Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
Truth, Reality and Religion
Truth, Reality and Religion: On the use of Knowledge and Intellect in Deen and Dunia
By Mohib Ebrahim
NOTE: This article is an updated version of one by the same title the author published in the December 2006 issue of Ismaili Africa.
In his forward to the Aga Khan Academies’ brochure, Mawlana Hazar Imam — as His Highness the Aga Khan is known to his followers — remarked that one goal of education must be to “stimulate students to consider a variety of perspectives on some of the fundamental questions posed by the human condition: ‘What is truth? What is reality?’.” Note the questions were not “What is the truth? What is the reality?”, but rather, about the intrinsic nature of truth and reality itself. This article explores these questions and the ramifications the answers hold for religion and faith.
We can agree that stating “truth is the opposite of falsehood” does not speak adequately to the profound nature of these questions. The dimensions of truth are many. For example, I am reminded of this passage, from the film The Interpreter:
“[T]he human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when it’s not shouting. Even when it’s just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard … when it is telling the truth.”
Truth penetrates and stirs our souls. It is something we hear notwithstanding all else.
We find other dimensions of truth all around us. “Timeless truths” which expound the human condition and touch us with knowledge that has withstood the test of time and will always remain true. Hazrat Ali (pbuh) describes truth as “a cure for the biggest of all diseases — unbelief, hypocrisy, revolt and misguidance,” 1 an “unfailing remedy.” 2 The Bible tells us that truth “shall set you free,” (John 8:32). Allah proclaims the Holy Qur’an as the “absolute truth” (69:51). While Hazar Imam talks of his commitment to “continuous search for truth in all matters,” 22 (emphasis added).
Then there are moments of truth when we learn, or know innately from our own intentions, the truth about a matter which forces upon us a dilemma, a test, to either be true to ourselves, at the cost of our pride and ego, and perhaps even material loss and prestige, or live a life of denial, regret and guilt. The choice is always just that. Yet we often fail this “moment of truth”, clinging to what we know is false. Surely it is cowardice, for Hazrat Ali tells us “if you are able to discriminate, it will be a certainty for you that bravery and truth are always found together, and falsehood with cowardice … [T]he coward has no enjoyment of life.” 2
We have all watched “feel good movies” that touch us, but seldom consider why they move us. It is because they are about people facing moments of truth with courage and conviction, rising to the occasion and putting into practice the timeless values of honour, loyalty, compassion, forgiveness, equity, justice, steadfastness, courage, valour, temperance, patience but above all, upholding dignity and truth. Perhaps all we need is the will to let truth free us from being slaves to ego and pride so we can face our own moments of truth with the same courage and conviction.
Clearly truth is much more than just the “opposite of falsehood,” but what is common to all these experiences … to truth?
Truth is not a “thing” we can point to. It is an experience that stems from a state of mind, a state of enlightenment which cannot be shared but only experienced. It exposes reality to us, makes it manifest, and tests us with a choice — a choice between reality or illusion.
Knowledge and truth; Intellect and reality
Hazrat Ali said, “truth is the road most beaten, and knowledge the best guide.” 2 And of knowledge the Holy Prophet (pbuh) said:
“If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. The angels will lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and the Earth and the fish in the deep waters will ask forgiveness for the learned person. The superiority of the learned person over the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion.” 21
While Imam Jafar as-Sadiq (pbuh) went so far as to say: “There are three kinds of people. The scholars, the seekers of knowledge and all the others are a waste of humanity.” 9
Why is knowledge so important? It separates fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. It demolishes false gods and “sacred cows.” Or, as the Prophet (pbuh) clarified: “It enables the possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It lights the way to heaven.” 8 It forces us to surrender our ego and pride and reveals truth to us.
When we give up a position, we surrender to the opposing side. So when we give up ego and pride to knowledge, we surrender to the side of truth. In Arabic the word “Muslim” means, literally, “one who has surrendered.” It is always assumed to mean “surrendered to Allah”, but perhaps it also means “surrendered to truth.” For “surrendering to Allah” evokes an attitude towards life that is passive, perhaps one of fate, whereas “surrendering to the truth” implies an active life — a life of constantly seeking knowledge, as Hazar Imam said in his 2007 L’Express interview:
“In the Qur’an it is written that one must seek education to know Allah better, and share knowledge for the betterment of society. In Islam, the links between faith and knowledge are very strong and we are constantly encouraged to learn. This is an extraordinary message for humanity.” 13 (Emphasis added.)
Those who seek knowledge, who “search for the truth in all matters,” to understand and surrender to the reality of all matters (material, spiritual and human), stand on secure foundations. Their convictions are sound and their counsel wise because truth has replaced their doubts and confusion with verity and certainty. Like the sun burning off the morning mist, truth burns off the fog of superstitions, illusions and fantasies. Truth brings clarity. As Hazrat Ali says, “a little truth repels much falsehood, just as a little fire burns a lot of wood.” 2
To discover the truth about Nature, scientists constantly test their theories against it. But has Allah only provided us with intellects to search for and verify the truth and reality of Nature and not of our salvation? Are we supposed to follow only what we hope, believe or think is true when it comes to our salvation, or can our intellects be used to discover and verify the truth and reality of faith too?
Hazar Imam, in his explanation of the relationship between logic and faith, said:
“[Y]ou must have in every walk of your life a logical concept. This does not mean to wipe away faith, but the real principle of Islam is that faith is logical. Islam would not be what it is if it were not logical and this is something you must keep in mind. Because the very heart of Islam is logical. There is no hocus-pocus. There is no nonsense. It is clear and it is lucid and it is understandable.” 23 (Emphasis added.)
Here, the crucial point Hazar Imam makes is not that Islam is logical, but that it has to be logical. That is, “Islam would not be what it is if it were not logical.” But why must Islam, and therefore religion, have to be logical? Logic implies proof of God’s message for otherwise the alternative is “each to his own god.” In other words, is it possible for religion not to be logical? The answer is No.
When we say “we know“, nothing stands between us and the truth — we do not rely on anyone’s opinion, or even our own hope and “belief.” We cannot be swayed or convinced of “another truth” because there is no “other truth.” We cannot be misled nor have doubts sown within us for we stand on a solid, unshakeable foundation of certitude. We have security and the peace of certainty. We do not doubt ourselves just as we do not doubt that 2+2 equals 4. Being able to verify it for ourselves, we know the reality.
Knowledge and reason leads us to truth. Truth leads us to reality. And reality is to know the truth, that is, reality is a state of certainty. Indeed, to know the truth (that is, experience reality) may well be our intellect’s raison d’être.
Just as we use our intellects, reason and knowledge to verify the truth about Nature, so it must be in religion — in fact, even more so, because what is at stake is nothing less than our salvation. Indeed the Prophet said “to listen to the words of the learned and to instil into others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises” 10 for, as Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah explained, “the essence of religion is to abandon false conceptions.” 3
“Follow not that whereof thou hast no knowledge. Lo! the hearing and the sight and the heart — of each of these it will be asked (on the Day of Reckoning).” (Qur’an 17:36)
“Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” (Bible, 1 Thessalonians 5:21)
In the Qur’an, Allah repeatedly reminds us of His “clear proofs” and those that Prophets (pbut) brought (30:47). Religion necessarily must be logical and not rest on just “beliefs” because “beliefs” are not knowledge, nor are they facts. If religion is not logical, it would not be verifiable. If it is not verifiable we cannot confirm that we are following what Allah revealed and intended. If we cannot confirm Allah’s revelation we cannot be certain of what is the truth or reality. And if we cannot be certain of what is the truth, we are left to follow and worship only what we hoped, thought or “believed” is the truth. In other words, truth and god become whatever we decide to make them and that is what we would be worshipping, faced with the dilemma: “Is it reality or is it superstition?”
Indeed, when challenged by others who claimed to have the truth, Allah commanded the Prophet, “Say: Have ye any knowledge that ye can adduce for us? Lo! ye follow naught but an opinion. Lo! ye do but guess,” (Qur’an 6:148).
The question is not really about Islam per se, but about worshipping God and about faith itself. It matters little what “religion” we follow or “believe” to be the truth, reality will not change just because we have “deep conviction” in what we follow. Adherents of all major religions have deep conviction. “Most of them follow not but conjecture. Assuredly conjecture can by no means take the place of Truth”, (Qur’an 10:36). “Have they not considered the Qur’an, if it came from other than Allah, surely they will find in it many inconsistencies,” (Qur’an 4:82). “God is not [the author] of confusion,” (Bible, 1 Corinthians 14:33).
If the path we follow is not verifiable and not logical (usually by its own admission), then we know for an absolute certainty it is not from God, for such paths direct our worship to our own beliefs instead of Him. Thus, verifiability and logic are the standards God has laid down. Anything less requires “trust”, “belief”, “hope” and assumptions that someone else is correct about the path to follow. Let them present proof if so! “Or have ye a clear warrant? Then produce your writ, if ye are truthful,” (Qur’an 37:156,157). “Say: Allah leadeth to the Truth. Is He Who leadeth to the Truth more deserving that He should be followed, or he who findeth not the way unless he (himself) be guided. What aileth you? How judge ye?” (Qur’an 10:35).
Consider if someone tells you “This is the path to God” and you follow them. Then later they say “No I was mistaken, this new way is the path to God” and you change. Who do you worship … God or the one you’re listening to, even if they are now correct? Allah clarifies for us:
“And recite to them the story of Ibrahim. When he said to his father and his people: What do you worship? They said: Idols do we worship and we shall forever be their devotees. He said: Do they hear you when you call? Or do they benefit or harm you? They said: Nay, we found our fathers doing so. Have you then come to see what you have been worshiping? You and your fathers of old.” (Qur’an 26:69-76) (Emphasis added.)
Notice the idols were irrelevant — they did not worship them. Truth could replace idols and they would still be worshiping their fathers or themselves because they had no idea what the truth was since they were trusting their fathers and following them. Indeed, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said as much at a religious conference stating that he “did not want somebody to be Ismaili because his father was Ismaili.” 19 From another point of view, the people of Ibrahim could just as easily have rejected truth because they had no knowledge of what was true and what was not because they had not confirmed what they followed for themselves.
Surely it is thus self-evident that Allah must have provided proof of His message if only to prevent us “worshipping our opinions” as our only alternative. To worship what we imagine or hope is correct, rather than what we know is the truth, is tantamount to creating an equal to Him — a self-evident absurdity.
Allah demands not that we follow what is claimed to be His message, but what indeed is His message. This requires us to confirm it and why He commanded the Prophet to demand proof from those who claimed to have the truth. In other words, logic, reason and verification are necessary and imperative parts of religion. “Thus did We show Ibraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he might be of those possessing certainty.” (Qur’an 6:75) (Emphasis added.)
Hazrat Ali has said: “I relate the lineage of Islam as no one has related it before me. Islam is surrender, and surrender is certitude; certitude is authentication, authentication is assurance; assurance is realization, and realization is work.” 20 (Emphasis added.)
Many wrongly try to use logic and reason to understand Allah or His “purpose”, asking the question “Why?”, without realising this is an exercise in futility. Eventually they throw their hands up in frustration, saying “religion and reason are irreconcilable.” They fail because they limit Allah’s independence by assuming He must act according to reason and ask the question “Why?”. Reason however, is a part of creation and Allah is not governed by that which He creates. As Hazrat Ali explains, “[if] the attributes of the created things would be assigned to Him and there would remain no difference between them and Him, and He would have no distinction over them.” 4 Reasons apply to us. 2+2 equals 4 because Allah so chose for the universe’s natural laws. There is no reason for 2+2 to have equalled 4 because Allah, having power over all things, could just as well have chosen 2+2 to equal 5 and created the universe around that law. Again, Hazrat Ali clarifies, “we cannot in fact say what He is, nor how He works since He is not like anything of which we have knowledge.” 6 In fact, Hazrat Ali is emphatic on this point of trying to “understand” Allah:
“Leave to Allah that knowledge which satan has prompted you to seek and which neither the Qur’an enjoins you to seek nor is there any trace of in the actions or sayings of the Prophet and other leaders (A’immah) of guidance. This is the extreme limit of Allah’s claim upon you. Know that firm in knowledge are those who refrain from opening the curtains that lie against the unknown, and their acknowledgement of ignorance about the details of the hidden unknown prevents them from further probe. Allah praises them for their admission that they are unable to get knowledge not allowed to them. They do not go deep into the discussion of what is not enjoined upon them about knowing Him and they call it firmness. Be content with this and do not limit the Greatness of Allah after the measure of your own intelligence, or else you would be among the destroyed ones.” 5 (Emphasis added.)
Therefore, our intellects cannot and should not be used to understand Allah or His purpose. So what then are they for when it comes to religion and where does faith enter, as it must? Our intellects, knowledge and reason help us identify, verify, study and understand His true message, then conviction, faith, passion and love enter, for we have no option but to trust and have faith in His message over matters beyond the limits of reason or that we will be ignorant about, since we cannot confirm or know everything.
Reason, faith and love
Hazrat Ali said, “Belief and wisdom are twin brothers; God accepts not the one without the other,” 2 while Hazar Imam advises a “balanced life, which is guided by faith and intellect,” 23. In other words, blind faith alone is insufficient, just as reason alone is insufficient. Allah chastises those of blind faith:
“And when it is said unto them: Come unto that which Allah hath revealed and unto the messenger, they say: Enough for us is that wherein we found our fathers. What! Even though their fathers had no knowledge whatsoever, and no guidance?”, (Qur’an 5:104).
Like the steering wheel of a car, reason and knowledge help point us in the right direction. Love, faith, conviction and passion are like the accelerator; they determine the speed with which we move towards God. Perhaps now we can understand the Prophet when he said, “the superiority of the learned person over the devout is like that of the moon, on the night when it is full, over the rest of the stars,” or that “an hour spent in acquisition of knowledge is better than sixty years of worship,” 7 or that “one learned man is harder on the devil than a thousand ignorant worshippers.” 11 There is simply no point driving with the accelerator pressed flat, that is with conviction, if one is going in the wrong direction, just as it is pointless to look for sunrise in the west, no matter how much conviction you have. As Imam Jafar as-Sadiq says, “reason is that by which Allah is worshipped and a place in Paradise earned.” 12 Thus, the Prophet explains “Allah has given His creatures nothing to place higher than reason.” 8
Reason is the compass for truth
Perhaps now we can begin to appreciate why Hazar Imam characterised both that “[Islam’s] links between faith and knowledge as very strong” and also that “we are constantly encouraged to learn” as an “extraordinary message for humanity.”
“People oppose what they are ignorant about.” 2 In the past, despite “proof” the earth was round people still opposed it because truth cannot be shared, only the evidence which signifies it can be. Truth is manifest to us individually when we verify and confirm the “proof” for ourselves — when we think for ourselves — and are enlightened by what the evidence signifies; the “aha moment”. Until then, the “proof” is just an opinion and one we might “oppose” if we do not understand it. This therefore, is a key reason to seek knowledge. Thus, thinking for ourselves is, for me, the heart of the Ismaili intellectual tradition and our notion of individual search because until we think for ourselves we cannot really know the truth about anything — whether related to the faith or not. For me, our intellectual tradition lies not in the intellectual fruits of any one generation or era, but in the application of intellect itself, for the fruits are subject to challenge and revision and if adopted uncritically — that is, without challenge or revision or review if only to reconfirm their validity — faith is reduced to dogmatic mimicry of the past, to literalism and formalism, all of which are the very antithesis of intellectualism and preclude individual search:
“[We must constantly] review and revise and renew what we think we know.” 14 “[K]nowledge is constantly changing, must ever be challenged and extended.” 15
“I personally am very cautious about seeking a formalistic approach [to interpreting Islam], because I think that one of the great risks — apart from the fact that it does tend to deny individuality which is, of course, something strongly upheld in the Islamic faith — is the fact that it tends to anchor a faith in one time and that is one aspect of my faith which I would never accept” 16 (Emphasis added.)
Now some may feel they neither have time nor the capacity to at least confirm what is His true message, that is, to at least confirm the source of what they follow. However, satisfactory confirmation is an individual matter, for truth cannot be shared, and so what may be satisfactory to one, may be insufficient for others, or indeed to ourselves at a later date. It is, however, the sincere search for intellectual satisfaction of one’s interpretation that is itself an act of faith, and only we know whether or not we are being true to both ourselves and what we learn in that search. For as Hazar Imam explains:
“This freedom of interpretation is a generosity which the Qur’an confers upon all believers, uniting them in the conviction that All-Merciful Allah will forgive them if they err in their sincere attempts to understand His word.” 18 (Emphasis added.)
And in those attempts, the Qur’an reminds us that:
“And We task not any soul beyond its scope, and with Us is a Record which speaketh the truth, and they will not be wronged.” (Qur’an 23:62).
Furthermore, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah reminds us that:
“Struggle is the meaning of life. Defeat or victory is in the hands of God, but struggle itself should be man’s duty and should be his joy.” 17
Therefore, is it not a moment of truth for each of us, individually, to simply decide whether or not to trust Allah to help us in the task He has asked of us? How we face moments of truth is a fundamental key to human relationships. So it is with our relationship with God. We need to admit that if we do not know what we follow is really the truth, then we are only following what we believe, hope or think is true. For knowledge, intellect, truth, reality and worship of God all converge at verification and if we love and trust God, we have no option but to put aside our opinions and speculations and instead actively seek out and verify the truth, sincerely using the intellects He has given us, trusting Him to guide us.
Truth manifests reality to us and tests our courage. It is an unforgiving test that demands nothing less than our total surrender. But from that surrender, truth becomes the “remedy” that “heals” us, redeems us, and ultimately “sets us free” but first we must be true to ourselves. “Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts”, (Qur’an 13:11).
- Sermon 181 (175), Nahjul Balagha, Sermons Letters and Sayings of Hazrat Ali.
- Maxims of Ali.
- Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Zanzibar, 1899.
- Sermon 191 (185), Nahjul Balagha, Sermons Letters and Sayings of Hazrat Ali.
- Sermon 94 (90), Nahjul Balagha, Sermons Letters and Sayings of Hazrat Ali.
- “On the Unity of God”, Sermon Attributed to Hazrat Ali, Africa Ismaili, July 1979, p43.
- Africa Ismaili, 11 July, 1990.
- Wisdom of the Prophet, Sayings of the Prophet, page 201, #73.
- Usul al-Kafi, Book 2, The Book of Excellence of Knowledge.
- Africa Ismaili, 9 May, 1969.
- The Sayings of Muhammad, Sir Abdullah Suhrawardy, 2000
- Usul al-Kafi, Book 1, The Book of Intellect and Ignorance.
- L’Express Interview, Paris, 4 July 2007.http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/8106/
- 2006 Aga Khan University Convocation Ceremony, Karachi, 2 December 2006http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/7997/
- First Convocation Ceremony (1989) of Graduates from the Faculty of Health Sciences School of Medicine, Aga Khan University, Karachi, 20 March 1989http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/4351/
- All India TV and Radio Interview, India, February 1989http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/4296/
- Messages of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah – Message No. 1 published by Shia Imami Ismailia Association for Africa, 1955.
- Address to the International Colloquium “Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions” organised by The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 19 October 2003http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/6815/
- Ismaili Education in Africa, A.M. Sadaruddin, Zahur, 18 August 1945, published by the H. H. Aga Khan Ismailis Students Union
- Living and Dying in Grace, Counsels of Hadrat Ali, Thomas Cleary, pp. 77
- Sunna of Abu-Dawood, #3634
- His Highness the Aga Khan, Pakistan, 1964
- His Highness the Aga Khan, Pakistan, 1960
- His Highness the Aga Khan, Pakistan, 2000
About the Author
Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings (http://www.nanowisdoms.org). The Archive is the only website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat’s knowledge and was launched in 2011 after it was granted special permission to republish His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches. At present the Archive contains over 500 readings and 1,000 quotes as well as their own authored summary documents which provide abridged overviews of the Aga Khan’s wisdom and knowledge.
An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His current project, MasterFile, is a state-of-the-art evidence system for academic researchers, investigators, and litigators.
Mohib has also been a keen amateur astronomer for almost 40 years and his religious interests lie in the reconciliation of faith and reason. This article is an excerpt from a larger work on the nature of truth and it’s relationship to intellect and faith.
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