read

Chapter 11: Reason vs. Revelation

The intellect, in Arabic, is known as “al-ʿaql,” whose root word is “ʿaqala,” which means to restrain a camel (so it will not run away, to restrict). The intellect is something which allows us to control our desires, emotions, thoughts and actions.

When children learn to move around the house, the parents have to restrain them from harming or injuring themselves. As their intellect matures, they learn to restrain themselves. Even as adults we want to say and do a lot of things, but it is the intellect which tells us what not to do and more importantly what not to say!

The intellect helps us sort out truth from falsehood; beneficial from harmful; correct from incorrect. It also allows us to make sense of the data coming from our senses and knowledge coming from other sources. It is the most sublime trait of the human being which gives us distinction over other creatures.

Imam ʿAli (‘a) is quoted to have said the following about the intellect:

The intellect is what arrives at what is correct through reasoning, and recognizes what has not yet happened through what has already taken place. The first opinion of a person of intellect is the last opinion of an ignorant person.1

On numerous occasions, the Qur’an encourages its readers to use their intellect to ponder over the events of this world and in their own lives. For example:

كِتَابٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

(Behold! this Qur’an is) a great Book which We have revealed to you; full of excellences, so that these (people) may ponder over its verses and so that those gifted with pure understanding may take heed. (Qur’an, Surah Sad, 38:29).

The first volume in the famous book of narrations (sayings of Prophet Muhammad (S) and his family(‘a)), al-Kafi, compiled by Shaykh al-Kulayni (864-941 ce) deals with the topic of the intellect. There are several narrations from that section which are worth of quoting here.2

Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (‘a) is reported to have said:

When Almighty God created reason, He tested it. He ordered it to come forward and it came forward. Then He ordered it to go back and it went back. On this, the Almighty God said: I swear by My power and majesty that no creation of Mine is dearer to Me than you are, and I have only made you perfect in those whom I love.3

Imam ʿAli b. Abi Talib (‘a) is quoted to have said:

[The Angel] Gabriel came to [Prophet] Adam and informed him: O Adam! I have been ordered to let you choose something out of three things, therefore choose one and leave the other two. Adam asked: What are the three things? Gabriel replied: Reason, modesty and religion. Adam said: I choose reason. So Gabriel ordered modesty and religion to withdraw and leave reason alone but they said: O Gabriel! We have both been instructed (by God) to remain with reason wherever it may be.4

Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq (‘a) was asked:

What is reason?

The Imam replied:

Reason is by which servitude to al-Rahman (The Most Merciful) is carried out and through which paradise is earned.5

While talking to one of his companions, Hisham b. al-Hakam, Imam Musa al-Kazim (‘a) is quoted to have said:

O Hisham! God has given two proofs for the guidance of mankind - the explicit and the implicit. The explicit and the external proofs are in the form of prophets, divine messengers, and the imams (Divinely appointed guides); and the implicit and the internal proofs are in the form of reasoning and understanding.6

Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq (‘a) is quoted to have said:

The reasoning capacity is the chief pillar of human existence. It is the fountain spring of sagacity, comprehension, memory and knowledge. Man is perfected through reason, and it is this which is a guide, a discriminator and the key to every success. When reason secures the approval of the Divine light, it earns (perfection in) knowledge, memory, sagacity, level headedness, and God mindedness. It is through reason that one understands how, why and where. It is through reason that one knows who guides him and who misguides him. Having known all of this, a person comes to realize what sources of life one should adopt, who one should meet and who one should not. He becomes pure and sincere in his concept of the Unity of God, his acceptance; his belief and ultimately in His obedience and submission to Him. When a person has reached this stage, one has redressed every loss. He has acquired every gain that he can secure. He quickly comprehends where he stands, what is what, which is which, and why he has been sent here in the worldly life, where he is brought from and where he has to go. All of this can be secured with the assistance of reason.7

Intellect and reason is also the foundation upon which faith is established. A faith not founded on reason is on shaky grounds, and can be dislodged very easily, but a faith that is founded on reason is so strong that mountains may shatter, but the believer will remain standing.

The fundamentals of religion like the belief in monotheism, justice of God, Prophethood, Imamate, and the hereafter have to be questioned and adopted only after a thorough rational inquiry into their validity and with convincing rational proofs about their truth. They cannot be adopted blindly by merely imitating others. Faith is a matter of reasoning, not imitation.8

Reason is also what makes us responsible for our actions. Accountability of actions - whether religious or otherwise - is only for those who have sound intellect. Divine and man-made laws are suspended for a person who has not reached the age of maturity yet (e.g. children), or those deemed unable to make independent, rational decisions (mentally incompetent) such as the mentally incapacitated since birth, or those with significant psychiatric illness like schizophrenia.

There are factors that can make the intellect grow and become stronger or make it weak and dull. Overeating, oversleeping and excessive talking makes the intellect overshadowed. On the other hand, what illuminates the intellect is acquisition of another sublime human trait called knowledge. The first chapter of this book discussed knowledge and its merits, and readers can to go back and review that chapter.

The intellect and knowledge go hand in hand and as such, Imam ʿAli (‘a) is quoted to have said:

Knowledge is the lamp of intellect.

Real knowledge is said to be present when it has penetrated into our being, and becomes manifest in our actions. Merely knowing something and not acting according to it is not true knowledge.

Epistemologically speaking, the concept of knowledge is self-evident. It is inherently present with existence and is immaterial (Arabic: al-tajarrud).

Muslim philosophers have divided knowledge into two categories9 – although some of this has been discussed in Chapter 1 but it is worth repeating it here:

1) Acquired Knowledge (al-ʿIlm al-Husuli): In this, the knower (subject) and the known (object) are separate entities, e.g. a person’s knowledge about a bird.

2) Knowledge by Presence - Direct Knowledge (al-ʿIlm al-Hudhuri): In this, there is no distinction between the knower (subject) and the known (object) e.g. a man’s knowledge about himself.

The methods of acquiring knowledge follows a hierarchal order with sense perception, i.e. knowledge acquired through sensory observation considered to be the most basic method of acquiring knowledge. We use sensory data to make sense of our surroundings in our daily lives. However, often times based on our sensory perception we make a conclusion which turns out to be false e.g. the phenomenon of a mirage.

On a bright sunny day while travelling on a highway it may appear that there is water at a certain distance, but as we get closer we realize that there is no water. Similarly, acts of illusion performed by stage performers make us believe something which our intellect knows cannot be true but our senses fail to deny; for example, bringing a rabbit out of a hat, or a pigeon out of a handkerchief. Our senses cannot tell how this happened, but our intellect knows that it cannot be true.

The next in the hierarchy of knowledge is empirical knowledge which is acquired from experimentation. During experiments, scientists control the conditions necessary to perform an experiment and then draw certain conclusions from it. For example, a scientist wants to know if a certain drug has anti-cancer properties against lung cancer. He first designs an experiment in which he tests this drug in a mouse model of lung cancer. He tests the drug at various dose levels to see if the drug will shrink the cancer in mice. If the drug successfully treats lung cancer in mice as compared to a placebo, then a conclusion can be made that yes, the drug has properties against lung cancer, but what is not known yet is if the drug will also work in lung cancer patients or not.

To answer this question the new drug is tested on a sample of lung cancer patients comparing it with the known standard lung cancer drug. If the patients receiving the new drug live significantly longer than can be explained by chance alone compared to those receiving the standard cancer drug, we can then generalize this information to all lung cancer patients stating that the new drug will work in all lung cancer patients. What is not known is if the drug will work in a particular lung cancer patient. It may be that a particular lung cancer patient is resistant to this new drug. So despite extensive empirical knowledge in a particular lung cancer patient, it is not known with certainty if the drug will work or not. If a lung cancer patient asks if the drug will work in him, then the doctor can say, “The probability of it working is - let’s say - 40%, but will it work in you or not cannot be known with certainty unless we give it to you to find out.”

Compared to definitive rational propositions, there is an inherent lack of certitude in the empirical way of acquiring knowledge when applied to physical and biological sciences. This gets even worse in social and ethical sciences where it is even harder to control the conditions to perform a particular social experiment.

The next in hierarchy of knowledge is the knowledge acquired through pure reason or rational inquiry. Based on certain self-evident axioms, logical arguments can help us draw certain conclusions with a degree of certainty. An example of such axioms is the law of non-contradiction which tells us that, “Nothing can be both A and not A.” For example, nothing can be both true and false at the same time; or for example, a woman is either pregnant or is not pregnant, she cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time.

However logical reasoning also has limitations as it is dependent upon what is currently known to be true. If we have missing information or if our premise is wrong, then although our logical reasoning may be correct it may not necessarily lead to a correct conclusion or the best answer. For instance, I fly into a city where my friend lives, and I want to go from the airport to my friend’s house in the shortest possible time. I remember the way from my past trips and I know that I can get there in 45 minutes. After arriving at my friend’s house, he tells me about a new highway that has shortened the travel distance between the airport and his house to a mere 25 minutes. Since I was unaware of the new highway I did not take it. So even though logically I took the correct route to get to my friend’s house it was not the best route if my goal was to get to his house in the shortest possible time.

This example illustrates the limitation of pure logical reasoning to arrive at a certain conclusion. If we have some missing information or if our premise is wrong, then although we may make a correct logical conclusion, but it may not be the right or best conclusion.

Knowledge obtained by sensory input, empirical method and logical reasoning represents examples of acquired knowledge. The key is to understand the correct applications of these methods in our daily lives, as well as to know their limitations, so we do not make a false concept of reality.

The second type of knowledge is called al-ʿIlm al-Hudhuri or Knowledge by Presence or Direct Knowledge. It is a knowledge which comes from within, in which there is no separation between the subject and the object of knowledge e.g. a person’s knowledge about himself. If I am tired or sleepy I just know it and do not need to employ logic to conclude that I am tired. Other examples of direct knowledge are intuition (ilham), unveiling (mukashfa), spiritual visions (shuhud) and revelation (wahi) in which the soul directly experiences and witnesses the reality.

As for the last example of direct knowledge, the literal meaning of revelation is, “to give a message quickly, secretly.” It is a method of Divine guidance to the creation. It can be general guidance through nature or instinct or a more specific message as received by the prophets:10

قَالَ رَبُّنَا الَّذِي أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ

He said: Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and then further gave (it) guidance. (Qur’an, Surah Taha, 20:50).

Another example of general guidance in creation is seen in the following verse:

سَبِّحِ اسْمَ رَبِّكَ الْأَعْلَى الَّذِي خَــلَقَ فَسَوَّىٰ وَالَّذِي قَــدَّرَ فَهَدَىٰ

Extol the holiness of the name of your Lord, the Most High, Who creates (all things) and gives (them) suitable and perfect shapes. Who determines (the capacities and faculties) and furnishes them with (appropriate) guidance to achieve the final goal.(Qur’an, Surah al-Aʿla, 87:1-3).

The term wahi has also been mentioned for the behavior of small insects like bees:

وَأَوْحَىٰ رَبُّكَ إِلَى النَّحْلِ أَنِ اتَّخِذِي مِنَ الْجِبَالِ بُيُوتًا وَمِنَ الشَّجَرِ وَمِمَّا يَعْرِشُونَ ثُمَّ كُلِي مِنْ كُلِّ الثَّمَرَاتِ فَاسْلُكِي سُبُلَ رَبِّكِ ذُلُلًا ۚ يَخْرُجُ مِنْ بُطُونِهَا شَرَابٌ مُخْتَلِفٌ أَلْوَانُهُ فِيهِ شِفَاءٌ لِلنَّاسِ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

And your Lord inspired the bees (saying): Make your hives in the hills and in the trees and in the trellises which the people erect. Then eat of every (kind of) fruit and follow the ways (and laws) of your Lord as that have been made easy (for you). There comes forth from their insides a fine fluid of varying hues which is a cure for the people. Infact, in this there is a sign for a people who reflect. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nahl, 16:68-69).

The most common usage of the term wahi in the Qur’an is in reference to Divine revelation which is received by select individuals called the prophets.

إِنَّا أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ كَمَا أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ نُوحٍ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْمَاعِيلَ وَإِسْحَاقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ وَالْأَسْبَاطِ وَعِيسَىٰ وَأَيُّوبَ وَيُونُسَ وَهَارُونَ وَسُلَيْمَانَ ۚ وَآتَيْنَا دَاوُودَ زَبُورًا وَرُسُلًا قَدْ قَصَصْنَاهُمْ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ قَبْلُ وَرُسُلًا لَمْ نَقْصُصْهُمْ عَلَيْكَ ۚ وَكَلَّمَ اللّٰهُ مُوسَىٰ تَكْلِيمًا رُسُلًا مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنْذِرِينَ لِئَلَّا يَكُونَ لِلنَّاسِ عَلَى اللّٰهِ حُجَّةٌ بَعْدَ الرُّسُلِ ۚ وَكَانَ اللّٰهُ عَزِيزًا حَكِيمًا

Surely, We have sent down (Our) revelation to you as We sent it down to Noah and the prophets (who came) after him, and We sent revelation to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and his children and to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron and Solomon. And We gave David a Scripture. And (there are some) Messengers whom We have mentioned to you before and (some) Messengers We have not mentioned them to you, and God spoke (to you as He spoke) to Moses in explicit words at great length. All these messengers (were) bearers of good tidings (to the believers) and warners (to the disbelievers, and were sent) so that people may have no plea against God after (the advent of) the messengers. And God is All-Mighty, All-Wise. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa’, 4:163-165).

There are various ways in which this Divine revelation is given to the prophets as explained in the Qur’an:

وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَنْ يُكَلِّمَهُ اللّٰهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِنْ وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ أَوْ يُرْسِلَ رَسُولًا فَيُوحِيَ بِإِذْنِهِ مَا يَشَاءُ إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحًا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا مَا كُنْتَ تَدْرِي مَا الْكِتَابُ وَلَا الْإِيمَانُ وَلَٰكِنْ جَعَلْنَاهُ نُورًا نَهْدِي بِهِ مَنْ نَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا وَإِنَّكَ لَتَهْدِي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ صِرَاطِ اللّٰهِ الَّذِي لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ أَلَا إِلَى اللّٰهِ تَصِيرُ الْأُمُورُ

It is not given to a human being that God should speak to him except by direct revelation or from behind a veil or by sending a messenger (an angel) who should reveal (to him) by His command what He pleases. Indeed, He is the Most Sublime, the All-Wise. (O Prophet!) Just so (as We sent revelations to other Prophets), We revealed to you the Word by Our command. (Before this revelation) you did not know what the Divine Book was nor (which of) the faith (it teaches), but We made it (Our revelation to you) a light, whereby We guide such of our servants as We will. And truly you are guiding (mankind) on to the straight and right path. The path of God to whom belongs all that lies in the heavens and all that lies in the earth. Behold! to God do all things eventually return. (Qur’an, Surah al-Shura’, 42:51-53).

The Qur’anic revelation is the speech of God. The soul of Prophet Muhammad (S) rose to such a high spiritual elevation as to perceive the Divine speech immediately. At the human sensory level, it manifests in human language, conveying the Divine message understandable to us.11

This Divine revelation received by Prophet Muhammad (S) has been compiled in the form of a book known as the Qur’an. It is in the Arabic language understood today by millions of people in the Middle East and beyond. The Qur’an available to us today represents the exact words which were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (S) over 1,400 years ago. The readers can refer back to Chapter 4 in which we had a detailed discussion in regards to the Qur’an and its merits.

It should be made clear that the Qur’an is accepted as a definitive revelation and true based on pure rational inquiry as explained in detail in Chapter 4. The knowledge disclosed in the Qur’an is accepted to be true once reason has affirmed that the source of the Qur’an is Divine and not human. If someone brings a text claiming it to be Divine, but the reason does not approve of its Divine origins then it cannot be taken as true. Reason should attest to validity of the revelation. If someone does not accept the Qur’an as a definitive revelation, then they should bring forth their arguments against it. The minimum qualification for such a person is that he or she should be able to read and understand Arabic. If someone wants to reject the Qur’an as a definitive revelation and does not understand Arabic, then their argument is superficial and their claim is weak. The Qur’an itself appeals to the readers asking them repeatedly to use the intellect, exercise reason and not follow whims, desires and conjectures:

قُلْ هَاتُوا بُرْهَانَكُمْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

Say: Bring forth your argument, if you are telling the truth! (Qur’an, Surah al-Naml, 27:64).

Intellect and reason represent the sublime human faculty which allows us to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world. Revelation, as exemplified by the Qur’an represents the highest form of knowledge available to mankind. It discloses those realities which the intellect is not able to grasp on its own, such as the events of the afterlife, or the goal and purpose of existence. Now the question arises that what is the relationship between reason and revelation? Does reason affirm what the revelation conveys, and does revelation convey what reason finds to be true?

It is important to know that in the monotheistic worldview, the source of both reason and revelation is God. Just as revelation is from God, so is the Divine gift of reason which helps us to acquire knowledge and make sense of the world. So if the revelation is authentic and reason is correctly applied then there should be no conflict between the two. Reason should affirm what revelation discloses and revelation should authenticate what reason points to.12

We should also know the limitations of reason because there are realities that are beyond the reason’s ability to grasp them, such as the events after death. What is important is that if authentic revelation points towards certain realities, then they can be accepted as true as long as they are not against the reason; for example, like the existence of heaven and hell. It is not possible to perceive them ordinarily but their existence in the afterlife is not an irrational idea.

Interpreting the Revelation

The Qur’an - as opposed to the other Divinely revealed books like the Torah and Evangel - is available in its original, unadulterated text. The text has been preserved over the past 1,400 years and there is only one ‘version’ of the Qur’an across the globe with no variation, and this gives a degree of confidence and certainty when interpreting the book.

The second point to know is that the Qur’an is the word of al-ʿAlim (The Most Knowledgeable) and al-Hakim (The Most Wise). It has apparent, obvious meanings and it also has hidden, deeper meanings. The verses of the Qur’an need to be interpreted (or unveiled) in the context that they were revealed and the verse are cross referenced with other verses on the same topic.

One of the features of the Qur’an is a lack of discrepancy as if the Qur’an was the work of someone other than God, then surely there would be some contradictions in it:

أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِنْدِ غَيْرِ اللّٰهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا

Why do they not ponder over the Qur’an? Had it been from anyone other than God, they would surely have found a good deal of inconsistency therein. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa’, 4:82).

The verses of the Qur’an are also studied together with the authentic teachings and statements of Prophet Muhammad (S) on a particular topic. So in addition to the obvious apparent meanings, the deeper and more thorough understanding requires contemplation and a systematic scholarly activity.

Moreover, in addition to analytic and academic work, still a deeper interpretation of the Qur’an requires a degree of self-purity and spiritual cleanliness. The esoteric meanings of the Qur’an are for those who enjoy a degree of spiritual rank and status, and are not for everyone. However it is important to note that the esoteric meanings are never in conflict with the apparent meanings:

إِنَّــهُ لَقُرْآنٌ كَرِيمٌ 77 فِي كِــتَابٍ مَكْنُونٍ لَا يَـمَسُّهُ إِلَّا الْمُطَهَّرُونَ

That this is most surely a noble Qur’an, in a Book well preserved (in all its purity). No one can achieve true insight into it except those who are purified (by God). (Qur’an, Surah al-Waqiʿah, 56:77-79).

The legacy of Prophet Muhammad (S) is not just the Qur’an but also his purified progeny, the Divinely appointed Imams (‘a). They are the true inheritors of the prophetic knowledge and it is only they who can really tell what the true meaning is of a particular verse. In addition, they are the final authority when it comes to interpreting the inner, and deeper meanings of the Qur’an:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْــزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَـشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِــتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللّٰهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَــقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِــهِ كُلٌّ مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He (God) it is who has revealed to you this perfect Book, some of its verses are definite and decisive. They are the basic root (conveying the established meanings) of the Book (umm al-Kitab) and other (verses) are susceptible to various interpretations. As for those in whose hearts is perversity, they follow (verses) that are susceptible to different interpretations, seeking (to cause) dissension and seeking an interpretation (of their own choice). But no one knows its true interpretation except God and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge. They say: We believe in it, it is all (the basic and decisive verses as well as the allegorical ones) from our Lord. And none takes heed except those endowed with pure and clear understanding. (Qur’an, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:7).

With correct understanding of the revelation, there should be no conflict between definitive reason and definitive revelation, they should both guide to the same reality. It is often an incorrect understanding of the revelation or a weak application of the intellect, e.g. argument based on conjectures that leads to conflict between the two.

An example to consider showing conformity between Divine revelation and reason is the prohibition of the use of intoxicants like alcohol. When it comes to alcohol, the Qur’an is very explicit about its prohibition:

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِنْ نَفْعِهِمَا ۗ وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ مَاذَا يُنْفِقُونَ قُلِ الْعَفْوَ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللّٰهُ لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ

They ask you concerning intoxicants and games of chance. Say: In both of them is a great sin and both are harmful too, and they have some uses for people, but the sin inherent in them is even more serious than their usefulness. They ask you how much they should spend. Say: The surplus (what you can spare after spending on your basic requirement). Thus does God make clear His commandments so that you may reflect. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:219).

Rationally speaking, alcohol targets and disables the intellect, therefore it is self-evident that consuming intoxicants like alcohol is an irrational behavior. Moreover, its use leads to many health and social problems. It may have some health benefits like raising the serum HDL (high density lipoprotein – a.k.a. good cholesterol), but that can also be achieved by doing exercises.

The harmful health effects of alcohol far outweigh any health benefits of using it, as it is linked with serious health problems such as gastritis (inflammation of the stomach), liver cirrhosis (damage to the liver), cardiomyopathy (heart damage), pancreatitis, fetal birth defects, low birth weight of infants, and a variety of cancers including cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach and liver to name a few. Moreover, alcohol is also linked to serious social problems like driving under the influence of alcohol, and it is estimated that nearly 10,000 people die annually because of drunk driving in the United States alone.13

At a personal level, a very reasonable, educated person can demonstrate erratic and embarrassing behavior under the influence of alcohol. It removes the inhibition that intellect puts on our desires, emotions and unwanted behavior. In addition, chronic alcoholism leads to serious social problems like an inability to maintain a job, problems with social relationships, domestic violence, and poor upbringing of children. Alcohol dulls our ability to use the intellect and think rationally. Many crimes like sexual violence, violent assaults and even murder are committed under the influence of alcohol which can destroy many lives leaving lifelong embarrassment for the offenders. Though for some cultures, the use of alcohol is important for socializing and relaxation, a rational and empirical inquiring into the use of alcohol clearly shows its harmful, embarrassing and deadly consequences. Thus, in the prohibition of alcohol we find a unanimous verdict between what the reason concludes, what the revelation commands, and what empirical evidence points to as well.

Reason and Morality

One of the main messages of revelation in all of the Divinely inspired religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well as other religions is in relation to moral conduct and behavior. Revelation asks for good upright conduct from its followers. It exhorts to honesty, truthfulness, kindness and mercy towards each other. The famous Ten Commandments mentioned in the Bible are an example of moral behavior expected from the followers of a Divinely inspired religion.

The message of morality delivered through revelation resonates with reason as well. This is another example where there is harmony between revelation and reason. Being honest, truthful, respecting the rights of others, not stealing from people, showing kindness, and helping those in need, makes sense to all of us. Likewise, lying, cheating, committing fraud, stealing, hurting others both physically and verbally, and killing others, are all actions which are discouraged and disliked by everyone irrespective of our ethnic, cultural and religious background - these are all timeless values.

Now, many who are opposed to revelation argue that reason can tell us what is right and wrong - we do not need revelation to figure this out. Moral norms and behavior should be based on reason alone and there is no need to resort to revelation. In fact, in some cases like capital punishment for committing murder, commandment by revelation is considered too extreme, not suitable for modern society, and against reason. Let us analyze this claim in some detail.

1. Should We Be Moral?

Revelation asks us to have a moral behavior and reason affirms this. The question however is, why? Why should we have moral, ethical conduct? According to revelation, it is for our own benefit, spiritual growth and a pleasant life after death”

إِنْ أَحْسَنْتُمْ أَحْسَنْتُمْ لِأَنْفُسِكُمْ ۖ وَإِنْ أَسَأْتُمْ فَلَهَا

If you did good, you did it for your ownselves, and if you did evil it was only to the same end. (Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’, 17:7).

Those who want to follow reason only also want to be moral. In fact, they try their best to take the message of morality away from the revelation and advocate about it basing it on the faculty of reason only. It is ironic that after declaring revelation null and void, they start doing more or less the same as the revelation was exhorting them to do anyways!

But looking at it further, if a person does not believe in religion, spirituality or hereafter then they may not see why they should be morally upright. Since their ultimate goal is survival, they should be extremely selfish and only worry about what benefits and harms them as an individual. They should take advantage of others whenever possible and use others for their own benefit. Even if they are being nice to others it should be so that they can continue to benefit off of them. Once they find that they do not need that person, then there is no point to show courtesy and kindness to them. (Surprisingly many people behave exactly like this even though they may be wearing the garb of religion).

Some people argue that we should be moral because it is good for our society and for the survival of our species. They may try to link this behavior with evolutionary biology that somehow we have learned what is good for everyone is also good for ourselves, but I really do not see how it should be like this.

Why do we have to worry about the long term prosperity of our society? We are expected to live for 70-80 years at the most, should we spend this time focusing on what benefits us and what harms us rather than worrying about things like global warming and the rise of poverty in economically underdeveloped countries? To advocate morality without a belief in spirituality or afterlife is based on hollow arguments and goes against the logic of personal, and short term benefit.

2. Why Does Reason Affirm Moral Behavior?

Moral values like honesty, kindness towards others, and respecting the rights of others are generally accepted across all societies. Similarly lying, cheating, and hurting others are disapproved universally as well. Why is it that we find these moral values universally present and in harmony with our existence? Why does reason affirm what revelation exhorts?

The answer lies in our design. We have a soul in addition to the body (see Chapter 14). Our soul has been programed to like certain behaviors and dislike others, therefore all of us like honesty and kindness, and dislike cheating and rude behavior. The Qur’an says:

وَنَـفْسٍ وَمَا سَـوَّاهَا فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَا

And the (human) soul and That (Mighty Lord) Who made it perfect, then He revealed to it (the soul, the ways of) its evil and its righteousness. One who purifies it (his soul), certainly succeeds, and he indeed is ruined who corrupts it. (Qur’an, Surah al-Shams, 91:7-10).

To be morally correct is in harmony with our design and existence, hence what the revelation commands, reason and instincts approve as well.

3. Criteria for Morality Based on Reason Alone

If we use reason alone to define moral standards then there is going to be a lot of variation amongst individuals, groups and cultures in regards to what is considered morally correct and what is not.

There are certain universal values which most of us can agree upon, but when it comes to applying them, then our personal bias, interests and goals are likely to come in the way. We have a tendency to justify our actions and try to rationalize what we want to do and have. “I was forced to do it,” “I did it because he started it,” “I had no choice,” or “he deserved it” - are some of the common phrases that we hear when people want to justify their unjust actions.

Take for example the mistreatment of the Europeans - particularly the Jews - at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War. The Nazis committed all sorts of atrocities, but were able to justify their actions in their own minds - it was rational for them and they had a reason to do it so they did it.

If we leave morality on individuals and groups, then in many situations it may be hard to come to a consensus on what is morally correct.

Some people propose that we should develop a moral code based on reason alone which can then be adopted by everyone. First of all it will be very difficult to reach a consensus on one document, and it would need revision every so often - but having a universal moral code is what religion already provides!

4. Moral Expectations Based on Revelation

For those who want to base their morality on reason, they will continue to argue that reason is sufficient for identifying moral and ethical values and revelation does not add anything to it.

We can agree that basic moral values like honesty, truthfulness and goodness to others are self-evident truths in conformity with reason, however when we study revelation and the conduct of the teachers of revelation like the prophets and the imams, we find moral expectations that go well beyond what the reason argues.

The standard of morality in spirituality-based religions like Islam are way higher than can be proposed by reason alone.

Let us look at some examples to elaborate this point further.

a. Humility Towards Parents

Reason tells us that we should be kind to our parents, but revelation demands a much higher level of courteous behavior towards them. The Qur’an says:

وَقَضَىٰ رَبُّكَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا ۚ إِمَّا يَبْلُغَنَّ عِنْدَكَ الْكِبَرَ أَحَدُهُمَا أَوْ كِلَاهُمَا فَلَا تَقُلْ لَهُمَا أُفٍّ وَلَا تَنْهَرْهُمَا وَقُلْ لَهُمَا قَوْلًا كَرِيمًا وَاخْفِضْ لَهُمَا جَنَاحَ الذُّلِّ مِنَ الرَّحْمَةِ وَقُلْ رَبِّ ارْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِي صَغِيرًا

Your Lord has enjoined you to worship none but Him and to be good to [your] parents. If either or both attain old age (while living) with you, never say to them, ‘Fie!’ (any word expressive of disgust or dislike), nor reproach them (by your action). Rather address them with kind and respectful words (always). And lower to them the wings of submissiveness out of tenderness (treating them with humility and compassion). And say (praying for them): My Lord! have mercy upon them just as they nourished and brought me up as a child. (Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’, 17:23-24).

Revelation demands utmost respect towards parents, not even saying a word of contempt towards them or even looking at them with anger. This is more than what pure reason demands.

b. Favoring Others over Ourselves

Resources are often limited. If a person has something that another person also needs, then the courteous behavior is to share it with him also. However, if a person really needs something, they may just use it themselves and not share it with anyone else even though the other person may also need it. This will be considered as normal behavior since everyone has to fulfill their personal needs over others.

Religion encourages self-preservation however it also talks about preferring others over ourselves, and in the Islamic terminology, this is called aethar – self sacrifice.

If I have an item that both me and another person need, then I can use it myself, but a better gesture would be to give it up to fulfill another person’s need. This can only happen if we have true belief in monotheism. With firm faith in monotheism, a person can fulfill another person’s need while relying on God (See Chapter 8 and the discussion on reliance on God – al-tawakkul) for one’s personal need to be fulfilled by Him. Reason alone will not make us prefer others over ourselves. People who prefer others over themselves expect nothing in return from others, but instead seek the pleasure of God only:

وَيُطْعِمُونَ الطَّعَامَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ مِسْكِينًا وَيَتِيمًا وَأَسِيرًا إِنَّمَا نُطْعِمُكُمْ لِوَجْهِ اللّٰهِ لَا نُرِيدُ مِنْكُمْ جَزَاءً وَلَا شُكُورًا

They give food for the love of Him to the indigent, the orphan and the captive. They say: We feed you only to seek the pleasure of God, we desire no recompense from you nor thanks. (Qur’an, Surah al-Insan, 76:8-9).

c. Replying Bad with Good

If someone is kind to us we like to be kind back to them, but if someone is doing bad to us, we want to behave the same way towards them.

The high level of morality expected from revelation tells us that in many instances it is better to repel bad behavior with goodness.

Often we find that the person who is receiving kindness from someone whom he has wronged will feel embarrassed and will be forced to change his behavior as well. Kindness in response to rude behavior can help neutralize the unnecessary animosity.

The lives of the prophets and the imams are full of such instances in which they showed kindness even to those who were harming them.

After Imam ʿAli (‘a) was fatally struck with a poisoned sword while engaged in his morning prayers, his assassin was brought to him. The Imam offered his murderer a cold drink and the same food that was being served to him. This behavior is way beyond what reason points towards – for further details, see Chapter 4:

وَلَا تَسْتَوِي الْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ۚ ادْفَعْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا الَّذِي بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُ عَدَاوَةٌ كَأَنَّهُ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيمٌ

And good and evil are not alike. Repel (evil) with that (benign and graceful way) which is best, and lo the person between whom and you there is enmity will behave as if he were your warm-hearted friend. (Qur’an, Surah Fussilat, 41:34).

d. Doing Justice - Even if it is Against Our Own Benefit

In many situations, we find that our truthful testimony can go against ourselves, our dear ones, or even our personal interests or associations. Although we like to be just, but when we see that our personal interests are getting harmed, many people will be tempted to either not give testimony or give a false one. Divine revelation clearly tells us to speak the truth and give correct testimony even if it is against our own interests.

These teachings and their application in real life can come only from revelation since it is very hard for a person to use reason to reach this conclusion and remain firm on a testimony that is against his one’s own interests:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ إِنْ يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللّٰهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا وَإِنْ تَلْوُوا أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا فَإِنَّ اللّٰهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا

O you who believe! Be strict observers of justice, bearers of true evidence for the sake of God, even though it be against yourselves or (against your) parents or near of kin; (let neither of the parties) whether (the one against whom or the one in favour of whom you bear evidence) be rich or poor (weigh with yourself). (Bear in mind) God is more regardful of them both (than you are), therefore, do not follow your low desires in order to be able to do justice. And if you distort or evade (true evidence) remember God is Well-Aware of what you do. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nisa’, 4:135).

In many instances we need both reason and reinforcement from revelation to keep our behavior within the moral limits. For example, being a married person we should not cheat on our spouse - this is based both on reason as well as societal expectations. However, many people are unable to remain faithful to their spouses despite rationally knowing that what they are doing is incorrect. It is with the added layer of protection provided by revelation that we are more likely to be successful in our faithfulness - as the Qur’an tells us:

وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا الزِّنَا إِنَّهُ كَانَ فَاحِشَةً وَسَاءَ سَبِيلًا

And keep away from adultery and fornication; surely, it is an abominable act and an (extremely) evil practice. (Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’, 17:32).

We must also know that God is always watching:

أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللّٰهَ يَرَىٰ

Does the human being not know that God indeed observes (all)? (Qur’an, Surah al-ʿAlaq, 96:14).

Thus by using reason, revelation and the added protection of God consciousness (al-taqwa) we can expect upright behavior by most people, otherwise many of us will deviate in our conduct.

Revelation not only tells us about high expectations from a moral stand point, but it also tells us that there is no escape from our actions. If someone is unjust to another person, they cannot escape its consequences because there is an afterlife. One cannot cheat someone in this world, even though they may not get caught here as there is no escape from one’s actions after death. It is only with revelation and belief in the afterlife that humanity can achieve a higher moral standard – thus, reason alone is highly inadequate:

وَمَا كَانَ لِنَبِيٍّ أَنْ يَغُلَّ وَمَنْ يَغْلُلْ يَأْتِ بِمَا غَلَّ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ثُمَّ تُوَفَّىٰ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَا كَسَبَتْ وَهُمْ لَا يُظْلَمُونَ

It is not possible for a Prophet to be guilty of a breach of trust, but whoever (else) is guilty of a breach of a trust he will have to bring forth that about which he had been guilty, on the Day of Resurrection when every soul shall be paid in full for what it has accomplished, and they shall not be done any injustice. (Qur’an, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:161).

The morality preached by Divine revelation is far above what reason can discover. Revelation demands the perfection of morals and in this regards, Prophet Muhammad (S) has been quoted as having said:

I have been sent to perfect good moral character.14

Let us look at a supplication called Duʿa Makarim al-Akhlaq attributed to the 4th Imam, ʿAli b. al-Husayn Zayn al-ʿAbidin (‘a) in which he says:

O God, bless Muhammad (S) and his family!
Give me the grace that I can:
Counter one who is dishonest to me with good advice;
Reward one who forsakes me with goodness;
Repay one who deprives me with free giving;
And recompense one who cuts me off with union;
Oppose one who backbites me
With a good mention (of him),
Give thanks for good;
And overlook evil.15

So in summary, both reason and revelation are guides for mankind as we navigate through life. They both have their unique position and one cannot replace one for another.

According to the 17th Century Muslim Philosopher, Mulla Sadraʾ, the likeness of reason is that of an eye, while revelation is that of light.16 In order to see the reality, we need both the eyes and the light. Those who do away with revelation and rely only on reason will not be able to see far and will be left in darkness, and those who do not apply reason and focus only on revelation will not be able to make sense of what they are looking at.

  • 1. Haeri, Sheikh Fadhlalla al-. The Sayings and Wisdom of Imam Ali, as, The Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, UK, 1992, Zahra Publications.
  • 2. Al-Kafi, vol. 1, The Book of Reason and Ignorance, translated by Dr. Sayyid Muhammad, S. Hasan ar-Rizavi. Islamic Cultural and Research Institute, Karachi, Pakistan, Second Edition, 1985.
  • 3. Ibid., narration 1.
  • 4. Ibid., narration 2.
  • 5. Ibid., narration 3.
  • 6. Ibid., narration 12.
  • 7. Ibid., narration 23.
  • 8. Shomali, Mohammad Ali, Reason, Faith and Authority: A Shiite Perspective. Online at: https://www.al-islam.org/message-thaqalayn/vol10-n2-2009/reason-faith-au...
  • 9. Hejazi, S.M.R., Knowledge by Presence, al-ʿIlm al-Hudhuri: A comparative Study Based on the Epistemology of Suharwardi, (d. 587/1191) and Mulla Sadra, (d. 1050/1640) Thesis, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, 1994.
  • 10. Shomali, Muhammad, S. Ali, Divine Revelation: An Islamic Perspective on Divine Guidance and Human Understanding.
  • 11. Shirazi, Mulla Sadra, On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an, Translated, introduced and annotated by Latimah-Parvin Peerwani, ICAS Press, 2004.
  • 12. Amoli, Ayatullah Jawadi, Divine Revelation, Human Reason and Science. Online at: https://www.al-islam.org/al-tawhid/vol1-n2/divine-revelation-human-reaso...
  • 13. Department of Transportation, US, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. Traffic Safety Facts 2014 data: alcohol-impaired driving. Washington, DC: NHTSA; 2015 [cited 2016 Feb 5]. Available at URL:http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812231.pdf
  • 14. Musnad Ahmad.
  • 15. Mafatih al-Jinan, Duʿa Makarim al-Akhlaq.
  • 16. On the Hermeneutics of the Light Verse of the Qur’an, Mulla Sadra Shirazi, Translated by Latima-Parvin Peerwani, ICAS Press, 2004, London, UK.