Faith and Reason
Faith is something which is attained after a valid search for the truth. It may be said to be the religious equivalent of scientific knowledge and certainty, which can only be achieved through a valid process of scientific inquiry, training and research. Science is not a medley of unproven hypotheses, and a hypothesis does not become part of scientific knowledge unless it is proven by valid scientific methods.
Religiosity and piety have been understood to mean not loyalty and commitment to the truth, but as faithfulness to the religious tradition in which one has been born and which one was made to imbibe through the process of acculturation. In all the existing religious traditions of the world, unfortunately including even the Islamic world for the most part, beliefs and practices are based on the ways of one’s ancestors and on the thoughtless adoption of current ideas, beliefs and norms through acculturation. Children are expected to adopt the creed of their parents, and adherence to any given religious tradition derives from imitation rather than individual research and quest. Imitation, acculturation and blind loyalty to the creed and beliefs of one’s elders and ancestors rather than through intellectual effort make the basis for the continuity of religious traditions. Such a view of religion is a travesty of the real meaning and spirit of religion as the highest and noblest of human pursuits for the truth.
According to Islam, imitation cannot be the basis of faith. Even if one adopts the right beliefs by following and imitating others, it will not be acceptable and such a person cannot be said to possess a valid faith. Faith is something which is attained after a valid search for the truth. It may be said to be the religious equivalent of scientific knowledge and certainty, which can only be achieved through a valid process of scientific inquiry, training and research.
Science is not a medley of unproven hypotheses, and a hypothesis does not become part of scientific knowledge unless it is proven by valid scientific methods. A scientific theory, even if it should be true and correspond to factual reality, cannot be accepted by the scientific community unless it can be established by valid empirical demonstration. Religious faith too is not blind faith; it is a knowledge that permeates deeply the heart of the faithful person as a result of valid intellectual effort, reasoning and spiritual endeavor.
The Qur’an is unique among the world’s scriptures in that it not only lays down the doctrines and laws of the Islamic religion, but also offers a critique of the religious traditions that existed in the Arabia of those days, namely Arab polytheism, Judaism and Christianity. The rejection of imitation and acculturation as a foundation for belief has a basis in the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an flatly rejects the rationale advanced by the polytheists for following the creed and practices of their ancestors: “When they are told, ‘Follow what Allah has sent down,’ they say, ‘We will rather follow what we have found our fathers following.’ What! Even if their fathers neither applied any reason nor were guided?! The parable of the faithless is that of someone who shouts after that which does not hear [anything] except a call and cry: deaf, dumb, and blind, they do not apply reason”. (2:170-1)
According to the Qur’an, the most conspicuous characteristic of those who are devoid of real faith is that they do not apply rational criteria to their beliefs. As such they are considered creatures of a lower order than animals, because the animals simply follow their innate God-given instincts, whereas the faithless fail to use their God-given intellects and therefore degenerate to a level below that of animals: “Do you suppose that most of them listen or apply reason? They are just like cattle; rather they are further astray from the way.” (25:44)
Indeed the worst of beasts in Allah’s sight are the deaf and the dumb who do not apply reason. While Allah says, “Indeed We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you may apply reason.” (12:2)
Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi studied under Allama Tabatabai, Imam Khomeini, and Ayatollah Behjat. He is a member of the Iranian Assembly of Experts and currently lives and teaches in the holy city of Qom.
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the author’s book Theological Instructions.