the Qur'an accords highest priority to i'man on one hand, and to reason and knowledge, on the other. One, in fact, compliments the other. According to Qur'an i'man cannot be complete without the active role of reason. The story of Prophet Abraham is very crucial to understand this process.

Before I quote this story from the Qur'an, it is important to understand that it is dissatisfaction with status quo, which compels a person to think. And only those who are dissatisfied with the given conditions reflect deeply on their situation and draw from their inner resources to bring about change in the status quo. Whether it be Abraham, Buddha, or Christ or Prophet Muhammad all were highly dissatisfied with their given situation. They brought about change through the process of reflection and action with firm conviction - I'man.

Abraham was also highly discontented with moral degeneration around him. And it was this dissatisfaction, which made him reflect and come to certain conclusion through the process of deep reflection. The Qur'an puts his story in the following way:

"And when Abraham said to his sire Azar: Takest thou idols for gods? Surely I see thee and thy people in manifest error.

And thus did we show Abraham and the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and that might be of those having certainty."

'So when the night overshadowed him, he saw a star. He said: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: I love not the setting ones "Then when he saw the moon rising, he said: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: I f my Lord had not guided me, I should certainly be of the erring people."

"Then when he saw the sun rising, he said: Is this my Lord? Is this the greatest? So when it set, he said: O my people, I am clear of what you set up (with Allah)."

"Surely I have turned myself, being upright, wholly to Him Who originated the heavens and earth, and I am not of the polytheists." (6:76-80)

Here it is obvious that Abraham's intellect was quite active and he went on reasoning until he found the truth and was satisfied with it. It was the process of reflection which led him to certain inner conviction and it was with this inner conviction - i`man that he brought change in the situation he was dissatisfied with. In fact all founders of religions went through similar process and began to preach after they reached the state of deep inner conviction, call it enlightenment, call it i`man or call it by any other term. Different religions use different terms. Thus it will be seen that religion did not come into existence
because of ignorance or superstitious beliefs but as a result of process of reflection, intellect and intuition.

The founders of religions were not only great intellects of their time but also those who actively brought about great change in their given situation. They not only passively reflected but also changed the world. They, in the process, faced opposition, encountered tremendous odds, suffered intensively or even sacrificed their lives. Muhammad (PBUH), the Prophet of Islam, found malice in his Meccan society and withdrew to the cave of Hira to quietly reflect on the malaise all around - social, moral, religious and economic. It was after long process of reflection that he received revelation and he proclaimed his message to the people of Mecca to begin with. The tribal divisions, and sub-divisions,
superstitions, and idolatry, moral degeneration and lack of law which had caused the malaise all around him. The weaker sections of society were maltreated by the powerful and arrogant people of Mecca be they women, be they poor and needy or be they slaves.

The Prophet of Islam tried to develop a new moral sensitivity among the people and made them aware of higher moral concepts like justice, compassion, benevolence and wisdom. He also made people sensitive to others sufferings. He laid emphasis on truthfulness and attacked superstitions previewing in Mecca. People used to throw arrows (azlam) before idols to take vital decisions. People used to drink and gamble. Thus there was total moral degeneration. The Qur'an says, "O you believe, intoxicants and games of chance and (sacrificing to) stones set up and (dividing by) arrows are only an uncleanness, the devil's work; so shun it that you may succeed." (5:90).

The condition of women was unspeakably bad. There was no restriction on number of
marriages, they were treated as chattel, they could not marry of their will nor could they inherit.

Muhammad gave them high status in society and gave them human dignity they deserved. Not only that he gave them almost equal rights. It is interesting to note that it is weaker sections of society that rallied round him initially and the powerful of the Mecca derided him precisely because he had following among the people who had no status in the society. Also, among his initial followers were the youth of Mecca who too were highly dissatisfied with the prevailing situation and wanted change.

The Prophet gave a sense of dignity to these helpless exploited sections of society and
appointed them to key positions to make them feel really empowered. For example, he appointed the Ethiopian slave who was liberated at his instance by one of his followers as muazzin, i.e., one who calls to the prayer. Many of the Prophet's companions, who had higher status in society, were aspiring for this position. But the Prophet appointed a black slave to this high position. It is in this spirit that the Qur'an strongly condemns what it calls istikbar (i.e. arrogance of power) and upholds istid`af (i.e., being weak and helpless). The Qur'an wants to empower the weak and says: "And we desired to bestow favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land and make them the leaders and to make them the inheritors (of this earth)." (28:5)

Thus Muhammad (PBUH) through the revealed message went a long way to establish justice on this earth and empower the weak. He also gave freedom of conscience to all, including the freedom to follow ones own religion. This is declared in the verse 2:256 "There is no compulsion in religion".

And all this in a place where nothing was more sacred than age old tribal customs and traditions. Nothing else mattered at all. To establish the most modern principle of justice and freedom of conscience was an impossible task. But Prophet did that and faced severe persecution at the hands of powerful tribal chiefs.

His followers enthusiastically responded to his message and developed strong faith in that
message. Thus the faith in the Prophet's message was a rational act. The Prophet at no stage encouraged superstitions and superstitious thinking. When the tribal chiefs demanded miracles from the Prophet so as to prove that his message was a divine message, he refused to oblige them. Thus the unbelievers demanded: "We will by no means believe in thee, till thou cause a spring to gush forth from the earth for us, or thou have a garden of palms and grapes in the midst of which thou cause rivers to flow forth abundantly, or thou cause the heaven to come down upon us in pieces, as thou thinkest, or bring Allah and the angels face to face (with us), or thou have a house of gold or thou ascend to heaven. And we will not believe in thy ascending till thou bring down to us a book we can read."
(17-90-93)

Thus it will be seen that the people of Mecca were demanding all these miracles from the
Prophet. The Prophet did not say that he will demonstrate these miracles but instead said "Glory to my Lord! Am I ought but a mortal messenger." (17:93) Thus the Prophet clearly told them that I am nothing but a mortal like you except that Allah has made me His messenger. His only miracle was the Qur'an and "If men and jinn should combine together to bring the like of this Qur'an, they could not bring the like of it, though some of them were helpers of others. (17:88) Thus it was the Qur'an and its benevolent message for humanity which was real miracle of the Prophet. And it was miracle indeed. It changed the whole face of the world. It gave to the world no mere speculative philosophy but a concrete set of rational beliefs to bring profound changes in the world. It created strong faith in these higher principles and values necessary for creating a just society with a sense of dignity for all human beings irrespective of caste, creed, race or nationality.

However, it is also necessary to understand - many superficial rationalists refuse to understand this - spiritual aspects of life are as important as rational aspects. It is very necessary for an average person to cater to spiritual needs lest it should create imbalance in life. Spiritual and material are complementary to each other. And what is spiritual is based on faith in higher transcendent reality. The spiritual side of life is often expressed through certain acts, often called rituals. Ritual is defined by the Oxford dictionary as "prescribed order of performing rites" or "a procedure regularly followed." Thus
every religion prescribes certain rituals, which represent the core values of that religion. Thus Islam also prescribes such rituals like five times prayer, fasting for a month during Ramadan, performing haj once during lifetime. Islamic prayer lays strong emphasis on equality of all before the Creator who is the greatest power in the universe. It also symbolises human servility and humility before Allah. It is this sense of humility, which makes human beings humble and enables him or her to get rid of sense of arrogance of power.

And month long fasting creates in human beings sensitivity towards others' suffering and also creates in him/her tendency to realise the spiritual dimension of life. We tend to consume more and more and fasting to reduces tendency to consume and creates a sense of renunciation. Haj, on the other hand brings people of diverse cultures, races and nationalities together wearing same white unstitched piece of cloth breaking all barriers between human beings including that of status. Zakat also enables people to share their resources with more needy and creates a fellow feeling with others. Since it is compulsory in Islam to share ones excess resources with the needy and the poor it helps to create a just society. Only prayers and fasting is not enough; zakat is an integral part of prayer. The Qur'an puts salat (prayer) and zakat together in all verses on salat

These spiritual acts lead to fine feelings of sharing and caring and in no sense can be described as irrational. Thus faith enriches life with spiritual dimension. It is true there is no single way of this spiritual enrichment. There can be diverse ways. The Qur'an also emphasises this in verses 2:148, 5:48, 6:109, 22:40 and others. It is also true that one can cultivate spiritualism without reference to any established religious faith. While spiritualism is necessary for healthy and balanced life it is not necessary to be spiritual only if one hangs on to a particular religion. One may imbibe spirituality with or without
the help of a particular faith. One cannot be a complete human being without being spiritual. In order to elevate oneself from animal to human level one must cultivate within oneself a degree of spirituality though this degree may vary from person to person.

Some might think that belief in Allah is irrational. Though some rationalists think that belief in God is irrational and cannot be demonstrated or proved. It is not true. It can, however, be described as supra rational but not irrational. There are different concepts of God. For some God exists out there and for some He dwells within us, according to some others. He is transcendent according to some believers and He is everywhere according to others. There are differences whether He is corporeal or purely spiritual. Qur'an describes Him as light of the heavens and earth (nurus samawat-i-wa'al-ard).

According to this description He is purely spiritual being and is everywhere including within us. Quira'an also says Allah is nearer to human person than the life-vein. (50:16).

Most of the description of God is product of human thinking and hence at times tends to be contradictory too. It should also be understood that theology is a human construct based on scriptural statements, which tend to be symbolic. Different commentators and theologians differently understand symbols. Some of the formulations may not even be logical and may even tend to be superstitious. Thus theology cannot be put beyond the realm of criticism. Theology is creation of spatio-temporal frame. Theologies were made sacrosanct by theologians. In no case human construct or human product could be made sacred and beyond criticism. Time is changing and new needs are arising. A creative dynamic theology must continuously respond to changing situations. God's
understanding by human beings can also change.

Human understanding varies greatly and hence God's understanding too varies depending on mental level of the believer. For minds, which can grasp abstract realities God is without form and attributes; and God for those who cannot grapple with abstractions is a concrete object to be worshipped. A person may feel a sense of security by believing in certain theological dogmas and for another person such a belief may lead to un-resolvable and un-acceptable problems and these dogmas may prove to be serious obstacles for change. These dogmas are based on certain assumptions no more valid.

A deeply religious person is basically a truthful person. He/she is continuously engaged in quest for truth. She/he cannot compromise on this quest. For a truly religious person accepting theological dogmas would be a serious obstacle in the way of quest for truth. Truth often tends to be non-conforming and subversive. Thus a religious person is subversive of established beliefs. Before Galileo all Christian and Muslim theologians believed that sun goes round the earth, earth being focus of creation of God. Galileo was severely persecuted and even forced by the Church to recant. However, these theologians proved wrong and Galileo right. There is no Qur'anic statement which supports the view of theologians that sun goes round the earth and even then under medi review and Greek influences they believed that sun goes round the earth and denounced the contrary view. It was only lately that they accepted that every heavenly body moves including earth and that earth goes round the sun in an orbit.

New social, economic, political and scientific questions are arising which cannot be answered within the framework of old theological formulations. Knowledge is taking breath-taking steps whereas our theologies are based on old knowledge and hence must be thoroughly overhauled in the light of new developments. New moral and ethical questions also will have to be resolved. According to old theology or shari`ah formulations a woman has to be confined to home and children and cannot assume
other social, economic and political roles. In their eyes it is immoral if she does that. She cannot even interact with other men. Women today are performing new roles with much greater ease and are demanding rights, which were denied her. All these ideas were product of medi review thinking when women were assigned very limited role at home. She was not even allowed to step out of home alone. Now she is piloting aircrafts and exploring space in satellites. Should not entire theology built around women be rethought? She is now a quite confident and performing complex jobs with greater ease than men in many fields. Can she still be treated as weak of intellect, emotional and hasty in nature? These were the assumptions behind many shari`ah laws relating to women and our `ulama still insist on their validity and immutability.

Thus dogmatism or orthodoxy is not an essential religious quality as some critics of religion insist. There are those religious persons who are strong critic of such an unchanging attitude. Even great theologians like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt did not approve of rigid orthodoxy. He critiqued the beliefs and practices of the `ulama of Egypt in nineteenth century. Thus religion should be understood on its own grounds and should not be inextricably combined with rigidity and immutability. Similarly fanaticism is also not a religious category but a psychological category. It is circumstances and environment, which breeds fanaticism and hatred, not religion.

A religious person neither rejects nor hates the other. To respect the other and to promote
religious and cultural diversity is part of true religious belief. Diversity is creation of Allah and how a believer in Allah can reject diversity and hate the religious other. Rejection of religious or cultural other is politically and not religiously motivated. It is a result of power struggle between different religious and cultural groups and not of religious contestation. One should not accord religious legitimating to such power struggle.

Thus religion faith and reason are not mutually antagonistic nor faith is irrational. Faith is product of healthy conviction in higher realities and higher values. A blind faith, which is rigid and dogmatic, is not product of positive attitude attuned to reality. It is rather reflective of need for security, fear of change and unknown. A healthy faith, on the other hand, opts for encounter with new and emergent realities.

Institute of Islamic Studies,
Mumbai: - 400 055.

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