Allah (ﷻ) has blessed us with ‘aql above the animals, who merely act according to their desires. At the same time however, ‘aql is not boundless and all-powerful. If we were to look at the verses of the Qur’an closely, it’s clear that its recipients (ie prophets) and its targets (ie humankind) are rational human beings, who are supposed to have the capacity to understand, interpret, and accept the message sent to them.

On several instances, Allah (ﷻ) asks us to use our ‘aql, and rationalise, and this can be categorised into four broad categories:

  1. Allah (ﷻ) challenges those who don’t believe in him by asking them to ponder and use their ‘aql
  2. Tells us to use our ‘aql and examine the life of Nabi (ﷺ), to see what motivated him to preach what he preached and where he got all the knowledge from.
  3. To increase our iman in Allah even if we already have iman.
  4. Asks us to try understand the meanings of the Qur’an and Sunnah with our ‘aql.

So we learn two things from the different verses of the Qur’an: 1) One should use ‘aql to its full extent in areas that are open to rational inspection; (2) to accept that some matters are simply not subject to rational understanding, and trying to “rationalize” can lead to tahrif (distortion). The Qur’an and Sunnah, allows us to use our ‘aql within its proper scope yet we are also reminded that, ultimately, only Allah is absolute and that everything else, including man’s powers of intellect, are limited.

Maulana ‘Uthmani’s stance

Maulana Shabbir Ahmad ‘uthmani in his book ‘al-Aql wan Naql’ explains how the quwwat e ‘amaliyyah are a composition of five things: firstly, after the senses take in the information 1) intellect (aql) process it 2) desire or fear takes place 3) Intention/choice occurs 4) ability/power is used 5) physical limbs perform the action. All this results in the outcome of one’s actions. So the ‘aql is what differentiates between good and evil, and stops a human from doing that which is harmful. It’s also the linguistic meaning of A-Q-L as well; to hold back. But for this, Maulana Shabbir says, an aql e salim(sound intellect) is needed. He explains that an ‘aql is not sound when 1) the quwat e amaliyyah hesitate to act according to ‘aql 2) when a person acts upon things he knows are wrong like, lying. Because mankind are created with having desires, and don’t have aql e salim, they wouldn’t be able to know right from wrong without naql. Therefore, there’s a need for a Being that knows good from evil, the different mizaaj (natures) of humans etc., that can tell what’s right and evil. That’s why Allah (ﷻ) himself, has sent down the Qur’an. Maulana Shabbir says that in reality naql doesn’t clash with ‘aql, but our ‘aql are deficient and limited so we’re unable to understand some naqli things.

The ‘Aql and its deficiency

The ‘aql is deficient due to these main reasons:

  1. ‘Aql is dependent on the five senses, thoughts etc. So ‘aql being the quwwat e aqliyyah can’t perform its role without the quwwat e amaliyyah. If a person can’t see, hear, feel, speak, or smell, then his ‘aql would be very defective and weak.
  2. If following ‘aql was enough for existence, and for reaching tawheed, then Allah ﷻ wouldn’t have sent naql. Allah sending down wahi shows that, there are things that ‘aql can’t reach without Allah ﷻ sending the naql.
  3. Everyone’s ‘aql is not the same. Each society thinks differently. As time goes on, our reasonability changes whereas the naql is forever and unchanging. So it makes sense to base everything upon naql since it doesn’t change, rather than ‘aql, which changes.
  4. First being who gave preference to ‘aql over naql was Iblis, because it didn’t make sense to him that he does sajdah to someone who is inferior. So it was his ‘aql that resulted in his rejection.

As a result, ‘aql leads to the naql (Qur’an and sunnah), but ‘aql can’t do the job of naql. They work together, performing different roles. ‘Aql leads a person to naql, then it stops there and the naql takes over. We use ‘aql to understand naql but not to decide whether naql is worthy of acceptance. Example: In the shari’ah of Adam (a.s), Qabil was prohibited from getting married to his twin sister. That was his naql. Naql told him he’s not allowed and if he does so, then he’ll be disobeying Allah ﷻ. However, his ‘aql told him he’s more worthy of getting married to his twin sister. His ‘aql is only suppose to help him understand naql – not decide whether naql is right or wrong. In this instance, his ‘aql can’t decide if he’s worthy or not. Naql has already told him he’s not allowed and not worthy. The only role ‘aql has here, is to let his understand that fact.

Main Positions on Reason and Revelation

The three main position:

1.Rationalists like Mu’talizah — ‘aql over naql

These are people who base everything upon their ‘aql. In cases of conflict, they prioritize the results of rationality over revelation (‘aql over naql). This is why they have denied the existence of jinnaat, the questioning in the grave, the bridge of Siraat, Ru’yah of Allah and other events that don’t normally accord with the ‘aql.

2. Muhaddithūn/Dhāhiriyyah/Ibn Taymiyyah — naql over aql

They give predominance to revelation (naql) and refused to use ‘aql. They understand revelation in its literal (zaahiri) sense, and non-literal interpretation to be impermissible. They mainly use hadith to understand Qur’an and they think their opinion is more correct than all others because they have based their understanding on Hadith and others who do ta’wil for example, are just speaking without proof.

3. Mutakallimūn/Ash‘arites and Maturities — sometimes naql sometimes ‘aql

They refused the Mu‘tazilites for basing everything on ‘aql. They would privilege naql over ‘aql but they didn’t entirely banish the usage the ‘aql (from their epistemology). They would use rational arguments on a great number of matters, especially for counterargument and refuting those who base everything on ‘aql.

The Universal Law (Kanūn Kullī) of Imam Fakhrud Dīn ar-Rāzī [1210 C.E, Herat] (‘Ash’arī) “If revelation and reason (‘aql & naql) are in conflict then:

  1. They must both be accepted, which is impossible as this would violate the Law of Non-Contradiction [claiming both aql and naql are right]
  2. They must both be rejected, which is also impossible as this would violate the Law of the Excluded Middle [claiming neither ‘aql is right nor naqal;
  3. Give precedence to naql, which is not right since revelation is grounded in reason, such that if we were to give priority to the former over the latter [that is, to revelation over reason], this would amount to a rejection of both reason and [by extension] that which is grounded by reason [i.e., revelation].
  4. One must give precedence to reason over revelation, then either:
  • make metaphorical interpretation (ta’wīl) so that the naql can match ‘aql
  • or negate the apparent meaning of naql but refrain from assigning any definite meaning to it (tafwīd).”

Based on this law, the position of the ‘Ash’arites and Maturities is that naql is always given preference (due to it being more qat’ī than ‘aql) until we reach a point where taking the obvious meaning of the naql results to:

  • Ascribing such a meaning to Allah, that ‘aql has judged that it can’t be ascribed to Him, because if it is ascribed to him, (example: Allah ﷻ having hand) (1) violate a rational argument used to prove the existence of Allah or the authenticity of wahī. (2) it would result in tashbīh: likening Allah ﷻ to the creation.

That’s why to avoid these two, the mutakallimūn of the past and present either do Tanzīh ma’at Tafwīdh; freeing Allah ﷻfrom the zāhīrī meaning but saying that the meaning is with Allah. Or they do: Ta’wīl ma’at Tafwīdh; which is reinterpreting the word or using a word that is easier for us to understand but again, saying that the actual meaning is with Allah ﷻ.

– Written by Sabrina al-Faarsiyyah (@thehadithdisciple) May 3rd, 2018