Is there a conflict between religion and the thinking, rational mind? The atheists say: “The mind is enough, so we do not need religion,” and the fundamental conservative religious say: “We cannot use our mind in religion.” So, the question is this: “Does giving credence to religion disqualify the rational mind from discovering and judging truth? And does giving credence to the mind disqualify religion as truth?” Are religion and the mind mutually exclusive?
Following Religion Does Not Exclude Using the Mind
Giving credence to religion does not exempt the mind from discovering or confirming truth. Why? Because religion needs the mind in order for religion to be understood. That is why Islam encourages people to use their reason to think.
God honored humans with the innate capacity for reason. He showed His preference for them over His other creatures by giving them this divine grace… the mind, as an intelligent tool for learning.
And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference. (Surah Al-Isrâ’, 17:70)
That is why He asked the angels to prostrate in front of Adam when Adam was being taught concepts and the words used to name them. And that is why the first word that was revealed from the Quran was “Read”:
Read! In the name of your Lord who created. He created the human from a clot [of blood]. Read! And your Lord is the most Generous. Who taught [writing] by the pen. He taught the human that which he did not know. No! (But) indeed, man transgresses all bounds. Because he sees himself self-sufficient. Indeed, to your Lord is the [ultimate] return [after this life]. (Surah Al-‘Alaq, 96:1-5)
If we understand that God creates by the word of His command, then we understand why the special creation of Jesus could be referred to with the label “Word” in the Christian Scripture [in the first verse of the Gospel of John] as “In the beginning was the Word…” While there are complicated Greek philosophical and Christian theological teachings that have developed with this theme, the Christian connection between the being of Jesus and the word of God’s command is noteworthy. God speaks into creation what He wills. Furthermore, humanity was created with a capacity for understanding and these concepts are captured in “words” of human language. God has spoken to all His prophets with “words,” including the very words of the Quran given to Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). Speech and writing are closely allied to man’s knowledge, both knowledge connected to man’s mind or to knowledge coming from revealed religion.
God praises those who use their minds to realize, think, contrive and reflect.
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding, who remember God while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and [who] give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire. (Surah Âli ‘Imrân, 3:190-191)
In addition, God considers wisdom to be one of His best blessings with which He blesses humans.
He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember [this] except those of understanding. (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:269)
Also, the Quran exhorts and demands us to use our minds to realize, think, contrive and reflect.
Say, “Observe what is in the heavens and earth.” But of no avail will be signs or warners to a people who do not believe. (Surah Yûnus, 10:101)
In contrast, the Quran disparages those who fail in using their minds.
Do they not contemplate within themselves? God has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. Have they not traveled through the earth and observed how the end of those before them was? They were greater than them in power, and they plowed the earth and built it up more than they have built it up, and their messengers came to them with clear evidences. And Allah would not ever have wronged them, but they were wronging themselves. (Surah al-Rûm, 30:8-9)
Furthermore, Islam makes the human mind the subject of His mandates, so that the discourse of legitimacy will apply only to the sane, while there is no commission or responsibility for those who have “lost” their minds.
“The pen has been lifted from three: From the sleeper until he wakes up, from the minor until he grows up, and from the insane until he comes back to his senses or recovers.” (Sunan al-Nasa’i 3432)
So then, how can we use the mind to understand religion? Can we use it to understand the Quran, explain its meanings, exegete its juristic rules, and interpret its senses, references, implications? Actually, God has commanded us to do just that.
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than God, they would have found within it much contradiction. (Surah Al-Nisâ’, 4:82)
And, in fact, that was what older generations of Muslims were confident enough to do before the Islamic civilization got frozen. The use of the rational mind to form an opinion-oriented explanation is one of two main methods employed to explain the meanings of the Quran. This method is not interpretation by raw opinion; on the contrary, mere opinion is prohibited:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
“Beware of narrating from me except what I taught you, for whoever lies about me on purpose, then let him take his seat in the Fire. And whoever says [something] about the Qur’an according to his [own] opinion, then let him take his seat in the Fire.” (Al-Tirmidhi. Vol. 5, Book 44, Hadith 2951)
So, opinions must be based on the reliable sources of Islamic knowledge, such as using another portion of the Quran, or sayings of Prophet Muhammad or his Companions. Also, the Quran may be interpreted based on linguistic and historical sources, and it may be interpreted to preserve the general goals of the Islamic law, which are the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect or property. So, any interpretation that threatens these goals may be discarded or ruled otherwise in order to secure these goals. The most distinctive feature of valid scholarly judgment is the inclusion of the reasoned opinion [ra’i] of the commentator, thus forming an objective view on Quranic verses.
Also, when we explain the meanings of the Quran, we need to take into account the cultural and social environment to which it has been revealed, and also take into account the conditions of the scholars’ own time and place when understanding that scholar’s commentary. The universality of the Qur’an must make us realize that we cannot confine verses to a single time interval, but rather interpret and apply them according to the needs of our time.
That is why Prophet Muhammad did not explain the whole Quran. He just explained some verses when his companions asked him about them. Since Prophet Muhammad did not fully explain the whole Quran, it leaves open the possibility of different valid interpretations, especially in new historical contexts.
Yes, Prophet Muhammad applied the Quran in his life, as an example for us to apply it in our life. But the problem is that our cultural and social life is different than his life, and that is why we need reason. That is why protecting the mind is one of the five goals of the Islamic law (Shari’ah). All the teachings of Islamic law aim to preserve and protect five major benefits and necessities that are essential to the honorable human life. Again, they are religion, life, intellect, progeny, and property. And again, reason is one of the tools or resources used in extracting the rules of Islamic law.
Using the Mind Does Not Exclude Following Religion
On the other hand, the mind does not arrive at pure truth without the help of revealed religion. Why? Because religion is a standard quality control inspector to protect the mind from delinquency.
Islam sets straight and thus frees the mind, and removes all obstacles and barriers of the mind, whenever these barriers seduce the mind from within, or dominate the mind from outside.
Some of these barriers seduce the mind from within when the person loves an illusion or misguided people. It is a problem of the mind when a person follows his predecessors or his religious authorities blindly. As a result, he disrupts and deactivates his mind so as to be in alignment with those traditions, customs and conventional ways of his fathers and grandfathers, or in order to submit to those who made him subject —in the name of religion— to a way that does not satisfy either the mind or religion.
Yes, we must be respectful to the righteous ways of our Fathers but being righteous ourselves is different than being misguided by them without understanding their insight. That is why the Quran warned us against turning off our minds and following our predecessor blindly:
O you who have believed, do not take your fathers or your brothers as allies if they have preferred disbelief over belief. And whoever does so among you – then [know that] it is those who are the wrongdoers. (Surah Al-Tawbah, 9:23)
In fact, this is actually what the disbelievers do.
Indeed they found their fathers astray. So they hastened [to follow] in their footsteps. (Surah Al-Ṣâffât, 37:69-70)
The customs and traditions of our predecessor provides a comfort zone for us. Staying there —without examining our predecessors’ time and place, could allow you to avoid your self-blame or lead to your being irresponsible for your personal mistakes.
And similarly, We did not send before you any warner into a city except that its affluent said, “Indeed, we found our fathers upon a religion, and we are following in their footsteps,.” [Each warner] said, “Even if I brought you guidance better than that [religion] upon which you found your fathers?” They said, “Indeed we are disbelievers in that with which you were sent,.” (Surah Al-Zukhrûf, 43:23-24)
Also, some people use their customs and traditions as an excuse to justify their bad deeds.
And when they commit an immorality, they say, “We found our fathers doing it, and God has ordered us to do [the same].” Say, “Indeed, God does not order immorality. Do you say about God that which you do not know?” (Surah Al-A’râf, 7:28)
Nevertheless, the Quran negates and condemns this line of reasoning when it insists that everyone is responsible for his own personal choices, and no one can consider his customs and traditions as an excuse for his mistakes, because following these customs and traditions is an option you chose.
And when it is said to them, “Follow what God has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” [And they would do this] even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided? (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:170)
That is why the Quran blames the disbelievers: because they turn off their reason and reject the truth just to follow their predecessors blindly. The Quran paints this mentality as ignorance.
And when it is said to them, “Come to what God has revealed and to the Messenger,” they say, “Sufficient for us is that upon which we found our fathers.” [And they would do this] even though their fathers knew nothing, nor were they guided?! (Surah al-Mâ’idah, 5:104)
By way of contrast, God praised Prophet Abraham because he used his reason to examine his people’s customs and traditions:
And recite to them the news of Abraham, when he said to his father and his people, “What do you worship?” They said, “We worship idols and remain devoted to them.” He said, “Do they hear you when you supplicate? Or do they benefit you, or do they do you harm?” They said, “But we found our fathers doing thus.” He said, “Then do you see what you have been worshipping, you and your ancient forefathers? Indeed, they are enemies to me, except the Lord of the worlds, Who created me, and He [it is who] guides me. (Surah Al-Shu’arâ’, 26:69-78)
Yes, we have to ask the people of revealed knowledge when we do not know, as the Quran advises us.
And We sent no [messengers] before you except men to whom We revealed [Our message]. So ask the people of the message if you do not know [My ways]. (Surah Al-Naḥl, 16:43)
However, the people of knowledge, who do not get benefit from their own knowledge, cannot benefit others. That is why Islam did not give any authority to the clerics over the consciences of others, nor did He give them any ability to forbid, allow, condemn or forgive.
In addition, the Quran alerts us of the consequences of those who have surrendered themselves to the deceit of such clerics:
They have [wrongly] taken their scholars and monks as lords besides God, and [also they have taken] the Messiah, the son of Mary [as their lord]. And they were not commanded [in religion] other than to worship the one God; there is no deity except Him. Exalted is He above whatever they associate with Him. (Surah Al-Tawbah, 9:31)
Moreover, Islam insists on removing all obstacles and barriers that can dominate the mind from outside, such as alcohol and other mind-altering substances, as well as authoritarian rule.
That is the very reason why everything that prevents the mind from performing its functions, such as alcohol and drugs, is forbidden in Islam.
Due to fear of tyrannical political leaders, people have often turned off their minds to blindly endorse what their leaders say. Islam encourages these people to resist this authoritarian rule. This is a problem of local circumstances, not a problem of wrongly engaging the mind.
Accordingly, Muslims are to be blamed for submission to tyranny in the place where they continue to live if they are able to leave it but do not do so. If they cannot resist tyrannical authority, then they must try to move to another place far from this authority.
Indeed, those whom the angels take [in death] while wronging themselves – [the angels] will say, “In what [condition] were you?” They will say, “We were oppressed in the land.” The angels will say, “Was not the earth of God spacious [enough] for you to emigrate therein?” For those, their refuge is Hell – and evil it is as a destination. (Surah Al-Nisâ’, 4:97)
In summary, Table 1 displays the connection and interplay between religion and the use of reason, the rational mind.
Religion and Reason
|Religion needs the mind||The mind needs religion|
|To understand the meanings of the Quran||To exegete the juristic rules||Religion protects the mind from delinquency because of|
|What seduces the mind from within||What dominated the mind from outside|
|The use of reason and mind to form an opinion-oriented explanation is one of two main methods to explain the meanings of the Quran.||Reason is one of the sources of Islamic Law.||Following predecessors.||Following religious authority.||Alcohols and drugs.||Authoritarian rule.|