Divine Revelation and Rationality

Book: Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truthby Mirza Tahir Ahmad

Divine Revelation and Rationality

IN another chapter we briefly covered the progress of Muslim thought and intellectual pursuits in many areas of human interest. During that period, although Muslim enquiry was predominantly influenced by Quranic teachings and the traditions of the Holy Prophetsa, it could not be entirely qualified as Islamic. There was a rapid proliferation of academic growth in all directions. Many new philosophies and sciences were acquired from past eras of secular, academic and scientific achievements. Also, many a new branch of religious and secular knowledge was pioneered by some outstanding Muslim thinkers. Thus, religion and rationality went hand in hand. They drew their thrust largely from the emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge laid in the Quran and the instructions of the Holy Prophetsa. The role of rationality was so powerfully highlighted that religious belief and rationality became synonymous. The proclamation by the Quran that Muhammadsa is a universal Prophet with a universal message, is in itself tantamount to declaring that the religion of Islam is founded on rationality. No religion with any element of irrationality can be acceptable to the universal conscience of man:

And We have not sent thee but as a bearer of glad tidings and a Warner, for all mankind, but most men know not.1

Again, the Quran demonstrates the universality of its teachings by addressing all human, moral, social and religious problems of man, irrespective of race, colour, creed or nationality. It is necessary therefore, that Islamic teachings should have the potential of global application with an appeal to universal human nature. But this is not the only reason why we draw this conclusion.

The Quran manifestly acknowledges the role of rationality for the attainment of truth without drawing any separating line between religious or secular truths. Truth is the religion of Islam, Islam is the religion of Truth. The truth requires no compulsion for the transmission of its message, the only instrument it needs is rationality. As such, Islam invokes human intellect to investigate the truth of the Quranic teachings with reference to the study of human nature, history and rationality. It arouses the human faculties of reasoning and deduction, not only for the pursuit of religious investigation, but also for the attainment of secular knowledge. Impressed by this outstanding emphasis by the Quran on the quest for knowledge, Professor Dr. Abdus Salam*, the renowned Nobel Laureate was invoked to study the impact of this enlightning attitude on the Muslim thought of the early period. In one of his articles on this subject, he observes:

‘According to Dr. Mohammed Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University, nothing could emphasize the importance of sciences more than the remark that “in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Quran—almost one-eighth of it—exhort the believers to study Nature—to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of the community’s life”. The Holy Prophet of Islam—peace be upon him—said that it was the “bounden duty of every muslim—man and woman—to acquire knowledge”.’2

* Sadly, Professor Dr. Abdus Salam passed away before the publication of this book.

The enquiry by itself is not sufficient, however, warns the Quran. The inner truth of man is a prerequisite for him to draw right conclusions from it. This principle of fundamental importance is dictated in the very beginning in the Surah Al-Baqarah. It should be remembered that though Al-Baqarah is formally counted as the second after Surah Al-Fatihah which contains the gist of the entire Quran, in effect it could be treated as an introductory Surah. Thus Al-Baqarah may be counted as the first Surah with which the full text begins. Al-Baqarah begins with the following opening statement:

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Ever Merciful.

I am Allah, the Most Knowledgeable.

This is that perfect Book; there is no doubt in it; a guidance for the righteous (muttaqi).3

This profound declaration, simple as it may appear, demands special attention for the comprehension of its underlying message. The Divine teachings are obviously expected to guide the unrighteous to the right path. What, then, is the significance of the claim that this book can guide only those who are already righteous? What the Quran implies is simply this that the seeker after truth must necessarily be true himself or his inquiry will prove futile. The discovery of truth according to this declaration depends essentially on the honesty of the enquirer’s intent. A profound wisdom is reflected in this short simple statement:

… a guidance for the righteous.4

The same principle often applies to the realm of secular enquiry as well. Every enquiry made with a biased mind will often lose credibility. Attention is drawn to the fact that an honest, healthy mind is a prerequisite for every true meaningful enquiry. A mind bonded to prejudice cannot draw unbiased conclusions. An observer with a squint in his eye cannot see straight. Hence, no guidance is in itself sufficient to lead one to truth. It takes a sound, unbiased, healthy, honest mind to benefit from it. It is here that one problem is resolved but another begins.

Contrary to what one may expect in the realm of religious controversies, little inner truth is displayed by most of the warring religious factions in the world today. One would normally expect that the religious should adhere more strongly to truth than the secular. In reality however, we find the opposite to be true in the later stages of every religion. In the beginning of religions it is invariably the religious who are unbiased and uncompromisingly committed to truth rather than the rest of the society, be it secular or avowedly religious. The graph of rationality, reason and truth touches its highest peak at a time when the religious founders are themselves alive.

Returning to the verses under discussion, we find that in them God is introduced as the Knower of all things to the point of absolute precision. Thus the knowledge that He bestows has to be perfect and most reliable. Yet the recipient of that knowledge may fail to benefit from it if he lacks the quality of inner truth.

If we replace the idea of God with that of rationality, for the convenience of the non-believer, the statement would read as follows:

That which is absolutely rational cannot lead anyone to the truth except those who possess a quality of righteousness or inner truth within them. This provides the most essential prerequisite for the attainment of reliable knowledge, be it religious or secular. Both the source of information and the recipient of information must be true.

SO FAR SO GOOD, but this is not the end of the road. In fact it is from here that the more difficult part of the journey begins. Who can adjudge the quality of another person’s inner truth? Everyone has a right to claim that he is absolutely true in his inner bearing. Hence whatever he believes is true. How does the Quran resolve this problem, is the question. Merely by pronouncing that ‘Allah knows best’, this problem cannot be resolved at the human level. But this is not the solution which the Quran proposes. According to the Quran the measure and quality of anyone’s inner truth can be reliably adjudged by reference to his visible conduct in everyday life. If he is habitually true in his ordinary daily bearing then his inner invisible self can also be adjudged as true. By the same criterion the truth of prophets is also judged. Although it is not impossible for a habitual liar to be occasionally true, both in his expressed word and unexpressed intentions, it is next to impossible for him to be consistently true. Hence it is absolutely rational for the prophets to argue that a society which could never blame them, prior to their claim, for even a semblance of a lie, had no justification whatsoever in blaming them for fabricating lies against God and calling it revelation.

This method of measuring the inner truth may work with unfaltering reliability in the case of prophets, who consistently display exemplary conduct throughout their lives. But it cannot be applied with equal certainty to other humans less than prophets. The situations vary widely from person to person, the vantage points differ, the faculty of comprehension and the ability to draw the right conclusions are not equally shared. Everyone is not gifted with the rare ability of penetrating across the façade of words or false portrayals. The interplay between the faculties of the observer and the one who is observed leads to innumerable possibilities. Some can conceal their hidden intentions almost to the point of perfection, while there are those who are less competent to deceive. With what measure of reliability therefore, can a human observer pass judgement on the inner quality of truth or falsehood of another? The problem deepens further when it comes to the matter of faith and belief. Even if one holds the maddest of beliefs and dogmas, and there is no dearth of such people in the realm of religion today, they cannot be blamed with any finality of being consciously untrue. They may be too naive or too stupid to identify their folly which may be manifestly evident to others. Yet they have every right to believe or claim that they are right. They, in turn, can condemn the beliefs of others to be false, however sound and rational they may appear to the holders of such beliefs.

The only unfaltering answer to this dilemma is the one proposed by the Quran. It grants every human the fundamental right to believe in whatever he may and to claim that his beliefs are true. Yet it does not, in any way, permit him to impose his personal convictions on others, nor does it grant him any right to punish others for the crime of their wrong beliefs (as he judges them). Man is only answerable to God, and it is He alone Who knows the hidden intricacies of the human mind and heart. Again it is not the failure to recognize truth which is punishable. What is punishable is the falsehood of the person who rejects truth knowing deep within that he is wrong. Evidently the detection of this hidden crime lies beyond the reach of human investigation. The decisive factor is always the criminal failure and not the failure itself. The only reliable vantage point is that of God the All-Knowing, the Omnipresent, the Unchanging, the All-Wise. That indeed is the most important factor of which the Holy Quran reminds the reader so emphatically and repeatedly. In the area of religious beliefs and modes of worship, man is specifically warned not to combine in himself the role of a judge and that of an executioner. Even the Holy Founder of Islamsa is reminded:

… you are merely an admonisher,

You are not a magistrate over them.5

It is forbidden even to abuse the imaginary gods of idolaters which are a mere concoction of their fancy:

Do not abuse those whom they worship besides Allah, lest in retaliation they are driven to abuse Allah (the only true God). So have We made the practice of everyone to appear to be attractive in their view. Then their return will be to their Lord who will then inform them of what they had been really doing.6

This, however, does not obviate the vital need for recognizing and acquiring truth before one breathes one’s last. To possess the right to believe in whatever one may is one thing, but to escape the consequences of one’s belief is quite another. The fundamental right and freedom to hold any belief is not a license to violate the sanctity of truth. It is provided only to protect the freedom of human conscience to act as it may deem fit. Had this freedom in matters of faith not been granted, anyone could have felt at liberty to forcibly change an other’s views and beliefs in the name of truth. His perverted logic would convince him that as no one is entitled to hold false beliefs, everyone with right beliefs is authorized to forcibly change them in accordance with his own. Again this freedom of belief does not, in any way, override the principle of accountability. The right of freedom can be correctly understood only when it is coupled with this principle. If a group of mountaineers are told to follow whatever trail they may choose in whatever direction they please, but are also warned that some trails could lead them to the precipice of annihilation, they would certainly watch their steps with every caution at their command. Yet such daredevils as are blind to their own interest may altogether ignore the warning and exercise their right of freedom to their own ultimate destruction. This is the meaning of freedom of faith and freedom of choice in the Quranic terms:

There is no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.7

All the same, the categoric prohibition to change another person’s faith by force does not deprive anyone of his right to change others through persuasive arguments and dialogues, so long as it is free from even a whisper of threat. Let alone permission, it is the bounden duty of every believer to invite mankind to the path of God with wisdom and goodly persuasion:

Invite to the path of thy Lord with wisdom and comely admonishment and dispute with them in the best of manners…8

THIS IS the Divine global plan for the conquest of human ideas and ideologies by Islam. Can anyone detect even a particle of irrationality therein? The steaming stinking breath of the fundamentalist, as he exhorts the sentiments of the Muslim masses and stirs them up to wage bloody wars against the non-believers has never been observed in the conduct of prophets and those who follow them. He draws his authority entirely from his own distorted vision. His attitude is as alien to the Quran as disease is to cure and venom is to elixir. The number of verses exhorting Muslims to make the best use of reason, rationality and scientific investigation as mentioned by Dr. Mohammad A’ijazul Khatib of Damascus adds up to 750. As against this, there is not a single verse in the entire Quran advocating irrational dogmatic invasion of the world of ideas. To conclude, we quote just a few of the verses to give the reader a taste of how the Holy Quran emphasizes the role of reason, rationality and solid evidence in the realm of ideas and beliefs.

Do you enjoin others to do what is good and forget your own selves, while you read the Book? Will you not then understand?9


And when they meet those who believe, they say: ‘We believe,’ and when they meet one another in private, they say: ‘Do you inform them of what Allah has unfolded to you, that they may thereby argue with you before your Lord? Will you not then understand?’10


And they say, ‘None shall ever enter Heaven unless he be a Jew or a Christian.’ These are their vain desires. Say, ‘Produce your proof, if you are truthful.’11


O ye people, a manifest proof has indeed come to you from your Lord, and We have sent down to you a clear light.12

And worldly life is nothing but a sport and pastime. And surely the abode of the Hereafter is better for those who are righteous. Will you not then understand?13


Say, “I do not say to you: ‘I possess the treasures of Allah’, nor do I know the unseen; nor do I say to you: ‘I am an angel.’ I follow only that which is revealed to me.” Say: ‘Can a blind man and one who sees be alike?’ Will you not then reflect?14

Say, ‘He has power to send punishment upon you from above you or from beneath your feet, or to confound you by splitting you into sects and make you taste the violence of one another.’ See how We expound the Signs in various ways that they may understand!15


Say, ‘If Allah had so willed, I should not have recited it to you nor would He have made it known to you. I have indeed lived among you a wholelifetime before this. Will you not then understand?’16

‘O my people, I do not ask of you any reward therefore. My reward is not due except from Him Who created me. Will you not then understand?’17


Have they taken gods beside Him? Say, ‘Bring forth your proof. Here is the Book of those with me, and the Book of those before me.’ Nay, most of them know not the truth, and so they turn away.18


And He it is Who gives life and causes death, and in His Hands is the alteration of night and day. Will you not then understand?19


And he who calls on another god along with Allah, for which he has no proof, shall have to render an account to his Lord. Certainly the disbelievers will not prosper.20


… Is there a God besides Allah? Say, ‘Bring forward your proof if you are truthful.’21


And whatever of the things of this world you are given is only a temporary enjoyment of the present life and an adornment thereof; and that which is with Allah is better and more lasting. Will you not then understand?22


And We shall draw from every people a witness and We shall say, ‘Bring your proof.’ Then they will know that the truth belongs to Allah. And that which they used to forge will be lost unto them.23


And he did lead astray a great multitude of you. Why did you not then understand?24


If We had sent down this Quran on a mountain, thou wouldst certainly have seen it humbled and rent asunder for fear of Allah. And these are similitudes that We set forth for mankind that they may reflect.25



  1. Translation of 34:29 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  2. LAI, C.H., KIDWAI, A (1989) Ideals and Realities. Selected Essays of Abdus Salam. 3rd ed. World Scientific Publishing Co. London, pp.343–344
  3. Translation of 2:1–3 by the author.
  4. Translation of 2:3 by the author.
  5. Translation of 88:22–23 by the author.
  6. Translation of 6:109 by the author.
  7. Translation of 2:257 by the author.
  8. Translation of 16:126 by the author.
  9. Translation of 2:45 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  10. Translation of 2:77 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  11. Translation of 2:112 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  12. Translation of 4:175 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  13. Translation of 6:33 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  14. Translation of 6:51 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  15. Translation of 6:66 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  16. Translation of 10:17 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  17. Translation of 11:52 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  18. Translation of 21:25 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  19. Translation of 23:81 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  20. Translation of 23:118 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  21. Translation of 27:65 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  22. Translation of 28:61 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  23. Translation of 28:76 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  24. Translation of 36:63 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
  25. Translation of 59:22 by Maulawi Sher Ali.

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