I have now read chapter 5 on Islam, and chapter 6 on the philosophers. Next up is a chapter on the mystics which I am looking forward to but my brain has packed up and gone home for today 🙂
Towards the end of the Islam chapter, she discusses the differences between the Traditionists and the Mutazilites. The Traditionists believed in imitating Muhammad, and believed revelation from God was needed in order for us to know right and wrong. They took things like God sitting on a throne to be literally true but “without [knowing] how” (bila kayf). They believed the Quran was uncreated (shirk much? :P) They believed in predestination rather than God’s will. On the other hand, the Mutazilities were concerned with applying reason and rationality to understand the things of God. They believed in free will and a created Quran.
I don’t think it’ll be any shock to regular readers to know that I would side with the Mutazilites here. But what took me by surprise was that Karen Armstrong seemed to be making a link between the Greek Christian thought – which in my previous post I explained appealed to me a lot – and the Traditionists. I think what she is saying is that the Traditionists let God be beyond human understanding, beyond a mere projection of human values. They revered God to the extent of mystifying everything in the religion including the Quran itself, not claiming that anything could really be understood. The rationalists could be seen as somewhat arrogant in contrast to that respect and awe for God, and I get the impression traditionalists today who follow the rules derived by scholars do see rationalists that way.
So where do I really stand on the use of reason and its limitations? I don’t know! I’m confused now.
I think in terms of morality, blind imitation is always dangerous. I cannot see any way of determining what is genuine revelation – in terms of moral injunctions – other than by applying our own reasoning. To accept moral values uncritically is just brainwashing. And sure, we all have different ideas about morality – but collectively we can spur each other towards the truth. Like when we banned slavery. That decision was not inspired by any “revelation”, but by our collective conscience.
I’d say morality is mostly relative, with perhaps some general universal principles, like “love your neighbour as yourself”. The main part that changes has to do with who our neighbour is. I feel we are necessarily moving towards viewing all of humanity as our neighbours, as Rowan Williams was saying on TV last night. That’s why we cannot tolerate conventional slavery any more. Arguably a more subtle economic slavery is still alive and well and we need to wake up and start thinking about that.
I think the nature of God may be paradoxical and beyond reason, but that is no excuse to blindly follow a religious moral code thinking that you can’t possibly understand it. Part of knowing that you don’t fully understand God surely has to be, knowing that you can’t be sure of God’s will. So yes, you shouldn’t ascribe your own moral values to God himself. That is dangerous. But equally dangerous is disengaging your brain and assuming that some religious source has accurately provided you with the answer.
Isn’t it possible for a sense of the limitations of our understanding about God to become a rigid idea in itself? Isn’t this what has happened when the Quran is viewed as uncreated and its meaning is deemed to be beyond comprehension, so that people learn to recite it reverently but not understand it, and instead exercise their powers of understanding only on hadiths – and even then, only to follow them unquestioningly? Isn’t that just as arrogant an approach as a reliance on reason?