The Limits of Reason

An everlasting salute to our Beloved Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- as well as his family and Companions, who contemplated the universe, humanity and the Holy Quran in the profoundest, most beautiful and feeling manner and taught his followers to read all of  these with the eye of the heart.

Islam places great importance on reason; so much so that it regards reason as one of the two prime requisites of being held accountable for actions.[1] At every opportunity, it advises one how to utilize reason in a befitting manner. But it also states that the capability boasted by reason to comprehend is not unlimited, as Allah, glory unto Him, has not endowed any creation with unlimited powers.

Similarly to how vision and hearing are limited in their exercise, so also is the power of rational comprehension. Just as the existence of countless beings is not exhausted by the fact they elude eyesight, and there are a host of sounds that are inaudible simply because they exceed the power of hearing, there is a myriad of truths that, remaining outside the capacity of reason, transcend reason’s attempts of comprehension. Reason therefore does not suffice on its own to grasp reality in its totality.

While they have promised happiness, rationally inclined philosophers, who have regarded reason as the font of unlimited powers, have only ended up dragging the people they were able influence into a state of distress.[2]

Allah, glory unto Him, who indisputably knows the flaws and shortcomings of His servants infinitely better than the servants can ever hope of knowing in themselves, sent throughout the history of humankind –according to tradition- over 124,000 prophets, all of whom were subjected to Divine Revelation, and reinforced them with scriptures, books and the most potent of aids to guide humankind to the truth and to help them rectify the flaws they cannot by themselves overcome.

It is therefore imperative for reason to undergo training under wahy, Divine revelation. Reason untouched by the guidance of Divine revelation is like a wild, untamed horse that not only does not comply with his rider in his hope of reaching his destination, but flings him over the edge of a cliff to perish. Just as the best way to tame a horse is to bridle it and train it, it is necessary to subject reason to the spiritual training of wahy and its clarification, the Sunnah of the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace-, and thereby set reason right. Until this is done, reason is like a weapon; it may strike for the better, but also and detrimentally, for the worse…

The Role of the Heart

In Islam, iman, that is faith, takes place through the affirmation of the heart and pronouncement of the tongue. What that means is that the true precinct where faith becomes manifest is not reason, but the heart, the center of spiritual sensing and feeling. This point is very important, for faith is a sublime feeling, whereas reason, in contrast, consists in providing means to overcome certain initial phases of understanding to reach that feeling of faith.

True faith is not accomplished unless the Divine truths accepted by reason receive their affirmation in the heart. A faith not entrenched in the heart does not transform into deeds and provide a direction to ones behavior. A faith as such carries no worth in the sight of the Almighty, who condemned the past scholars of the people of Israel for not practicing what they studied and learned of the Divine truths due to not having digested those truths in their hearts, comparing them with donkeys burdened with volumes of books.[3]

Knowing Divine truths, therefore, does not mean stashing them in the mind. To know is to decipher, through contemplating and sensing, the mystery of the tremendous order in the universe and in life and acting accordingly. And only a heart enlightened with the light of faith can live up to that.

What reason reaps through contemplating man, the universe and the Holy Quran, is comparable to raw minerals acquired from the earth. Processing these minerals into things of value, on the other hand, is part and parcel of the heart.

The heart is the center of spiritual sensing, of feeling. The function of the heart, also indicated by the terms intuition and inspiration, is to unify the proofs presented by reason and thereby enable a perfect comprehension of the truth, a process comparable to bringing the pieces of a broken vase together and revealing its true shape and pattern.

It is thus clear that the most perfect manner to reach the true and the good requires reason to be trained under revelation and a heart with a maturity of faith to step in and make amends for its inadequacy.

The value of contemplation, too, depends on it being reinforced with spiritual sense. Simply put, it rests upon a harmonious and balanced exertion of both the heart and reason. A balance swinging heavily in the way of reason may make someone a good man of the world, a self-seeking person. But in order to be a refined Muslim, it is imperative for the heart, the center of feeling and sensing, to receive spiritual training and act as a guide to reason; for the heart gives direction to thinking, while thinking provides direction to willpower. This effectively means that deeds of intent have their primary incentive in the heart; in effect, they are nothing but feelings embedded therein. Rectifying the heart in accordance with Divine commands is therefore of greater importance than setting other parts of the body in proper balance.

A kind of pseudo contemplation, based on desires egotistic in nature, vulnerable to spiritual diseases like pride and conceit and devoid of the guidance of the heart, digresses from its natural course, misleading man to devilish transgressions and depravity.

Mawlana Rumi says:

Had Lucifer’s love been as immense as his reason, he would not have been the Satan he is today.”

It is therefore clear that reason alone holds no value. To take the helms of reason and give it an unswerving direction, it is vital to spiritually refine the feelings embedded in the heart.

To be concise, true contemplation begins at the point where a revelation inspired reason meets with a spiritually matured heart. Our use of the concept ‘contemplation’ throughout this book should therefore strictly be taken in its most perfected form: contemplation trained under Divine truths and reinforced with the sense of the heart.

Contemplation (اَلتَّفَكُّر) means to derive a lesson from any given thing or experience and focus on it, so as to gain a depth of understanding.

Deliberation (اَلتَّأَمُّل) means to stop and think and to further the investigation by virtue of persisting in contemplation. It denotes a process of delicate thought conducted on the universe and surrounding events, with the aim of deriving a lesson and thereby reaching the core of the given matter.

Forethought (اَلتَّدَبُّر) is to reflect on the pending consequences of a given event.

The Importance of Contemplation

Both the Book of Allah, glory unto Him, and the sayings of the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- emphatically command and encourage investigating, contemplating and deriving lessons from one’s surroundings. In just two verses from among hundreds of others mentioned in the Holy Quran in this regard, the Almighty states:

“Do they not reflect within themselves: Allah did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them two but with truth, and (for) an appointed term? And most surely most of the people are deniers of the meeting of their Lord.” (ar-Rum, 8)

“Say: I exhort you only to one thing, that rise up for Allah’s sake in twos and singly, then ponder: there is no madness in your companion; he is only a warner to you before a severe chastisement.” (as-Saba’, 46)

In the above, humans are enjoined to serve the Almighty, both individually and communally, and contemplate and focus on reality.[4] Those who do this are promised salvation even if this be the only command they adhere to.

The Prophet of Allah was in a Constant State of Contemplation

The Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- loved silence and contemplation. In the times just prior to his prophethood, he had grown even a more intense desire to retreat. He would remain for days on end in the Cave of Hira, approximately around 5 kilometers away from Mecca. His worship in these times of retreat was comprised of contemplation, gazing at the Kabah and reflecting on the treasures of the heavens and earth in the footsteps of his great ancestor Ibrahim –upon him peace-.[5] Through this manner, the Almighty was preparing him for his sacred mission.

The contemplation of the universe, its Creator and creation in which the Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- immersed himself during those days, did not cease for the remainder of his life.

Hind ibn Abi Hala –Allah be well-pleased with him- explains:

“The Messenger of Allah was in a continuous state of sorrow and thought. Comfort for him was irrelevant. He never spoke in vain. His silence was longer than his speech. He would always begin and end his talk by mentioning the name of Allah…”(Ibn Sa’d, I, 422-423)

To encourage Muslims to embark upon contemplation, The Prophet of Allah –upon him blessings and peace- has said:

My Lord has commanded my silence to be of contemplation.” (İbrahim Canan, Hadis Ansiklopedisi, XVI, 252/5838)

There is no worship like contemplation.” (Bayhakî, Shuab, IV, 157; Ali al-Muttaqî, XVI, 121)

Be like wayfarers on this earth! Adopt mosques as homes! Accustom your hearts to sensitivity! Contemplate and cry in lots! Let not your desires of the ego change you!”(Ebû Nuaym, Hilye, I, 358)

The Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- again narrates from the ten leaves of Revelation given to Ibrahim –upon him peace-:

An intelligent man ought to have certain hours: A portion of those hours ought to be spared for praying to and seeking from the Lord, another portion for contemplating the sublime art and power of the Almighty, another portion to reflect on what has been committed in the past and planning what to do in the future and another for earning a living in a manner permissible.” (Ebû Nuaym, Hilye, I, 167; İbn-i Esîr, el-Kâmil, I, 124)

Luqman –upon him peace- used to love sitting by himself in a secluded place to contemplate, something he frequently did. Upon being asked, “You keep to your self most of the time. Would not it be better if you mixed in with people and spoke with them?” Luqman –upon him peace- gave the following response:

“Remaining alone for long period of time is more suitable for contemplation. And remaining in contemplation for a long period of time is a guide that leads one to Paradise.”[6]

Abu’d-Darda –Allah be well-pleased with him- used to say:

“An hour of contemplation is superior to forty nights of supererogatory worship.” (Deylemî, II, 70-71, no: 2397, 2400)

Said ibn Musayyab, a prominent scholar of the Tabiun generation, was once asked which deed of worship held greater virtue.

“Contemplating the creation of Allah”, he replied, “and growing insightful into His religion.” (Bursevî, Rûhu’l-Bayân, [an-Nûr, 44])

Bishr ibn Khafiy used to emphasize the significance of contemplation in the following words:

“Had human beings properly contemplated the majesty of Allah, they would not have been able to rebel against him and commit sins.” (Ibn Kathir, I, 448, [Âl-i İmrân, 190])

As explained earlier, contemplation that leads one to an understanding of the majesty of Allah, glory unto Him, is an activity of reason. But it is the heart that culminates this activity in a perfect result. Since the heart is the noblest part of the body, it is only natural for its deeds to stand in greater worth than those carried out by other parts. The heart, after all, is the precinct of Divine Sight.

It remains an incontestable fact that a contemplation exerted by a reason trained under revelation is the first glimmer of the rays that enlighten the heart. It is the first and only means on the path that leads one to prudence and wisdom. Again, a contemplation of such caliber is a means to purge the heart from everything except for the Almighty (masiwallah) and thereby attain Divine Love.

The most beneficial of all contemplation is to reflect on Divine Majesty, Splendor and Sovereignty, by which one begins to think of ways of setting his or her life right and leaving all things detrimental to her or his eternal happiness.

Contemplating the blessings, commands, prohibitions, names and attributes of Allah, glory unto Him, flourishes love and wisdom in the heart and begins to elevate one spiritually. The thought of the Hereafter, its honor and eternality compared to the stage of test that is the life of the world increases desire for the life after and enables one to value the world only as much as is merited. One then realizes that the life of the world is but a sprint race from the mother’s womb to the grave. Grasping the fact that life is a precious asset for earning the bliss of eternity, allows the person to increase his solemnity and effort to render life more meaningful. He treats the time he has in his hands like treasure, making sure to make the most of it through good and beneficial deeds.

Abu’l-Hasan Harakani says it beautifully:

“At any given time, it is necessary for at least one limb of a Believer to be preoccupied with the remembrance of the Almighty. A Muslim ought to remember Allah either with the heart or the tongue, or see something the Almighty would like him to see, or do deeds of generosity with the hand, or visit people with his feet, or put his mind to service of fellow Muslims, or offer a prayer with an unwavering faith, or contemplate so as to attain wisdom, or do a sincere deed, or warn people of the adversities of Judgment Day.

Such a person will surely enter Paradise the moment he raises his head from the grave, dragging his shroud from behind him; of that I am his guarantor!”[7]

[1]     One of the prerequisites of being held accountable in the sight of Allah, glory unto Him, is to have reached puberty, while the other is to be sane, that is to have the rational aptitude developed enough to discern right from wrong. In line with this criterion, children and the insane are not considered by Islam to be liable for their actions.

[2]     An incident reported to have taken place in Ancient Greece is emblematic in displaying the shortcomings of reason. Accordingly, a young man once requested a reputed philosopher to train him in legal matters. As agreed, half the philosopher’s wage was to be paid in advance, while the other half after the young man succeeded in his first court case. Triumph in his first court case would supposedly show that he received a perfect legal training, meaning his teacher would rightfully deserve the second installment. At the end of his legal training, however, the young man requested his teacher give up his rights to the second installment, suggesting the payment he had already received in advance was duly sufficient. Because of this dispute, the first court case took place between the young man and his teacher. So the hearing began. The young man, addressing the panel of judges, said:

      “Whether I win or lose this case, I should not be paying the second installment regardless.”

      “Why is that?” asked the high judge, upon which the youth replied:

      “If I win, I will not be paying due to your ruling. If I lose, I will not be held liable with the payment according to our prior agreement with the claimant.”

      In response, his teacher, the philosopher, spoke with a similar tone.

      “Whether I win or lose”, he said, “I should be taking the second installment of my payment.”

      “Why?” asked the high judge, once more.

      “If I win, I will be receiving the payment due to your ruling. If I lose, I will be receiving it according to our prior agreement with the young man.”

      Evidently, both cases are sound and logical, which goes to show that reason and logic can, time and again, become imprisoned between walls they themselves erect and become stranded in a dead end road. For reason, which miserably breaks down even when trying to find a solution for many a human predicament, it is impossible to grasp the infinite Divine truths in all their aspects. The deliverance of reason from these dead ends therefore lies in coming under the training of Revelation and recognizing the need to spiritually surrender to truths that surpass its limits of comprehension.

[3]     See, al-Juma, 5.

[4]     Opinions held by society or the majority can tend to exert their influence on personal opinion, Relief from this influence and finding a pathway to the truth lies in requesting the guidance of the experts of that path and spending time alone with the heart so as to enter the domain of contemplation. Each person must therefore voice his own opinion and critically assess the accuracy of general opinion.

[5]     Aynî, Umdatu’l-Qari, Beirut, I, 61; XXIV, 128.

[6]     Imam Ghazzali, Ihya-u Ulumi’d-Din, Beirut1990, Daru’l-Khayr, VI, 45. The place inside a historical mosque in Tarsus where Luqman –upon him peace- retreated to itiqaf to contemplate is still visited today.

[7]     Abu’l-Hasan Harakânî, Seyr ü Sülûk Risâlesi, prepared by Sadık Yalsızuçanlar, p. 107, Sufi Kitap, Istanbul, 2006.