Rationalism and Tolerance
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the essence of Islamic civilization: rationalism and Tolerance
Ismail Farouqi

Ismail Farouqi

Rationalism. As methodological principle, rationalism is constitutive of the essence of Islamic civilization. It consists of three rules or laws: first, rejection of all that does not correspond with reality; second, denial of ultimate contradictories; third, openness to new and/or contrary evidence. The first rule protects the Muslim against opinion, that is, against making any untested, unconfirmed claims to knowledge. The unconfirmed claim, the Qur’an declares, is an instance of zann, or deceptive knowledge, and is prohibited by God, however slight is its object.12 The Muslim is definable as the person who claims nothing but the truth. The second rule protects him against simple contradiction on one side, and paradox on the other.13Rationalism does not mean the priority of reason over revelation but the rejection of any ultimate contradiction between them.14 Rationalism studies contradictory theses over and over again, assuming that there must be an aspect that had escaped consideration and that, if taken into account, would expose the contradictory relation. Equally, rationalism leads the reader of revelation not revelation itself to another reading, lest an unobvious or unclear meaning may have escaped him that, if reconsidered, would remove the apparent contradiction. Such referral to reason or understanding would have the effect of harmonizing not revelation per se (revelation stands above any manipulation by man!) but the Muslim’s human interpretation or understanding of it. It makes his understanding of revelation agree with the cumulative evidence uncovered by reason. Acceptance of the contradictory or paradoxical, as ultimately valid, appeals only to the weak of mind. The intelligent Muslim is a rationalist as he insists on the unity of the two sources of truth, namely, revelation and reason.
The third rule, openness to new or contrary evidence, protects the Muslim against literalism, fanaticism, and stagnation causing conservatism. It inclines him to intellectual humility. It forces him to append to his affirmations and denials the phrase “Allahu a’lam“(Allah knows better!). For he is convinced that the truth is bigger than can be totally mastered by him.
As the affirmation of the absolute unity of God, tawhid is the affirmation of the unity of truth. For God, in Islam, is the truth. His unity is the unity of the sources of truth. God is the Creator of nature whence man derives his knowledge. The objects of knowledge are the patterns of nature that are the work of God. Certainly God knows them since He is their author; and equally certainly, He is the source of revelation. He gives man of His knowledge; and His knowledge is absolute and universal. God is no trickster, no malevolent agent whose purpose is to misguide and mislead. Nor does He change His judgment as men do when they correct their knowledge, their will, or their decision. God is perfect and omniscient. He makes no mistakes. Otherwise, He would not be the transcendent God of Islam.
Tolerance. As methodological principle, tolerance is the acceptance of the present until its falsehood has been established. Thus, it is relevant to epistemology. It is equally relevant to ethics as the principle of accepting the desired until its undesirability has been established.15 The former is called sa’ah, the latter, yusr. Both protect the Muslim from self closure to the world, from deadening conservatism. Both urge him to affirm and say yea to life, to new experience. Both encourage him to address the new data with his scrutinizing reason, his constructive endeavor, and thereby to enrich his experience and life, to move his culture and civilization ever forward.
As methodological principle within the essence of Islamic civilization, tolerance is the conviction that God did not leave people without sending them a messenger from among themselves to teach them that there is no God but God and that they owe Him worship and service,16 to warn them against evil and its causes.17 In this regard, tolerance is the certainty that all men are endowed with a sensus communis, which enables them to know the true religion, to recognize God’s will and commandments. Tolerance is the conviction that the diversity of religions is due to history with all its affecting factors, its diverse conditions of space and time, its prejudices, passions, and vested interests. Behind religious diversity stands al din al hanif, the primordial religion of God with which all men are born before acculturation makes them adherents of this or that religion. Tolerance requires the Muslim to undertake a study of the history of religions with a view to discover within each the primeval endowment of God, which He sent all His apostles at all places and times to teach. 18
In religion and there can hardly be anything more important in human relations tolerance transforms confrontation and reciprocal condemnations between the religions into a cooperative scholarly investigation of the genesis and development of the religions with a view to separating the historical accretions from the original given of revelation. In ethics, the next all-important field, yusr immunizes the Muslim against any life denying tendencies and assures him the minimum measure of optimism required to maintain health, balance, and a sense of proportion, despite all the tragedies and afflictions that befall human life. God has assured His creatures that “with hardship, We have ordained ease [yusr]. “19 And as He commanded them to examine every claim and make certain before judging, 20 the usuliyyun (doctors of jurisprudence) resorted to experimentation before judging as good and evil anything desired that is not contrary to a clear divine injunction.
Both sa’ah and yusr devolve directly from tawhid as a principle of the metaphysic of ethics. God, who created man that he may prove himself worthy in the deed, has made him free and capable of positive action and affirmative movement in the world. To do so, Islam holds, is indeed man’s raison d’tre.21

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