Article Five of the Series
Ismailis within the Muslim Ummah
Intellect and Faith
The intellect plays a central role in Shia tradition. Indeed, the principle of submission to the Imam’s guidance, explicitly derived from the revelation, is considered essential for nurturing and developing the gift of intellect whose role in Shiism is elevated as an important facet of the faith. Consonant with the role of the intellect is the responsibility of individual conscience, both of which inform the Ismaili tradition of tolerance embedded in the injunction of the Quran: There is no compulsion in religion.
In Shia Islam, the role of the intellect has never been perceived within a confrontational mode of revelation versus reason, the context which enlivened the debate, during the classical age of Islam, between the rationalists who gave primacy to reason, and the traditionalists who opposed such primacy without, however, denying a subordinate role for reason in matters of faith.
The Shia tradition, rooted in the teachings of Imams Ali and Jafar as-Sadiq, emphasizes the complementarity between revelation and intellectual reflection, each substantiating the other. This is the message that the Prophet conveys in a reported tradition: “We (the Prophets) speak to people in the measure of their intelligences”. The Imams Ali and Jafar as-Sadiq expounded the doctrine that the Quran addresses different levels of meaning: the literal, the alluded esoteric purport, the limit as to what is permitted and what is forbidden, and the ethical vision which God intends to realise through man, with Divine support, for an integral moral society. The Quran thus offers the believers the possibility, in accordance with their own inner capacities, to derive newer insights to address the needs of time.
An unwavering belief in God combined with trust in the liberty of human will finds a recurring echo in the sermons and sayings of the Imams. Believers are asked to weigh their actions with their own conscience. None other can direct a person who fails to guide and warn himself, while there is Divine help for those who exert themselves on the right path. In the modern period, this Alid view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith continues to find resonance in the guidance of the present Imam and his immediate predecessor. Aga Khan III describes Islam as a natural religion, which values intellect, logic and empirical experience. Religion and science are both endeavours to understand, in their own ways, the mystery of God’s creation. A man of faith who strives after truth, without forsaking his worldly obligations, is potentially capable of rising to the level of the company of the Prophet’s family.
The present Imam has often spoken about the role of the intellect in the realm of the faith. Appropriately, he made the theme a centrepiece of his two inaugural addresses at the Aga Khan University: “In Islamic belief, knowledge is two-fold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers. Indeed, one strength of Islam has always lain in its belief that creation is not static but continuous, that through scientific and other endeavours, God has opened, and continues to open, new windows for us to see the marvels of His creation”.
Muslims need not be apprehensive, he said, of these continuing journeys of the mind to comprehend the universe of God’s creation, including one’s own self. The tendency to restrict academic inquiry to the study of past accomplishments was at variance with the belief in the timeless relevance of the Islamic message. “Our faith has never been restricted to one place or one time. Ever since its revelation, the fundamental concept of Islam has been its universality and the fact that this is the last revelation, constantly valid, and not petrified into one period of man’s history or confined to one area of the world.”
Crossing the frontiers of knowledge through scientific and other endeavours, and facing up to the challenges of ethics posed by an evolving world is, thus, seen as a requirement of the faith. The Imam’s authoritative guidance provides a liberating, enabling framework for an individual’s quest for meaning and for solutions to the problems of life. An honest believer accepts the norms and ethics of the faith which guide his quest, recognises his own inner capacities and knows that when in doubt he should seek the guidance of the one vested with authority who, in Shia tradition, is the Alid imam of the time from the Prophet’s progeny.