Religion, Revelation and Reason

This article discusses three questions: what is faith, or religion? Is it appropriate to call Islam a faith, or religion? What is the position and importance of reason in religion, and Islam?

I base my answers to each of these questions on either the common understanding of these terms as the experts define and explain them or the Qur’an, the Book which claims to be the last revealed literal world of God. [In the Islamic tradition the name of God is Allah. It is without derivation and no plural can be formed from it. It has no feminine also. The English word God can hardly be even an approximate substitute]

What is a religion?

The word ‘religion’ refers to the relationship which binds man to what he regards as sacred and divine. There are certain religions which do not believe in God. Yet many others believe in gods and goddesses. Religion is mainly about peoples’ concerns about death and after death. The secular world has today relegated the religion to the private sphere. These people insist that religion should not define our whole identity. It should rather be one of the components of a person’s over all identity, if at all he believes in a religion. Atheist Sam Harris asserts “the days of our religious identities are clearly numbered.” By this way religion has been confined to a very tight space. While in the past it was said that religion is opium of the people, it is now argued that “religion poisons everything.” (Christopher Hitchens)

Is Islam a religion?

The scholars of Islam hold that it is inadequate to call Islam a religion in the common understanding. The Qur’an calls the primordial religion or in the words of Ismail Raji, meta-religion, as al-Din, which means ‘way of life.’ In the classical Arabic various meanings of the word Din include: jaza (recompense), ta‘ah (obedience), dhillah (humility). Hence Islam is generally defined as obeying and submitting to Allah in humility. As Din, not religion, Islam requires the Muslims to live their lives in such a way that their submission to Allah is reflected in every aspect of life; from personal to the political. This clearly differentiates Din from ‘religion’ which pertains to a very minute part of a person’s whole identity. So the English word ‘religion’ cannot convey the sense that is conveyed by the Qur’anic word Din.

What is faith?

Faith is defined as ‘belief without evidence.’ Hence it is now understood by many not to be grounded in reason. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most popular of the new atheists, insists that ‘religious faith does not depend on rational justification.’ So it is generally held that while science is about facts and proofs, faith is about mere inclination to believe without sufficient evidence. This is where many people declare faith to be unscientific and contrary to reason. It might be in this backdrop that for quite some time now some people have been using a new term ‘post-monotheism’ pointing to the claim that after monotheistic ‘faith’ there is now reason and only reason to replace religion.

Faith in Islam

Like Din instead of ‘religion’, the right word in the Qur’an is Iman rather than ‘faith’. While faith can be without evidence, Iman is “reasoned reflection” where every believer is asked to think before he accepts. The Qur’an constantly urges us to employ intelligence before we believe. Here are a few instances:

When the deniers of truth will face punishment as natural consequence, they will say: “had we listened or reflected.” So we are invited to think on both the sources of Iman, the revelation, to listen to and the creation, to use our intelligence for ‘apart from glittering light of Revelation, there are in all nature around us and in our own conscience enough manifest signs of God and His Unity.’ This is how the Qur’an invites us to realize God in our very being without perceiving Him with our bodily eyes.

Iman is technically defined as to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) was sent with. But even this unconditional trust in the Prophet is not blind. See how lovingly and convincingly The Qur’an encourages the people to think before they trust the Prophet: “Say (O! Prophet) I but exhort you to one thing; that you stand, for Allah’s sake, by twos and singly, and then ponder, in your companion (the Prophet) there is no madness. He is not but a warner to you of a severe torment.” (34:46)

The prophet of Islam was not conversant with the art of reading and writing. Then how could he produce such a miraculous Book which ‘in the surpassing excellence of its contents, in the grandeur of its language and style, and most of all in the completeness and all-sufficient of its teachings’ has ever been unchallenged. Given this the Qur’an very justifiably then asks the deniers: “And if you are in doubt concerning what We have sent down upon Our bondman then bring a chapter like it, and call upon your witness besides Allah, if you are truthful.” (2:23)

Not only the immutable and miraculous Qur’an is produced as proof of the Prophet’s claim, his own life is presented to his deniers as the convincing evidence of this truthfulness.  It is surely for the first time in the whole human history that any human produces his own character as proof for his truthfulness as this is so bold a claim that nobody among the great reformers could dare about even think of it for every human being is fallible. His enemies can anytime target his character in order to let down his claim no matter how truthful he is. But not the Prophet himself but it is God Who produces of the strongest rational evidences in support of Iman in this form: “Say O! Prophet…. Of a surety I have remained with you a life-time before it. Would you not then reflect?” (11:16)

So what is this? The Prophet is addressing their intelligence; he is challenging their conscience: ‘Have I not all this time been renowned for my veracity? Have you all these years ever suspected me of lying? How is it then that the moment I begin to preach the Unity of God and to denounce your idolatry, you begin to call me a liar?

The Qur’an always invites people to use reason in order to attain Iman. While inviting people to the truth of Islam, it does not tell them close all the windows of you mind and believe blindly but it urges them to reflect: “do they not ponder the Qur’an or are their locks upon their hearts?” (26:24). Why don’t they read the Qur’an whose teachings are so clear or the case is something else that they have become impervious to every argument and evidence?

Similarly, the Qur’an produces the beautiful objects of nature like the sky, earth, the Sun, the moon etc. which strike awe and wonder and excite the human mind as evidences of the unique handiwork of their Creator. And when humans are asked to believe in Him, their intellect is addressed in this way: “Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day, and the ships that sail upon the ocean laden with what profits mankind; and in what Allah sends down of water from the heavens and revives the earth thereby after its death, and scatters in it of all sorts of moving creatures, and in the veering of winds and the clouds subjected for service between heavens and earth; in these are signs to a people who understand” (2:164)

An intellectually insolvent person when asking for evidence wants Din to show him God. The purpose of Din in this world is not to see God for that will end all intellectual faculties of man. When you see the Sun directly with a naked eye, what else can you see then? Further, you cannot see the Sun directly but you can through a pond of fresh water. God unravels to you His mysteries and activates your intelligence through His revelation. Will you then think?

Dr Nazir Ahmad Zargar is  Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir