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Aql: The Place of Intellect in Islam

Aql: The Place of Intellect in Islam

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

"The first thing created by God was the Intellect" (hadith)

In the following discussion on the place of intellect in Islam, the analogy of a computer may help clarify some of the points made. This is an analogy used only to provoke some thought and is not meant to be carried too far. There is, after all, no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy would, in fact, BE the thing described.
Imagine the screen and all activity on the screen to represent the world of material existence. The screen is considered as the horizontal dimension of the computer. A program is running that simulates a small universe complete with simulated beings (with senses that let them interact with other objects on the screen) and simulated laws (much like some computer games) - the attempts of the beings to understand the environment (on the screen) represents science and all its branches (physics, chemistry etc.). This science can give these fictional beings an understanding and control over this HORIZONTAL (screen) dimension of their simulated universe.
Now in order to create this onscreen world, complex processes are occuring within the computer. The images on the screen are generated by rays tracing pixel by pixel across the screen. There is a program (or perhaps many interacting programs) running in the RAM. At another level there are patterns of electricity (of information) flowing and tracing complex paths through the chips on the motherboard. There is the static storage of the uninitialized program stored on a disk. All these represent levels of realities (the Universe on the screen exists on all these levels). The projection on the screen is the visual (material) manifestation of these other levels of existence. These other levels of existence are the foundation, or the substratum of the universe on the screen. They represent the VERTICAL dimension of the simulated universe.
A creature in the simulated universe relying upon the senses given to it by the program could achieve a good understanding of the simulated universe, but it would not necessarily be even aware of the huge edifice which exists as a support to its very existence (the program itself, the patterns of electricity flowing through chips, the RAM, the actual hardware which supports the software, etc.). It would be restricted to understanding the horizontal world - the world on the screen. All the other planes of its existence would be invisible to it.
Using this analogy only as a starting point, let us briefly examine the concept of intellect in Islam.
Science is a horizontal undertaking since it expands our knowledge outwards. It brodens our understanding but does not necessarily deepen it. Science is unstable from a theoretical view point - it is based on hypotheses and experiment not on self-evident principles.
Science can provide a model of the world as it is (albeit an ever changing model), it describes the world for us but it cannot tell us anything about the foundations or the underpinnings of the world and of the purposes behind it. It describes our horizontal existence but is incapable (at least in its current form) of telling us anything about our vertical existence.
Science and reason have width and length but lack depth. They are missing this third dimension so that those who see the world only through the glass of science are like a one-eyed man. He perceives the world, but it is a flat dimensionless world having extent and width, but no depth, no firm solidity.
If humanity is shaped by science alone, the result is a humankind with vast horizontal knowledge, a large body of knowledge about the workings of the physical universe but little comprehension of what the purpose(s) of it is - the 'why' of existence. It is like understanding exactly how a car works, how all the parts mesh together, how to drive it in an efficient manner, But having no place, no destination to drive to. Science can shape a humanity "with capacity, but no attainment". (Mutahhari, Fundamentals of Islamic Thought, Mizan Press). It can give man an instrumental power and ability, a power that is dependent on man's will and command.
Man has an end in view when he uses these instruments. "Man is animal by nature and human by acquisition." (Mutahhari, Fundamentals). He must strive to realise his 'human' potential, otherwise by nature "...he moves towards his natural, animal, individual, material, self-interested ends...." (Mutahhari, Fundamentals) and uses the insruments given to him by science to achieve these ends. Through science he can subjugate the horizontal world. But he only attains his humanity when he becomes aware of the vertical aspect of existence. A complete understanding is only attained when one's knowledge encompasses both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of knowledge. (Faith, without the light of reason and science, degenerates into mere superstition.)
There is a tendency to attach the word Islamic to existing secular ideologies. For example, there is talk of Islamic democracy or Islamic sociology etc. The adoption of these secular ideologies or methodologies is justified by making cosmetic Islamic changes to them. this is done in order to demonstrate Islam's relevance to modern times and to make Islam seem up-to-date and appealing to the 'west' and westernized Muslims. What actually happens is that Islam is reduced to the status of an adjective modifying a noun (i.e. democracy, rationalism). It can no longer be seen as a total body of principles that provides its own comprehensive and unique system. (Syyed Hossein Nasr, Living Sufism).
Making reason or the scientific method the sole means of attaining knowledge and the only criterion of truth and of right and wrong is a tendency of the modernistic outlook. "This outlook has its origins in Descarte's philosophical formulations.... For Descartes the ultimate criterion of reality is the human ego.... His 'cogito ergo sum' - I think therefore I am - places a limitation on human knowledge by binding it to the level of individual reason and to the consciousness of the individual ego." (Nasr, Living Sufism). The modern rationalistic trend seeks to define all reality, but instead it limits its understanding of reality.
In Islam "...logic is an aspect of truth and Truth (Al-Haqq) is a name of God." (Nasr, Living Sufism). The use of logic is like the use of a rung in a ladder - properly used it can help man move upward along the vertical axis of his being. Reason is an innate ability within man which encompasses logic and which can propel him rapidly upwards along the vertical dimension. But in order to do this reason must be free of the taint of man's animal, material propensities. Otherwise reason can be subverted to provide suprious justification for man to attain his desires in whatever realm his desires may fall. Reason and correct knowledge must go hand in hand. "....one who has no reason secures no success. He who has no (correct) knowledge has no (correct) reasoning....Aperson devoid of reason cannot be conceived of except as a corpse." (Al-Kafi, The Book of Reason and Ignorance)
Aql (Intellect) in Islam is something which exists at two levels. There is the level of "reason and logic" which is available as an instrument to all mankind, and there is the level of the "universal intellect" to which only a few have reached. Aql is that which connects man to the truth, not the evolving truths of science but the truth that flows from God and provides the key to all knowledge and all truth.
So the intellect (Aql) is the highest plane of man - it is the noblest part of man - it encompasses reason and logic and it stands above the ego. The Qur'an equates those who go astray with those who cannot (or will not) use their intellect - it uses the phrase 'wa la ya'qilun' (they do not use their intellect) or the phrase 'la yafaqahun' (they comprehend not). Those who do not use their intellect are those who have denied themselves access to one of the highest aspects of their humanity.
Reason is an aspect or reflection of the universal intellect on the psyche of the individual. Reason on the level of individual conciousness is not, however, free of the passions or the ego. It can be an instrument or means to attaining the universal intellect or it can be a veil (when mixed with the passions) that hides one from the divine truths.
Revelation provides a guiding and regulating framework within which reason and logic can find firm footholds to convey man up to the plane of the universal intellect. The verses of the Qur'an become doors to this intellect, and once this intellect is accessed the knowledge of the "Mother of the Book" can be achieved. The storehouses of this knowledge are opened in varying degrees. The person who rises to this level has made the vertical journey and attained to the level of the pure universal intellect and can then become a guide to the people.
This level of intellect is addressed in the following hadith: "....God created Intellect out of His own Light...and it was the first creation among the spirits. After its creation Almighty God commanded it to go back (to this world) the Intellect obeyed the order. Then God commanded it to come forward (towards) Him. The Intellect did accordingly. Upon this, God addressed it with the words, I have created you in all your glory and bestowed upon you honour and preference over all My creatures." (Al-Kafi, The Book of Reason and Ignorance).


(This hadith makes it clear that the Universal intellect is not to be confused with God (as some have done) as it is a creation of God, albeit his noblest creation.)

The Qur'an states that God taught the names (all of them) to Adam - that is the names or realities of all things. This knowledge was placed within Adam and, by extension, within all human beings. Those who practise 'irfan' speak of an inward journey through which the mystic uncovers the knowledge of some of these names.
Mulla Sadra speaks of this inward journey as being one through which one can break through to the true 'outside'. (Using the analogy of a computer, it is as if a being on the screen is able to find a key parameter within its own subroutine that would give it access to the governing program that controls and regulates the universe on the computer screen - with all the attendant possibilities implicit in that access. A complete understanding of the basis and workings of its own subroutine, and its place and function within the overall program could then be achieved).
In order to have access to the true depth of existence, in order to make the vertical journey (the "ascent of Islam"), in order to achieve understanding of the realities of existence (of all things) one goes inward and thus reaches a plane outside of and above the material plane. (In the computer analogy, they become aware of all the levels of processing which comprise their true existence and which make possible their projected existence on the level of the computer screen.)
The human intellect is a microcosmic reflection of the universal intellect. When man attains to proper use of his own intellect he is able to move from the level of his own individual intellect to swim in the ocean of the universal (macrocosmic) intellect. Through going inward, He is conveyed upwards and outwards to dizzying heights.

Irshaad Hussain (March 1993)


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