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Religion and Society

On Islamic Reason and Political Authority

From the eighth to the tenth centuries Muslim thought addressed in an increasingly detailed way the relationship between Revelation and the rational structure of the intellect. The work of the Andalusian Ibn 'Abd Rabbih represents the high point of this attempt.

Reason is an ancient Greek discovery, insofar as it was Greek philosophers who declared the primacy of thought over other forms of cognition on the grounds that it enables us to perceive reality universally and dispassionately. Reason is indivisible and unassailable, claim its modern adepts: scientists, who may well be right, since their thinking about the physical world has decisively transformed it for all of us, and western philosophers and political scientists, who are more likely to be wrong, since they deal with only a portion of human reality. It is difficult, as these examples suggest, to separate reason from reasoning and from the matter to which reasoning is applied; and just as different disciplines have their own logical procedures, so do different cultures.


Mohammed Arkoun famously wrote of 'Islamic reason', with reference to some of the great Sunni doctors1, and there are many other varieties of reason in classical Islamic thought. To the heirs of neoplatonism, reason came trailing clouds of glory, and was as much a mystical concept as a scientific one: the illumination of the mind and soul by the Active Intellect was to be the central notion in the Muslim theosophies of late medieval and early modern times. This synthesis was the result of prolonged friction between philosophers and scripturalists. From the outset, the idea of reason was problematic in a social and political order founded on revelation. Was reason a complement to revelation, intuitive, and a reliable moral guide? Or was reasoning an artifice, a tool for bending the faith and the law to one's own desires, a way to damnation equally for the strong and the weak-minded? The commonsense consensus was that intelligence is God-given, the improvement of one's mental faculties a moral endeavour, and that wisdom, which we recognise spontaneously, cannot be mischievous even when it comes from non-scriptural sources. This empirical consensus used a vocabulary which did not differentiate between the intelligence of an individual, methods of ratiocination, and Intellect or Reason as abstractions. Ranged against it were a variety of vested interests which developed as the specialised Islamic scholarly disciplines grew in sophistication, confidence and ambition. Each forged its own terms of discourse, its own requirements for coherence, and competed with the others for supremacy and in defining intellectual (and moral) competence. The idea of a universal cognitive touchstone of overriding authority was unacceptable to such specialists.



Legitimation for the Princes


In Islamic thought from the eighth to the tenth centuries A. D., reason was above all a political and ideological weapon, identified with the concerns of an elite. In the mid-eighth century, a senior bureaucrat, Ibn al-Muqaffa', advised the second 'Abbasid caliph how to set up a godly yet rational state, but was ignored2. The early ninth century saw the caliph al-Ma'mu_n's abortive attempt, at the end of a triumphant reign (833), to put down the Traditionists' (muh.addiths') popular following and their literalism, rationalise Muslim doctrine and exercise sole leadership of the Community3. A century later, the political map had changed beyond all imagining, for there was a Shi'ite counter-caliphate in North Africa, and elsewhere province after province had turned its back on Baghdad. The Qur'a_n offers no mandate to princes, so where was legitimation of these new statelets to be found? The appeal to Reason offered the elements of an answer.


Here is how reason ('aql) is evoked by Ibn 'Abd Rabbih (d.940), whose career revolved around the princely courts of al-Andalus (which had seceded from the Baghdad caliphate long before), and who presented his magnum opus, al-'Iqd, 'The Necklace', to 'Abd al-Rah.ma_n III of Cordoba after he too had adopted the style of caliph in 929:


A tradition (h.adith) relates that when God created Reason, He said to it: Come forward! and it came, and then: Go back! and it retreated; and He said: By My power and My glory, I have created nothing dearer to Me than you, and I shall bestow you only upon the dearest of My creatures. But when He created Stupidity and told it to advance, it retreated, and came forward when He told it to turn back. He said: By My power and My glory, you are the most hateful thing that I have made, and I shall bestow you only upon the creature that I hate most ... And when God cast Adam, upon whom be peace, down upon the earth, Gabriel came to him and said: Adam, God has given you three things to choose between, of which you may have only one: Shamefastness, Piety and Reason. Adam said: O God! I will choose Reason. Then Gabriel told Shamefastness and Piety to return to heaven, but they refused. He reproached them their disobedience, and they replied: We have been commanded never to leave Reason wherever it might be.


[Al-'Iqd, ed. A. Amin et al., Cairo 1956, II, pp. 244-245].



These are touching words, which draw upon several strands of thought of great antiquity, of which Ibn 'Abd Rabbih may or may not have been fully aware (we know very little about the intellectual history of al-Andalus in his time). At all events, he presents them as being as old as Creation and the Fall. They could be seen as purely eirenic: a poetic reconciliation of Reason and Revelation expressed as an allegory of universal grace. And indeed Ibn 'Abd Rabbih's goal in composing 'The Necklace' was to draw Reason and Revelation into harmony in the minds of his readers through the mediation of tradition; but his tradition is not that of the literalists.


The work that Ibn 'Abd Rabbih presented to his prince, and to the appreciation of which an understanding of his praise of reason is essential, was a sumptuous novelty: a huge compendium of the wisdom of the ages filtered through quotations from the most excellent of Arabic writing. Before Ibn 'Abd Rabbih's long labours on his book in what was then the intellectual backwater of al-Andalus, this sort of thing had been done only in the Arab east, and never on such a scale or so elaborately. Ibn 'Abd Rabbih, himself of non-Arab descent, was thereby inviting his Andalusian fellow 'Arabs', most of them of mixed parentage, to enter for the first time into the fullness of their inheritance, as readers of Arabic words which, although not scripture, bear in themselves a spark of prophecy, as will the reader if he applies to them his powers of rational discernment:


If one looks with the eye of equity ... at the books which have been set in order, and if one makes one's reason a just arbiter... then one must acknowledge that these are a goodly tree with lofty branches, growing in good soil and bearing ripe fruits. Whoso eats his share of these is heir to prophecy and follows a path of wisdom none who follow which shall lack for solace, and none who hold fast to which shall go astray [al-'Iqd, I, 1].


This heritage of virtuous wisdom is adab, which is not only a bookish tradition but a pattern of practice. It has no need, says Ibn 'Abd Rabbih, of the technical guarantees of provenance increasingly required by the experts in purely religious Tradition 'I was told by X, who heard it from Y, who had it from Z, that he heard the Prophet say ...' because its truth is self-evident.



Social Order and Divine Order


The notion of self-evident truth is prominent in Ibn 'Abd Rabbih's thought, and he uses a variety of ploys to suggest that it is a form of revelation. His 'goodly tree' echoes a Qur'anic simile: 'Hast thou not seen how God has struck a similitude? A good word is as a good tree its roots are firm and its branches are in heaven; it gives its produce every season by the leave of its Lord' [14 : 24-25].4 'Holding fast' to it similarly echoes the Qur'anic idea of holding fast to God's bond or handle [2 : 256; 3 : 103; 31 : 22]. Self-evident truth inheres in the realm of creation which, whether dumb or endowed with speech, bears witness to God's unity and sovereignty, an idea which Ibn 'Abd Rabbih weaves into the beautiful and subtly-argued credo which prefaces the work and which depicts a God Who is just, so that man may exercise his free will in rational expectation of reward and punishment:


He has made it a compulsion to acknowledge Him [an allusion the the primordial covenant of Qur'a_n 7 : 172] but a free choice to worship Him, and has either endowed His creatures with speech that they may acknowledge His uniqueness, or made them mute in humble witness to His godship ... He has joined grace to His mercy and justice to His retribution, so that men are subject either to His grace or to his justice, knowing that they must indeed depart a world of trials for one of retribution ... He is graciously pleased to accept praise as the purchase of His great and many blessings: He has made it the key to His mercy and an equal return for His goodness. [al-'Iqd, I, p. 1]


The social order, and with it princely governance, also reflect the divine order. Political authority, or the prince (as-sult.a_n), is 'the axis upon which the world revolves ... upon him rest God's ordinances,' and, 'as the sages have said... the control which God exercises by means of the prince is greater than that which He exercises through the Qur'a_n' [al-'Iqd, I, p. 7] a 'truth' often transformed into a h.adith in its innumerable quotations by subsequent Muslim political theorists. Ibn 'Abd Rabbih continues with an apocryphal h.adith: 'God said to David: I am the ruler of all kings; their hearts are in My hand. To those who obey Me, I shall make kings a blessing; to those who disobey me, I shall make kings a punishment.'


We may sum up as follows Ibn 'Abd Rabbih's argument about the triad of reason, tradition and revelation, which converge in adab, and their relationship to political authority, taking the elements in the order in which they are presented in the opening pages of al-'Iqd:


(1) God's justice is rational, as is revealed in His creation and His providence; (2) adab is reason manifested in tradition: a vehicle of 'prophecy', it echoes scriptural revelation; (3) sult.a_n is the instrument in this world of God's rational justice; in this function, it outweighs scriptural revelation; (4) the role of sult.a_n in God's plan for mankind can be grasped only through the adab triad of reason, tradition and quasi-revelation, because although Ibn 'Abd Rabbih does not say so it is not discussed in scriptural revelation.



Shiite Threat


The attempt to ground Reason equally in revelation and tradition in order to provide a divine charter for a political institution which lacks a scriptural basis might seem misconceived, for after all, the caliphate itself is not Qur'anically based. Kinship with the Prophet might seem a more decisive form of legitimation, which Ibn 'Abd Rabbih could have advanced for 'Abd al-Rah.ma_n III, since the Umayyads of Cordoba were members of the Prophet's tribe. But an argument from kinship could have thrown the door open to the ever-growing Shi'ite threat, and in any case Ibn 'Abd Rabbih, who had not always served the Umayyads, was concerned to legitimate the idea of sult.a_n more than a particular prince or dynasty. Some seventy years later, in northeastern Iran at the other end of the Muslim world, al-Tha' alibi (d. 1038) in his Adab al-Muluk5 quotes similar proof texts and spells out his message more bluntly. In the face of the abominable conception of kingship propagated by Fatimid-Shi'ite missionaries, which (he claims) encouraged rulers to fancy themselves part-divine and above the Law, al-Tha' alibi too combines tradition and the evidence of reason to assert the divine mandate of godly princes (that is, any princes who are not Fatimid fellow-travellers): of all godly princes, simultaneously or successively the idea of a unitary caliphate has quite dropped out of the picture for it is part of God's wise plan for mankind that dynasties should come and go. How long God allows them to retain power is determined by their competence and grasp of the 'adabs of princes' [Adab al-Muluk].


Adab and reason thus provide a coherent theory of legitimate secular rule and of the rise and fall of legitimate dynasties, but, from the point of view of any individual princes to whom this theory might be addressed, a rather pitiless one: the theory is not designed to accommodate losers. What adab, by contrast, was successful over many centuries in providing for a much wider constituency than princes and their attendant elites was a stimulating and at the same time comforting homeland of the imagination, such as Ibn 'Abd Rabbih had helped to create for Arabic-speaking Andalusians, in which reason, or at any rate reasonableness, provides the framework for reflecting on human experience.






1. Mohammed Arkoun, 'Le concept de la raison islamique', Annuaire de l'Afrique du Nord, 18 (1979) pp. 305-339, reprinted in idem, Pour une critique de la raison islamique, (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1984), pp.65-99.



2. See the Arabic text and French translation by Charles Pellat,Ibn al-Muqaffa'... "conseilleur" du calife, (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1976).



3. See further Richard C. Martin and Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam. Mu'tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997).



4. English translations of the Qur'a_n are taken from A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (London, 1955).



5. Ed. Jalil al-'At.iyya, (Beirut, 1990).