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Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

islam from inside ☰

Intellect in Islam

Microcosm and Macrocosm

Added December 01, 2003 (originally appeared in March 1993)

Infinity in Fractals
“The first thing created by God was the intellect.” (Prophetic Hadith)

In the following discussion on the place of intellect in Islam, the analogy of a computer may help clarify some of the points made. This is an analogy used only to provoke some thought and is not meant to be carried too far. There is, after all, no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy would, in fact, be the thing described.

Imagine that the computer screen and all activity on the screen represents the world of material existence. The screen is considered as the horizontal dimension of the computer. A program is running that simulates a small universe complete with simulated beings (with senses that let them interact with other objects on the screen) and simulated laws (much like some computer games) - the attempts of the beings to understand the environment (on the screen) represents science and all its branches (physics, chemistry etc.). This science can give these simulated beings an understanding and control over this horizontal (screen) dimension of their simulated universe - just as our science and technology gives us control over the material world.

Now in order to create this onscreen world, complex processes are occurring within the computer. The images on the screen are generated by illuminating the screen pixel by pixel. There is a program (or perhaps many interacting programs) running in the RAM. At another level there are patterns of electricity (of information) flowing and tracing complex paths through the chips on the motherboard. There is the static storage of the uninitialized program stored on a disk. All these represent levels of realities (the Universe on the screen exists on all these levels). The projection on the screen is the visual (material) manifestation of these other levels of existence. These other levels of existence are the foundation, or the substratum of the universe on the screen. They represent the vertical dimension of the simulated universe.

A creature in the simulated universe relying upon the senses given to it by the program could achieve a good understanding of the simulated universe, but it would not necessarily be even aware of the huge edifice which exists as a support to its very existence (the program itself, the patterns of electricity flowing through chips, the RAM, the actual hardware which supports the software, etc.). It would be restricted to understanding the horizontal world - the world on the screen - the world of the simulation. All the other planes of its existence would be invisible to it, they would be “unseen” levels.

Using this analogy only as a starting point, let us briefly examine the concept of intellect in Islam.

Science is a horizontal undertaking since it expands our knowledge outwards. It broadens our understanding but does not necessarily deepen it. Science is unstable from a theoretical view point - it is based on hypotheses, experiment, and discovery, not on self-evident principles.

Science can provide a model of the world as it is (albeit an ever changing model), it describes aspects of the world for us but it cannot tell us anything about the foundations or the underpinnings of the world and of the purposes behind it. It describes our horizontal existence (equivalent to the world of simulacra in the analogy of the computer) and gives us a power over this aspect of our existence but is incapable (at least in the currently dominant form) of telling us anything about our vertical existence, of the world beyond the simulacra.

Science and reason have width and length but lack depth. They are missing this vertical dimension so that those who see the world only through the glass of science perceive the world in great detail, but it is a flat uni-dimensional world having vast extent and breadth, but no depth, no firm solidity, so that its foundational underpinnings, its substratum remains unknowable.

If humanity is shaped predominantly by science, the result is a humankind with vast horizontal knowledge, a large body of knowledge about the workings of the physical universe but little comprehension of what the purpose(s) of it is - the why of existence and the metaphysics which underpin it. It is like understanding exactly how a car works, “ all the parts mesh together, how to drive it in an efficient manner, But having no place, no destination to drive to.” Science can shape a humanity “with capacity, but no attainment.” It can give man an “instrumental power and ability”, a power that is dependent on man's will and command.[1]

Man has an end in view when he uses these instruments. “Man is animal by nature and human by acquisition.” He must strive to realize his human potential, otherwise by nature “...he moves towards his natural, animal, individual, material, self-interested ends....” (Mutahhari) and uses the instruments given to him by science to achieve these ends. Through science he can subjugate the horizontal world. But he only attains his humanity when he becomes aware of the vertical aspect of existence. A complete understanding is only attained when one's knowledge encompasses both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of knowledge. (“Faith, without the light of reason and science, degenerates into mere superstition.” - Mutahhari)

Making reason or the scientific method the sole means of attaining knowledge and the only criterion of truth and of right and wrong is a tendency of the contemporary world. “This outlook had its origins in Descartes' philosophical formulations.... For Descartes the ultimate criterion of reality was the human ego.... His cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am - places a limitation on human knowledge by binding it to the level of individual reason and to the consciousness of the individual ego.”[2] Rationalistic trends sought to define all reality, but instead they limited understanding of reality.[3]

In Islam “...logic is an aspect of truth and Truth (Al-Haqq) is a name of God.” (Nasr, Living Sufism). The use of logic is like the use of a rung in a ladder - properly used it can help man move upward along the vertical axis of his being. Reason is an innate ability within man which encompasses logic and which can propel him rapidly upwards along the vertical dimension. But in order to do this reason must be free of the taint of man's animal, material propensities. Otherwise reason can be subverted to provide spurious justification for man to attain his desires in whatever realm his desires may fall. Reason and correct knowledge must go hand in hand. “ who has no reason secures no success. He who has no (correct) knowledge has no (correct) reasoning.... A person granted the capacity, but who is devoid of reason (because they throw it aside) cannot be conceived of except as a corpse.” (The Book of Reason and Ignorance)

Aql (Intellect) in Islam is something which exists at two levels, on two planes of existence. There is the level of “reason and logic” which is available as an instrument to all mankind, and there is the level of the “universal intellect” to which only a few have reached. It exists at a higher level than the material world and encompasses and comprehends the lower worlds. Aql is that which connects man to the truth, not the evolving truths of science but the truth that flows from God and provides the key to all knowledge and all truth.[4]

So the intellect (Aql) is the highest plane of man - it is the noblest part of man - it encompasses reason and logic and it stands above the ego. The Qur'an equates those who go astray with those who cannot (or will not) use their intellect - it uses the phrase “wa la ya'qilun” (they do not use their intellect) or the phrase “la yafaqahun” (they comprehend not). Those who do not use their intellect are those who have denied themselves access to one of the highest aspects of their humanity.[5]

Reason is an aspect or reflection of the universal intellect on the psyche of the individual. Reason on the level of individual consciousness is not, however, free of the passions or the ego. It can be an instrument or means to attaining the universal intellect or it can be a veil (when mixed with the passions) that hides one from the Divine truths.

Revelation provides a guiding and regulating framework within which reason and logic can find firm footholds to convey man up to the plane of the universal intellect. The verses of the Qur'an become doors to this intellect, and once this intellect is accessed the knowledge of the “Mother of the Book” can be achieved. The storehouses of this knowledge are opened in varying degrees. The person who rises to this level has made the vertical journey and attained to the level of the pure universal intellect and can then become a guide to the people.

This level of intellect is addressed in the following hadith:

“....God created Intellect out of His own Light...and it was the first creation among the spirits. After its creation God commanded it to go back (to this world) and the Intellect obeyed the order. Then God commanded it to come forward (to draw near to) Him. The Intellect did accordingly. Upon this, God addressed it with the words, I have created you in all your glory and bestowed upon you honour and preference over all My creatures.” (The Book of Reason and Ignorance).

The Qur'an states that God taught the names (all of them) to Adam - that is the names or realities of all things. This knowledge was placed within Adam and, by extension, within all human beings. Those who practise ‘irfan’ speak of an inward journey through which the mystic uncovers the knowledge of some of these names.

Mulla Sadra speaks of this inward journey as being one through which one can break through to the true ‘outside’. (Using the analogy of a computer, it is as if a being on the screen is able to find a key parameter within its own subroutine that would give it access to the governing program that controls and regulates the universe on the computer screen - with all the attendant possibilities implicit in that access. A complete understanding of the basis and workings of its own subroutine, and its place and function within the overall program could then be achieved).

In order to have access to the true depth of existence, in order to make the vertical journey (the “...ascent of Islam” - Qur'an Sura 90), in order to achieve understanding of the realities of existence (of all things) one goes inward and thus reaches a plane outside of and above the material plane. (In the computer analogy, they become aware of all the levels of processing which comprise their true existence and which make possible their projected existence on the level of the computer screen.)

The human intellect is a microcosmic reflection of the universal intellect. When man attains to proper use of his own intellect he is able to move from the level of his own individual intellect to swim in the ocean of the universal (macrocosmic) intellect. Through going inward, he is conveyed upwards and outwards to dizzying heights.



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  • 1 – Mutahhari, “Fundamentals of Islamic Thought”, Mizan Press

  • 2 – Nasr, “Living Sufism”

  • 3 – Fall of Reason

    The post-modern outlook (at least in the political arena) has even put aside Descartes' reason and logic and reduced the criterion of right and wrong simply to the desires and demands of the ego (not the individual ego, but the national ego, the corporate ego, or the politics of state power - although this in the end is likely to filter down to the individual level). This is not an ego that struggles and seeks to understand its own existence like the ego that formulated Descartes' cogito ergo sum - rather it is one that has no wish to understand it's own nature, which purposely turns away from self-reflection and taking stock of it's own self. Reason, logic, the scientific method - all become subservient to this ego and so lose their tinge of truthfulness. They mutate instead, into a delusional propaganda designed to limit opposition and interference, to maximize power and profit, and to allow this national, political ego to fulfill its appetites, no matter how voracious these appetites may become.

    As well, there is a modern tendency to attach the word Islamic to existing secular ideologies (whether conservative or liberal ideologies). The wholesale adoption of these secular ideologies or methodologies (and all their cultural adjuncts) is justified by making cosmetic islamic changes to them. This is perhaps done in order to demonstrate Islam's relevance to in the modern political/cultural context and power structures and to make Islam seem “up-to-date” and appealing to certain groups of Muslims or palatable to the proponents of secular ideologies.

    What actually happens is that Islam is reduced to the status of an adjective modifying a noun (i.e. rationalism, secularism etc.). It can no longer be seen as a body of principles from which can emerge a unique system (Syyed Hossein Nasr, Living Sufism) - a system which may well (if it emerges) display parallels to many of the compelling and invaluable traits found in the modern world, but which achieves its total structure through an emergent process which is suffused throughout with a unity of the vertical and horizontal aspects of existence - a unity born of fidelity to the core Islamic concept of Tauhid. Instead, the presently existing (but ever mutating and changing) systems become the acknowledged systems, and Islam is implicitly seen as an adjunct, a subculture, a subsystem that is no longer a tenable way of life (deen), no longer the path of unity, but merely a historical artifact which is subordinate to other cultures. As the secular system changes and morphs over time, such a subordinate version of Islam will be forced into an ever changing dance of adaptation - a dance that will, over time, only demonstrate the growing irrelevancy of such a vision of Islam.

    The other equally unpalatable end of this spectrum is the deadly dangerous literalist, extremist interpretations of Islam in which the politics of conflict result in the subversion of Islamic ethics, theology, and Qur'anic interpretation. Here, a rigid, almost savage, adherence to a literalist vision of islam - one largely devoid of reason or compassion - can only cause untold and unnecessary misery for some Muslims and hardship for all Muslims. Both ends of the spectrum are destructive. In the end the Islam that remains will perhaps be such a faded and faint shadow of its original self that whether one remains a Muslim or not in such systems will be of little or no consequence as only the name will remain while the reality will disappear.

  • 4 – Related Articles

    Seeking Patterns and Principles

    Shards of Knowledge

    The concept of time in the Quran

  • 5 – Intellect and Ego

    “Obedience to Him can only be performed by means of knowledge, and knowledge is a matter of acquisition, and this acquisition is through reason and intellect...(no person) can ever discharge his obligations to God unless he comprehends them consciously. All the worshippers taken together cannot reach that height of excellence in their devotion to God as the man of pure, unsullied intellect does.” (hadith)

    “O Ali, Since mankind seeks to come near to their Creator through all kinds of piety, bring yourself close to Him through activities of the intellect, so that you may arrive there before all of them.” (hadith)

    “The great scholars of the age have gained total knowledge and complete mastery of things that have nothing to do with them. But that which is important and closer to him than anything else, namely his own self, this he does not know.... Wretched humanity! Not knowing his own self, man has come from a high estate and fallen into lowliness!” (Rumi)

    “The dog of the ego has bared its teeth and nipped the spirit's foot. Since your ego predominates you are a beast. Your properties are determined by that which predominates, oh self-worshipper! This drinks down the seven seas. It makes a morsel out of a world and gulps it down. Its belly keeps shouting, 'Is there any more?' This ego will swallow down the seeds of your worldly designs, and once you have planted them, they will surely grow.” (Rumi)

    “Each and every part of the world is a snare for the fool and a means of deliverance for the wise.” (Rumi)

    “Man prays for evil as he prays for good, and man was ever hasty (impatient)...And every man's augury have we fastened on his neck; and we will bring forth for him on the day of resurrection a book offered to him wide open. 'Read your book, you are accountant enough against yourself today.'....He who accepts guidance, accepts it only for his own soul: and he who errs, errs only against it....” (Qur'an - sura 17:11,13)

    “They deny what their knowledge does not encompass” (Qur'an 10:39)

    “What they were busy acquiring has taken possession of their hearts...on that day they shall surely be veiled from their Lord” (Qur'an Sura 83:14,15)

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