Intellect and Islam
By Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Garden Grove, CA
I read a Hadith e Qudsi in the book Awarif ul Ma’arif by Shaikh, Shahabuddin Suharwardi RA about intellect which is rarely mentioned in our discourses perhaps for fear of enhancing the intellectual anarchy that already exists in society.
Nabi SA is reported to have said: The first thing that was created by Allah SWT was intellect. Having created it Allah told intellect to advance, and it did. Then Allah told it to return, and it did. Allah then told it to speak and it did. Allah asked it to be quiet and it became quiet. Nabi SA further said: Allah swears by His Honor, His Majesty, His Grandeur, His Pride, His Absolute Sovereignty and His Omnipotence; of all the things that I have created nothing is more beloved to Me and more honorable to Me than intellect because it is through it that people recognize Me, praise Me, obey Me, and deal with each other. Then Allah warns the intellect: Beware that my rewards and punishment are because of you, and I have made you honorable with the support of the virtue of “patience”.
This Hadith not only extols intellect and its virtues, but also hints at how it should be used to serve the purpose for which Allah has created it and honored it. By not heeding to it we often abuse our intellect and lose all the good associated with it. Intellect should be used to elucidate a problem and understand it. We should also understand its limitation in understanding an issue and when we get into a blind end we should stop and look at the matter afresh rather than try to crash the dead end to justify the unjustifiable position that we have reached to satisfy our ego. It should speak and express itself for the benefit of promoting knowledge and sound understanding of self and the environment, but at the same time it should keep quiet when what it is expressing is nonsensical and detrimental to self and society. While its use in a restrained and cautious way is going to benefit us, its unrestrained abuse to the contrary is going to bring destruction to self and to society. This diligence in use of intellect requires a lot of patience and that is why Allah SWT said that intellect is honored with patience. With impatience we disgrace our intelligence.
People, who are not able to understand the nuances of Qur'anic concepts or analyze their own life experiences, scoff at this proposition by Qur’an that heart is the seat of understanding (Ch7 V179). For these people heart is only a pumping organ. Such people fail to understand the correlation between the flutter of the heart at disturbing thoughts and excessive emotions. Brain may be thinking, but it is the heart that vouches for the sanity and insanity of a thought and that is why it is considered as the seat of intellect. After all, intellect is not a stray thought but convincing ideas and ideals over which the heart feels assured. Those who have hardened their hearts through excessive indulgence in crimes fail to understand this role of the heart and attribute their insights to gut feelings.
Shaikh Suharwardi RA writes that intellect is the language of the spirit and its seat is brain for the disobedient and heart for the virtuous. This is because the disobedient carry on baseless arguments incessantly not to reach the truth but to achieve their agenda through it. The pious, on the other hand, uses his intellect in search of the truth and accepts it even if it is contrary to his assumptions. That is why Allah swt says about those who deny Him and His signs that their hearts are rusted and are not able to understand the truth (Ch 83 V 11-14).
Qur’an commands us to ponder, to reflect and to understand the reality of the universe and our lives more than a hundred times. It is only four times that it commands us to listen and obey. There are four things which we can understand only through prophetic guidance and our intellect alone is not enough to reach an understanding of it. These are: 1. Existence of God. 2. Prophethood 3. Life after death, and 4. Destiny. It is on these matters that we need to listen and obey to what prophets have told us before we understand their reality through our life experiences. On every other matter of religion we are encouraged by the Qur’an and by Nabi SA to use our senses and intelligence diligently. In one of the Hadith Nabi SA has said that a few minutes of contemplation about self and universe is better than lot of optional prayers. In another Hadith reported by Shaikh Suharwardi RA in his book Awarif ul Ma’arif Nabi SA is reported to have stated: Don’t be amazed at acceptance of Islam by someone unless you are aware of the degree of his intelligence.
The first human being, Adam (PBUH) who also happened to be the first prophet in accordance with Islamic teachings, had seen God and His Glory with his own eyes (Ch 2 V 30-36). He could not establish the belief of Allah’s power just by seeing Him. That is why he could not obey that one command that was given to him by Allah swt: Do not approach that tree (Ch 2 V 35-36). Allah swt attributes this slip to forgetfulness and lack of fortitude that is ingrained in human nature (Ch20 V115). Allah swt compensated this human weakness with intelligence that is mentioned in the above Hadith. Allah swt sent down Adam and Eve to a life of hardship on this earth to develop this intelligence through their life experiences and recognize the realities of things (Ch 2 V 38-39).
After spending almost a millennium on earth the progeny of Adam produced that son of fortitude Noah (PBUH) who invited his people to the worship of one God and to the life of penance and piety (Ch 10 V 25-49 Ch71 V1-25) for 950 long years. When people did not respond to his message he got impatient and invoked the wrath of God on his people and they were destroyed (Ch71 V26-28).
It was a millennium later that Abraham (PBUH) was born in the progeny of Noah. Abraham’s story which is chronicled in several places in the Qur’an tells us that he was a person of that intellect and patience that is mentioned in the above Hadith. That is why Allah swt made Abraham (PBUH) his friend. Following are some highlights of the story as it appears in the Qur’an.
He was born into the family of sculptor Aazar, who sculpted various gods for worship in the temple of Mesopotamian Civilization. Abraham questioned the validity of this worship (Ch 26 V69-79 Ch21 V51-67). Abraham also wanted an answer for his own existence and its purpose. While all the other prophets that are mentioned in the Qur’an seem to have received guidance on this matter through revelation, Abraham (PBUH) found an answer to this on an intellectual plane (Ch 6 V 74-79 Ch 2 V 260). Having found the answers to his quest through his own intellectual effort Abraham stood firmly on his beliefs. He acknowledges the guidance and support of Allah swt in this quest (Ch19 V42-46). He faced separation from his kith and kin (Ch37 V99), death by burning (Ch21 V68-69), and was even willing to sacrifice his only son whom he got in old age on the basis of a dream (Ch37 V102-110). He came out not only victorious in all these ordeals by the help of Allah swt, but had no rancor against his tormentors. To the contrary, he prayed for the forgiveness of his people for their failure to understand him and his message (Ch14 V36).
Abraham (PBUH) was an embodiment of obedient spirit and healthy intellectual curiosity to become the Khaleel (friend) of Allah swt. Alas the followers of Abraham, instead of understanding and emulating his intellectual curiosity, unflinching obedience, limitless patience and infinite compassion think that Abraham (PBUH) was elevated to the leadership of mankind because of his beard, circumcision etc. (Tafseer Ibn e Kaseer Ch 2 V124). This might have been in reaction to Paul’s negation of these rituals earlier. Two negatives may make a positive in math, but in social behavior they kill the truth to the detriment of self and society. Our commitment to these ritualistic practices without following the true Abrahamic spirit of faith, fortitude and foresight has made religion defunct.
Allah swt by His infinite mercy resurrected His religion one last time through Muhammad SA on an intellectual plane through the Qur’an. Alas the conservative inheritors of this great religion made this dynamic message of eternal guidance an institution of static rituals through their dogmas. The liberals amongst them, on the other hand, caused confusion into this simple message by making it a target of needless debates to prove their intellectual superiority over the divine revelation. Both the conservatives and the liberals are common in their attribute of selectively using the great gift of intellect in advancing their agenda rather than advancing the truth with which Nabi SA was sent.
Spirit and intellect are complementary to each other. Shaikh ul Shayookh Suharwardi RA has said that “intellect is the language of the soul”. Soul is a part of the spirit which is blown into us by Allah swt (Ch 38 V 72). Instead of making intellect the spokesperson of the soul in accordance with the guidance laid for it in the above Hadith when we make intellect the language of the Nafs (self) it becomes Rijz that is Filth (Ch 10 V 100).
Those who want to run their writ in the name of freedom are trying their best to make sure that people are not able to nurture this important asset of intellect and utilize it for their own good and for the greater good of mankind. To the contrary, they are making sure that it is destroyed by the use of psychedelic drugs. And those that escape their use are led astray by senseless arguments and purposeless actions in the name of freedom to the detriment of inner peace and social harmony.
Protection of intelligence is one of the five purposes of Islamic Sharia. That is why use of psychedelic drugs is prohibited in it. But the individuals who see profit in it and the governments who see revenue in it loath this prohibition. In such a situation people must be educated about protecting the only capital, the intellect, which they have to advance their dreams of a better life in this world and not to destroy it for instantaneous pleasure. The governments must also realize that for a little financial gain it can’t subject millions of people to a life of misery and then expect the church to rescue and restore such people and countries inhabited by them.