The Story of Reason in Islam
  • Book Title:
 The Story Of Reason In Islam
  • Book Author:
Sari Nusseibeh
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Three quick observations may prove helpful in setting out, two of which concern the title of the book, and the third its content.

First, the average Western reader might find the use of the word reason in association with Islam somewhat incongruous, especially given the horrors that various groups around the world are committing in the name of this religion today. The work at hand does not mean to dismiss the phenomenon, nor does it propose to study it.

 Rather, its aim is to take a historical look at the rise and use of reason in early Islam. Since the term has many different, but wholly legitimate, meanings across cultures—and within Islam itself—it is advisable to specify how it is understood here. In this context, it simply refers to a methodical and systematic approach to analyzing problems: the “philosophical” ways that ideas were entertained and discussed, regardless of the “discipline” to which they belonged (e.g., philosophy, linguistics, jurisprudence, or any of the other, traditional or science fields).

Islamic history has many aspects, of course; while broaching adjacent terrain, this book focuses on the evolution of reason in the manner described.

In turn, story underscores the fact that this work is not meant as a specialized study. Indeed, it could hardly fulfill such an ambition, given the different subjects and periods it covers. Rather, it is meant as a personal interpretation or “take” on the history of ideas as they came to be expressed in classical Arabic, which first served as a medium for the rise of reason in the eighth century, and then, by the eighteenth, for its decline (if not ex-tinction).

In this sense, the book may hold interest for anyone who wishes to learn more about the history of ideas, irrespective of the form or setting in which they found expression. The theme of the story is the integral relationship between thought and language. The acts are played out in clas-sical Arabic. Its scenes just happen to be set in Islam.

Finally, it should be observed that, inasmuch as what follows is a story, the reader familiar with Islamic intellectual history and philosophy will not find the customary signposts in chapter titles (for instance major names, disciplines, periods, or schools of thought). Rather, the story extends forward and backward in time, here and there, highlighting the themes I consider key for understanding a developmental flow of ideas and events over a long period of Islamic history, when brilliance shone in many lights.

Consequently, the treatment given to some of the material does not conform to standard views. Occasionally, it may strike those who know something about it already as controversial. In the end, this story is meant both to challenge and be enjoyed by the reader.

This is no easy task by any measure. On the one hand, a proper appreciation of some of the ideas discussed requires a fair amount of in-depth explication; on the other hand, a readable “story theme” that can maintain the interest of the general reader should prevail. I hope that—given the way the ideas and the historical narratives are interspersed in the text—I have managed to achieve this dual objective.

That said, the general reader must be forewarned that some of the material may seem somewhat detailed and ponderous; however, in-as much as the major themes are revisited in different forms in the various chapters, some of the arguments can be glossed over quickly by anyone wishing to avoid too much detail.

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One issue, in particular, poses difficulties in a work of this kind. The sheer multitude of unfamiliar Arabic names may distract the reader from being able to follow the arguments and ideas presented. Unfortunately, this obstacle cannot be eliminated entirely, as names naturally provide points of reference throughout the chapters’ many twists and turns.

That said, the figures featured on these pages certainly merit attention; familiarizing oneself with them should provide instruction, if not amusement!

Finally, where needed, I have included references in footnotes to more specialized articles or books associated with the matters discussed and the arguments made. The general reader, on the other hand, may con-sult a short bibliography, at the end, of further readings on the various sub-jects dealt with in the text. More extensive and specialized bibliographies can be found in some of these works. Some of the main primary sources in Arabic that I draw on have been translated into English; whenever possible, this information is included…

Free Will and Determinism

Even though a Qur’anic verse warns that their words lead astray, Arabian poets continued to cast a spell on their fellow inhabitants of the desert. Language—both as an artful craft and as a stimulant for the imagination—maintained its role as a medium of sovereignty and individual freedom.

 At the same time that the Qur’an dispossessed poets of the throne of meaning, it coronated a new voice declaring the wonders of the beyond. Lyrical expression yielded to discourse about the mysteries of the world and the models for human life articulated in holy writ. In turn, scholars would follow this rationalist inclination, delving deep into the text of the Qur’an to sound its intellectual depths. Soon, the brazen free-spiritedness of the more outspoken poets would founder on the cliffs of the new religion that was in the course of emerging.

At yet another level, others of a mystical bent would attempt to break the bonds of language altogether, considering it too constricting, and seek insight into higher realms. But common to all of these endeavors was the soul’s inner yearning to be free, the search for the medium in which liberty might find expression. Eventually, all these different orientations would compete to announce the truth of what was stirring in the desert sands.

The legendary Rabi‘ah al-‘Adawiyyah (713–801), based in Basra, inaugurated an ascetic tradition in Islam searching for higher reality beyond common sensory perception and language. Hasan al-Basri (642–728) ini- tiated a movement of analytic inquiry stretching language as far as pos- sible by declaring it the medium of rational investigation justified by the Qur’an; later still, law, philosophy, and science would follow suit, each pursuing its own path on the terrain he had opened. Still—and right from the beginning—some of those inspired to exercise their newly discovered intellectual freedom to peruse the Qur’anic text in search of meaning proved intolerant of others who did not share their beliefs; they claimed freedom for themselves alone. When this occurred, freedom was made into a slave. Poets still singing the praises of the sun or stars, or Qur’anic schol- ars found navigating different waters with another set of concerns, came to be considered trespassers. As soon as it was released, reason was subjected to new limitations.

In a sense, Hasan and Rabi’ah represent the two poles between which the range of freedom founded by the Qur’an extended. On one end, language bounded this domain; on the other hand, it did the very oppo- site. In her youth, Rabi’ah was a free-spirited young woman—too free, by some accounts. Sources indicate that she was taken captive and enslaved in the course of early Islamic conquests, but that her beauty prompted the ruler of Basra to seek her hand in marriage—which she declined.

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Legends about Rabi’ah’s extraordinary personality and deeds practically make her out to belong as much to another world as to this one. Such was the power of imagination that the Qur’an inspired in Arabia: the world of spirits, whose reality its verses affirmed, were as real as physical matter; they of- fered “proof” that a mortal, chaste and pure of heart, could move between realms—a hybrid being possessing the qualities of earth and spirit alike.

Much later, in an allegory by a Persian poet (Farid al-Din ‘Attar [d. 1220])—which concerns the rise of Sufi mysticism more than it describes actual events—Hasan, the exegete and analyst of Qur’anic language, is said to have encountered Rabi’ah sitting at the banks of the Euphrates one day. Spreading his prayer mat upon the moving waters, he calls out to Rabi’ah and asks, “Shall we offer our prayers here, together?” “Sir,” she re- plies, “Is this your way of showing off the feats of men of this world to one who belongs to the other?”

Then, Rabi’ah casts her prayer mat into the sky. Standing aloft, she continues: “Why not come and join me in prayer up here, floating on thin air?” “Surely,” she concludes, “the fish can do what you propose, and birds can do what I am suggesting. But what the both of us should seek is a far higher station of the spirit!”1

Whereas Rabi’ah became known for her deep piety and almost complete withdrawal from worldly affairs, Hasan chose to assume a public—if understated—role. When not preaching and leading prayers at the main mosque of Basra, he would take a seat on a terrace or patio in the sur- rounding precinct and offer lessons. Observing what he deemed an essential calling in the Qur’an, Hasan discussed, with friends and students who gathered around him, the meaning and implications of verses that, to his mind, required explication and analysis.

The didactic approach Hasan pioneered subsequently became the practice of mosques throughout the Islamic world; eventually, it led to the founding of schools (madrasahs) and universities. (The oldest university, dating from around the thirteenth century, was located in a mosque, founded by a woman for this very purpose, in al-Qarawayn [present-day Morocco]; among others, the celebrated Jewish philosopher Maimonides is said to have delivered lectures here.)

For Rabi’ah, Islam meant withdrawing from society completely to devote herself to God and contemplation. Hers was an inner freedom of the soul. For Hasan, Islam primarily concerned human actions—the meaning and measure of free will and responsibility.

This meant immersion in the text of the Qur’an to find answers to questions about the new “world system” that had been revealed. Specifically, it entailed addressing issues occasioned by political events, which held deep significance both for everyday life and for the overall message of Islam. The circumstances under which Hasan offered his reflections proved just as important for later scholars as his didactic methods.

He was born in Medina, where Muhammad had come to live, just ten years after the Prophet’s death in 632. It is said that he met many of Muhammad’s companions in his youth. (One account even reports that he was nursed by one of the Prophet’s wives.) Therefore, in addition to the authority that his erudition and keen intelligence imposed on others, he enjoyed a special connection, in space and time, to the city of the Prophet and his followers; when Hasan moved to Basra to practice his calling, he brought a certain aura along with him.

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If the Qur’an had opened the way for people to search for and understand the keys of the universe, the short interval between the Prophet’s death and Hasan recognizing his own vocation offered a unique and pivotal opportu- nity to shape the way the sacred text was understood in the Muslim world.

this title in the strict sense—“leader of prayer” (or the mosque)—lived in, and lived through, turbulent times. With one eye on Qur’anic verses, he also contemplated political events raging in the newly founded caliphate. Especially toward the end of the rule of the third caliph, Uthman, they involved ever-greater disputes about succession, specifically the claims advanced by the early Houses of Mecca: the Bani Hashem (the Prophet’s line) and the Bani Umayya (to whom Uthman belonged).

The whole of Arabia up to the Mediterranean (mostly inhabited by Christians in the Levant region) had fallen under Muslim rule by the time of Umar, the sec- ond caliph. However, military success and the expansion of dominion only exacerbated earlier rivalries and vendettas.

Hasan had been too young to register the political maneuverings that produced the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar. However, he had reached the age of reason by 656, when Uthman was murdered by oppo- nents from Egypt protesting what they deemed a corrupt system of government. The discord had fed from—and fed into—standing contests for power. Still in Hasan’s lifetime, it would lead to the first military confrontations between Muslims.

As a pious exegete, Hasan viewed the Qur’an as the guide to understanding the theoretical and political dilemmas unfolding before him. Are Muslims “free” to rebel against their “supreme authority,” the caliph? Or are they bound by his words and edicts? Is the caliph’s will that of God, even when he acts unjustly? Can God in fact be unjust? If He were, wouldn’t this render human responsibility null and void? Indeed, is God’s will—as articulated by a caliph or his emissary—supreme, that is, does it eliminate a meaningful sense of human agency?

Might it not be that a caliph is unjust, but not God? Might it be that God is just inasmuch as he has endowed us with free will so we may choose to do what is right? And if a Muslim kills another Muslim in the course of a battle for what is right, does he thereby cease being a Muslim? Or should he count as a Muslim who has committed a sin?

How will such a person fare in the afterlife? Does he go to hell? In the context of these and related issues, Hasan and his followers formulated two fundamental questions. First, what is the basis for the legitimate transfer of authority in Islam? Second, where does legitimate authority over the lives and freedoms of individuals cease and where does their responsibility begin—if it exists at all?

These central questions—both to Hasan and to the community at large—could receive categorical answers only through analysis of the Qur’an. After all, the Word of God encompasses the whole of human life, including life in society. Resolving the great questions of existence depends on linguistic skill and analytic ability. Intellect—reason, that is—enables one to “unravel” deeper layers of meaning within the sacred text. Doesn’t

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