Notes on Some Important Issues.
Note One: Reason and Religion
One: Someone may say that reason takes priority ahead of religion, because we get to know religion through reason.
Therefore, reason has the final word. In answer we say that when reason directs us to religion, it does so through an essential quality of religion, namely, immunity to defect or error.
does this give the uneducated person any status that makes his verdict more entitled to be followed than the verdict of the scholar? It is good enough that this person has directed us to the scholar, but from that point onwards, we must follow the scholar, not the uneducated guide.
Two: People have different standards of understanding and different people react differently to news and information.This is influenced by their upbringing, social environment and education. A person living in a remote area of a jungle may judge something as totally illogical, while one who grew up enjoying the environment of modern civilisation may judge the same thing as perfectly logical. Therefore, a person who questions a religious text which he finds difficult to understand should not be quick to judge the text as contrary to reason. He should review his own understanding and the understanding of other rational people.
He may then discover that the problem is due to his way of understanding which takes into consideration his initial premises which were taken for granted. These are based on, or influenced by his upbringing, environment and life circumstances.
n this basis we ask: if people of sound reasoning differ as to the acceptance or otherwise of a hadith attributed to the Prophet, who has the final say? Whose mind and reasoning should be given precedence? The answer is that there should be another or external element, which is the way of verification. This means that we need to establish whether this hadith, which is subject to logical differences, was truly said by the Prophet or not. If we can establish beyond doubt that he said it, then the hadith will certainly not be contrary to reason.
Three: The need to understand the limitations of reason. Imam al-Shatibi said:
‘God has set a
limit for the human mind
which it cannot exceed. He has not given the mind a way to understand all things’.
which it cannot exceed. He has not given the mind a way to understand all things’. Al-Shatibi, al-I‘tisam,
To acknowledge the limitations of the human mind does not detract from its importance. It simply gives it its right position and status. This is the starting point in finding answers for matters that belong to the realm beyond the reach of our faculties of perception and which continue to make us wonder.
Four: The importance of distinguishing what is logically problematic from what is impossible, or rather what appears to our minds improbable and what is reasonably impossible. The Shariah may state something that sounds strange and makes us wonder but it will never state what is impossible or contrary to reason.
Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘It is necessary to differentiate between what the human mind knows to be false or impossible and what the mind cannot conceive or understand. The first is beyond the bounds of possibility while the second is problematic. God’s messengers inform us about the second type’. Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Jawab al-Sahih
He also says: "Prophets may tell us about matters that the human mind cannot understand, but not about what the human mind knows to be false". Ibid,
Note Two: Science and Religion
I was reluctant to include this theme in these Notes, because it branches out into many subdivisions, and it is difficult to explain its more important dimensions in a few lines. Moreover, it has not been tackled in scholarly research as widely and extensively as its twin subject, Reason and Religious Text. Therefore, my intention is only to refer to some of what I believe to be important under this heading, but readers may have recourse to other reference works.
One: A proper approach to this subject is not possible without a good understanding of the environment in which natural science has progressed in recent times. We also need to understand the nature of conflicts witnessed in Europe as a result of such progress, and whether these related to the church or to some of its main figures. Such history and the general conditions associated with scientific progress made most scientists or science students move away from religion and all that is imperceptible. It is now inherent in their conception that neither science nor humanity managed to progress and make scientific discoveries until it broke away from the hegemony of the church and religion. Therefore, scientific facts have taken the lead, ahead of everything else, despite recognising that these are not absolute. They even describe religious and philosophical studies as devoid of fact. When they consider something relating to a religious or philosophical subject, they do not give it the same status as what relates to experimental science.
As Muslims, we have a religious system that is built on a logical basis and sound logical reasoning. We believe that there is no contradiction between our religious system and any true experimental fact that has been well established. This belief of ours is based on several fundamentals that need not be explained in this short presentation. I stress, however, the need to bear in mind the conditions of European society when natural science managed to make its breakthrough. It was the conditions prevailing then that led to the attitude that rejects religion and what relates to the realm of the imperceptible.
Two: Some of us consider the experimental science world as neutral, unaffected by any preconceptions. Therefore, whatever it says has no ulterior motive. This is not strictly accurate. There is an atheistic and materialistic tendency that has produced a mindset that looks for a physical explanation for everything. When no such explanation offers itself, it makes some material speculations as possible explanations. When such speculation is supported by well-known figures in the scientific world, it carries much weight.
What is more is that natural scientists and proponents of atheist philosophy are confident that the methodology of natural science is the only reliable methodology. They are not prepared to consider a different methodology. They claim that natural science has attained a stage where there is no need for any other source to explain the universe. Indeed, they claim that the universe is self-sustaining because of the physical and mathematical laws that govern it. As Stephen Hawking says, there is no need for a creator. In this situation, can we rely on whatever a natural scientist claims, only because he is a doctor of Physics or a professor of Biology? Only naïve people take this as an absolute fact.
Three: In natural science there are always new data, updated experiments and replaced theories, but none of these applies to the divine source.
Therefore, it is wrong to treat scientific theories as absolute certainties, only because they are devised by scientists of experimental science. There are many examples of theories that received broad acceptance and gained great popularity, to the exclusion of every other theory in the field, but were ultimately proved wrong and were replaced by new theories. One significant example is Newton’s theory of aether and some classical concepts of physics which were replaced by modern concepts. Newton’s theories influenced thought, philosophy and the attitude towards religion. Facts were accepted if Newton’s scientific perspective accepted them, whether Newton said so or not. What is not consistent with his perspective or theories was unacceptable.
These scientific theories led to the rise of new philosophies that largely leaned towards atheism, materialism and the exclusion of religion. They gained their epic position with the popularity of the positive doctrine in the first half of the nineteenth century. As other sciences showed an increasing desire to follow the lead of physics, a painful blow was aimed at a set of absolute facts and solid concepts in classical physics.
The blow came from within physics, in the shape of two events that caused a great upheaval affecting physics that preached certainty to make it uncertain and introduce relativity.
The first of these was the Michaelson and Morley experiment of 1887 which disproved the concept of aether, and the second was the discovery of the world of the atom which is not governed by the established laws of physics.
The Michaelson and Morley experiment caused much confusion in scientific circles, and scientists were unsure how to deal with its results. The possibilities before them were either to continue to uphold the aether theory, even if it would lead to the assumption that the earth is stationary in its placing, or negating it, even though it was well established and other theories were based on it. In his book, Einstein wal-Nisbiyyah, [i.e. Einstein and Relativity],
Mustafa Mahmood mentions the Michaelson and Morley experiment, then says: ‘What this meant was that scientists would have to acknowledge that the aether theory had no real basis and that there was nothing called aether, or that they would consider that the earth is stationary in space. The aether theory had taken such hold that some scientists started to doubt that the earth moves and to believe it to be stationary’.
As the experiment showed that the aether theory was incorrect, scientists looked for an alternative basis to measure the movement of objects. Ultimately, Einstein gave a new explanation, stating the relativity of movement of all objects. Every motion is compared to others in relation to the position of the observer.
Four: As stated earlier, this subject is greatly detailed. A proper discussion of it requires reading the history of modern science and gaining an idea of its philosophy and criticism.
Note Three: On Freedom
One: The first question is to establish whether the Islamic concept of freedom is a rational or religious one. The right answer is that it is a religious one. Based on reason alone, we cannot arrive at many of the Islamic rules that relate to freedom, such as the rules pertaining to payment of jizyah, or tribute, and the rules applicable to non-Muslims living in an Islamic state, or the application of mandatory punishments, as well as other laws and rules relating to freedom. Therefore, we conclude that this is a religious area which depends on knowledge of Islamic laws and regulations. This means that in order to know what is right and proper in this area, we need to refer to the relevant religious texts and to formulate a total outlook. We cannot uphold only some texts to the exclusion of the rest.
This gives us another benefit, which is a better understanding of the texts in the light of their total meaning, rather than possessing only a narrow view based on a single text. Thus, when we look at God’s statement, ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion’, (2:256)
we need to understand it in the light of other relevant texts, such as Moses’ reference to the calf worshipped by the Israelites: ‘Now look at this deity of yours to whose worship you have become so devoted: we shall most certainly burn it, and then scatter it far and wide over the sea.’ (20: 97)
God’s condemnation of the behaviour of the Children of Israel: ‘They would never restrain one another from wrongdoing. Vile indeed were the things they did. (5: 79)
And the mandatory punishment for adultery: ‘As for the adulteress and the adulterer, flog each of them with a hundred stripes, and let not compassion for them keep you from [carrying out] this law of God, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day; and let a number of believers witness their punishment. (24: 2) It is wrong to try to understand any of these texts in isolation of the rest.
Two: In order to arrive at a correct concept of freedom in Islam, it is very important to understand that there is an external factor that greatly influences the formation of concepts of freedom that are at variance with the Islamic concept. This external factor is the pressure of Western liberal culture. It has, in turn, influenced some Islamic presentations of freedom that contributed to the formation of a confused concept.
It is necessary for any researcher to distinguish the features of freedom as advocated in the West and those approved by Islam. This does not mean to reject whatever is said about freedom if it comes from Western sources.
What it means is that we need to understand the Islamic features of freedom from their original sources, in isolation of foreign influences. We then need to understand the other and different concepts. We then deal with the reality, and all its conditions, according to the rules of Fiqh.
Three: One of the basic Islamic concepts of freedom, which we can hardly find in any other system or philosophy, is the liberation of man from being a slave to wealth or desire. In an authentic hadith, the Prophet says: ‘Miserable is the one who worships money; miserable is the worshipper of fine clothes. Miserable and loser is he. If he suffers adversity, may he not be able to overcome it’. Related by al-Bukhari
Four: When we consider the scope of freedom in Islam, it is necessary to differentiate between what a person believes and what he declares in public. Islam allows unbelievers to live in its land, under certain conditions. These include that they do not abuse Islam or religion and they do not declare their unbelief publicly.
Confusion in this area occurs when the two situations are not clearly distinguished. Some people cite the fact that unbelievers lived side by side with Muslims throughout Islamic history to establish laws that permit unbelievers to advocate their religion at the same level as Islam, and even to criticise Islam and raise doubts about it. This is wrong. There is a clear difference between having their own belief and practising it within their own community on the one hand, and preaching ideas that are contrary to Islam on the other.
Akin to this is the confusion between the freedom Islam allows people to ask any question
about matters of religion they
do not understand, and the deliberate circulation of such problems among people to create
confusion in their minds. With
regard to seeking knowledge and reassurance, Islam provides a great scope of freedom. God
‘When Abraham said, “My
Lord, show me how You give life to the dead”, He replied, “Have you, then, no faith?”
“Indeed, I have”, said Abraham,
“but I only wish my heart to be fully reassured”.’ (2:
‘If you are in doubt concerning what We have bestowed on you from on high, ask those who read the Scriptures [revealed] before you’. (10: 94)
It is important to keep the door open for anyone who wishes to ask questions or discuss any issue, whether they seek to learn or to clear doubts. The attitude of publicising and circulating doubts so as to create confusion is a totally different scenario. It must not be allowed.
What I have said in this short volume is merely a few points for further discussion. Readers may have recourse to various books which deal with the question of freedom in Islam and which explain it in detail.