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Faith and Reason In Contemporary Shi‘ite Thought

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In the Name of Allah

Faith and Reason In Contemporary  Shi‘ite Thought

       Professor Mohsen  Javadi


       Faith, contrary to some positivist circles, has cognitive contents showing a person who is transcendent with respect to our sensory access and is omnipotent, omniscient and absolutely good.

       But discovering the highest reality and even seeing it is not sufficient to be called faith.

       Faith is not just the belief that there is God but also requires us to have some certain emotions towards God and to our fellow humans and to be ready to act in a certain way.


       The term reason here is used for the content, whether theoretical or practical, obtained through the faculty of reason independently of any other sources like revelation.

        It principally refers to some gifted knowledge that human beings possess without knowing how and from where it has been acquired, similar to the Christian concept of natural or general revelation. This original and primary knowledge of humanity is the basis of its secondary and derivative knowledge, and nearly all of humanity has it. So, what is counted as rational includes both general revelation and what is known through the acquisition of other knowledge and their development.

       What is the issue?

       Typically the issue of the relation of reason to faith has been discussed in two different  ways.

       First, what is the status of basic claims of faith that are cognitivelike the existence of Godin relation to the beliefs of reason.  Are they among the first principles of reason or they must be known derivatively by the help of basic beliefs?  Or is there  another source of knowledge aside from reason in which claims of faith are rooted?

       Second,  some of the claims of faith about the world , nature and human happiness and wretchedness that are rooted in revelation go beyond the boundaries of reason and even may conflict with reason. The question is: What can we, as believers, do in cases of non-rational or irrational claims of faith?

       Religious epistemology of   Contemporary  Shi‘a scholars

       Nearly all Shi‘i thinkers are rationalists, because they hold that the basic claims of faith must be accepted by reason and if  they lack this rationality faith will be threatened .

       Although some of them hold that belief in God is innate and need not be proved, the common idea in the contemporary literature, as in the past, most scholars continue to hold that belief in God is justified only by proof .

       Religious Epistemology

       Nearly all Shi‘i thinkers are rationalists, because they hold that the basic claims of faith must be accepted by reason and if  they lack this rationality faith will be threatened .

       Although some of them hold that belief in God is innate and need not be proved, the common idea in the contemporary literature, as in the past, most scholars continue to hold that belief in God is justified only by proof .


       Despite the agreement on the importance of argumentation about the basic claims of faith, there is controversy about the structure of the argument which is supposedly necessary for faith.

       Tabatabai  and Mutahhari have  a restricted conception of proof  as demonstration, but some other contemporary Shi‘i  scholars, like Muhammad Baqir Sadr  take it as including induction in addition to deduction. This is the reason that we cannot find any sign of the inductive scientific argument from design in Tabatabai’s work, and we see that it is implicitly rejected by Mutahhari.

       We can see the influence of the paradigm of modern science on Sadr, while the other thinkers still take Islamic philosophy or mathematics as their paradigm for religious beliefs, so that they are looking exclusively for necessary truths.  This means that for Sadr, it is not necessary that  belief in God’s existence be as certain as philosophy or mathematics demand, rather it is sufficient to be like a scientific truth.  In this conception, certainty has different degrees, and the degree found in the sciences is sufficient for faith. Probability can provide us with a kind of certainty sufficient for faith. 

       The Second Aspect of the Issue

       The second aspect of the issue is that theistic faith implies a commitment to revelation as a source of knowledge, and this means that we, as believers, have theoretical and practical beliefs which otherwise we wouldn’t have.

       In jurisprudence beliefs of faith are divided into two forms: ta’sisi and irshadi. Irshadi refers to beliefs that are known by reason but are endorsed by revelation, while ta’sisi refers to those beliefs that cannot be found through reason and can only be known by revelation.

       This gives rise to the question (which is ascribed to Zakariyah Razi) about how irshadi beliefs can be considered religious, since they are known through reason. What merit could there be in sending them down?

       The  second kind (ta’sisi) are of two sorts: those beyond reason but not contrary to it (i.e., non-rational beliefs); and those that contradict reason (irrational beliefs), or those that we judge to be merely prima facie in contradiction with reason. 

       Then the main problem is how to treat non-rational beliefs or what seem to be irrational claims of faith so they do not lead us to a denial of faith.

       A Comparison

       There is a difference between  Islamic and Western literature   with regard to this problem because in the West it is seen in terms of religious epistemology, while in Islamic culture the discussion concentrates of the relation between revelation and reason.

       This difference may be explained with reference  to the different  role of revelation in these traditions. In the West, revelation is not considered a source of knowledge so as to conflict with science or reason; while in Islamic culture, revelation continues to be seen as a source of knowledge, and hence, conflict with other knowledge claims is serious.

       What are the merits of revelation in the case of irshadi beliefs?

       Assuming that the knowledge offered through revelation is in accord with reason, why is faith needed here?

       Sadr tries to articulate  different points for this, like the increasing of motivation for action in practical affairs; or making our knowledge more certain, and publicizing  it.

       We can also consider these truths to be revealed in order to draw our attention to their importance.

       Beyond reason

       All contemporary Shi’i scholars accept some special domain for revelation, the claims of which are accepted even without any evidence of  independent reason. This is demanded of any theistic believer, but what is important is the extent of this domain. While some modern thinkers try to restrict the domain only to rituals most of them take it more broadly.

       Determining the domain of special revelation was and still is itself among the most controversial issues of contemporary Islamic thought.

       Some approach the issue from inside religion and some from outside.

        some scholars prefer the outsider approach, and this means that we must determine the domain by reason independently of revelation.

       The defenders of the insider approach hold that only by reference  to the text and by the way of induction we can know the domain.  Some commentators on the noble Qur’an  interpret the verse:

        ونزلنا عليك الكتب تبيانا لكل شي و هدي و رحمه و بشري للمسلمين

       and We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything, and a guidance and mercy and good news for those who submit” (27:89)

       so as to include the explanation of everything in the domain of revelation.

       Tabataba’i,  who took an outsider approach,  did not accept the inclusive domain of special revelation, and  limited it only to things which are related to  human guidance to salvation.

       But the question is how we can distinguish the things related to salvation from those that are not?


       Javadi Amuli has a complex idea: He holds that although the domain of revelation may be limited, but because reason is itself a source of religion, religion has a broader domain than that of revelation. Religion, on this view, is seen as a way, rather than as a set of dogmas.

       This view has a strange consequence: according to it we must take all achievements of reason like philosophy and mathematics and even science as religion.

       Contrary to reason

       Metaphysics, ethics and science are three important articulations of reason’s achievements that may have some conflict with religious claims.

       The contradiction of each with religion may have different answers and must be discussed separately.

       Historically,  the relation of philosophy (metaphysics) with religion has priority and then come the issue of the relationship between ethics and religion, and thirdly, the issue of science and religion. 

       Science in Muslim countries did not find the status accorded to it in the West, and the issue of the relation of science to religion is completely influenced by Western discussions. But the relation of philosophy and ethics with religion has a rich history.

       Philosophy and religion

       Recall that metaphysics, in Islamic interpretations, consists of necessary and universal truths.

       Mulla Sadra in his important book (the Asfar) says: Religion cannot contradict necessary truth and philosophy also cannot contradict what is revealed (Sharia).

       So what is to be said about the apparent contradictions between them? The answer is that religious propositions have different layers of meaning and by using the appropriate interpretation, tawil,  we can reconcile them.


       Many contemporary Iranian scholars are  following Sadra  and use the method of interpretation tawil for reconciling religious claims with the assertions of reason.  

        Indeed they interpret the texts in the light of their philosophical knowledge.

       Mohamad Reza Hakim represents an attitude called Maktab Tafkik   which denies the interpretation of the text in the light of philosophy.  He tries to offer an interpretation rooted in  religious based reason, which has its own rules and standards. He repeatedly affirms that he does not intend to  deny philosophy but only to separate it from religion.

       But the question is: If philosophy supposedly has ontological claims about reality, and religious claims also are real, what is the meaning of the acceptance of philosophy while separating it from religion?

       Ethics and Religion

       This issue in Islamic literature arose in theological works rather than philosophical ones.

       Muslim philosophers, even the contemporary ones, like Tabataba’i are accused of denying the possibility of rational discussion in ethics. It is alleged that they accept some form of voluntarism, and prefer the will of God to the will of others.

       They use interpretation to reconcile the claims of metaphysics and revelation, but they do not take ethics as claiming anything about reality (because it is practical rather than theoretical) so that it should need to be reconciled with reason.

       This is the common understanding of the history but I have some comments, some of which are discussed in my paper on Ibn Sina.

       I think that they  are not defenders of voluntarism, but because they believe that reason in realm of moral issues is in greater danger of error than metaphysics, they are more cautious in interpreting texts in the light of reason.


       The relation of ethics and religion not only was the important issue of theology but it is still is one of the most important contemporary problems.

       I think the main cause of some views on the nature of revelation like what we find In late Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid  is the reconciliation of revelation and rational ethics. They deny the propositional nature or eternal character of revelation to make room for rational moral interpretations of revelation.

       Some of these thinkers give examples of the contradiction of revelation with rational ethics, such as human rights or the rights of women.

       But their opponents regard this way of dealing with the text as contrary to taking it to be guidance to human happiness.


       I think the main problem for Islamic thought in the future is the relation of ethics and religion.

       We must find a fair solution to this problem . It seems like a dilemma because if we give priority to reason in all the cases, it means that reason knows the way to salvation better than revelation; but on the other hand, if we give priority to revelation and narrations that are above rational criticism, this may lead to some form of dogmatism which is in contradiction with the prescriptions of religion concerning reason as an internal messenger of God.


       We must at first find the allegedly contradiction cases of ethics and religion by the way of induction, and then come back to a rule in jurisprudence which is called Al-Jam’ and reconcile them by sometimes  restricting the application of revelation to some cases, and sometimes by critically reexamining the claims of reason.



15:23 - 15/11/2015    /    number : 66278    /    Show Count : 304





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