What Role Should the Intellect Play When Seeking God?

Answered by Sidi Faraz A. Khan

Question: I am an agnostic, this means that I believe that there might be a God, but due to lack of evidence I do not make a decision. Recently, I have become very interested in Islam. I find the messages are always filled with love and compassion. But certain aspects of religion, and these are not limited to Islam, are seemingly incompatible with my view of the universe.

These aspects are usually of the mystical variety. In particular, I am concerned with angels, jinns, heaven, hell and the day of judgment. I know that these are integral parts of Islam.

The way I was brought up was never to accept anything blindly. Reacting critically to observations and facts, is what makes me a scientist.

I have always felt that science and religion are not contradictory to each other. But attempting to grasp these concepts from a critical point of view makes me want to reject them. I could redefine these terms so that they make sense in such a critical framework, but I am afraid that envisioning them as such would rob them of their place in Islam. For example I could imagine that heaven and hell are states of mind which we experience our time on earth, judgment day a continuous event. But I know that re-interpreting the Qur’an in a metaphorical way at any convenient time, done for example by the Mu’tazilli, is not accepted by most branches of Islam

I can not simply submit to these beliefs; it would make me a hypocrite. Furthermore I feel that refusing to use the capabilities of thought and reason given to me by God would be an insult to him.

Is there any advice you can give me to help me find a way to being a good Muslim without betraying myself? Thank you.

: In the name of God, Most Merciful, All Compassionate

Thank you for your question – it reflects one of the greatest challenges that religion faces in the modern world. Religion is based on faith, while the modern world has devoted itself to a particular paradigm of the intellect reflected in modern science and critical thought. The following serves only as a summarized presentation of this issue, as it is one that deserves much more discussion.

On Faith, the Heart, and the Intellect

The Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] was asked what faith was, to which he responded, “That you believe in God, His angels, His revealed books, His messengers, the Last Day, and predestination – both its good and evil.” [Sahih Muslim]

A key aspect of this prophetic response is the very beginning of the statement, “That you believe.” Faith is rooted ultimately in what Islamic cosmology terms “the heart,” that is, the spiritual heart. This is the locus of belief for the human. It is the faculty within the human being that enables him to know the Divine, with a knowledge that results from submission, devotion, contentment in His decree, and gratitude. These are the means by which to reach knowledge of God, and they are the only means.

The intellect, as important and valuable as it is, is therefore not the only capacity with which the human can perceive truth. It alone can never reach true experiential knowledge of the Divine. However, it is still an indispensable tool for human success in worldly affairs, as well as an aid in the human pursuit of the Divine. This is because the very first step in one’s spiritual journey to reach Divine pleasure is to learn what He has ordained for us in His revealed Sacred Law. This knowledge is acquired by the intellect. Yet to apply that knowledge in one’s life, in a state of submission and contentment, is a task for the spiritual heart, not the intellect.

Critical thought must be put aside for the heart to thrive. In Islamic cosmology, the most symbolic physical manifestation of human submission to the Divine is prostration, which the Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] described as a position in which the servant is closest to his Lord. It is interesting to note that in that position, the brain is physically lower than the heart. With one’s forehead on the ground, the intellect is made to submit while the heart is elevated to its appropriate place of superiority.

The Place of the Intellect

This understanding by no means negates the value of human intellect. The mind is one of the greatest gifts of God to humanity. Muslim scholars have written much on the merits of the intellect and its lofty place in Islam, as it is the very basis of human civilization and development, as well as the means by which humans learn how to worship the Divine. And coupled with experience – or experimentation – it has immense potential for societal betterment. As an Arab poet once said, “Have you not considered how the intellect is an adornment for its possessor? Yet its perfection is only by plentiful experience.” [Mawardi, Adab al-Dunya wal-Din]

Having said that however, like any organ or faculty in the human being, it does have limitations. This is why the Islamic scholar Imam Zarnuji states:

“The people of truth – those who adhere to the prophetic way and the Muslim majority – seek truth from God, a truth that is clear and that guides and protects, and so God guides them and protects them from deviation.

The people of misguidance, however, are people who are impressed with their opinions and their intellects, and therefore seek truth from this created faculty within them that alone is simply incapable of discerning the truth. This is because the intellect cannot perceive all things, just as the human eye cannot see all things. So they are veiled and prove incapable of discerning truth, and fall into misguidance and go astray…

Therefore, the very first task of the intellect is to realize its limits, as reflected in the prophetic saying, “Whoever knows himself will come to know his Lord.” That is, whoever realizes his own incapacity will come to know the infinite power of the Divine. Such a person will not rely on himself or his intellect, but rather place his complete trust wholeheartedly with God and seek the truth from Him alone. And whoever places his trust completely in God, God proves sufficient for him and guides him to a magnificent straight path.” [Zarnuji, Ta`lim al-Muta`llim]

Although Imam Zarnuji lived 800 years ago, his words are timeless and prove as relevant to us today as they did in his time, if not more so. We live in an age in which the intellect is worshiped – total reliance is placed on it for discerning all types of truth. Yet the intellect, as spectacular and brilliant of a faculty as it is, is nevertheless limited. Just like the human eye, it cannot perceive all of reality. We now know that certain wavelengths comprise what is termed “the visible spectrum,” and that the eye – despite it being an amazing organ – is limited and cannot perceive wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. No matter how much it attempts to focus, the eye alone will not be able to perceive realities outside of those wavelengths.

Does that mean reality is limited to the visible spectrum, since that is all we can see? Of course not. And moreover, we know that certain species of birds and bees, for example, can indeed see outside of our visible spectrum. They have access to what we do not have access to.

This is how we must understand the intellect. It is a phenomenal faculty that we are endowed with, and it can indeed do wonders in the material world. Yet it is limited. There are certain realities it simply does not have access to, no matter how much it endeavors to perceive those realities. Coming to terms with this is not easy for the modern man, who is engrossed in an age devoted to science and critical thought.

This is why Imam Zarnuji’s other counsel proves timeless as well, namely, to not be impressed with our intellects. The more we are impressed with our mental capacity, the more difficult it is to realize its limitations. Sincere desire to discern spiritual realities is predicated upon humility and recognition of one’s limitations. This is the key to accepting truth, as well as the key to moving forward in implementing truth in one’s life. Hence the name of our religion, Islam, is an Arabic word that literally means “to submit.” Submission allows for recognition and acceptance of Divine oneness, and it is the greatest means for spiritual growth after that acceptance.

Prophets and Messengers: Beyond the Spectrum

Just as birds and bees can see realities beyond the visible spectrum, certain humans have been shown realities beyond the scope of human perception. God singled them out and honored them to relay His message of Divine oneness and submission, and He showed them many realities to which we have no access, in order for them to convey to us those realities based on direct experience rather than merely being informed. As the Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] stated, “Being informed is nothing like actual experience.” [Musnad Ahmad; Mustadrak Hakim]

The prophets and messengers directly saw angels, jinns, heaven and hell. They were shown glimpses of events that will take place on Judgment Day. And they received revelation from God as confirmation of what they saw. These realities are integrals of faith, and as you mention, they are by no means metaphorical or allegorical. They are literal, and they are absolutely real.

Accepting these realities, then, is not a matter of cognition but rather one of belief. The human intellect cannot perceive these realities, no matter how intelligent the person and no matter how much technology he has to aid him. Logic or critical thinking will not confirm these realities, and scientific experiment will prove unable to access them.

The mind exists only to understand them, yet it is the spiritual heart that believes in them. It is the spiritual heart that endows the human with full conviction in them, as well as the aspiration and resolve to respond to them appropriately, namely, through fear, love and gratitude to the Divine. Hence, submitting to these beliefs would not make you a hypocrite; it would not entail any sort of self-betrayal. Submission to God is no insult to Him, but instead the very epitome of doing what He loves.

Belief does not entail a rejection of reason. Rather, it is the most appropriate delegation of roles to each faculty. The mind is at home when working within its limits, and the heart is at home when with the Divine.

A Final Note and Some Suggested Reading

Lastly, one can appreciate that the real foundation of accepting such realities lies not in pondering over the nature of the realities themselves, but rather in the one conveying them to us. This is at the heart of the entire discussion. The conviction of the believer in the content of revelation is directly linked to his absolute trust in the honesty, moral integrity, and perfected character of the prophet or messenger.

For a detailed examination of the life and character of the Prophet Muhammad, I would highly recommend the book “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings.

-“Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

And for a more summarized presentation of his exalted character [peace and blessings be upon him], I would recommend the following article:
Why Is the Prophet’s Character Described as Being Tremendous? – Faraz Rabbani

Also, for further discussion on the Islamic worldview vis-a-vis the modern outlook of science and critical thought, I would suggest the following books:

-“Deliverance from Error” by Imam Ghazali [Translated by R.J. McCarthy, Fons Vitae]
-“Marvels of the Heart” by Imam Ghazali [Translated by Walter James Skellie, Fons Vitae]
-“King of the Castle” by Charles Le Gai Eaton
-“Islam and the Destiny of Man” by Charles Le Gai Eaton

I would like to end by sincerely advising you to pray to God for help and guidance on this matter. If you put your mind on hold and instead turn to Him with your heart, in a state of complete humility, He will never let you down.

Please do not hesitate to write back with any other questions. We are here to serve.

And God alone provides success.


Faraz A. Khan

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani