TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 11: Faith and Reason

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

As a chaplain, I meet quite a few people who have left Islam or are on the brink of leaving the faith. The reasons for leaving Islam, I found, are varied. But, one answer that kept coming up goes something like this: “I had a lot of questions and I was told not to question my faith, so I just decided it wasn’t for me.” It’s usually more complex than that, but that’s pretty much the gist.

To me, this means that too many Muslims who experience a crisis of faith are being turned away by their family members or even religious leaders who, basically, tell them that Islam is a religion of surrendering oneself to God – take it or leave it. If Islam is to survive and thrive in America and beyond, this is one attitude that will have to change wherever it may exist.

Even though, yes, Islam is based on this understanding of bringing one’s inward and outward in harmony with God’s teachings and guidance – there is much room for doubt, questions, and reason. This is simply so because knowing the reality of God and what God wants from us is not always easy to know. Blind faith is not asked of us nor is it even encouraged.

In fact, the Qur’an is full of criticism for those who simply believe or do things based on what they learned from their ancestors without independently thinking or contemplating its truth (2:170 and 5:104). Furthermore, one of the most oft-repeated lines of the Qur’an says that this message is for those who deeply think and ponder (2:163). Similarly, the Qur’an in multiple places commends those who contemplate and use their intelligence (3:190).

The Qur’an also tells of the angels who dared to question God’s decision to put human beings on earth upon realizing that they would, by virtue of their capacity to disobey God, spread mischief and bloodshed (2:130). There is also the story of Prophet Abraham – who is praised as a sincere devotee of God and given the title of “intimate friend of God” – who, nonetheless, asks God how it is that he will resurrect and bring back to life that which is dead (2:260). And, we have the story of Prophet Moses who is honored for speaking directly to God, yet asks God to show himself (7:143).

When it comes to convincing people of faith, the Qur’an is filled with passages that employ signs within the human being and in the universe to contemplate the existence, oneness, and genius of God (2:163 – 164). The Qur’an also shows in Prophet Abraham, as a model of faith, someone who is at every step using his reason to preach to his people, pointing to the signs in the heavens (2:258 and 6:74 – 79) and showing the weakness of the manmade idols (21:51 – 67).

Likewise, the prescriptions and proscriptions that are found in the Qur’an are usually given a clear rationale and not just expected to be followed without consideration. The Prophet Muhammad, too, would invite his companions to ask questions – sometimes very difficult and personal questions – and would answer them calmly and intelligently. The prophetic biography is full of such instances.

All of this is to argue that in Islam doubt, questions, and human reasoning are not at all antithetical to faith. In fact, it can very well be argued that faith is not complete without these things. All of this, of course, presupposes that we are sincere in our inquiry and that we want the truth to manifest rather than simply our egos to be satisfied. This is why the lifelong journey of faith and reason is as much a spiritual effort as it is an intellectual one.

On this point, the Qur’an will readily admit that faith cannot be achieved through the intellect alone. Faith, by its very nature, is a belief that settles and finds conviction in the heart with the aid of the mind. Spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting are the methodologies by which faith becomes rooted in the heart. In the realm of metaphysics these spiritual methodologies are essential. Just as a scientist cannot run around the lab chanting God’s names and expecting his or her experiment to succeed, a spiritual seeker cannot simply apply the scientific methodology to metaphysical questions and expect an answer.

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