Islamic rationalism and environmentalism

copyright 1997 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in the Jan. 10, 1997 issue of the Star Weekend Magazine.
Religious people cherish their beliefs, and naturally like to think that their faith is perfectly reasonable; Muslims are no exception. Hence religions tend to work themselves out into rationalized dogma and develop their own philosophical traditions. For Muslims, the fields of Qur'anic interpretation and Islamic law also incorporate logical argument as the basis of their methodology. Thus it may seem natural for believers to assume that their religious outlook is completely rationalist. However, a purely logical framework causes problems within the context of a religion as monotheist as Islam. The glaring example of the unreasonability of monotheism is referred to by Western philosophers as "the problem of evil"; examining it can help us see what the real place of reason in Islam must be. The fact is that religious belief is more than rationalist dogma. For believers, it constitutes an existential assertion which helps them to live well. But "living well" is a subjective experience, not a logical one; hence, faith acquires irrationality. The results of this enquiry will naturally have important implications for the fields of Islamic philosophy and law.

That there is a degree of reason at work in Islam is beyond question. At a basic level, any textually-based religion requires logic. Muslims must by definition extract Islam from the Qur'an, their revealed source. The process of extraction, whether it be for the definition of Islamic theology or law, must be logical. Logic is the only methodology that ensures that the resulting laws and theologies will "make sense", being consistent with their roots in the Qur'an and with each other. So it is difficult to imagine that Muslims would be willing to forsake logic entirely in their religious practice. Suffice to say, then, that much of Islam as we know it is contingent upon the use of reason.

However, the importance of rationalism in Islam ultimately causes problems. The fact is that there are several concepts associated with monotheist religions which cannot be conclusively reconciled with logic. Prominent among these is the classic paradox that Western philosophy refers to as the "problem of evil". The problem is as follows; if God exists and is wholly good and omnipotent, then evil (in the sense of both "moral evil" i.e. human wickedness, and "natural evil" i.e.. innocent suffering due to disease, hunger, death and other generally unsavory facts of the natural world) should not exist. In the case of moral evil, humans should not be able to act immorally in spite of God's will that they be moral. Likewise, if it is wrong to cause suffering, then the divinely-decreed facts of life should not cause people such suffering. And yet in our experience, all these evils very much exist. So far from being an unavoidable rational or scientific conclusion, the existence of God seems to contradict our experience of the world.

From a purely rationalist standpoint, it is impossible to come to terms with the problem of evil without somehow limiting the goodness or omnipotence of God. Such a compromise would allow for evil and suffering, as God could be rendered unwilling or unable to eliminate them. However, such a compromise in the divine attributes is impossible in an Islamic context. The Qur'anic concept of God, as expressed in the "divine names", emphasize repeatedly the divine attributes of goodness and power. Presumably, if God was not entirely good and omnipotent, then the divine names which we associate with those qualities would appear with some qualification. But in names such as al-Barr (the Beneficent) and al-Qadir (the Powerful) and many others of similar effect, there is no apparent dilution of goodness or power. So the divine attributes maynot be compromised; this cripples any attempt to resolve the problem of evil.

Things would be most convenient for believing monotheists if the problem of evil could be simply and finally worked out rationally. Unfortunately, this is not easily done.

The only way that one can hope to resolve the problem of evil is to claim that evil is necessary for our perception of good. According to this argument, we can only comprehend qualities such as good and evil through contrast between opposites; hence evil and suffering are necessary if we are to experience goodness and pleasure. But even if our current mental state is such that we would not appreciate good without evil or happiness without suffering, the fact is that our current mental state was itself the work of the divine creator. Could not an all-powerful God enable humanity to appreciate good without ever having to experience bad? If so, then God's refusal to do so indicates an indifference to evil and suffering. So we are stuck again with an Islamically unacceptable God whose goodness is compromised.

A second objection to "solving" the problem of evil through asserting the importance of good-evil contrast is more telling. Even if we allow that evil creates a "higher-order good" (for example, an increased awareness of good through the presence of evil) which would otherwise not be possible, we still have not conclusively shown that the overall good is increased. This is because the combination of good and evil which allows for a greater good similarly allows for a greater evil. To be more precise, the presence of both evil and good may enable a "higher-order good", namely good amidst evil. It may be that this "higher-order good" is better than the "first-order good" which would be possible without evil. However, once we allow for higher-order good, we also open up the possibility of higher-order evil. If good is better in the presence of evil, then evil should also be worse in the presence of good. If we examine the idea of moral choice, this becomes apparent. A decision to do good may be more laudable if there is a possibility to do evil; but likewise an evil decision is more reprehensible if there was the possibility of doing good instead. So we are left with no conclusive way to say that evil has enabled some greater good. The problem of evil is still unsolved.

The above objection is very broad in the sense that the precise nature of the first and second-order goods and evils are very flexible. In fact, it is hard to even imagine how one could try to solve the problem of evil without somehow running afoul of higher-order evils in the process.

So there is no argument known to us which will resolve the problem of evil completely. As a result, we must accept that for monotheist frameworks generally, and Islam in particular, logic can give us only a limited understanding of reality. Once we accept this, our inability to resolve the problem of evil becomes a failure in the logical methodology available to us rather than a refutation of our religious beliefs.

So monotheist faith requires us to ultimately give up on rationality as a means of understanding reality. This may seem like a high price to pay, but the only thing that we actually lose is metaphysical speculation; metaphysics being the philosophical investigation of reality through pure logic. However, the fact is that metaphysics never had a strong basis to begin with. All that can be said of any rational system is that its definitions are internally consistent. This says nothing about its "truth" or "reality" or lack thereof, since there is no necessary connection between reality and reason. Logic could very well be a human construct with no bearing on any aspect of ultimate reality; since we can only analyze problems logically, the logical method itself becomes axiomatic for us and we can never prove or disprove it. The only purpose in assuming that there is anything rational about reality is that one is then left with a comprehensible universe.But this is an assumption made for our convenience, and nothing more.

Certainly in the Islamic context, metaphysics has been somewhat less than worthwhile. The Mu'tazilites, a "rationalist" branch of Islamic philosophy which was prominent during the Abbasid Caliphate, were of course very fond of metaphysics. As a result, they concluded that though humans must have free will if they are to be morally responsible, God cannot have free will as the divine will has no choice but to be good. This is only one illustration of how unproductive logic and metaphysics are in a monotheist context.

But the problems of religious faith are more immediate and existential than metaphysical speculation. It may well be that many Muslims would be greatly relieved to put the interminable arguments of speculative theology behind them. This was essentially admitted by medieval Muslim philosophers and embodied in the Ash'arite idea of accepting certain beliefs as being true bi la kaifa, (without asking 'how?'); there is the same concept of aspects of reality being beyond the scope of rational enquiry. Historically, the Ash'arite position became the mainstream view precisely because of the inability of philosophers to reach any acceptable conclusions regarding metaphysics, which in the context of Islamic philosophy often took the form of a determinism versus free will debate. In a real sense, the loss of metaphysics implies the end of traditional Islamic philosophy; we can not speculate on the nature of God, free will, etc. without speaking metaphysically. All that is left to us is a plain faith in a Qur'anic monotheism, which was the important thing anyway. Mercifully, metaphysics has little to do with everyday life; so believers can conveniently continue acting as if the world of our everyday life is logical, even if religious belief says that reasonability is only skin deep.

Philosophy aside, Muslims also need to know what the Qur'anic position on the problem of evil is. Of course the Qur'anic text does not explicitly deal with philosophical questions, but it is quite easy to interpret the sacred text to support a limited role for reason. The verses which probably contain the closest parallel to our discussion are in Surah 2 (given below). They occur before the sin of Adam and the expulsion from the Garden, in the form of a dialogue between God and the angels.

And when thy Lord said to the angels,
'I am setting in the earth a viceroy.'
They said 'What, wilt Thou set therein one
who will do corruption there, and shed blood,
while We proclaim Thy praise and call Thee Holy?'
He said, 'Assuredly I know
that you know not.'
{Surah 2 (al-Baqara), verse 28}

While the above talks only of moral evil (corruption and bloodshed), the fact is that this particular verse raises the question of evil and deals with it in an exceptionally direct manner. The answer given, significantly, is not an exercise of metaphysical sophistication. It is essentially just the assertion that God's knowledge is greater than ours, with the implication that humans cannot fully understand the divine will. This practically admits to non-rationalism. And once we admit to a non-rational framework, neither moral nor natural evil remains problematic. The non-rational solution to the problem of evil is simply to assert that evil ultimately allows a greater good, and that the human tool of logical understanding cannot explain this fact of reality. It hinges upon the incapability of comprehending absolute/divine truths on the part of the non-divine, which is at the core of the Qur'anic response above.

Although rationalist Qur'anic interpreters would disagree with the above interpretation, the fact is that it is quite in keeping with other vague Qur'anic positions on metaphysical problems. The fact is that the Qur'an does not seem primarily interested in discussing philosophy, but in showing people how to live. It is only by realizing this that we can understand the core of the Qur'anic teaching. For while evil and suffering are a logical problem for believers, they present an existential difficulty which applies to non-believers as well. The problem of evil is really only the monotheist version of a basic question which people face; namely, how does one live when life contains such cruelty and unhappiness? The only means available is hoping that happiness is within reach and goodness is still possible. In the monotheist context, this hope crystallizes as faith in God, a divine-centered morality and a sense of ultimate purpose. For non-monotheists, it simply remains a more diffuse optimism. Unfortunately this basic commonality is often overlooked, in no small part due to the antagonism which is commonplace between religious and irreligious people and their beliefs. Of modern philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard was one of the few to acknowledge the religious "leap of faith" as a fundamentally existentialist phenomenon.

In the modern context, one often comes across much more extravagant claims regarding the place of logic in Islam. Muslims often like to believe that their religion is "logical" and "scientific", and that they are therefore led conclusively to Islamic faith. But this view is untenable even in classical Islamic philosophy, as even Ash'arite theology admitted to an underlying irrationality. It is in many ways a very modern view, dating from 19th and 20th century thinkers such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani who tried to "rationalize" Islam to defend it from the onslaught of post-Renaissance European anti-religious skepticism. However, monotheism is not defended by excessive rationalization; it is only made unworkable. Likewise, the claim that Islam is a "complete system of life" with its own laws, social structures, etc. derive largely from the defensive rationalizing of people like Mawlana Maududi in their attempts to protect Islamic culture from pro-European "modernizing" tendencies. But once we acknowledge that the truths of Islam are primarily existential and personal, law becomes less and less relevant. Law is by nature not an individual activity, but part of a social system. The personal equivalent of law is the individual's code of ethics, which along with belief in one God constitutes a fundamental part of Muslim faith. And like faith, ethical impulses are never based upon logic. Rather, ethics and faith are the means by which humans make livable a world which is painfully lacking in goodness. For religious purposes the deciding factor is not reason, but what helps the individual to live.

The problem of evil tells us what we cannot expect of monotheist religion; namely complete rationalism. However, over the centuries many Muslim, Jewish, Christian and even Greek philosophers have tried to prove the existence of God through rational argument. Not surprisingly, none of their arguments are really successful. However, since we have established that the function of Islamic rationalism is primarily to derive a set of personal ethics consistent with religion, it is worth looking at one of the classical arguments for the existence of God; namely, the argument from design.

The argument from design states that, when we look around us, we see a complexity and beauty in the natural world which appears to have been designed. Note the emphasized words; due to this apparent design, one may believe that it is likely that there should exist a God who designed it. The argument says that just as when we come across a watch, we assume it was produced by a watchmaker, so when we see the grace of a cat’s jump or the intricate structure of a molecule, we tend to believe that these are all traces of divine design.

An interesting thing about the argument from design is that it is not based on logical reasoning. Rather it is a psychological argument, based upon our observations of how humans tend to appreciate and understand the world. We may well experience an inexplicable beauty and complexity in the world; but such perception can not provide any rational proof of God’s existence (to do so conclusively, it would also have to provide an answer to the problem of evil). Rather, the argument from design is establishing a definition in religious terms of a psychologically healthy individual. Healthy individuals experience the world as beautiful in its complexity; those unable to see any beauty around them are likely to be suffering from some variety of depressive psychological illness. Likewise, psychologically healthy individuals are likely to find some purpose to their lives; these may be aesthetic, based upon experiencing the beauty and pleasures of the world oneself, or moral, based upon helping others to live better. It is through these behavioural and existential pathways that beauty is linked with religious life, not through hollow philosophical proofs of God’s existence. It is likely that a person unable to find any beauty in the world surrounding them and unable to help those around them will find little comfort in logical arguments about God in any case.

With regards to modern Muslim ethics, the link between the beauty of the natural world and religion allows us to explore an avenue of ethics which is often ignored; namely, Muslim environmentalism. Muslim liberals in particular tend to be fairly Western-influenced and modern in their outlook; but the global environment is certainly the area in which the modern West has failed most miserably. In spite of the growing likelihood that the melting polar ice caps will submerge at least half of Bangladesh in the next century, industrialized nations have still done little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Under George W. Bush, the USA has even withdrawn from even the inadequate limitations imposed by the Kyoto agreement. The world’s environment is endangered today as it has never been before. In this circumstance, it is vital that Islam and other religious traditions which have spent comparatively little time worrying about the environment get involved.

The argument from design provides us with the basis of an Islamic environmentalism. For in spite of the fact that we can have no logical proof of the existence of God, we can in fact have an experiential belief in God based upon the beauty that we perceive in the natural world. If the natural world is then our main link with the divine, it becomes imperative that it be preserved. From the perspective of modern philosophy, it is perhaps not surprising that the rise of large cities housing an increasing proportion of the human race has been accompanied by the increasing prominence of atheist philosophies such as dialectical materialism. The entirely man-made environment of a city is perhaps furthest removed from any kind of natural beauty, and consequently removed from the experience of natural beauty or God. From a religious point of view, the natural beauty of the world is its strongest link with the divine and must be saved.