Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions(CISMOR)Doshisha University

> Past Research Activities > Reason (‘aql) and Tradition (naql) in Islam: the Sunni and Shiites

Past Research Activities

Project 1: Study Meeting #1

Reason (‘aql) and Tradition (naql) in Islam: the Sunni and Shiites

Date: 2010/06/05 16:30 − 18:00
Place: Confarence Room, Shisei-kan 3F, Imadegawa Campus, Doshisha University
  • Shigeru Kamata, Professor, The University of Tokyo
  • Ko Nakata, Professor, Doshisha University
Islam, as a revealed religion, has its basis in (or what is considered to be) a transcendent message of God that is beyond human understanding. At the same time, however, men have to understand the revelations of God, determine the actions to take, and develop thoughts. Islam, too, had to cope with a variety of problems that faced local communities as it spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula. During this process, two ideological tendencies emerged: one allowed a certain level of freedom for man to use his intellect (‘aql) and the other placed importance on tradition (naql), a combination of the Qur’an (the words of God) and the Hadith (the record of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, living habits, and judgments), while restricting the freedom to use the human intellect to the furthest extent possible. (For the “Twelvers” who constitute a majority of Shia Muslims, the sayings, living habits, and judgments of the 12 imams succeeding Muhammad are also treated as legitimate naql.)
Shafi’i (760–840 CE) created a principle for the interpretation of Islamic law by combining the intellectual knowledge and traditional knowledge developed in various parts of the region. He classified the origin of the Islamic law into four sources: the Qur’an; the Sunnah (sayings and living habits of Muhammad, in line with the Hadith); the Ijma (universal agreement among Muslim scholars); and the Qiyas (analogical reasoning from precedent cases). Using “intellect” constitutes part of the Qiyas. In the past, however, there was a school of Islamic law called “Zahiri,” which insisted on avoiding using human intellect to furthest extent possible when making judgments.
The Hanbali School, one of the existing four Sunni schools of law, also exhibits the same tendency (the remaining three schools are the Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).
Among the Shia schools of law, the Usuli and Akhbari schools have special importance for Shia jurisprudence (and theology as well, in some cases). The Usuli school, which is dominant in today’s Iran, gives great importance to human intellectual judgment. To the contrary, the Akhbari school, which is becoming less and less influential, thinks highly of traditional knowledge. This school avoids discussing the credibility of the Hadith on the grounds that doing so requires the use of the intellect, and, as a result, it allows the free use of traditional knowledge. Thus, both the Sunni and Shia sects have two contradictory tendencies in their jurisprudence: one places considerable importance on intellectual knowledge, while the other avoids using it as much as possible.
Theologically, the Mu’tazilite school, which places substantial importance on intellectual discussion, is deemed important (this school was in its prime during the early Abbasid period). The ideology behind the Mu’tazilite school was denied by the Sunni sect in the end, but the attitude of the school to “discuss matters logically” has remained in the theological tradition of the Sunni sect despite its emphasis on traditional knowledge. On the other hand, the orthodox theology of the Shia sect has accepted the contention of the Mu’tazilite school almost in its entirety. It should be also noted that the theology of Judaism was formulated under the influence of the Mu’tazilite school.
Then, what about philosophy, which originates in ancient Greece and pursues intellectual judgment to its extreme (for this reason, philosophers have often been blamed for being impious)? In the Sunni sect, there has been little connection between traditional knowledge and intellectual knowledge except for Ibn Rushd (1126–1198 CE): he authored a number of commentaries on Aristotle and eventually gave birth to scholastic philosophy through the Hebrew and Latin translations of his works, and quoted some passages of the Qur’an to prove the validity of his philosophical thinking. In the context of the Shia sect, on the other hand, traditional knowledge and intellectual knowledge are more closely linked to each other, as evidently seen in the achievements of Mulla Sadra (1571–1641 CE), who developed the “theory of substantial motion” by combining the doctrine of the “oneness of being” (which holds that everything in this world is a divine manifestation) advocated by Ibn Arabi (1165–1240 CE) with Aristotle’s theory of substance. By doing so, Sadra discussed substance (identity) together with motion (change), which had been considered mutually irrelevant in the face of the “common sense” of ancient Greek philosophy, and argued that “change” that occurs from one instance to another by the will of God is, in itself, the intrinsic nature of “substance,” which appears to be static on the surface. In developing this notion, Sadra was inspired by the description of the “End of Days” in the Qur’an, namely, the drastic change of the universe that can occur instantly by the will of God.
As discussed above, the interaction between intellectual knowledge and traditional knowledge, which point to different directions, has given rise to various trends in thought over the 1,400-year history of Islam. Today, ideological and philosophical communication is being facilitated between the Sunni and Shia sects, as shown by the fact that Sunni Muslim scholars often make reference to Sadra in their study. The lecture was concluded with the remark that, in the future, different trends will arise in thought reflecting new connections between traditional knowledge and intellectual knowledge, which will continue developing while swinging from one direction to another.

Tadashi Nakatani
(Research Fellow, CISMOR, Doshisha University)