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Intellect and Reason in the Islamic Worldview

Guest Column
Babak Ayazifar

In an oratory resplendent with colorful imagery and metaphor, Prophet Muhammad defined the noble station of the intellect and reason in Islamic cosmology. It is reported that he said: “Verily, Allah (God) created the intellect from a treasured light, a light concealed within His primordial knowledge -- one that neither a commissioned prophet nor an angel of proximity [to the Divine Throne] was aware of. He then ascribed to the intellect knowledge as its essence, cognition as its soul, abstemiousness as its head, modesty as its eye, wisdom as its tongue, kindliness as its purpose, and mercy as its heart. Allah then bestowed upon, and strengthened, the intellect with ten qualities: certainty, faith, truthfulness, tranquility, sincerity, gentleness, benevolence, contentment, submission, and gratitude. Then Allah (Exalted and Majestic) said to it: ‘Retreat!’ Thereupon the intellect retreated. Then He said to it: ‘Come nigh!’ Thereupon the intellect drew near. Then Allah said to it: ‘Speak!’ Thereupon the intellect said: ‘Praise belongs to Allah, the one who has neither a foe nor a rival, neither a likeness nor an equal, neither a tantamount nor a similitude -- the one before whose splendor every creature is submissive, humbled.’”

“Then the Lord (Praised and Exalted) said: ‘By My grandeur and majesty, no creature have I originated more splendid than you, more obedient to Me than you, loftier in station than you, more eminent than you, or more exalted than you. It is through you that My oneness is acknowledged; it is through you that I am worshiped; it is through you that I am supplicated; it is through you that I am implored [by My yearning servant]; it is through you that I am desired; it is through you that I am feared; it is through you that My bondsman exercises reverent discretion toward Me; it is through you that I bestow reward; and it is through you that I apportion punishment.’”

“Upon hearing this the intellect sank to the ground prostrate, remaining in that state for a thousand years. Then Allah (Praised and Exalted) said: ‘Raise your head! And ask, so it shall be granted. Seek intercession, so it shall be accorded.’ Thereupon the intellect raised its head and said: ‘O my Lord, I beseech you to appoint me as an intercessor for whomsoever you have created me in.’ Then Allah (Majestic in His might) said to His angels: ‘I summon you forth to bear witness that I have indeed appointed the intellect as an intercessor for whomsoever I have created it in.’”

Prophet Muhammad’s narrative exemplifies the primacy that Islam accords the intellect; it constitutes a recognition of the high station of reason in the Islamic worldview. His oratory, which I have translated from the original Arabic, is found in a multi-volume compilation of his sayings, Mustadrak al-Wasa’il, under a chapter whose title is equally telling: “The Obligation to Follow the Intellect and Reason, and to Oppose Ignorance.”

Islam as a worldview is rooted in knowledge, intellectual exertion, and reason. The Qur’an repeatedly invites us to believe in Allah, the one true fashioner of the universe, by imploring us to ponder over the creation of the cosmos. In beckoning us to reflection, the Qur’an points us to two wellsprings of knowledge: the macrocosmic order of the physical universe (the “horizons” or ÂfÂq) and the microcosm of the inner reality of our selves (anfus).

We are instructed to “travel through the earth and see how Allah originated creation,” and we are given the tiding that “He will similarly produce a later creation [the Hereafter], for Allah has power over all things” (29:20). The Qur’an challenges us to probe and to reflect, asserting that “whichever way you turn, there is the Countenance of Allah” (2:115). Our inner self constitutes no less vital a facet of reality, reflecting upon which unlocks some of the esoteric marvels of the creative order. “We will show them Our signs in the universe and in their own souls as well, until it becomes manifest to them that it is the truth” (41:53). This being the case, the Qur’an then rhetorically asks: “Do they not reflect within themselves?” (30:8).

Knowledge, therefore, is sourced not only in the physical universe that envelops us, but also -- and even more important -- within our inner spiritual being. Both these fountains of knowledge contain signs pointing to the creative force that originated everything. Note how in none of the passages does the Qur’an ask us to blindly accept its message. To the contrary, only upon investigation and mental exertion are we to affirm what the Qur’an invites us to: belief in God and His oneness, and submission to His will. It is only as a corollary to this submission that we have been expected to obey Allah’s commissioned prophets and messengers throughout time.

Complementing the explicit Qur’anic statements about the importance of reflection and seeking knowledge are umpteen narratives from the Prophet of Islam and those who were heirs to his wisdom and gnosis. When asked how one arrives at the knowledge of The Real (Allah), the Prophet replied: “By knowing one’s self.” Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, in a vividly metaphoric narration with colorful imagery, reports that the Prophet described how Angel Gabriel came to Adam and said: “O Adam, I have been instructed to have you choose among three things; select one and leave the other two.” When Adam inquired about his three options, Gabriel offered “intellect, modesty, and religion.” “I choose intellect,” replied Adam. Thereupon Gabriel told modesty and religion to depart. However, the two stood their ground, saying that they were under instruction to remain with the intellect wheresoever it may be. “So be it,” Gabriel replied, as he ascended to the Heavens.

Islam is a religion of balance. Physical, sensory perception is not our sole endowment. Self-reflection, looking internally at our own spirit and soul, is another integral means of acquiring knowledge and arriving at The Real. In his “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant evidently agrees with this view. He says: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Indeed, we must be cognizant of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic wellsprings of knowledge, for they complement each other in guiding us in our spiritual wayfaring toward Allah, the Ultimate Reality.

Islam originale is not a religion that breeds the miser, the cruel, the coward, the intellectually indigent, or the depraved; it is the religion that nurtures the benevolent, the compassionate, the brave, the enlightened, and the pious. In short, it is the religion of the emancipated spiritual elite.

Babak Ayazifar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.