Authority 3/4


The story of Galileo says it all. The Church, with its interpretation of the Bible, its beliefs and its dogmas, dictated its truths: the geocentric thesis was not open to debate, the earth was at the centre, and everything revolved around it. Galileo’s research and descriptions of what he had observed, with reference to the Copernican theory, established that the earth, like the other planets in the system, revolved around the sun and was not the centre of the universe. His discoveries were challenged, rejected and condemned; he was judged and finally had to recant in 1633. The truths of religion contradicted the truths of science, and faith contradicted reason: power was at the time in the hands of the Church, and the claims of reason and science had to bow before its authority. This opposition and condemnation are part of one of the

West’s most important historical experiences. It was a sort of trauma that had a lasting influence on debates about human beings, knowledge, autonomy, freedom, power and, obviously, social and political organization. Whilst other civilizations, from India to China, and other spiritualities and religions, from Hinduism to Buddhism and from Judaism to Islam, have never experienced such a traumatic conflict-tension (or at least not in the same terms or in the same traumatic form), it is quite impossible to understand the West and Christianity (the influence of the West’s Christian roots) without understand the terms of the equation of Galileo’s trial. The Roman Catholic Church dictated a truth that was refuted by objective and scientific observation of the world. So who was to have the last word? For centuries, the clerical institution had held the power of both political and scientific authority: it dictated the order of truth. Thanks to the discovery of Greek rationalism, the Renaissance, humanism and the birth of the scientific mind, the basis of clerical authority was being slowly undermined: the West was witnessing the emancipation and autonomization of reason, and therefore the birth of the new epistemological authority of the sciences. The fear that faith would lose its meaning and pre-eminence lasted for centuries, and affected even those who seemed best placed to challenge rationalism. More than one hundred years later, Pascal warned, with Descartes in mind: ‘Write against those who probe science too deeply’.[1] He warned against the reason and sciences that imperilled religious authority by challenging the truths of faith and institutional authority. Galileo had lost, and won.

As we have said, other spiritualities, religions or civilizations did not experience this crisis or this epic confrontation. There are several reasons for this: the very nature of the spiritual and religious teachings, the absence of a dominant hierarchical authority, and the nature of the bodies of knowledge that had been acquired or promoted the civilizational zones in question. Sometimes, several different factors came into play at the same time, but the fact remains that the Western, and Catholic, experience, of a conflict between faith (belief) and reason, between spiritual givens and scientific facts is much more the exception than the rule in the history of civilizations and of man. And yet these questions are still of interest and are central to all of us, everywhere. Are there two orders of truth? And if so, how are we to distinguish between the truths of faith and those of reason, and how are we to circumscribe the authority of religion and that of science? Does metaphysics have anything to teach us about physics? Do we have to distinguish between, and contrast and/or reconcile faith and reason? The texts of spiritual traditions from the BhagavadGita to the Upanishads do, as we have said, concern themselves with the science of meaning and with self-liberation in the light of the Vedas and hymns that reveal an absolute understanding of origins. Throughout all the developments that led up to Hinduism, and even more so Buddhism, we find a constant de facto principle: spiritual teachings concern themselves with the scientific and objective observation of facts and elements to only a very marginal extent. Implicitly, and in the end quite explicitly, there are two different orders of knowledge. Meaning, essence, enlightenment and freedom come within the remit of spiritual teachings, whereas scientific observation reveals the order and the ‘how’ of things and describes itself as a means and never as an end.

By acknowledging their essential difference, those traditions assert their imperative complementarity. Much later, we find that this is still the case for the Jewish theologian, philosopher and physician Maïmonides, who, in the twelfth century, established distinctions and promoted correspondences between the realms of physics and medicine, and between those of theology and metaphysics. His Guide for the Perplexed is an attempt to make the science of faith and of (religious) law as rigorous as the science of physics. And conversely, he attempts to work backwards “scientifically” from the rationality that is projected on to the world, to the necessary proof of the existence of the Creator of order and causalities. Faith and reason are clearly distinct faculties, as are religion and philosophy on the one hand and science on the other, but convergences are possible and, ultimately, necessary: we must never forget meaning when we observe the facts scientifically, and we must use the facts to ask rational questions about the meaning of faith. We find in Maimonides the questions that run through the work of al-Ghazâlî, who had such an influence on him: the distinction between the two realms is a fact. Faith (which means trust and conviction) and reason (which means observation and analysis) should therefore not be contrasted when it comes to authoritative knowledge, but should complement one another as terms of reference for action. This is the primary focus of al-Ghazâlî’s aptly named The Balance of Action (Mizân al‘Amal). Even before philosophical questions are asked about the nature of the relationship between faith and reason, we find in the Islamic legal tradition, we find a methodological difference between the spheres of creed (‘aqida) and ritual practices (‘ibadât) on the one hand, and social affairs (mu ‘âmalat) on the other. A distinction is made, within the very reading of Revelation, between what is revealed, which is clear and immutable, and injunctions of general orientation, which must be interpreted and contextualized in rational terms. From Abû Hanîfa (699–675) to Ja’far as-Sâdiq (702–765) and Ibn Hanbal (780–855), from the Sunnis to the Shias, and right down to contemporary scholars, there are indeed two realms within the practice of law. The realm of faith cannot do without the critical exercise of reason if it is to remain true to its own teaching: the union of the two is imperative, and harmony between the two is essential.

We find precisely the same problematic at the heart of the question of political authority. The separation of Church and State is a political expression of the resolution – by divorce – of the philosophic-religious crisis that Galileo experienced at the scientific level. A distinction is made between practices and powers in both spheres (the scientific and the political). Whilst the Church and faith determine and recognize authority from the top (God, Revelation, the clergy), it is imperative to recognize another authority that emerges from below, from the scientific observation and analysis of the real, from critical debate and from the plural negotiations required by science, philosophy and politics. The principle of distinction is basic, and the divorce is both multidimensional and global. When asked about the separation of Church and State and the distinction between religion and politics, some Muslim scholars and intellectuals reply that, as in Judaism, there is no Church in Islam, and that it is therefore impossible to separate the State from an entity that does not exist. They miss – or avoid – the point. The important point is whether or not there is a distinction between the realm of faith and that of rationality, between dogma and science, between the revealed truth and the rational truth that is negotiated. Islam, like the spiritualities that came before it, like Hinduism and Buddhism and, in even more explicit terms, Judaism, establishes (through the work of its scholars and classical philosophers) an implicit distinction between these realms and an explicit categorization of the methodologies that establish the distinction between spheres and authorities. And besides, both the oldest spiritual and religious traditions and the most modern philosophies and ideologies have always tried to avoid two extreme solutions: confusing the realm of faith (and sometimes that of philosophy and belief) with that of scientific reasons to such an extent as to stifle and muzzle reason in the name of a meaning or system that is determined a priori, and divorcing the two realms to such an extent that the autonomy of analytic and technical reason, and its scientific and/or political logic, had nothing to say about questions about meaning, ethics and finalities. We have encountered the quest for meaning, and then the quest for the universal. We now encounter the quest for harmony.

7 Commentaires

  1. ‘Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the Earth goes around the Sun.’ R. Dawkins

    Just as in Galileo’s day, science is rejected by those who prefer to believe in Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark. Some are even prepared to kill others who do not share their beliefs or religion. What sense does this make? How far have we progressed?

  2. When dealing with worldy knowledge, whether it is pure science which is real fact in life’s realities, or other fields of knowledge, the God-conscious believer has, in pursuing truth of any knowledge, instilled in his/her being the essence of Taqwa or God-fear. One discovers the distinction between good and evil in learning what is right knowledge, being very open, curious and critical. One is humbled by an awe-inspiring great Universal Being or God. Therefore this God-fearing believer can contribute effectively to analytical reasoning and applied ethics. When a believer is in a mind-medicinal prison, losing the true natural sense of being, he/she is forced to make sacrifices to be in harmony with the socio-economic order of contemporary society. This means that the strong believer who accepts “mental health care” is having less active Taqwa, wasting time having to be an ego, being more material-minded, and is more hypocritical to a degree. Details of what matters and being creative become irrelevant, overridden by a general overview of knowledge: One is on auto-pilot. The innocence of the human being is taken over by an artificial intelligence through forced “treatment” (with mind-medication) to suit the societal life. The discipline of the way-of-life offered by the practice of Islam on a singular level is taken over by the forced discipline implemented by an authority in society, so that one goes with the flow of a socio-economic way-of-life. Then the only reliable truth for this “God-forsaken” active believer is cherishing the spiritual life trying to do the best that one CAN do under the socio-economic circumstances and pressure from authorities, without being able to make real active changes in many ways…

  3. Thank you, Dr. Ramadan, for this enlightening and informative piece. If your assertion is, however, that in Islam there has never been a significant conflict between faith and reason, then it is not clear to me that this assertion holds water.

    One thing is clear and undeniable: the medieval Catholic church possessed a hierarchical structure and an institutional continuity, and embodied a union of political and religious authority, which were completely unlike any institution that has ever existed in the abode of Islam. The disadvantages of this particular configuration are many and have been discussed extensively over the centuries by many observers and academics.

    But hierarchy, institutional continuity, and concentration of authority are not necessary for a conflict between faith and reason to exist. Perhaps I am not being fair, but I do get the impression that this piece is trying to say that at least in this respect, things have always been hunky-dory in the Islamic world. If one accepts this view, then one would be hard-pressed to explain why, during the time that the Catholic west initially repressed and eventually accepted Galileo, the Islamic world had no Galileo to repress or accept.

    One example of an explanation that involves a conflict between faith and reason in the Islamic world can be found in this piece by Harvard’s Eric Chaney:

  4. And certainly, the historical experiences have shaped the mental, emotional, spiritual view of individuals, the personality, character and engagement style with it’s surroundings. For the better, for effective results oriented strategic outlook with a rock-hard demeanor in context of individual, community and culture management. Indeed , I too cannot identify another version in any other realm to have experienced such consistent, redundant, senseless traumatic conflict-tension – which have served as tests and bolstering experiences for the character, personality and most importantly, the evaluation of Allah. A mental and emotional trauma (as we know anything else will be dealt with brutal blows) which has been buried deep, evaluated, erased with balm of peace and then buried deep. But I guess, very few times softly surfaces to our eyes, as witnessed recently by us, in face of treacherous onslaughts. Maybe it surfaces only when with our own, our trusted or our familiarity. Strange how these cords work.

    It’s rather strange this herd mentality among human beings. One sets an example, and the rest of the deaf, dumb yet vocal, blind yet seeing, herd follows suit, to pacify their sense of cheap adventure, not evaluating the consequences. A thought regarding this repetitive behavior is “are you now happy that what you said and did, is now replicated? From our exalted high spaces, we find it so easy to just hurl insensitivities & harm on others? To then be mimicked by others” as witnessed by us in our expanding civilizations. It must indeed be the power that rests with one side of the equation that enables such an onslaught. Equations must then be balanced I suppose.
    And this I agree, Faith (which means trust and conviction) and reason (which means observation and analysis) should therefore not be contrasted when it comes to authoritative knowledge, but should complement one another as terms of reference for action. Will get the Ghazali book. Faith and reason have to reconcile for more reasons than one, the business of the world awaits. Now when and how to achieve harmony is a big question, to be seen, and just how does this pave the way for the union between these two? This is to be seen too. Allah is the most Gracious, He Hears, IA He will hear and guide to the correct hanger )) until then, what ever junction we reach, freedom is a sweet beautiful intoxicating right and luxury to be dazzled in by the bravehearts. And after which is a dazzling story to unfold that has never been witnessed by any community or land ever before.

    And indeed there is an empowered authority on the sound foundations of knowledge, experience, ethics, integrity and an acute political acumen which enables the flourishing of faith and reason to exquisite, intoxicating, thrilling levels of awakening, understanding and certain consciousness of the existence of Allah, His Angels, His creation, that this heart will explode with love and gratitude. We must note that one was born a Muslim, always worshipped passionately as a Muslim in prayer and readings, started praying tahajud way back in childhood, however, hit a explorative, analytical, evaluative, questioning quadrant in time, where all the consciousness of a responsible adult to live in reality, when all the experience, knowledge and senses gained, were arching for a higher understanding of Creator, some proof of existence, to gain new grounds of spiritual enlightenment. Maybe this love is enough to last for a lifetime, maybe this is why one has always been autonomous in life in every dimension, never needing love or wanting love, only giving love. And so, this renewed understanding, with faith and reasons as foundational pillars, will carry the ark of political stratagem complimented by humanistic philosophies that enable forming the net of our civilization.

  5. On Authority…what does the world know about the experiences (in-person, emotional and mental) of the oppressed and what does the world know about the oppressors? Nothing. So how can the grievances of the oppressed be stifled and called extreme, damage causing adjectives? Does one waltz into another’s house, get to know their interpersonal matters, take sides, and then decry one sides grievances, enforce an opinion or force to alter their emotional and mental makeup? To take a step back, an interest or opinions on this delicate & private matter (packed with intense experiences and emotions which no one in the public is privy too or will be made privy unless required) is not solicited, because no one has experienced what has been experienced, so no one understands and it’s futile to be public with this delicate private matter, as it only recreates more problems rather than solutions. Every household (an ecosystem) has its dialogue, its experiences, various types of interactions. Will every ecosystem now expose what’s going on behind their closed doors so that everyone can muscle their results? The channel which was deployed for communication of dialogue & emotions has been closed, indeed because of the prying eyes of public and the consequent unsolicited frustrating feedback. So it makes matters worse when unsolicited adjectives and opinions are applied to the oppressed, while the oppressors do nothing to change the situation, do whatever they want to do, however in hell they want to do, self-centered around entities that matter to them at this point in time. So the oppressors can go to hell with what they want to do, with due respect. The best solution is to stay clear of this delicate matter, for the solutioning of the emotions and situation has not been outsourced. The oppressors are responsible for fixing anything, for their benefit.

  6. the public can read from their cushioned, safe, as they like it lives with their families, doing the things they want to do, with whom they want to do, and then again come back and pass judgement on how the oppressed should feel and live their oppressed life. This has been the general gene of the whole world and this will continue to be. only a few stand apart.

  7. and in all friendships, where our friendships are more important to us, than our personal opinions, we know how to have fun and what to talk about, and we also know which topics might be walking on egg shells ))


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