The question of faith and reason is one that has intrigued philosophers since the dawn of human civilization. In a traditional sense, both faith and reason are sources from which knowledge has been and continues to be derived. This is the case as both faith and reason can purportedly serve the epistemic (1) function of religious thought. In essence, this short article intends to shed light on the importance of faith in an age of reason. In particular, what faith can give Man that reason cannot.
Essentially, the question posed is of immense importance and value to Man in the modern world considering the rapid advancement of science and technology, particularly in the 20th century. Although the importance of reason cannot be denied in regards to physical, natural and empirical inquiry, the ultimate needs of Man which comprise of a physical and metaphysical nature can only be completed through faith.
A Brief Discussion on Faith and Reason
In further elaborating upon the epistemic sources from which knowledge is derived: faith and reason; it would be accurate to describe reason as the seed that evolves into philosophical thought when developed into a scientific branch. In contrast, faith evolves into religion. Without reason, philosophy (which stems from the Greek word ‘sophos’ – meaning wisdom) is impossible. Likewise, religion without faith would be baseless. Religion without faith would limit the inquiry of Man of a metaphysical nature to a finite source of inquiry based solely upon reason. This can be explained through the words of Shaykh Muhyuddin Ibn al Arabi (2) who observes that “God is a percept, the world is a concept.”(3) That is to say that the physical world may be understood as a concept through reason whereas its metaphysical nature is beyond the grasp of reason. Thus, the effects of its metaphysical nature may only be perceived by Man as far as the senses understand the effect of metaphysics on the natural physical world. Ultimate reality is thus perceived in the physical world via the medium of cause and effect.
Thus, according to Ibn al Arabi, it is possible that that the external world which we understand through reason to be the intellectual world may be an intellectual construction. Beyond this construction, there may be many levels of human experience capable of being systemized by other orders of space and time- levels in which concept and analysis do not play an identical role as they do in the case of our normal experience of intellectual conception (4).
This is also supported by Eddington (5) who acknowledges that physics can only form a partial aspect of reality. How are we to deal with the other part? It cannot be said that the other concerns us less than the physical entities. Feelings, purposes, and values make up our consciousness as much as sense-impression (6). In other words, the metaphysical aspect of Man requires more than what is provided by reason. In the course of normal experience in the realm of time and space at an intellectual level, faith forms the basis of belief in such levels beyond the grasp of reason. Reason is useful for understanding a part of Reality but not all of it. The rest is in the domain of faith. In regards to this, the Holy Qur’an states:
“And in the alternation of night and day, and in that provision (of rain) which Allah sends down from the sky, and by that gives life to the earth after its death, and (in the same way) in the changing of the wind direction, there are signs for those who apply reason.” (7)
Furthermore, so far as the concept of faith is concerned, the great Muslim thinker Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (8) considers faith beyond its theological conception of mere feeling. Rather as defined by Professor Alfred Whitehead (9), a 20th Century English philosopher, religion (which is founded upon faith) is a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming one’s character when they are sincerely held, vividly apprehended and undoubtedly adhered to (10). Dr. Muhammad Iqbal extends his thought regarding the definition of religion to be an ‘expression of the whole man’. Thus religion and its seed is not a ‘departmental affair’. It extends beyond mere thought in the same manner as it extends between mere freeing of actions (11). It is wholesome, not partial or incomplete. This is why Islam, a ‘religion’, extends beyond parts, portions, and limits. Rather, it presents to Man a totality, completion, and entirety. Henceforth, Islam is referred to as a Deen in the Holy Qur’an, a way of life as opposed to a religion which merely accommodates the metaphysical aspect of Man.
“…Today I have perfected your Deen for you, and have completed My Blessing upon you, and have chosen for you Islam (as) Deen (a complete code of life)…” (12)
Interestingly, the limitations of reason are not pleaded by advocates of faith alone. The limitations of reason regarding metaphysical or ‘meta-intellectual’ experiences have been affirmed by thinkers during times that witnessed mass intellectual support for reason, such as the Rationalism movement in Europe. For example, in the 18th Century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (13) highlighted the limitations of reason in his Critique of Pure Reason whereby he steered the scope of reason away from the metaphysical, natural and religious speculation altogether so that Newton’s discoveries regarding the strict natural laws governing the empirical world could be materialized, though it must be noted that he denied that faith can be a source of morality.
Faith and Morality
As indicated previously, the discussion of faith and intellect is important. The scientists of the day are advancing in discoveries of earthly biological life in the universe and its physical and chemical origins. This must be applauded and supported as human intellect is developing in a manner not previously witnessed in history. I am not suggesting that such advancements are of no benefit; they are of immense benefit in terms of understanding the vastness of creation and the physical world and its consequent conception which leads to the perception of the ultimate reality of God.
The point that I would like to elaborate upon relates to the effect of such scientific developments on religion and Man’s faith. In recent years, we repeatedly hear from various intellectuals that the ‘Age of Science’ will allow science to replace religion. According to Muhammad Asad (14), religion is referred to by these class of thinkers as ‘a relic of Man’s barbaric past’. As per these thinkers, reason and intellect is sufficient for Man and once developed further will enable humanity to develop physical standards of ethics and morality that are not reliant upon any metaphysical sanction or reward (15).
It would not be unfair to assert that such optimism, which may be considered naïve, is not a modern phenomenon. Such optimism has been witnessed in the past few centuries of western thought where such ideas have received prominence due to thinkers such as Descartes (16) and Spinoza (17). Yet such optimism has translated into a reality of a different nature than that originally envisaged by thinkers of such a school of thought.
It cannot be denied that the more science progresses with time, the spiritual void left is not filled by science and nor are the hopes that have been attached by intellectuals to this notion. The more science advances and the more Man’s intellect advances, the universe becomes more mysterious and its understanding becomes ever more complicated (18). Also, it is clear from the mechanics of scientific research in the past few centuries that although science has a direct relation to matter, energy, photons and so forth, morality is beyond the scope of science and has no connection to one another whatsoever. Science deals with all that is around us and the wonders of the physical world, yet Man in relation to his metaphysical reality is ‘foreign territory’ for science as far as religious experience is concerned.
On the other hand, morality is clearly within the scope of religion. This is not to suggest that religion without science can give meaning to life, rather, life without either is incomplete. Ultimately, it is religion (in reference to faith) that may completely fulfil Man’s spiritual and physical needs. This is supported by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal and Bergson (19) who hold mysticism, undoubtedly a fruit of faith, to be the main organ through which life assures progress for individuals and for the human race as a whole (20).
Religion is, therefore, necessary because it is essentially a mode of actual living and the only sincere way of handling reality. Science, which is the method of dealing with this reality by means of concepts is not an adequate way of dealing with it. Science is not greatly concerned with whether the electron is a real entity or not. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal felt that nothing is at stake in the ventures of science (21). However, in the religious venture “the whole career of the ego or individual’s personal centre of life’ is at stake. This is because the individual cannot base his conduct just on mere illusions. A wrong concept may mislead the understanding, but a wrong deed not only degrades Man, and may eventually demolish the ego, but it is also a sociable deed that can affect others.
On a practical level, religion is necessary for modern Man, who has been wholly overshadowed by the result of his intellectual activity. The modern man has ceased to live soulfully from within thus resulting in an internal and external conflict. Whereas in the domain of economic and political life, Man is living in open conflict with other individuals and society at large.
Thus, only religion can ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility that the advancement of modern science necessarily involves. Consequently, this enables Man to attain a positive personality in the temporal worldly life and retain it in the hereafter (22).
Although the subject is vast, it would be appropriate to conclude at this stage that faith has an important position in life for Man. It is a necessity to answer metaphysical questions and fulfil the ultimate needs of Man. In the Reconstruction of Religious Thought, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal states that the essential aim of religion is the transformation and guidance of Man’s inner and outer life. Of particular importance is the fact that the completion of religion and its accompanying religious experience that results in such change can only be attained through faith and not intellect.
This is not to subtract from reason which is vital in understanding the physical world. Metaphysical matters are firmly beyond the scope of reason, and thus a great element of the life of Man is unaddressed. Additionally, it is only faith when it evolves into a religious experience that prepares Man for the challenges posed by scientific advancements. Furthermore, ultimate morality in its totality can only be provided by faith as it is within the domain of faith and religion to facilitate Man’s metaphysical needs. Reason on the other hand, which is of immense benefit in understanding the physical world, is limited in regards to facilitating Man’s metaphysical needs.
Written by Muhammad Umair
Muhammad Umair holds an LL.B and LL.M in Law from the University of Birmingham. He is also a student of classical Islamic sciences. In addition, he has a wide range of interests including Tasawwuf, History, Philosophy, Literature, and the role of Islam in the 21st century. In his spare time, he enjoys playing cricket, travelling, and reading the Urdu and Persian poetic works of Dr. Muhammad Iqbal.
1. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge. In particular: the sources, nature and limits of knowledge is dealt with under this branch of philosophy.
2. Shaykh Muhyuddin Ibn al Arabi (1165-1240): A Muslim mystic and philosopher from Andalusia who is regarded as Shaykhul Akbar (‘The Greatest Master’). He is buried in Damascus.
3. Denison, J-H, Emotion as the Basis of Civilization, 267
4. Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 144
5. Arthur Eddington (1882-1944): An English astronomer, physicist and mathematician of the early 20th Century who is renowned for his work on the theory of relativity.
6. Arberry, A-J, Revelation and Reason in Islam, 23
7. Holy Qur’an, 46:5
8. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938): A Muslim thinker, poet, philosopher and lawyer from Pakistan.
9. Alfred North Whitehead ((1861-1947): An English mathematician and philosopher that is credited as a defining figure of the philosophical school known as Process Philosophy.
10. Whitehead, A-N, Religion in the Making, 5
11. Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 2
12. Holy Qur’an, 5:3
13. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): A German philosopher who is regarded as a central figure of Modern Philosophy.
14. Muhammad Asad (1900-1901): A Austro-Hungarian born and Pakistani Muslim who is regarded as one of the most influential European Muslims of the 20th century.
15. Asad, M, Is Religion a thing of the Past?, 14
16. Rene Descartes (1596-1650): A French philosopher, mathematician and scientist who is regarded as a prominent figure of Western philosophy.
17. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677): A Dutch philosopher of Portugease origin that laid the foundation of the 18th Century Enlightenment period in Europe.
18. Asad, M, Is Religion a thing of the Past?, 14
19. Henri Bergson (1859-1941): An Influential French philosopher of the 20th Century.
20. Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 81
21. Ibid, 188
22. Ibid, 189