Al-aql wa-l-qalb: reason and the heart

Al-aql wa-l-qalb: reason and the heart

Reason and faith, two terms most often presented as antagonistic, are in Muslim logic of equal strength, complementary to each other. How is this weaving explained and what place have scholars and common people given to reason in their religious belief?

Scientists and reason

The rationalization of religious discourse and Quranic exegesis is not a new phenomenon. Since the introduction of the Greek philosophical method into Islamic sciences, it has often been a question of bringing a rational and demonstrative touch to religious argumentation.

Is it useful to recall that this enthusiasm for Greek texts comes from the fact that the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mûn (813-833) favored the translation and importation of thousands of works of a scientific nature in his famous ” House of Wisdom” in Baghdad? This also caused Muslim civilization to experience a period called the “golden age” by orientalists.

The abundance of Koranic verses encouraging the use of reason, associated with the real interest of scholars in kalâm (translation: theology), has led a number of thinkers to consider Islam as a major asset in understanding of the world and vice versa.

It goes without saying that demonstrative argumentation has not always been approved, and has often even been opposed. But the relentlessness of which she was the target was carried out by scholars who themselves did not escape the principle of methodical and reasoned construction of the discourse. Abû Hamîd al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111), one of the most famous scholarly figures in Islam, convinced of the supremacy of orthodox religious law, was himself neither able nor able to get rid of this method in his work destruction philosophers.

Most of the scholars following him, from Averroes to Muhammad Abduh via Ibn Khaldûn, adhered to a logic of cohesion between reason and faith. The big names of modern Muslim intellectualism (Abdelkrim Sorroush, Farag Foda, Abdou Filali al-Ansary) even took it upon themselves to submit canonical texts to the critical examination that the human sciences allow.

From the very beginning…

The Muslim elite, ancient and modern, has therefore never really failed to give a certain predominance to the development of a quasi-scientific methodology in the approach to sacred texts. If we look at the work that was carried out by the very first scholars of Islam, we realize that there was from the start a very strong desire to anchor the Koranic message in a “historical” dimension.

From the 7th and 8th century, Koranic verses are explained according to the conditions in which they were revealed and are therefore placed in History. This science or methodology has rightly been called “Asbâb an-nuzûl”, “the causes of the descent”.

In the logic of this methodology, the constitution of the canonical Sira of Ibn Ishaq (biography of the prophet) and the compilation of the Sunnah (acts and words of guidance) show all the importance given to the search for the historicity of the Arab man. In other words, from the earliest times of Islam, there is already a question of a certain form of rationalization, characterized by the desire not to lose the historical meaning of the revelations nor that of the key figures of the new religion.

The heart: home of reason

However, all these considerations for the rational mode do not make the idea of ​​an idealized history (opposed to positive History) or even the notion of faith disappear. Indeed, the process of rationalization did not have the same impacts on Muslim thought as on European philosophical thought.

If through the emergence of scientific positivity, European scholars have gradually detached themselves from the sacralization of biblical beliefs, it is quite different among Muslim scholars who have used reason precisely to reinforce their adherence to Islam as a globalizing and universal system of thought. Reason only ever serves to seek God and not to doubt His existence or the principles of faith that He has issued through His Revelation.

The Muslim spirit is therefore not limited to the simple receptacle that constitutes the brain, it is integrated perfectly, if not completely, into the heart of man. For this mind, there is no separation between the reflective mode (al-aql) and the affective mode (al-qalb): they are intertwined with each other.

Hence the surprise, for anyone foreign to Muslim culture, to see scholarly followers of reason like Muhammad Abduh or Muhammad Iqbâl dealing with the question of the historicity of revelation, even of a Koran created and not uncreated, at the same time as they deal with that of the status of angels and jinns.

Repercussions on the Muslim of modern societies

The lack of distinction between reason and faith which characterizes the Muslim elite has repercussions to no extent on Muslim populations established in “Western” or “Westernized” lands.

Let us note, for example, the incredible ease with which the Muslim detects in the Koran the traces of a scientific miracle (linked to recent discoveries in astronomy, physics and biology); while also granting physical reality to notions as abstract and marvelous as heaven and hell. There is no question for him of believing that one and the other of his readings are opposed.

While adhering to the rational and scientific mode which characterizes his cultural environment, the Muslim of modern times is just as fond of the mysteries of the invisible world and thinks them as true as his own world.

The attachment of the average Muslim to a scientific argument concerning the Koran does not arise so much from a specifically Islamic cultural heritage as from an education received in a society advocating the superiority of positive sciences.

Most often, he only makes this argument in the context of a debate with non-Muslims or non-believers. Without even being aware of it, he adapts the concept of “truth of the Koranic content” to the reflective modes of the society in which he lives. While in the time of the Prophet, the “proof” manifested itself through the sole feeling of wonder at the creations of the Lord, today it is confined to the sole domain of scientificity and is only expressed through a empirical observation of the world.

In other words, it is not the text itself which is at the origin of this predisposition to scientific reasoning (there is no scientific miracle clearly stated in the Koran) but rather the cultural environment in which evolves the Muslim of modern times which influences his reading in this direction.

Using the tools for reflection that this environment offers him, the Muslim nevertheless shows himself to be very attached to the values ​​that his religion advocates.

As we have seen, while striving to explain the Koranic verses according to the knowledge acquired in the profane universe, he never completely abandons the irrational elements (contrary to any empirical observation), which precisely constitute his sacred universe. We will see in the second part of this study what these elements are and how they fit into daily and secular life.

Bibliographic tracks:

Abduh, Muhammad, Rissalat al Tawhid, 1984 (1st ed. 1925), Geuthner, 147 p.

Eliade, Mircéa, The Sacred and the Profane, 1964 (1st ed. 1957), Folio essays, 185 p.

Collective, The strange and the wonderful in Medieval Islam – Discussion and criticism of the report established by Mohammed Arkoun, 1978, éditions JA, 227 p.

Triki, Fathi, The historical spirit in Arab-Islamic civilization, 1991 (Thesis from 1986), Maison Tunisienne de l'Edition, 402 p.