In the quest for God, is there a contradiction between the realm of faith and the realm of reason? Could this quest for God and the truth be undertaken with only one of them?
The story of creation, as it is told in the Qur’an, is remarkable. It all began, one may say, with a testimony and a covenant. Indeed, Revelation tells us that in the first stage of creation the Only One brought together the whole of mankind and made them bear witness:
And when your Sustainer took the offspring of Adam from his loins to bear witness about themselves: ‘Am I not your Lord?,’ they replied, ‘Assuredly, yes. We bear witness to it.’ This is a reminder lest on the day of judgment you say: ‘We did not know!’ (Al-A`raf 7:172)
This original testimony is of fundamental importance for the formation of the Islamic conception of humanity. It teaches us that in the heart and consciousness of each individual there exists an essential and profound intuitive awareness and recognition of the presence of the Transcendent.
Just as the sun, the clouds, the winds, the birds, and all the animals express their natural submission, as we have seen, the human being has within it an almost instinctive longing for a dimension that is “beyond.”
This is the idea of the fitrah, which has given rise to numerous exegetical, mystical, and philosophical commentaries, so central is it to the Islamic conception of the human being, faith, and the sacred. We find it mentioned in the following verse: “Surrender your whole being as a true believer and in accordance with the nature (natural desire) which God gave to human beings when He created them. There is no change in God’s creation. This is the unchangeable religion, but most people do not know” (Ar-Rum 30:30), and confirmed by a Prophetic tradition: “Every newborn child is born in fitrah: it is his parents who make of him a Jew, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
So this “original testimony” has impressed each person’s heart with a mark, which is a memory, a spark, a quest for God (transcendence) in a sense very close to Mircea Eliade’s insight when he affirms that religions “play a part in the structure of human consciousness.”
This statement from the first age, in which human beings declared their recognition of the Creator, fashions their relationship with God: they are bound by a sort of original covenant to which their consciousness presses them to stay faithful.
There is no original sin in Islam: every being is born innocent and then becomes responsible for his or her faithfulness to the covenant. Those who do not believe, the un-faithful (kafir), are those who are not faithful to the original covenant, whose memory is faint and whose sight is veiled.
In the notion of kufr in Arabic there is the idea of a veiling that leads to the denial of the Truth. Only God decides whether human beings will be enlightened or veiled. Their responsibility consists in their constant action and personal effort to keep the memory alive.
Little by little, we feel that the outlines of an Islamic conception of human nature are emerging. If none of the elements that make up the human being has, in itself, a positive or negative moral quality, if, on the contrary, it is the awakened, responsible conscience that exerts, through the exercise of control, ethical guidance on one’s way of being in the world, one is naturally entitled to wonder how to comply with the way this guidance is leading, how, in short, to be with God.
The answer to this is: all of us are required to return to ourselves and to rediscover the original breath, to revive it and confirm it. In order for this to be achieved, the Creator has made available to human beings two kinds of Revelation. One is spread out before us in space—the whole universe. The other stands out in history at points in time.
Quest for God…Truth
These two kinds of Revelation “remind” and send the conscious back to itself:
We will show them our signs on the horizons and in themselves so that it will be clear to them that (this message) is the truth. (Fussilat 41:53)
This quest for God (the Transcendent) cannot be undertaken without the mind. There is absolutely no contradiction here between the realm of faith and the realm of reason.
On the contrary, the spark of faith, born in the original testimony, needs intellect to confirm that testimony and to be capable of being faithful to the original covenant.
The realm of faith necessarily calls on intellect, which, by accepting the two types of Revelation, allows faith to be confirmed, deepened, and rooted and to grow to fullness in the heart and in human consciousness.
Here again the two must be wedded, and each has a part to play: a living faith makes it possible for the intellect to accept signs beyond simple elements of nature, and active reason makes it possible for faith to understand and also to acquire more self-understanding, and in that way to draw closer to the divine:
Of all the servants, those who know are those who are (fully) open to the intimate awareness of God. (Fatir 35:28)
Blaise Pascal had an apt expression: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know,” thus differentiating the two realms of faith and reason (even though this formula has often been (wrongly) reduced to an opposition between the emotional and the rational).
From an Islamic point of view, the relationship of the heart (where the first longing, the first breath toward faith takes place) and the intellect (which responds to the call of this breath and takes up the quest for God) might rather be expressed this way: the heart has reasons that reason will recognize.
Apart from the expression, the difference is profound.
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press (2004).