Reason or blind following – which is more arrogant?

January 2, 2010 at 7:56 pm (God, Islam, morality)

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?



  1. Jasmine said,

    Goodness me Sarah, you pack so much into your posts! Clearly not an English literature student – or else you would take each topic one by one and expand and give us opportunity to tackle one thing at a time ;0D (said with the greatest affection, gentle “academic” mocking) Your posts are calculations – this plus this plus this = quite unreasonable. Hold on…what about this plus ths plus this = no.No. Thats not going to work. Its likeI reading Quantum Physics ;0D

    OK , I have decided not to take the things one by one and go for one big response.

    Underlying all of these movements, is a human-led decision making process that has decided in some way or another what is best for its people. I say:freedom and knowledge of good things is best for the people. Everyone is different, and ach person shoud be able to find for themselves what the best way to achieve od consiousess and faith is.

    Recitation without understanding, is a recognised meditative aid in many of the “meditation” cultures (like Buddhists, Hindu’s) – and recitation can put on in a trancelik state and enable them to access other parts of their mnd and give them respite from thoughts. Should be the one and only way to pray? No of course not, but my view is – if it is helping you to be a good person – go for i.t.

    And ultimately – the history of all religions will bring out an argument where someone, at some stage says “THIS is the best way”

    The tragedy is – there is no best way. The only way is the best way for you. Chanting may work for x, fail for y and seem utterly pointeless for z. On the other hand, doing good deeds may come naturally to x, charity to y and study to z. I mean, the variables are endless. This is the tragedy of religious thought – they have bunched up all of human kind into one type of person – all benefiting from the same practices.

    Thats lke saying there is only one set path to sincerity.

    Of course there isn’t. Look at the differences in all of the Prophets and all of the people around them. Look at the differences of the educated and the non educated, the rich and the poor, the intelligent and the challenged. We are not all the same.

    Now – I am trying hard to not get poliical and talk about society – but its hard. How to we apply this to soceity is the natural next question. But…I’m not going to go there today!

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Jasmine – I am laughing… looking at it now, I can see what you mean! There was even more as well, but I cut it out and put it in the other post. But hey, at least I kept it reasonably succinct this time. 😉

      I can totally agree with what you’re saying on one level – yes, different things work better for different people – but on another level, I’m always looking for simplicity, for a universal formula. Perhaps this is just a flaw of mine. But simplicity and universality are things we expect of God, so in a way this is my way of looking for God!

      But diversity is also an expected part of that and I may be overlooking it too much. Like you said, one person will study a scripture, another person will chant it. These activities fulfill different needs for people. I have no right to judge that.

      I think you summed up how I feel now with this: “I say:freedom and knowledge of good things is best for the people.” And sadly it seems that religions are often not “freeing” types of systems. Atheists love to point out how religions did not inspire the end of slavery but rather resisted it. That just makes me sad. 😦 I don’t think it has to be that way, though. I think we have to bear in mind how uncertain we really are about God and that we don’t know it all, and also be confident enough to use our minds to work out what is right. The Traditionists did the former and the Rationalists did the latter. I think we need both.

      • susanne430 said,

        “And sadly it seems that religions are often not “freeing” types of systems. Atheists love to point out how religions did not inspire the end of slavery but rather resisted it. That just makes me sad. 😦 I don’t think it has to be that way, though.”

        No, religions aren’t freeing really. Don’t they oftentimes bind you into a list of rules and traditions to follow? As far as slavery goes, people can justify about anything immoral that suits their purposes. They’ll find a way to say “the Bible talks about slavery” or “the ahadith say temporary marriages are fine” whether or not this is really true. For them, they want slaves. They want easy sex. So they will twist things and justify things. But I think people who are sensitive to their moral guides — their consciences, that “law written upon their hearts,” they will know deep down: owning others is not right. Temporary marriages for the sake of sexual gratification is not right. It’s when people’s consciences become screwed up that immoral things become fine — and even God-sanctioned.

        Interestingly many spiritual people hated slavery and fought to abolish it. (I think of William Wilberforce, a devoted Christian who fought for years for this practice to be ended in his country.) We must never confuse people who follow a certain religion with the way GOD wants things to be. Even devout believers get things very wrong. We are flawed and, in reality, we want our own ways and will do our best to resist changing in areas that we like.


        How can loving others as I love myself or honoring others above myself or serving others in the spirit of Jesus Christ reconcile with my owning of slaves or mistreating others or any number of things spiritual people justify?

        So when atheists like to point out that “religions” do this or that, they see the followers of a religion. And while one would hope a good religion would inspire people to lead the way in fighting injustices, in reality, followers are flawed. And often lazy and selfish and not willing to do enough to right society’s wrongs.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Good point, Susanne – I shouldn’t say that religions don’t inspire positive social change, but rather, it was due to the way it was followed by some (probably the majority). The tragedy is that so often the practice of religion falls short of what it should be.

  2. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    I think both the Tradiionists an the Mutazilities were too extreme. You’ve mentioned the problems with the Traditionists, and I want to add that some Mutazilis went so far as to claim that God was subject to the laws of the earth, i.e. God could NOT do something bad because God claimed He was good, etc. I think a good balance lies in between the two.

    Regarding blindly imitating the Prophet, I can understand that the generations who came during and after the Prophet would want to do so – so would I. The Qur’an itself says the Prophet is a good man and the Qur’an itself guided him at times. So of course if I lived then, I would try and follow his actions and words. Now it is much more difficult since how do we know what he did and didn’t do? Some people say he was against having dogs, some people say he wasn’t. So it’s all become much more complicated and now people are forced to rely more on reason than they had to before.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Sara – yes, I’m sure there is much I would disagree with the Mutazilites about too! I think some of the rationalists believed God was bound in time, and had physical dimensions, maybe because they couldn’t logically reconcile a God outside time and space with action IN time and space. I think this kind of paradox just has to be left as a mystery.

      I think I am in favour of a good balance with aspects of both, as well.

      It’s a good point about use of reason being forced on us in the absence of a living prophet. I can’t relate very much to imitating a prophet’s actions in all mundane details of life, or even in religious matters if I didn’t understand the reason, but that’s just me and not everyone is the same. Rules and law help some people feel good about their devotion to God and that’s valuable.

  3. Achelois said,

    I feel today, now, here we have too much knowledge. The Internet has made it impossible to follow a religion blindly. I am in my 30s and I never knew so much about Islam when I didn’t have Internet – both good and bad. I stopped following blindly. There is a limit to which you can NOT think. Ultimately you begin to question: why did this happen? Why did he do this? Why did He say this or that?

    Yet, if we know so much and still disregard what we learn because it doesn’t sit well with our blind following or urges us out of our comfort zone, then only we are answerable to God/Allah/Yehwah/Onkar. No religion is superior to God. That is what we always forget.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Achelois – my husband periodically questions what I’m reading or who I’m talking to on the internet, with deep suspicion. He definitely seems to think too much knowledge is a dangerous thing! It was the same thing with a friend of mine from church who studied theology at uni – some people seemed to worry that she’d been inspired with some “wrong” ideas.

      Of course getting misinformation is always a hazard but as long as we don’t read too selectively I don’t think it’s a serious risk.

      I know what you mean because I followed my religion blindly in the past and I don’t think it would even be possible for me to do that now, if I wanted. And the internet is a HUGE part of that and something I often take for granted!

      I think it is a good thing, but there are some things that we just can’t know about, because they happened too long ago. Like the issue of whether the crucifixion – and resurrection for that matter – happened. I could have gone round in circles forever reading the various arguments and never really concluded anything unless I managed to build a time machine. At times like that, blind following looked like a luxury I wished was still available to me!

      “No religion is superior to God. That is what we always forget.”
      True. I think sometimes I forget that my new “religion” of questioning everything isn’t necessarily the right way for everyone.

  4. susanne430 said,

    Great stuff.

    “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 think Jesus’ use of a Samaritan as the hero of his “who is my neighbor” story was excellent. Jews and Samaritans despised each other so this was like making a Zionist the hero of a Palestinian story. If two groups who hated each other would be neighbors worth sharing in Jesus’ version then NO ONE is outside our realm of neighborliness. You can’t get much simpler – or harder! – than realizing everyone is worth my love and care and kindness. If action X hurts people, refrain from it.

    I wish I could think of the quote in its exact form, but there is one about the problem with the Gospel (or Bible) is not all the things I can’t understand, but the problem is all the things I DO understand. We may never grasp the Mystery of the Trinity, but in the meantime we don’t do the things we can understand like loving God and loving others and treating others as we would like to be treated.

    If marrying another woman hurts my wife and children, don’t do it.

    If treating my wife like an ill-witted child hurts her, don’t do it.

    If disrespecting my husband hurts him, don’t do it.

    If cursing my neighbor brings hard feelings, don’t do it.

    If screaming “God hates gays” hurts people, don’t do it.

    You get the idea. Enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Susanne – the story of the good Samaritan is so good, isn’t it! I’d forgotten about that. I wondered how universal Jesus was in his outlook. I remembered him saying something like “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” but that was all. Yesterday I ordered a scholarly work by Ed Sanders on the historical Jesus so I look forward to getting to know him objectively (outside of church doctrine). I used to take all my understandings from church and not from my own Bible-study (which I didn’t do very much of!) I think it will be really interesting to study Christianity the way I’ve done with Islam.

      “the problem with the Gospel (or Bible) is not all the things I can’t understand, but the problem is all the things I DO understand.”
      Always true in any religion. I often thought the reason some Muslims focus so much on nit-picking about outward things is that it’s easier, and a convenient distraction, from the harder inward things they know they need to work on.

      • susanne430 said,

        “I often thought the reason some Muslims focus so much on nit-picking about outward things is that it’s easier, and a convenient distraction, from the harder inward things they know they need to work on.”

        Ha, ha! Yes, that’s true of most of us, I’d think. It’s easier to focus on the length of someone’s skirt (is it modest enough?) than “am I loving this person or looking out for others?” That’s why it’s good to keep in mind God’s words to the prophet Samuel. You may recall Samuel went to anoint David as Israel’s next king. He saw David’s handsome, strong oldest brother and thought, “surely this is the one,” but God rejected him! God said, “Men look on the outward appearance, but I look on the heart.” Such a hard thing to remember while living in a world that judges people by their looks!

        Yes, Jesus’ earthly ministry was mainly to the Jewish people, however, He reached out many times to non Jews. And John 3:16 which is where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, Jesus states, “For God so loved *the world* that he gave…” So I don’t think Jesus’ message was exclusively for the Jewish people. In fact He instructed His disciples to share the good news with others and is why you find Paul, Thomas, Peter, John, etc. going throughout the world to share about Jesus.

        I’m interested in reading your posts when you write about the historical Jesus in the future.

  5. Amber said,

    The extremes of both attitudes are dangerous, of course. If you rely only on what reason tells you, you have to discount every sort of miracle or extra(para)normal happening. But, if you only follow blindly, you can wind up (at worst) committing horrible crimes, or at best following a path that makes no sense at all.

    I like to think I come down in the middle. I need things to make sense to me, for the most part. I need the faith I follow not to contradict itself, or the core text. I need it to not micromanage my life, as well, but I need it to have strong foundations, pillars, things that I can turn back to, and follow my reason from those for the small details of life. On the other hand, I accept that there are things in life, especially in faith and my spiritual life, that I am not going to be able to reason out and rationally understand. I’ve banged my head against those walls, and I’ve still got the bruises. I follow as far as reason will take me, but at some point I have to decide, Can I believe this without understanding *everything*, every exact little detail, or am I going to have to reject it because it doesn’t make enough sense?

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I think I need all the things you listed, too. I think it’s OK for things to be beyond our reason sometimes, but I don’t think I can accept things that contradict reason. Paradox for example is beyond reason to understand, but I don’t see it as anti-reason.

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