The Quran’s encouragement, not censure, of Critical Thinking

The Quran’s encouragement, not censure, of Critical Thinking

Why would God dislike and abhor critical thinking when He himself has blessed man with this faculty and has time and again insisted on the use of it? This is a billion-dollar question that students of religion must think about.
Ameen Fayaz

Prophet Abraham (PBUH) is one of the most important prophets mentioned and talked about in the Quran. In fact, three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all of the Abrahamic tradition. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is connected with Abraham through Ismaiel, one of the sons of Abraham, who settled in Makka and laid the foundation of this city. According to a tradition, Prophet Abraham and his son, Ismaiel, re-established and renovated the Ka’aba, the House of God, at Makka. There are dozens of references in the Qur’an which talk about Abraham, his messenger-hood, his methodology of dialogue with his people, and the way he discovered himself as the servant of Allah. In this column we will talk of critical thinking, reasonable doubt and discovery-based approach that Prophet Abraham employs for understanding God and His control over everything in this world.
When Prophet Abraham was in search of God and was trying to identify himself and his role in this world, he would ask questions, think and ponder about things, wonder about everything ordinary and extraordinary and was curious to know. In this whole journey, he would of course doubt the things that wouldn’t satisfy his curiosity. One day while he was trying to understand God and attempting His identification, this is what happened according to the Quran when he saw the moon and thought about it in divine terms: “Then, when he beheld the moon rising, he said, ‘This is my Sustainer!’ But when it went down, he said, ‘Indeed, if my Sustainer guide me not, I will most certainly become one of the people who go astray!’
Before he was made a Prophet by God, Abraham, as we understand from this ayat of the Quran and many other similar ones, was involved in serious research, thinking and reflections about God. He asked questions and he doubted also. He wondered and he, through his serious engagement with the world of phenomenon, sought the satisfaction of his curiosity. When after a serious debate with himself and the outside world he finally said that ‘God is the one who has created all these things; therefore, He alone deserves to be worshipped’, did his curiosity stop? No, he even asked bold questions after having been assigned the role of a Prophet.
According to the Quran, Prophet Abraham one day asked God, “O my Sustainer! Show me how Thou givest life unto the dead!’ To this God said: ‘Hast thou, then, no faith?’ (Abraham) answered: ‘Yea, but [let me see it] so that my heart may be set fully at rest.’ God said: ‘Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee. And know that God is almighty, wise.’ In this ayat, Abraham is not asking the question to himself or to the world of phenomenon but directly God as he is already a prophet. What is interesting is that God does not mind it. He not only allows Abraham to ask the question but through a demonstration answers his question also. It is from here that today’s column picks up the discussion on the subject of critical thinking, reasonable doubt, being curious to know about different things and the place of such an attitude in the Qur’an.
From negation to affirmation
The becoming of a Muslim is subject to Kalima e Tawhid, which is to say “La ilaha illaha” (There is no truth but Allah). This kalima has two very important things in its structure: negation and affirmation. While one is in the journey of seeking the Truth of all the Truths (haq ul haqaiq), one first of all goes on negating, like Abraham, and finally when one has reached a sound conclusion with certainty, one affirms. In this journey between negation and affirmation, one may arrive at many milestones but one not only doubts them but continues to move on till one reaches the destination. There is, of course, a big difference between a milestone and the final destination. When Abraham was searching, doubting, questioning and attempting to know, he was actually in a journey which demanded negation and affirmation at every step, till he reached the stage of ain ul yaqeen where there is no scope for doubt. But the question that is quite fascinating for all of us is to see Abraham asking questions even after he has reached the stages of ilm al yaqin as well ain al yaqin. After having completed all the stages of negation, doubt and curiosity, he still asks a big question to God. What does this indicate? What is the implication of this question? Here are a few possibilities:
First of all, when we think about these two ayats, it becomes quite obvious to us that God does not dislike critical thinking. God seems to be nowhere averse to it if one is sincere in the pursuit of truth. As a Prophetic tradition says, “All the actions depend on the intentions with which they are carried out”, developing a reasonable doubt while one is in the search of truth is not something that God dislikes or is averse to. As our prayer in Surat al Fateh for “straight path” is directed towards a journey which is full of certainties and uncertainties, it is quite possible that at every milestone one would encounter such situations that may give rise to questions, sincere doubts and uncertainties which again require guidance from God.
Second, the Quran time and again (more than five-hundred times) asks for observation, listening, thinking and remembering the things of the past. Though essentially it is quite clear why Allah actually asks for the use of all these faculties in man, yet one more thing that the readers of the Quran should not lose sight of is that the use of all these faculties necessarily gives rise to questions upon questions which actually become a ladder for reaching the ultimate goal of truth, and subsequently, the Truth of all Truths. In the absence of questions and reasonable doubts, there would be perhaps no journey at all, hence no knowledge and certainty. Prophet Abraham’s methodology for understanding God and his question to God after prophethood are an example that God likes human beings to think and ponder about Him and He likes to answer the questions that man asks silently as well as loudly.
Third, as the text of the Quran is full of such ayats which call for thinking and pondering on the world of phenomenon and its creator, it is but natural to conclude that there is always a dialogue going on between God, man and nature, provided we have the eyes to see, ears to listen, and heart to feel. When we think of praying to God, it is an act of submission as well as conversation with God because according to the Quran, “uduni astajib lakum fa inni aqrabu ilaikum min hablil warid” which means, “Call me, I hear you, because I am nearer to you than your windpipe”. While praying to God, we not only express our faith and belief in Him, we also do submit our worries, weaknesses, uncertainties and anguishes so that He may bless us with strength, resolve, perseverance, steadfastness and patience in the path of the journey for Truth and would also guide us at every step when we would be stumbling in darkness. Moreover, the world of phenomenon and the world within us is full of evidence of God. Our engagement with such evidence may be deductive as well as inductive. If our engagement is inductive, as was in the case of Abraham, there definitely will be sincere doubt, questions, uncertainty and, finally, certainty.
Fourth, why would God dislike and abhor critical thinking when He himself has blessed man with this faculty and has time and again insisted on the use of it? This is a billion-dollar question that students of religion must think about. God only dislikes such questions that are aimed at deliberately creating confusion among people, causing deviation and setting them on the wrong path; in other words, God sees the intention with which one asks a question or does something in this world. Our journey in this world is generally from “known to unknown”, it, therefore, calls for an engagement with the known world of evidence so that the apparently “unknown” becomes known to us. There are many chapters in the Quran which begin with Allah using different objects of nature as testimonials or evidence of the Truth; in other words, how is it possible than man can understand the truth behind these natural objects if he does not ask questions about these objects and does not analyse and investigate these objects for understanding the Truth, which is the Secret of all the Secrets and subject of all the divinely-revealed religious scriptures in a language which is highly metaphorical and open-ended.
Fifth, apart from Prophet Abraham, the lives of other prophets mentioned in the Quran do also testify to this fact that before God revealed the Truth upon them in the form of Books/Scriptures, they were put to trials and tests so that after undergoing such a journey in their life they would be able to understand the role that they were going to play in this world and would also be raised to such a level where they are blessed with vision of the metaphysical dimensions of the world which the world of senses cannot understand and comprehend. In this context, one may refer to the story of Prophet Moses mentioned in the Quran, wherein he meets a man whose name is not mentioned and this unnamed person is of a highly spiritual stature. During his journey with the man, the unnamed person commits some apparently unreasonable acts which force Moses to question him again and again, though Moses had been forbidden by the man from asking questions. Despite repeated admonitions, Moses asks him why he did this or that act while they were in the journey together. It is only at the end when the unnamed man explains to Moses the truth behind all of his apparently unreasonable acts that Moses is not only satisfied but also attains a new level of understanding about the ways of God. Having said this, the story of Moses and Khizr (the unnamed person according to some traditions) does have a dialogic conversation with questions from Moses and silent actions from the other man and finally his explanations of all the acts in question; in other words, the text of the Quran clearly demonstrates that critical thinking and reasonable doubt have a solid base in the Islamic tradition.
Finally, since the Quran is a Book meant for the guidance and enlightenment of mankind, man cannot attain these objectives without thinking and pondering, which the Quran asks man to do in more than five-hundred ayats. Moreover, thinking and pondering on any subject in this world necessitates dialogue and conversation with the world within and without man. However, one cannot engage oneself in a dialogue or conversation with oneself or the outside world until and unless one thinks critically about the subject-matter of the dialogue and conversation. Abraham asked questions to the world of phenomenon, doubted many transitory realities, and finally affirmed that God is the one who created all the big and small things of this world. Moses and other prophets underwent different journeys wherein they questioned themselves and the outside world only to finally be blessed with vision of the Truth of all Truths and Secret of all the Secrets. Our beloved Prophet would go into the cave of Hira for serious contemplation before God revealed the truth on him at the age of forty. What dialogues did Mohammad (PBUH) have with his own self and the outside world at the cave of Hira could be understood by the questions that he asked his people through the Quran. Wasn’t Mohammad (PBUH) thinking critically at the cave of Hira as Abraham and other prophets did?
In short, the text of the Quran and lives of all the prophets mentioned in the Quran could be a valuable source for understanding the value of critical thinking and reasonable doubt in Islamic tradition as the search for truth cannot be possible without literature review, doubt, critically valid questions, negation of falsehood and finally assertion of the Truth.

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