God engages humans rationally

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Here are some fundamental positions (none of which should prove controversial) from which I speak about the shari’ah or approach revelation so that believers better understand where I am coming from. My belief is that if we constantly produce results with first principles in mind, we end up with a coherent conceptualisation of the shari’ah as opposed to the scattered approach, which amongst many negative outcomes, is leading many sincere believers into a state of internal conflict. The first of these is that God is a rational actor in the sense that:

  1. everything God does has a purpose, and
  2. everything God wants from human beings ought to resonate with the intellect since it is the tool with which we have been endowed to understand, engage with God, and determine right from wrong.

As a result:

  • what God wants of us will not be irrational, it will make sense;
  • it will not be without purpose, there will be reasons behind it;
  • it will not be beyond our collective comprehension, some might not get it but there will be others who will.
Short explanation:

God says, “We were not playing a pointless game when we created the heavens and the earth and everything in between,” (44:38) and repeatedly challenges cohorts of humans on a range of matters, both to do with their beliefs and actions, asking, “Do they not use their intellects,” and “how is it they judge?” On the city of Lot, God says, “We left some (of the town) there as a clear sign for those who use their reason,” (29:35) the idea being that through reasoning people might come to know the bad outcomes of committing immoral practices. The verses and ahadith on this are innumerable.

Now my ultimate point is that when it comes to fiqh and aqidah, things ought to make sense. And if it doesn’t, it means we’ve understood matters incorrectly. I find the Hanbali philosopher, jurist and theologian Muhammad b. Abi Bakr b. al-Qayyim’s point instructive here:

The entire edifice and foundations of the shariah are based upon wisdoms and advantages afforded to people in their living and afterlife; all of it is justice, all of it is mercy, all of it is utility, and all of it is wisdom.

Some reject this idea out of the fear that it might cause the laity to (mis)understand that if you don’t get something you don’t need to do it. But like with anything, not getting something doesn’t necessary demand inaction. In the majority of cases, and this being one of them, it simply necessitates a person humbly acknowledge his/her ignorance, and if they require, to find out from those who do get it.

One response I tend to get from students of theology/law is: “How can you say God intended something when He hasn’t explicitly said it?”

My answer is simple:

Such a response overlooks how much of the shari’ah actually works; the fuqaha do it as normal juristic practice and most (dhanni) ahkam are based on this! In the majority of cases, the illah (reason) or hikmah (wisdom) behind something is not explicitly stipulated (mansus) but derived through a process known as ‘masalik illah’ (see the chapter on qiyas in the field of usul al-fiqh). The view that we cannot ascertain the reasoning behind something unless it is explicitly spelled out by God and His Messenger is only held by Dhahiris (literalists). One of the key objectives of ijhtihad and tafsir is working out the reasoning behind a statement of God. [As I’ve already intimated, this is the realm of scholarship and I’m not suggesting every layman run away with his/her flights of fancy]

In this way, the statement of Imam al-Shafi’i is brought to life:

I believe in God and what has come from God in the way God intended it; and I believe in the Messenger of God and what has come from the Messenger of God, in the way the Messenger of God intended it.

What this means is that getting to the kernel of what God intends is key – I’m always seeking an explanation on the why and for a particular purpose: if we know why we’re doing or believing something it ultimately means we can do it properly, and subsequently, achieve the optimum outcomes God intended.

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