Volume 19 Number 6
Faith and Reason in Islam
01 December 2006

Egyptian professor Nasr Abu-Zayd speaks up for Islam’s respect for the rational.

THE POPE’S LECTURE in September in Regensburg, Germany, about faith and reason in Christianity provoked the anger of Muslims all over the world. In some minor instances there were violent reactions. Though I would have preferred an intellectual, peaceful response, we have to understand the inflammatory context in which Muslims all over the world feel vulnerable and that their faith is under continuous attack in the West. The memory of the Danish cartoons is still alive alongside negative statements about Islam spoken by the American President. After 11 September and especially after the US led ‘war against terrorism’, Islam became the target of attack, insult and defamation in many circles in the West, giving credence to the stereotype of Islam as violent, uncivilised, and anti-modern. The Pope’s quotation of a derogatory statement by a 14th century Byzantine emperor about Islam and the Prophet evoked this stereotype in all its characteristics. Given the Muslims’ furious anger following the Danish cartoons, we can understand this reaction to the Pope’s remarks. However, understanding the causes does not mean justifying the violent reaction.

The Pope should have anticipated the consequences of inserting this quotation in his lecture about faith and reason in Christianity: as a scholar, I see no need for it. As a professor, the Pope should have known that the issue of ‘faith and reason’ in Islam is too complicated to be presented in such a simple polemic statement. Any student of Islamic theology and Islamic philosophy knows better. Surely the Pope is aware of the history of Islamic theology and philosophy. Surely he knows about the rational group of Muslim theologians known as the Mu’tazila and, perhaps, has even studied some of the writings about Aristotle by Averreos, the Muslim philosopher also known as Ibn Rushd!

As for the issue of ‘violence’, in Islam, there is no intrinsic connection between faith and violence; violence is an exceptional state of affairs when the community is under attack from outside. This state of affairs existed in the 7th century when the first Muslim community faced the danger of being destroyed. This explains the existence of talk in the Qur’an about ‘jihad’, which means exerting the utmost efforts to attain some objectives.

Qur’anic worldview
Unfortunately, conservative Muslims as well as certain terrorist groups ignore the historical context of these verses. They believe that the injunctions in these verses are binding regardless of time and place. They also ignore the fact that there are two types of jihad mentioned in the Qur’an, the spiritual and the physical. The objective of the physical jihad, which is called the lesser or the minor jihad, is to protect and defend the community, whereas the objective of the spiritual jihad, which is called the great or the major jihad, is to attain the highest humanistic state.

While the spiritual jihad is an individualistic religious duty, the physical jihad is a political not a religious institution. Like any other citizen, every Muslim is obliged to defend the country in which he lives. The physical jihad is not an individual task, but an affair of state.

Reason, on the other hand, is intrinsically connected with faith. In the Qur’an, reason is presented as the only valid foundation for faith as well as action. The Qur’anic worldview is basically rational; irrational thinking and irrational behaviour are condemned and tantamount to disbelief.

The question of ‘faith and reason’ is present in Islamic theology where the Mu’tazilites very early stated that the only avenue to knowing God is through ‘reason’ and the only avenue to understanding God’s revelation, the Qur’an, is by interpreting divine action as rational; rationality is the law according to which God acts and according to which humans should act and judge.

All fall short
The concept of reason that doesn’t deny God, to which the Pope invites us as precondition for productive dialogue, is the product of Islamic philosophy. Averreos, who lived in Andalusia in the 12th century, wrote a treatise on ‘Harmony between Reason and Revelation’ that was translated into Latin and caused intensive discussion within the Church.

In conclusion, Islam is essentially no different from Christianity in its spiritual dimension as well as its humanistic orientation. Muslims, on the other hand, are humans just like Christians. Both have committed crimes of violence against the teachings of their faith in certain historical circumstances. God, who is beyond the boundaries of socio-historical human conflict, always teaches the ideal. All humans, Muslims and Christians as well as Hindus and Buddhists, fall short of the ideal teachings of faith. Instead of increasing the conflict by highlighting the differences, we need to understand and promote the similarities.

Egyptian-born professor Dr Nasr Abu-Zayd lives in the Netherlands. He lectures on Islamic studies at Leiden University, and on Islam and Humanistics at the University of Humanistics in Utrecht where he holds the Ibn Rushd chair.