Does Revelation Abolish the Role of Reason?
Some might say: if Islam is a divine system set forth for people by their Lord, does this not mean that the role of human agency and reason is extinguished in the face of that system? And that its efforts are absolutely negated, for all that is asked is accepting the message, implementing it, and submitting to it—all without asking why or how? There is then no parity between reason and revelation—if the revelation is understood as Divine speech, what then is left reason but to comply and submit?
Divine decree does not extinguish the role of human will or agency in the universe, even with the hand of God therein and the lack of parity between Divine and human will or between the powers of the creator and the created. In similar fashion, Divine revelation does not extinguish the role of human reason and its scriptural imperative, its purposes of derivation and deduction that fill out the matters on which scripture is silent. The presence of a holy text does not obstruct the flight and creativity of reason, for it leaves the latter various realms in which to exercise and establish itself.
What Revelation Leaves Reason in the Realm of Creed
In the realm of beliefs, revelation leaves reason the task of being guided to the greatest truths of existence.
– The first of these is the existence of God and his absolute singularity. A sound nature (al-fitra al-salima) can be guided to knowledge of the existence of God if exercising sincere considerations and right reason—no wonder that the Qur’an advances proofs for the existence of God (Glorified and Exalted) from the universe and human nature: Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the difference of night and day are tokens [of God] for those possessing insight (Q 3:190) and Or were they created from naught? Or are they the creators? / Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay, but they are sure of nothing (Q 52:35-36). These rational proofs are followed by specific mention of the Divine unicity: If there were gods therein beside God, then verily both had been disordered. Glorified be to God, the Lord of the Throne, from all that they ascribe [unto Him] (Q 21:22) and Or have they chosen other gods besides Him? Say: bring your proof (Q 21:24). And at another place, it says Say: If there were other gods alongside Him, as they say, then had they sought a way against the Lord of the Throne. Glorified is He, and high Exalted above what they say! (Q 17:42-43) and God has not chosen any son, nor is there any God beside Him; else would each god have championed what he created, and some of them would assuredly have overcome others (Q 23:91).
– The second of these establishes revelation, prophethood, and the message. The intellect sets forth both the hypothetical possibility and the actual occurrence of each of these, and is their final arbiter given the absence of any independent traditional source. (For how could tradition provide evidence for what precedes it?) Thus the scholars of Islam say that the intellect is the basis of tradition. That is, after the intellect is satisfied with the existence of God Most High, his perfection, and his transcendence, it then comes to know that the wisdom of the Most Wise and the compassion of the Gracious would not in vain cast his created servants adrift on the sea of ignorance and blindness, when He is capable of guiding and bringing them from darkness to light by conveying to them a way. Even after the intellect recognizes this condition of existence, it does not immediately acknowledge everyone claiming to be a Messenger from God; rather, it tries to substantiate this claim beyond its own proclamation, that the messenger does not represent himself but the will of the God who sent him.
Here the intellect seeks as proof miraculous signs that would be impossible unless the work of God Most High. It distinguishes between truly miraculous signs (which would not manifest except at the hand of a true messenger of God) and illusory tricks and quackery (which manifest at the hand of magicians and charlatans). The intellect recognizes the significance of a miraculous or extra-ordinary event as manifested by God at his hands, which is a Divine affirmation of the Prophetic call, as though He says, “My slave has kept troth in what he conveys from Me.” Of course, God does not affirm falsehood, for that would itself be falsehood and thereby impossible of God Most High. All of these premises are purely rational and are essential for the claim to revelation to be accepted. Likewise, the intellect examines the biography of every claimant to prophecy, considering his qualities and character, his words and deeds, and his origin and end, in order to ask whether he exhibits the attributes of those chosen by God (and so to be accepted and followed) or those otherwise (and so to be rejected and refused).
For these reasons, the Qur’an calls reason to independently examine the messengership of Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace. It says, with rigor and clarity: Say: I exhort you to one thing alone: that you awake, for God’s sake, in pairs and singly, and then reflect: There is no madness in your comrade. He is but a warner in the face of terrific doom (Q 34:46) and, the Messenger speaking of the Qur’an: Say: If God so willed, I should not have recited to you nor would He have made it known to you. I dwelt among you a lifetime before it. Will you not then reason? (Q 10:16).