Natural sciences investigate physical entities and occurrences piecemeal and try to present their characteristics within the general principles dubbed as ‘laws of nature’. Philosophy is the intellectual discipline that seeks either to combine these scientific principles or to establish more general theories, a branch of learning that makes a constant effort to relate scholarly fields with one another, to expose their deep-down interconnectedness. From this perspective, philosophy is endorsed as the science of sciences. The sole means philosophy has in its aim to reach a higher truth, however, is the human rational faculty. Although not all philosophical schools assign as high and authoritative a position for human reason as does the philosophical school of rationalism, they nonetheless rely on reason as the only means to search and find truth. Rationalism, in a sense, goes to the extreme point of ascribing a god-like status to reason.
Islam acknowledges human reason or the possession of sanity as one of the fundamental requisites for being held liable for obligations. Still, it also recognizes its innate insufficiency with respect to attaining the ultimate truths, for which it makes it reliant on religious narration or tradition (naql),in contrast to the one-sided philosophical approach to the sources of human knowledge. As a form of Islamic understanding and quest for perfection, Sufism pursues certain metaphysical realities, though its rational endeavor strictly follows the religious tradition and does not venture beyond the limits of spiritual unveiling or insight (kashf). The fact that fundamental Sufi ideas rely on religious principles necessitates the recognition of Sufi intellectual activities as firmly grounded upon the Islamic narrative tradition.
Even though human reason is offered a leeway to capture and reflect on the wisdom of the narrative tradition, its independent activity in demonstrating Islamic precepts is not seen permissible. For this reason, in order to make the human rational faculty as perfectly useful as possible, Islam decrees that it be corrected with revelation, establishing thereby its legitimate field of activity. Still, the general public, or persons who are uncultivated in this regard, are not required to accept every single idea expounded through one’s spiritual insight. Setting the standard here is a Sufi maxim, which declares that, ’a spiritual insight is binding only for the person who experiences it and not for others.’
It cannot be claimed, in any way, that the ultimate truth is exhausted by the capacity of human reason; for even after reason lies exhausted in its search, the soul is left unsatisfied and continues to explore regardless. This is a natural and inborn human characteristic. For this reason, nearly all intellectual systems, religious or not, acknowledge this aspect of realities that eludes the immediate rational grasp. Renowned is the fact that metaphysical deliberations constitute a significantly large portion of philosophy. But, again, since they have no other medium than human reason to advance in their search, philosophers leave themselves vulnerable to inconsistency.
Furthermore, the enterprise of philosophy is ‘reflexive, as each philosopher begins his work by rejecting or disproving the theories of previous philosophers to establish his own personal position, the egoistic arguments in defense of which often betray the underlying self-centeredness underlying it. Nonetheless, used to accomplish this task is again the same tool; reason, which is never free of inconsistencies.
Human reason is indeed like a two-edged sword; one can use it for both good and evil ends. The same human reason which helps man reach the level of “best model” (At-Tin, 4) may also degrade him to the lowly state of “bewilderment” (Al-Araf, 179). This means that human reason needs to come under discipline, which Divine revelation provides. Only when reason proceeds under the supervision of revelation will it lead man to salvation; leaving the guidance of revelation aside, it will only steer man to destruction. In attaining the pleasure of the Lord, it is therefore imperative for human reason to be guided.
History has been witness to many tyrants, with sound rational capacities, who have yet not felt the slightest remorse for committing the most brutal massacres; for they perceived their brutalities as sound, rational behavior. Hulaku Khan, for one, drowned four hundred thousand innocent people in the waters of Tigris, without feeling the least remorse. Before Islam, many Meccan men used to take their daughters to bury them alive, amid the silent screams of their mothers that shed their hearts to pieces. Chopping a slave was no different for them than chopping wood; they even saw it as their natural right. They, too, had reason and feelings, just like us, which however were like the teeth of a wheel working the opposite direction, defiant of expectation.
Demonstrated by all this is the natural need human beings have for guidance and being directed, owing to the positive and negative inclinations and desires within them. The direction given, however, must in turn be compatible with the natural predisposition; and this is possible only through education in the light of Revelation, that is the guidance and enlightening of Prophets. Otherwise, a direction conflicting with the natural predisposition will only generate evil.Since they attempt to explain everything by way of human reason, philosophers cannot guide themselves to the right path, let alone their societies to this direction. After all, if the human rational faculty had a sufficiently power to guide man to the straight path, the institution of Prophethood and the emergence of Prophets would have been unnecessary. From this perspective, reason stands in need of the guidance of revelation.
Realizing the inherent insufficiency of human reason, some philosophers have sought other means to search for truth. One of them was the French philosopher Henry Bergson, who instead regarded human intuition as an epistemological means to attain to truth. This notion strikes a tune with what our past fellow Sufis would call ‘inner occurrences’ (sunuhat- iqalbiyya), which refers to the implementation of the heart as the means to obtain real knowledge. Bergson argues that it would be wrong to reject the factuality of inner occurrences received after a certain kind and period of spiritual training. He asserts that it would be logically baseless to refute the feasibility of the knowledge obtained by the heart, since this knowledge, as is the case with Sufi knowledge, is of a different nature that eludes all empirical analysis. This fact indicates that only a small portion of philosophy comes close to appreciating religious and spiritual thought.
The majority of philosophers, on the other hand, do not accept any epistemological means to attain to truth other than the human rational faculty, sparing their entire time of day instead to launch into falsifying each other. In contrast to the scattered nature of philosophy, prophets and saints, who are their rightful heirs, are fed by the same, harmonious origin; enlightened through Divine revelation and inspiration. Prophets, as well as saints, are therefore always in agreement with each other.
Ghazzali, the great Muslim thinker, says, ‘Once I finished my investigations and analyses in the field of philosophy, I came to the conclusion that this field could not provide sufficient answers to my need. I realized that human reason alone could not properly understand everything and that it would not always fail in the attempt to unveil the curtain that covers the visible side of things.’ Commenting on Ghazzali’s position, Necip Fazil Kisakürek adds, ‘As this great thinker, dubbed ‘the proof of Islam’, had verged upon leaving all kinds of rational and scientific approaches aside and had begun inclining towards the real type of knowledge, he hinted that, ‘the real solution lies in seeking shelter in the spirituality of the Prophet of the prophets; all the rest is some kind of deception and illusion. And alas, reason is nothing but just limitation!’ This exquisite mind thereupon halted all his questions and found shelter under the spirituality ‘of the Prophet of the prophets, and discovered the infinite.’
To be sure, one can reach a certain level of reality the limited power of reason; yet how could such a limited faculty cover the entire reality? Is there not any reality that exists beyond it? Even though philosophy ultimately seeks answers to metaphysical questions it does not offer any satisfactory answers to the above questions. But since Sufism differs sharply from philosophy in springing from the source of Divine revelation, one can find indeed answers find answers therein to these gnawing questions.
It is The Almighty Who created man and Who knows best, knows his nature, needs and limitations. This makes Divine revelation necessary for human reason in its avid desire to behold the truth. Beyond the furthest point reachable by human reason, there exist other realms, which disclose their realities to the heart in the form of spiritual unveilings or insights. Attaining to the realm of infinite realities is therefore impossible without the aid of the spiritual.
Excerpt From: Osman Nuri Topbas, ‘Sufism’