Interrogating The Border Between Rationality And Faith

“You can’t run away from the unknown,” I said to Chok as we both wandered around campus, bouncing ideas off each other about our most recent philosophical discovery. “I quite like that quote,” he responded with the same epiphany-struck expression on his face that I had when I came up with it. This conversation took place around the time I started believing in a literal God again—as before this point I returned to Islam viewing God as one big layered metaphor—thanks to a random Youtuber upon whom I stumbled on Twitter. At first glance, Safiyyah Sabreen Syeed’s channel might seem like some religious fanatic trying to push the narrative that Islam is responsible for all the progress modern science has made, which is honestly a reasonable claim not to be defended by me in this essay, but what intrigued me was something else. Why did this woman, who had a bachelor’s degree in engineering, choose to do her masters in philosophy, and more importantly, why was she so interested in the relationship between Islam and science? What does the scientific method, which was devised to investigate and understand the material world through empiricism, have to do with a religion that abides by a 1400-year-old book which is believed to be a miraculous revelation from an unseen Being whose existence cannot be proven by the senses? In other words, what does that which can be made known have to do with that which cannot? Well, the answer may just be in the very video by Syeed which led me to the conclusion that I shared with Chok.

Knowing The Unknown Through Transcendence

In surah an-Nisa verse 82, Allah questions the reader: “Then do they not reflect upon the Quran?” The verses are not all straightforward. Some are rich in imagery and heavily utilise symbolism. As a result, the reader is required to go beyond the literal words that they are presented in order to find meaning. They must transcend from the literal into the figurative, making sense of the metaphors employed by the Quran.  In surah al-Baqarah verse 74, Allah describes the heart as becoming hardened like rocks. This is an odd thing to say if taken literally. Instead, we should understand this as the heart becoming numb to any feeling, lacking empathy. The verse goes further to say that there are rocks which split open to release water. Water, a purifying agent, is often interpreted to symbolise faith. Thus, the verse is actually saying that faith penetrates the hardened heart to purify it, allowing it to once again feel. We would not have been able to arrive at this meaning if we did not make an effort to transcend and go beyond the literal.

In the video, Syeed, a scientist, defends her belief in the supernatural by presenting an argument from transcendence. According to her, “The human intellect by its very nature transcends itself. It goes beyond its capacity. It goes beyond the data that is provided to it as it recognises there are levels of reality that lie outside the realm of senses.” She explains this concretely through the example of a person in a room. This person hears the sound of footsteps coming from outside. They also hear the sound of a door opening then closing. When they open their own door to peek at the corridor, they observe footprints leading to the room next door. Based on the data that they have gathered, they infer that someone must be in the other room despite not witnessing that person entering it themself. This inference comes from making a connection between the bits of information that was known in order to come to a conclusion that was previously unknown. They have made a leap from the known into the unknown and returned. They have transcended by applying the intellect in order to find a unified interpretation of disconnected data. Recognising God as the All-knowing who knows the known and the unknown, this act of transcendence can be deemed divine inspiration. The human mind is the gate between the two which allows a person to pass through and grab hold of this inspiration.

Believing As Knowing Without A Doubt

Philosophy junkies will often say that to know is to doubt because how can you come to know something without doubting it first? Marxists recognise this as the identity of contradiction which basically posits that one thing cannot exist without its opposite. At the same time, Marxists acknowledge that a contradiction is not restricted to a simple opposition of two aspects, but can include a third or more that opposes the existing two. What then is believing? To believe is to not have doubt. A strong belief in something is resistant to external influences that try to cast doubt over it. Thus, belief is the opposite of doubt, which is rooted in knowledge. Yet we know that knowledge and belief are not equivalent. In fact, belief (read: faith) and knowledge are often pitted against one another by secular rationalists. Their argument is that belief is associated with unfounded faith that a person simply accepts without proof, whereas knowledge is associated with evidence, particularly material. Here, we see a three-way contradiction form between belief, knowledge, and doubt.

The identity of contradiction is not limited to each aspect necessitating the other; it also implies the ability of each aspect to transform into the other, characteristic of the dynamism within dialectical thought. In his collected works, Vladimir Lenin insisted that “the human mind should take these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, transforming themselves into one another”. When someone who has never used an elevator is told it is safe to ride, they will approach this information with reasonable skepticism due to a fear of getting stuck in it. So they step into it, doubting the fact of its safety, until they reach the top of the building safely, avoiding the possibility of being trapped in a hanging metal box. From this experience, doubt is transformed into knowledge as the safety of the elevator has been empirically demonstrated to them. This knowledge, then, is used to predict the safety of all future elevator rides. In other words, knowing that I was unharmed in this particular elevator ride causes me to believe that I will be unharmed if I ride any elevator in the future. Here, knowledge is transformed into belief. However, in the spirit of what Lenin said, this belief too is not permanent. I personally testify that my belief in the safety of elevators was drastically undermined into doubt when I got stuck inside one in the cafeteria on campus. Since then, I have taken the stairs every time I needed to get to the second floor because the stairs have never left me hanging—not yet, at least.

The logic that I have expounded holds true for one’s belief in God. Faith is not immutable. People lose faith all the time only to regain it and then lose it again. This cycle continues in a dialectical fashion. You might even be inclined to think that there is something unsustainable about the whole process and you would be right. Moving between the extremes is chaotic. It forces one into a mess of emotions, antithetical to the Quranic conception of faith known as iman. According to Dr Mansoor Alam, iman is “a conviction that results from full mental acceptance and intellectual satisfaction … that gives one a feeling of inner contentment and peace”. One of the ways through which Muslims are taught to strengthen their iman is the five obligatory prayers. Every day, a devout Muslim takes time out of their busy schedule in order to enter a state of reflection. While reflecting upon their existence, they willingly put themselves in a solitary position to recollect their thoughts and emotions. Once they have grappled with the seeming senselessness of being, all trace of their doubt is calmly converted into faith. This speaks to the power of an active mind, cognizant of its susceptibility to doubt and ready to humbly stand face to face with the Unknown instead of running away, in mediating one’s transition from doubtful to faithful, revealing that iman is not an unexplainable feeling, but a continuous exercise of the mental faculty.

Reconciling The Seen And The Unseen

The scientific method is not free from metaphysical assumptions. Any theory, which claims to be able to describe the world, begins with its own indemonstrable axioms that cannot be defied in the process of deducing conclusions from experimental data. They are called first principles and are defined by Aristotle as self-evident truths, such as Newton’s laws of motion in classical mechanics. Syeed writes in her study comparing Islamic and Western methodologies within the life sciences: “It is not that science today has somehow ‘discovered’ the nonexistence of god as assumed by new atheists. Rather, the way scientific research is conducted today takes this statement as its first assumption and presupposition.” Clearly, the rejection of God is not synonymous with rationality, although people may have a sound rationale for their lack of faith. It is through this that Syeed can confidently claim in her video that the Quran is a “call to reason”. In her perspective, science and religion are harmonious because it is an intelligent Creator that moves believers to investigate and ultimately appreciate the intelligent design of all physical creation, observing the unity within the universe that points to an absolute Unity.

In Red Star Over the Third World, Vijay Prashad discusses the situation of Eastern women in the Soviet Union. The Soviets faced difficulty in getting the largely Muslim population to acclimate into communist society, which was at the forefront of women’s emancipation at the time. The task of organising women of the East and fulfilling the demands of Turkish comrade Naciye Hanim for equality between the sexes was obstructed by the patriarchal norms within their Islamic practice. On top of that, Alexandra Kollontai’s efforts to hold a congress for women in the East were undermined thrice by Soviet leadership due to their conservative view which was perfectly encapsulated by Joseph Stalin’s response: “Why drag women of the veil here? We will have too many problems to deal with. The husbands would protest. It’s too early.” Upon learning this, my first thought was that their mistake here was a lack of collaboration between Soviet leadership and Muslim leaders and scholars. Although they recognised the importance of Sharia law to the people, merely allowing its preservation was insufficient. What needed to be done was an active and continuous reconciliation between communist and Islamic frameworks in order to smoothen the process of liberating Eastern women. The same still applies now.

Today, in a world dominated by secular epistemology, where academics who pronounce God are seen as unevolved, there is a need to rejuvenate the spirit of theism. Esmé L. K. Partridge writes regarding the field of philosophy, “A student should be just as justified to treat the existence of God as a legitimate premise in their argumentation as a student who might choose to advocate empiricism.” Likewise, tensions between the scientific and religious communities will only dampen when both recognise the legitimacy of the other. Combating anti-science attitudes among religious people, especially pertaining to matters of health like vaccination and treatment, paradoxically requires us to combat anti-religion attitudes among scientists. We need an ethical elaboration in the language of God, supported by evidence, as well as revelation because the Quran is a living book. Our understanding of it should not be isolated to a time and place that is now far removed from us. This is not to say that science and religion will no longer be contradictory, rather they will complement each other without antagonism as Mao Zedong pointed out that “antagonism is one form, but not the only form, of the struggle of opposites”. Only through this effort can we truly coexist harmoniously, while moving towards a better condition for all.