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Book: Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth
Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth
Mirza Tahir Ahmad
Part I
Introduction with a Historical Perspective
Individual Versus Society
Islamic Schools of Thought
European Philosophy
Greek Philosophy
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
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Part I

Introduction with a Historical Perspective

THE STUDY of the history of religious and secular thought reveals that throughout the ages great philosophers, sages and religious leaders held different views about the comparative values of reason, logic and revelation. As such, they can be divided into various groups.

There are those who emphasize the role of rationality to a degree that they consider it as the only valid means of discovering truth. For them, the only conclusion worthy of acceptance is the one which can be derived through dialectical logical reasoning based on observed facts. Hence, they believe that truth (in whatever form they define it) can only be reached through the faculty of reasoning.

There are thinkers who believe in the phenomenon of Divine guidance which, according to them, plays a definite role in enlightening the human mind, providing it with answers to many unresolved questions.

Again there are those who believe that truth can be reached entirely through inner experiences referred to as 'inspiration'. They consider it to be attainable through a deep search within oneself, as if its blueprint had been imprinted upon every human soul. They delve deep within themselves, and through an introspective study attain a fundamental understanding of nature and how it works.

Another mode of reaching truth shared both by the religious and secular schools of enquiry is mysticism. Mystification of life seems to be a common tendency shared by believers and non-believers alike. Mystics may belong to all the categories mentioned above and their methodology could be philosophical or religious. Their distinguishing mark is that they enjoy being cryptic.

Then there are pseudo-philosophers who use words and phrases that are too elusive for the common man to understand. Thus they hide their views behind the mystic screen of their verbosity. There are others however, who have truly scientific minds but are mystics all the same, as were Pythagoras and Averroes. They burrow deep in search of the seed of truth and do not remain content with hovering on the surface of things. To keep track of them with concentration of mind is always rewarding.

In religion, we find mystics of different hues and colours. There are those who, whilst accepting and fulfilling the outward observances required by the form of religion, strive to find deeper meaning below the surface. Also, there are some who overemphasize the inner meaning at the cost of the external form, sometimes doing away with the observances altogether.

But followers of religions founded upon revelation do not always remain confined to discussions within the boundaries of revelational truths. In the later stages of each religion we also find such debates, as are difficult to be defined as entirely religious in nature. The same age-old questions are again revived within a new framework. What is reason? What part does it play in human affairs, and where does revelation stand in relation to logic and reason?

It is universally observed that the interplay of various ideas at later stages of a religion's history tends to revert to the confusion which prevailed prior to their advent. It happens because man's influence on religion has always been to break it into factions and to partially revert it to the older mythical ideas and philosophies. It has seldom led to a reunification of differing schools of thought born through the degenerating processes that divide and split religions. This degeneration seems to be irreversible.

RELIGIONS which begin with the firm faith in the Unity of God, gradually decay into numerous idolatrous schisms. There are occasional attempts made by man to reconstitute the unity of religious understanding among the people and to re-establish the Unity of God. Alas, such efforts gain only limited success. As a whole, the process is never reversed, unless it is Divinely aided and guided.

We cannot discuss here in detail all the varying views propounded by past philosophers and sages, but we shall give a brief account of the assessment of revelation, rationality and their interrelationship made by various prominent intellectuals of the past.

What is eternal truth, and what is knowledge? What is the relationship, if any, between the two? Does revelation provide knowledge which in turn leads to eternal truth, or could both be attainable through rationality alone?

These, and many other similar questions have been agitating the minds of philosophers, religious divines and secular thinkers since time immemorial. But before we begin a careful in-depth study, it would be appropriate perhaps to further elaborate the nature of eternal truth as understood by different thinkers.

All believers in God who advocate the cause of eternal truth, understand it to be an unchangeable reality in relation to the past, present and future. As such, primarily, it is to God with His attributes that they refer as Truth Eternal. However, when secular philosophers discuss the same issue, they do not always discuss it in relation to God. Their discussion generally revolves around certain values such as truth, honesty, integrity, faith, loyalty etc. The prime question which agitates the minds of the philosophers is whether there exists any unchangeable reality even in the face of changeable circumstances. The merit of a given truth itself is many a time challenged as such. One often begins to wonder whether truth would not acquire different meanings in different situations.

ANOTHER ASPECT of the same question relates to the concept of truth as applicable to the hidden realities behind the screen of what appears. For instance, if we treat the light of the sun as an independent reality we may be wrong. More than the light itself it is the causative reality of radiation which works behind all its manifestations, light being just one of them. The hidden universal truth is the radiation which may or may not vibrate at the spectrum which humans see as light. From this angle, nothing seems to be eternal about the sun's luminosity. But if, as suggested above, the reason why the sun radiates is perfectly understood, then wherever that reason is found to be at work, it will produce the same result and as such, it could be referred to as the 'eternal' truth which commands the laws of radiation and luminosity. With this illustration it becomes quite evident that the term 'eternal' does not always indicate a state of unbroken, unceasing continuity. Here it only applies to a causative phenomenon, which whenever present will always produce the same results.

In this simple understanding of eternal truth, relating to the external realities, the phenomenon of gravity could be rightly referred to as eternal truth. However, it should be well understood that any minute variation in the application of gravitational pull does not in any way challenge the unchangeable fundamental reality of gravity.

It becomes evident from the preceding discussion that although all eternal truths give rise to certain knowledge, all types of knowledge, however, cannot be defined as eternal. Knowledge can be defined as a perception of something which is safely stored in the mind as a reliable piece of information. All such pieces of information put together build a storehouse of human knowledge. How can we gain certain knowledge, and how can we determine which specific knowledge is false and which is true?

Again, by what means can we categorize knowledge as transient truth, substantial truth, eternal truth, conditional truth etc.? It is only the human faculty of reasoning and rationality which ruminates these facts as they are fed into the brain, turns them over and over again and permutates them into various possible combinations. This mental process of sorting out the right from the wrong, the definite from the indefinite, is the mechanism of rationality.

The question arises as to how far this method of analysing the constituents of knowledge is reliable. When we reach this stage of our comprehension of rationality, other intriguing questions also begin to raise their heads. We know, for instance, that the human mind has no consistency in relation to its own findings. We know for certain that whatever is considered rational in one age may not necessarily be considered rational in another. We know, without doubt, that the faculty of reasoning has been progressively developing and maturing ever since man emerged from the domain of the animal kingdom into the world of humans. From that time onward, the collective experience as it is amassed in the form of knowledge and truth in the human mind continued to improve the faculty of his reasoning and the quality of his rational appraisals.

As physical exercise improves muscle power, so also the mental, rational and retentive faculties develop and gain strength with mental exercise. It is this exercise perhaps which may also have contributed to a progressive evolutionary increase in the brain mass of animals.

This realization of the progressive advance of our mental faculties though welcome on one count, is rather unwelcome on another. It puts to question the very reliability of our mental rational deductions during different stages of our development.

Is it not likely that the same facts fed to the human brain at different stages of its development may have resulted in different conclusions? If the objective realities appear different when observed from different vantage points, if the conclusions drawn by the unbiased human mind also differ in different ages, then will it be justified to adjudge them as only justified truths? With our faculties of deductive logic and reasoning alone at any point in time, we cannot pronounce any knowledge we possess to be absolute truth.

The issues we are about to discuss are concerning the instruments which may lead to knowledge and the manner in which any knowledge could be ascertained as truth. If all human vantage points are actually placed on a moving platform, with constant change in the angle of vision, how can any knowledge or piece of information we obtain be declared, with any certainty, to be the truth? There is one vantage point, that of God the Creator, which is eternal and constant. Hence, if the existence of an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent God is proved and if He is Eternal, Infallible, Transcendent, All-Powerful and Possessor of absolute attributes— then and only then could the possibility of gaining knowledge of eternal truth through Him arise. But this hypothesis is only conditional on the premise that not only does such a Supreme Being exist, but that He also communicates with humans. It is this communication of God with humans which is called revelation in religious terminology.

To discuss issues of such great import, purely on a secular and rational basis is not an easy task. Add to this the question of revelation as having played any significant role in human guidance, and the task will become all the more challenging. Yet this is the task we have undertaken, with the full realization of all the complexities involved.

The reader is most humbly requested to make an effort to remain alert. Once he familiarizes himself with the intricacies of the philosophical and rational jigsaw, he will be amply rewarded with the ultimate pleasure of watching the pieces of this jigsaw fall into the right places.

In application to religion, this view has given birth to a school of sociologists and modern thinkers who consider the birth and development of religion to be a reflection of man's developing power of reasoning. The implication of this is that man's comparatively primitive intellect in the remote past led to the creation of many godly images, which, with the passage of time, gave birth to the idea of a single deity, referred to as God, Allah, Parmatma etc. If accepted, this theory would lead to the conclusion that the development of religion at every cross-section of its history corresponded to man's changing intellectual capabilities.

This is a diametrically opposed view to the one held by various religions of the world, who all believe in the Divine origin of religion. According to this view, religion is directly taught to man by the One, Eternal, All-Wise God. They see polytheism, which dominates many periods of human history, merely as a degenerative process a process which invariably follows monotheism after it is established by the messengers of God. A further discussion on these issues will follow later.

Nearly all major religions profess belief in an invisible God Who can and does communicate with man. They claim that God chooses human representatives and that the communication they receive from Him is the only dependable means of attaining true knowledge. They maintain that it is not possible to establish any truth with complete certainty, if it is based solely upon man's experiences and his rational deductions.

All that has been briefly summed up above is addressed more elaborately in the following chapters.

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