Amid such heated argument about rationalism and reason, with some for, some against, and some criticizing Muslim lack of it (as seen in the last speech of the Pope), it is relevant to have a look at such concepts in terms of their meaning, importance, and limits.
In the Western perception, reason (from Old French raison, from Latin ratio) can simply be defined as a “human capacity for logical, rational, and analytic thought”. It is the tool that directs the “inner world”, turns feelings into decisions, and motivates action. It is a body of principles and ways of thinking that enable good judgment on things. It is abstract (just like good and evil), not material or sensible (such as blackness, dates, wheat, etc.).
Meanwhile, rationalism is “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”. Some Western philosophers hold that reason or the mind is independent of experience, whether absolute, as maintained by Descartes (adopting a Platonic perspective), or critical, as proposed by Kant. Rationalism opposes eighteenth-century British empiricism, with primary exponents like John Locke and Hume.
As back as the second century A.H. (eighth century A.D.), Muslim thinkers tried to resolve such dichotomy between reason and rationalism, but often to no avail. Ash-Shafi`i defined reason as the “capacity to distinguish things from their opposites”. Others said, “Reason is an instinct that is subject to humanities”. Al-Amidi said, “It is all the necessary knowledge that cannot be absent in any human when physically mature, sound, and free from the contraries”. This is the same view of Descartes.
According to Al-Ghazali, reason is instinctive and necessary and is classified into theoretical and empirical. Is reason the same for all people and unvarying from one person/nation to another?
‘Yes’ was the answer given to the above question by Ar-Razi, Ibn Al-Qushayri, and others, including Descartes, who held that “good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed”. Some, on the other hand, deemed reason empirical and interpersonally varying. Reconciliation could be made between the two sides, identifying two types of the so-called reason, instinctive and empirical, regardless of real or figurative usage, on the grounds that reason and good sense increase and decrease depending on experiences.
Does the mind have limits?
Some Western philosophers view that the mind have no limits, and some go far to claim that the mind has only the limits that it makes for itself or that all that can be perceived is within the limits of the mind. In his remarkable work Critique of Pure Reason, Kant discussed in detail the scope and limits of reason.
By contrast, some admitted that the human intellect is limited by its physical and social surroundings, which impose on it constraints that show its limitation. Perhaps this is what the contemporary Moroccan philosopher Taha Abdurrahman meant by warning against reason by reason for reason. For us Muslims and all believers in a heavenly message, reason has a ceiling or utmost point, which is where the sphere of heavenly revelation exists as a metaphysical realm beyond the perception of the human mind. Yet, the mind deals with this sphere in terms of mental impossibility, possibility, and inevitability. As Muslims, we believe that scope cannot involve contradiction. What is deemed impossible by reason cannot be deemed possible by heavenly revelation, and what is deemed inevitable by reason must be deemed so by heavenly revelation.
The possible can be approved or denied by heavenly revelation, where the latter makes judgments without objection by reason, which has to do with impossibility and inevitability but submits to heavenly revelation in connection with possibility. This applies to the field of Creed, where reason is a generative source or determinant. In Shari`ah, however, two spheres must be identified. The first is dealings, which are based on people’s interests and where reason goes side by side with heavenly revelation. Scholars differed on this integration: Some saw that if Shari`ah is established on a specific case, it has precedence over people’s interests necessitated by reason; others viewed that Shari`ah authorizes the mind to use interests as a basis for legislation. But there is a general agreement that reason remains an indispensable exploring tool.
The second sphere is acts of worship, which basically come from heavenly revelation and are beyond the scope of the mind. Still, as Al-Fihri said, such acts of worship are rational in general, even if not comprehensible in details, such as Prayer, etc.