rationalism

   A general tendency in Islamic thought that emphasizes the primacy of reason or intellect (‘aql) over tradition (naql). Rationalist theologians and philosophers believe that God’s existence, His unity and attributes, the origin and order of the world and the purpose of human life can all be known via rational means, independently of revelation (wahy). This is because God and the world proceed according to – and in some sense are constrained by – rational laws, which can be grasped by the human intellect. Traditional sources of knowledge such as the Qur’an, sunna (customary practice) and consensus are still considered legitimate, but only insofar as they are confirmed by reason; if a contradiction arises between reason and revelation (or tradition in general), it must be resolved according to the demands of reason. Accordingly, anthropomorphic characterizations of God in the Qur’an must be interpreted figuratively, lest believers end up with an incoherent, all-too-human, insuf- ficiently transcendent conception of God. Traditional reports of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions are sometimes rejected as unreliable due to methodological questions about their collection and transmission, particularly when they appear to be at odds with reason or experience. As a general tendency, rationalism can manifest itself in different degrees. Moderate rationalists (e.g. the Ash‘arites) maintain that our obligation to employ reason comes from revelation (i.e. reason is a principal source of knowledge, but one that is ultimately vouchsafed by tradition), while relatively more robust rationalists (e.g. the Mu‘tazilites, some later Ash‘arite theologians, and a fortiori the Greek-influenced falasifa) believe that our God-given reason is self-legitimating and requires no traditional justification. The Isma‘ili stance on reason is complex and ambivalent: they valorize intellect, but limit its domain to the imams and their authoritative teachings. Pure rationalism, according to which reason is the human being’s sole authority and need not be reconciled with revelation, is relatively rare in the Islamic tradition and typically equated with freethinking and even unbelief. Although one finds numerous examples of rather robust rationalism in the classical period of Islamic philosophy, within the larger context of the Islamic tradition, pure rationalism (e.g. Ibn al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi) is perceived as extreme and peripheral.
   Further reading: Abrahamov 1998; Bello 1989; Hourani 1985; Martin et al. 1997; Stroumsa 1999

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

Synonyms:
(of the Scriptures)


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