Issue 64 / July - August 2008
The Appeal of the Qur'an to Observation and Reason
Yuksel A. Aslandogan
Humans are endowed with the faculties of reason and intellect, and to ask them to abandon their intellectual faculties in developing their faith and relationship with God would be inconsistent with their God-given autonomy. On the contrary, the Qurâan asks its readers to make observations, relate empathically, think logically, and arrive at conclusions that will pave the way to faith and worship. This approach, however, should not be confused with empiricism, rationalism or skepticism, in which everything is questioned and the only way to knowledge is through experience or reason.
The Qurâanic approach is to arrive at a position through observation and reason from which the intellect clears the obstacles for faith, allowing it to take hold in oneâs heart and preparing the way for dedicated worship of one God. After faith takes hold of oneâs heart, there will be many elements of creed as well as principles of personal and social life which may or may not be suitable for verification through scientific means. In such cases, it is sufficient that such beliefs and rules of conduct do not contradict observation or reason. Hence, the Qurâanic style combines philosophy, theology, and âall dimensions of our being.â In the following I will give examples from the exegeses of Maududi, Yazir and Nursi that, in my opinion, support this view. Unless marked otherwise, the English rendering of verse meanings will be from the Maududi exegesis translated by Ansari.
Nursi: KNOW, O FRIEND, that out of the purposes for thingsâ existence, the Qurâan sometimes mentions those related to humanity. This does not mean, however, that humanity was created only for the purposes mentioned. Rather, it draws our attention to their benefits, to the order and harmony they display, and thus to their Makerâs Names. We only pay attention to and prefer that which is related to us, even if it is microscopic, in preference to a âsunâ with which we have no relation. For example: And the moon: We have determined stations (phases) for it (36:39), that you might know the number of years and the reckoning (10:5). This is only one of the moonâs thousands of purposes, and it is mentioned because it is the most evident one for humanity5
Yazir comments on the role of such verses in encouraging humanity to discover the laws of nature, which are indeed works of God, and through them to discover the purpose of human life, developing a methodology for a type of scientific acquisition of knowledge along the way:
Yazir: Indeed, the source of the notion of time is movement, a continuity and change that underlies the order in which these created objects exist. Indeed, the way to the true sciences is reflection on the heavens and the Earth, the day and the night, creation and change and their perception by intelligence.
Yazir also narrates a report of Prophet Muhammadâs reception of this verse. Aisha told that the Prophet asked permission to worship. She said, âHe then stood up, made ablution with a little water and stood for prayer. He was reciting the Qurâan and crying. I even saw that his tears wet the floor. Then Bilal came and informed him of the congregation for morning prayer. Upon seeing that the Prophet was crying, Bilal asked: âO Messenger of God, did not God forgive your previous as well as future sins? Why would you cry?â The Prophet then responded: âO Bilal! Under these circumstances, should I not be a thankful servant? Why should I not cry, God Almighty revealed this verse tonight, (and recited the verse) Woe on those who recite this verse and do not reflect on it.ââ
He set the earth for all creatures, with all kinds of tasty fruits in abundance and palm-trees with sheathed fruit, and a variety of corn with husk as well as grain. So, O jinn and men, which of your Lord's blessings will you deny? (Rahman 55:10-13)
Maududi begins his commentary with a discussion of the term alaaâ which has traditionally been understood to mean bounty.
Maududi then indicates another meaning of the term, that is, power and the wonders of power, which is based on the famous exegesis of Ibn Jarir Tabari. He continues to comment on how the observation of these objects of need and desire come not only with benefits, but also with the qualities that satisfy the various lofty human senses. He describes in what ways humans deny the bounties of God: By out right rejection of a creator, by associating partners with God, by disobeying the commands of their Creator or by simply not offering thanksgiving, which he calls denial by practice.
Nursi comments on the importance of thanksgiving based on the observation of the universe, the Earth, the living beings, including the human, and how the latter are cared for and sustained:
Nursi: Indeed, both the All-Wise Qurâan shows thanks to be the result of creation, and the mighty Qurâan of the universe shows that the most important result of the creation of the world is thanks. For if the universe is observed carefully, it is apparent that all things result in thanks in the way each is arranged within it; to a degree each looks to thanks and is turned towards it. It is as if the most important fruit of the tree of creation is thanks and the most elevated product of the factory of the universe is thanks.
Nursi then details the picture that emerges when one carefully observes the relationship of the universe, the inanimate beings, the living beings, and humans.
Nursi: We see in the creation of the world that its beings are arranged as though in a circle, with life as its central point. All beings look to life, and serve life, and produce the necessities of life. That is to say, the One Who created the universe cares for life in it.
Then we see that He created the animal kingdom in the form of a circle and placed the human at its center. Simply, He centered the aims intended from animate beings on the human, gathering all living creatures around him (the human), and subjugating them to himâŚThen we see that the world of human, and the animal world too, are formed like circles, with sustenance placed at their centre.
We can draw a picture based on Nursiâs description:
Nursi then continues to comment on the relationship of sustenance with thanksgiving:
Nursi: He has made mankind and the animals enamored of sustenance, has subjugated them to it, and made them serve it. What rules them is sustenance. And He has made sustenance such a vast and rich treasury that it encompasses His innumerable bounties. Even, with a faculty called the sense of taste, He has placed on the tongue fine and sensitive scales to the number of foods, so that they can recognize the tastes of the many varieties of sustenance. That is to say, the most mysterious, richest, most wonderful, most agreeable, most comprehensive, and most marvelous truth in the universe lies in sustenance. Now we see that just as everything has been gathered around sustenance and looks to it, so does sustenance in all its varieties subsist through thanks, both material and immaterial and this is offered by word and by state; it exists through thanks, it produces thanks, it shows thanks.
We can summarize Nursiâs commentary as follows: When a human observes the universe, they will notice that all inanimate beings serve life, plants and animals serve humans, and humans are in need of sustenance. In addition to satisfying the needs of life, sustenance carries other qualities that satisfy the higher senses of the human. It shows signs of mercy, care and love from the Creator. Therefore, all of these observations ought to lead a person to be thankful to their Creator.
The signs of resurrection
Just see the Signs of Allah's Mercy, how He brings back to life the dead earth. Likewise, He will bring back the dead to life: He has power over everything. (Rum 30:50)
Does not man see that We created him from a sperm-drop, and yet he stands forth as a manifest adversary? Now he strikes out likenesses for Us and forgets his own creation. He says, "Who will give life to these bones when they are rotten?" Tell him, "He Who created them in the first instance will give them life again: He is skilled at every kind of creation. (Ya-Sin 36:77-79)
The basic argument in this verse, repeated elsewhere in the Qurâan, can be summarized as follows: When you observe the coming to life of living beings, the coming back to life of plants and animals after a period of inactivity, which resembles death and other similar phenomena, you should have no doubt that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is capable of bringing humans back to life after their death. The coming into existence of the first living being and that of first human being, the coming back to life of their various traits through their progeny, the preservation of their qualities in their seeds and sperms should all make it easy for the intellect to accept the possibility of resurrection. In other words, after observing all of these phenomena, one should not reject the idea of resurrection simply because it does not occur for individual humans before their eyes:
Against this, the Qurâan employs a basic argument which is not difficult to accept rationally, equating two similar feats: the power that can accomplish something once can do it again. From the fact that human beings now exist, it is clear that divine power was not incapable of making them: why should it be assumed that such power will be incapable of doing for a second time what it achieved the first (50:15)? Indeed, a second creation is easier than a first one (30:27).
Commenting on 36:77-79, both Maududi and Yazir relate an account of the occasion of revelation which illustrates the disbelieverâs attitude:
Yazir: It is related that Ubey b. Halef came to the presence of Godâs Messenger (upon whom be peace and blessings) with a decayed bone and crushed it. He then asked, âWould you say that God could give life to this after it has perished as such?â The Messenger answered: âYes indeed! He resurrects you and places in hellfire.â And God knows every aspect of His creation. In other words, He knows every detail of every part of His creatures, their situations, quantities and qualities. He knows all forms of creation, material and immaterial, with instruments or without instruments, with archetypes and without archetypes, unbounded by time. And this concludes the matter.
The entire chapter entitled the 10th Word in Nursiâs book The Words, consisting of over sixty pages, is dedicated to the issue of belief in resurrection and life in the hereafter. After discussing in detail of various forms of signs and similitudes of resurrection, Nursi concludes with an appeal to the readerâs conscience:
Nursi: Can you not see the numerous designs made by God as signs, similitudes, or analogies of resurrection? He has placed them in every era, the alteration of day and night, even in the coming and going of clouds. If you imagine yourself a thousand years in the past and then compare past and future, you will see as many similitudes and analogies of resurrection as there are centuries or days past. If, after this, you still consider corporeal resurrection improbable and unacceptable to reason, there is something seriously wrong with your powers of reasoning .
Maududi comments that in addition to being a sign of resurrection, there is a moral lesson in the example of rain bringing life to the Earth in the spring. In addition to being reminded about the resurrection, human beings are reminded about the life-giving nature of divine guidance:
Maududi: There is a subtle allusion in the mention of the Prophethood and the rain, one after the other, to the reality that the advent of a Prophet is a blessing for man's moral life even as the coming of the rain proves to be a blessing for his material life. Just as the dead earth awakens to life by a shower of the rain from the sky and starts blooming and swelling with vegetation, so is the morally and spiritually desolate human world quickened to life at the coming down of Divine Revelation and starts blossoming with moral excellences and virtues. This is the disbelievers' own misfortune that they show ingratitude, and regard the blessing of Prophethood as a portent of death for themselves instead of a good news of life.
In this verse we once more see an example of the Qurâanâs appeal to observation and reasoning based on some intuitive premises shared by humanity due to their innate nature: Reflect on the first living being. How did it come to existence? Reflect on your own existence. How did your forefather come into being? Observe the winter and spring. How did these plants and animals that look as if they are dead in the winter come back to life in the spring? In particular the trees which show no sign of life suddenly take on a completely new form and color after the rain wets their skirts and the sun warms them? Remember your own ability to memorize events and people. How you are able to reconstruct a virtual scene based on your memories? What do these actions tell you with respect to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, Whose power is not limited and Whose knowledge is infinite?
The narrative style of the Qurâan is sometimes described as a river that makes turns but flows toward and end. The basic themes of the Qurâan have generally been recognized: the Unity of God and the necessity that humans acknowledge and worship God; the phenomenon of the messengers and revelations of God and the finality of Godâs revelation to Muhammad in the form of Islam; resurrection after death and life in the hereafter, and the principles of social justice. The Qurâan makes it clear that it addresses intelligent beings that are capable of observation and reason. It does not ask its readers to suspend their critical faculties in embracing the faith. On the contrary, it expects them to make careful observations, relate their experiences from social life, and draw logical conclusions that eliminate intellectual obstacles to faithâs taking hold in oneâs heart. In the meantime, the Qurâan also exposes the invalidity of the false arguments of those who reject its message out of ulterior motives such as greed, habit, pride or fear of material disadvantage. The approach of the Qurâan to observation and reason in relationship to faith is one of balance. The use of observation and reason helps build faith on sound foundations. There is no room for bigotry or fanaticism. However, the Qurâan also praises those who believe in the unseen (2:3). Hence, believers are still expected to have faith in matters that are beyond direct observation; however, this faith is now grounded on a foundation of observation and reason. In this paper I have presented interpretations from three popular works of exegesis: Nursi, Yazir and Maududi. In each of these commentaries, we can see the Qurâanâs appeal to observation and reason as expounded by their respective authors. It should be noted that there was little to no interaction among these authors. Although Nursi and Yazir were contemporaries, their works were written in parallel, while Nursi was in exile and his works not widely available. Since translations of the complete works of neither Yazir nor Nursi were available in Urdu and English at the time of Maududi, it is safe to assume that either text had little or no impact on Maududi. Therefore, the resonant comments on the paperâs basic premise reflected in these commentaries should be considered independent support for my thesis.
Finally, what about the persons who use their observation and reason as the Qurâan encourages, but reach different conclusions about metaphysical phenomena? The basic premise of the Qurâan is that if the human intellect and conscience are not influenced by other motives, such as persistent wrongdoing or the pursuit of material interests, then the God-created human nature should yield the same result for everyone, at least as far as the pillars of faith are concerned. Whether this very premise is valid or not has to be left to human conscience.
1. Irving et al., The Qurâan: Basic Teachings, London: The Islamic Foundation, 1979, p. 35.
2. Fethullah Gulen, in Ali Unal Foreword, The Qurâan with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, New Jersey: The Light Inc., xviii., 2006.
3. Yazir does not provide a commentary on this verse.
4. Said Nursi, The Letters, Twentieth Letter, Addendum to the Tenth Phrase. Sozler Publications, Istanbul, 2001, p. 306.
5. Nursi, Al-Mathnawi al-Nuri: Seedbed of The Light, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2007, p. 304.
6. Nursi, The Letters, Twenty-eighth Letter, On Thanks. Sozler Publications, Istanbul, 2001, p. 428.
7. Nursi, The Letters, 28th Letter, London: Truestar, 1995.
8. Muhammad AbdelHaleem, Understanding the Qurâan: Themes and Style, London: I.B. Tauris, 1999, p. 85.
9. Nursi, The Words, Tenth Word, New Jersey: The Light Inc., 2005, p. 97.
10. See, for instance, Robert Hunt, Muslim Faith and Values: What Every Christian Should Know, New York: GBGM Books, 2003, p. 81; Abdel Haleem ibid., Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qurâan. Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1989; Michael Sells, Approaching the Qurâan: the early revelations. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999; Unal ibid., x.
11. Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, London: Granta Publications, 2006, p. 103.
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