If one makes a tabula rasa of the reactions, of varying degrees of spontaneity, provoked by the address of Benedict XVI given at Ratisbon, we find ourselves faced with a rather significant new development in certain Muslim elites. A large number of thoughtful and above all rational responses were made to certain passages in the address given by the Holy Father. This is the proof that the Muslim world, contrarily to the prejudices of many observers, is not destined to sink definitively into disorder and fundamentalism. In this paper I will follow this line, which is specifically that of the Revelation of the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet. Indeed, the progress of the apostolate of Muhammad, during the epoch of early Islam and faced with an Arab paganism impregnated with determinism, derived in large measure from this faculty of discerning between good and evil, between the true and the false, and even between the beautiful and the ugly.
‘Being believers’, according to the revealed Book, means, first of all, providing proof of common sense, free of any alienation that is damaging to an innate understanding of the fitra, ‘human nature’. Thus faith is at the origin of a liberation which allows every person to find anew ‘original perfection’. From this optimistic vision of human nature derives the idea, supported by the Koran and by prophetic Tradition, that a new gaze, which probes the universe and reads its signs with judgement, strengthens faith: ‘Surely in the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for men possessed of minds’ [Koran, The House of Imran, 3:190]. To believe (âmana) refers in the lexicon of the Koran to a liberation of the individual conscience: ‘So set thy face to the religion, a man of pure faith – God’s original upon which He originated mankind. There is no changing God’s creation. That is the right religion’ [Koran, The Romans, 30:30].
This liberation is twofold: it concerns both the intellectual and the spiritual life, purified of every existential worry, and community life in its cultural, social and political variants. The existence of the founder of Islam is the proof of this. His work transformed that of the members of his tribe and of his followers. Faith, a divine gift, calls on human reason, enriches it, and then makes the believer the centre of life. There follows from this a complementariness between faith and reason. There also follows from this that transcendence in Islam is compatible with the immanence of God.
The Answer to the Call
This specificity is at work from the first verses of the Koran until the late revelation of the epoch of Medina. The first verses are illuminating as regards this subject: ‘Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created, created Man of a blood-clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, taught Man that he knew not. No indeed; surely Man waxes insolent, for he thinks himself self-sufficient. Surely unto thy Lord is the Returning’ [Koran, the Blood-Clot, 96:1-5]. In these first verses of the first revelation, lies, as Jacques Berque well observes, the initial hypothesis, that which gives impulse to all the rest of the revelation. The central axis is here made up of the encounter of man with the Eternal. From this comes the finality of man, the reason for this encounter and the dangers that threatens him. The originality of the encounter lies in the qualification attributed to the Lord. He is accompanied by the possessive adjective ‘your’: your Lord, Rabbu-ka. This drawing near that is marked by intimacy, present in the first sura, continues in the next suras as well. The chronology of the first period in Mecca shows that this formula is prolonged and broadened. The traditional exegetes wanted to see in this a psychological sign of God’s support for the Prophet, but this interpretation remains partial because the reading of the suras of this period brings out the innumerable and not exclusive attribution of this formulation to Muhammad.
The term Rabb is related to other names: ‘Surely this is a Reminder; so let him who will take unto his Lord a way’ [Koran, Enwrapped, 73:19]. There is the same use in sura 100, verse 6: ‘Surely Man is ungrateful to his Lord’. One can say the same about suras 91:1 and 81:113-114. In these examples the term Rabb embraces men, the East, the West and the Temple. We are no longer dealing with a question of support for the Prophet. The Sura of the Unbelievers (109) well represents this pathway. In this one can read: ‘O unbelievers, I serve not what you serve and you are not serving what I serve…To you your religion, and to me my religion!’ The revelation aspired to make the term Rabb, a pregnant word that crystallises the relationship between transcendence and immanence, and between the Eternal and the Human, a luminous point. In the first thirty suras it confers a dual meaning: one spiritual and the other theological. Spiritual, in that it draws near the sacred to man at a material and affective level. Theological, in that it consecrates God the Lord of men, of the heavens and of the earth, and as a result Majestic, Omnipresent and above all Unique. This is a fracture with the sacred as it was lived by pagan Arabia which worshipped its gods and then abandoned them or broke them up. This fracture gave to the term Rabb synonyms such as Allâh and Ilâh, with which the pagan Arabs were rather familiar, with a vast explanatory apparatus which in a new context assured a primacy for this word. In this context there was change in the sacred, of which verse 6 of the sura on the Unbelievers is an illustration: ‘To you your religion, and to me my religion!’ After establishing itself after numerous trials in Medina, the first Muslim community acquired an incontestable strength and membership. But this did not have any impact on the early conception of faith in Islam and on its relationship with reason and freedom.
Verse 256 of the second sura, The Cow, confirms this continuity, according to which knowledge of God in Islam passes by way of a rediscovery of self and a return to original purity: ‘No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error. So whosoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm handle, unbreaking; God is All-hearing, All-knowing’. According to Muslim tradition, this verse was revealed when a number of Muslims of Medina wanted, by coercion, to convert their children, who were born Jews or Christians, to Islam. This was revealed to rebuke every kind of violence inflicted on anybody to induce them to adopt a faith, even Islam, because faith cannot be separated from free will. Faith and freedom have a consubstantial tie, as do religion and discernment. To believe is also to rely upon the wisdom of man that is generated by divine breath and is present in every human creature. This wisdom can really shine forth only if each person renews their personal commitment of a faith that is also a free response to the call of God.
The alliance between natural knowledge and human freedom, to which only free beings can adhere, is embodied in an original pact (mîthâq) between the Creator and His creature. In a famous verse the Koran presents, face to face, God in all His majesty and the whole of mankind in order to reveal to us all the aspects of faith: ‘And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify touching themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?' They said, ‘Yes, we testify’ [Koran, The Battlements, 7:172].
Sacredness and Human Progress
In order to enter more effectively into the innate character of the discernment of faith on which Islam is based, the Koran, in converse fashion, invites us to dwell upon the spirit of the unbeliever. For the Koran, to be an unbeliever is to remove oneself voluntarily from this interior and spontaneous lucidity; it is to withdraw from upright reason. Such obstinacy, contrary to reason and common sense, is portrayed in the darkest colours. The unbelievers say: ‘O God, if this be indeed the truth from Thee, then rain down upon us stones out of heaven’ [Koran, The Spoils, 8:32]. We should add to this that if the ‘seeds’ of faith and reason are inherent in human nature, the question then poses itself of what the level of the connection between faith and reason in Revelation is. In order to clarify this question, it is important to stress that in the Koran this touches upon an anthropological aspect that is generally concealed.
I would like to point out first of all that in the about six thousand three hundred verses that make up the text of the Koran, the root ’amn, from which is derived îmân, the infinitive of âmana (to believe, to have faith in...) is present 924 times. This attests to the importance of the subject of faith which because of its frequency imposes itself as the second subject in importance after the question of God. God Himself is called al-mu’min or He who provides safety or refuge, from which comes amn, the condition of he who has no fear. Thus the One, who is absolutely transcendent, that is to say independent of the world, is also immanent because through one of His attributes, al-mu’min, He induces the idea of safety and trust for man. One verse is very relevant here: ‘We are nearer to him than the jugular vein’ [Koran, Sura of the Qaf, 50:16].
This leads us to make clear that the Koran establishes the desacralisation of the world, as is the case with Judaism and Christianity. From a historical point of view, Islam represented a break with paganism and its perception of the Sacred. Because of uniqueness, which abolishes polytheism, the sacred withdrew from the universe: ‘To God belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; He creates what He will’ [Koran, Counsel, 42:49].
In addition, God manifests Himself in history and in man. It follows from this that the universe is not blocked into unchanging norms because ‘increasing creation as He wills. Surely God is powerful over everything [Koran, The Angels, 35:1]. This working nearness is emphasised on more than one occasion: ‘every day He is upon some labour’ [Koran, The All-Merciful, 55:29]. This applies to every creature but above all to man: ‘O Man! Thou art labouring unto thy Lord laboriously, and thou shalt encounter Him’ [Koran, The Rending, 84:6]. This idea draws all its force from Revelation. It confirms that God, even though He transcends the intelligible, in order to reveal Himself, to be understood and to be loved, has recourse to categories.
Present through the Fitra
It should be said that Islam and Christianity diverge in their respective Revelations. Whereas for the latter God revealed Himself through His words in Jesus Christ, for the former He also revealed Himself through His words, which Muslims recognise as being in the Koran. Words specifically of God, in their meaning and their literalness. Because He revealed Himself in a language – Arabic – God as a result guaranteed human reason.
Present in man and incarnated through the Fitra, nobody is able to equal Him. This does not remove the fact that we carry His concepts according to His will and He willed that we carry them in order to be tested. Thus human reason and its positive categories constitute the pledge of the authenticity of the divine message, an authenticity which in Islam no longer coincides with a blind loyalty to revealed law but is achieved in the profuse efforts of the human community to re-incarnate the fundamental values of faith on the basis of active reason. If one considers the Prophet Muhammad as an interpretive witness who transformed the holy text into a breviary, Muslims should follow in his footsteps. They will manage to do this if they confer on their faith and revelation a historic and therefore plural sense. An innovative authenticity will then be seen to emerge that renews a faith guaranteed by our intellect: it comes down from divine will without, however, incorporating it.
The revealed Text becomes the mark of unanimity and the heart of renewed intellectual activity. The phrase ‘founding Text’ begins with the idea that renewal is subordinated to the message of the Koran and that it is possible only if the text is fertilised by the evolution of the sciences and history. The Koran does not draw its sacredness only from the source from which it comes and from its aptitude of enriching Muslins at the human and cultural level, but also from the propensity of the Muslim community to actualise it. What assures its sacredness and contemporary relevance is the fact that it is connected to the human spirit, that it is what constitutes the horizon and the culture of the individual, or to employ a famous phrase, that it is pertinent to every epoch and every place. The history of Muslim thought, which developed over the centuries in contact with Greek philosophy, is the evident proof of the high consideration Islam had for reason. The examples of al-Farâbî, of Avicenna, of Averroes and of Ibn Khaldûn testify to the affirmation of divine will through the crowning of the intellectual faculties of man placed at the service of the search for meaning.