Spiritual progress and intellectual progress

Seminar al-Azhar University and the IDEO

icon-calendar May 7, 2018

On May 7th, the latest session of our joint seminar between Al-Azhar and IDEO took place at the Faculty of Languages and Translations at Al-Azhar University. The chosen topic was “Faith and Reason”, based on a commentary by the famous Egyptian preacher Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1917‒1996) in his book The Pillars of Faith, Between Reason and Heart (Rakāʾiz al-īmān, bayn al-ʿaql wa-l-qalb, 1974). The chapter studied was entitled “The gap between spiritual progress and intellectual progress”.

In this chapter, the author first calls for a piety that is not a detriment to the human person and his development. He then describes the world as lost in a sterile materialism and a wandering rationalism, cut off from faith in God.  He does this before making the observation that neither Judaism, Christianity, nor Islam today provide convincing answers to man’s spiritual equilibrium. The author concludes with a call to put into practice a true Islam, which orders good and forbids evil.

The three speakers presented various aspects of the text. Jean Druel, O.P studied the literary construction of the text, Mrs. Héba Mahrous showed how the author’s vision fits into a more general Muslim framework, and Mr. Ahmad al-Shamli placed this chapter within the framework of the work as a whole.

The discussion that followed opened the following questions: is the text, with a clear apologetic scope, the best approach for a philosophical and theological questioning?   How can one discuss the generalizations that characterize this literary genre of preaching? How does one evaluate the use of the human sciences in this text? The mere fact that the author references non-Muslim authors (i.e. ToynbeeCarrel) is proof of openness in itself. However, in the scheme of the text, the human sciences also serve as an argument to the idea that man has a very limited knowledge of himself and that one must trust that God is better equipped to say who man is and what he needs. Finally, it seems that the author simply associates “reason” with “Islam”, which automatically removes the tension with faith, without further discussion. Yet, a consequence of this equating reason and Islam is that other religions are then necessarily irrational as they are not Islam.

Finally, the author’s conclusion on the need “to order The Good and to prohibit The Evil” (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-l-nahy ʿan al-munkar) is extremely ambiguous because al-Ghazālī makes no effort to insist on the difficulty of observing right from wrong in particular situations.

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