How the Qur'an heralded a quest for knowledge and rational inquiry in Arabia.
By any measure, the changes that gripped Arabia and its surroundings in the seventh century CE are extraordinary. The major players of the day—the Roman, Byzantine, and Sassanid Empires—set the course of history on a broad scale. Yet within a few decades an Arab world, previously regarded as a culturally insignificant backwater, catapulted to center stage.
Besides constituting a major political power in its own right, the Arab world emerged as an intellectual powerhouse that energized a new phase in the history of civilization. A desert people—hardly in possession of a script for their language (much less adequate material for making use of such writing)—brought forth, as if by magic, scholars and intellectual giants who made invaluable contributions to intellectual history. A marginal language spoken by a marginal people transformed into a language of power—a medium bearing the most advanced scientific thought. How did this transformation occur? What sparked this intellectual revolution, the birth of reason, which ultimately produced some of the greatest minds in the history of thought and science?
The Arabian Desert had always provided a natural setting for those who sought meaning in the glory of nature and the infinitude of space. Prophets, poets, monks, hermits, pagan sects, and simple mystics roamed the vast expanse, seeking refuge from the chatter of their communities. It seems that here, in silence and emptiness, they could hear the heartbeat of the world, feel the majesty of the stars. They came to the desert in order to reflect; worshippers sought seclusion and refuge in the caves dotting the cliffs of rugged mountains; lonesome travelers devised their first poetic rhymes following the soft, rhythmic beats of camels treading along the undulating sands; from this soil, the nest lyric of Arabic literary tradition would grow.
It may seem surprising to find mention of poetry at the beginning of a story about reason. Yet poetry is key.
It may seem surprising to find mention of poetry at the beginning of a story about reason. Yet poetry is key. Affirming the priority of poetry in social and intellectual evolution is not a new idea (as seen in the writings of the Muslim philosopher, Alfarabi, who followed Aristotelian tradition on this point). But poetry is far more than just a footstep on the ladder of intellect. As the natural and immediate medium of creativity and imagination, poetry is a progenitor of reason. Breaking free from elementary locutionary forms, it evokes a world invisible to the untrained eye yet immanent to the event or object described. Such transcendence through imagination—breaking loose from the confines of immediacy and concrete reality—is nothing if not an act of freedom. Approaching these newly revealed horizons of sense, reason grows bold, makes exploratory steps, and begins to search for order as yet undiscerned. Beginning to stir, over time, it comes to make fuller and better sense of what poetry has described. But even as it does so, consciously or otherwise, imagination remains its creative spark. One can easily see how, in this light, poetry and reason form a natural pair. Without the one, the life of the other cannot be sustained.
The eleventh-century philosopher Avicenna identified imagination as the medium of reason. As we will see, he was not alone in giving credit—and then free reign—to the imaginative faculty both as a source and then as a “trans-rational” medium for the cognition of reality. An entire tradition of mysticism and imaginative discourse—often expressed in poetic and allegorical form—pre-existed him and flourished after his death. Just as importantly, imagination was the power source for advances on various intellectual and scientific fronts—including philosophy, law, the sciences, mathematics, and astronomy.
There is, however, another side to the matter. After having been sparked and then flourishing, reason may grow rigid and ossified—and even turn against its (unacknowledged) sire. Adherents may come to view it as both self-generating and self-sufficient—indeed, as the antithesis of the imagination. Imagination, however self-consciously expressed, whether in poetry or in new and unconventional ideas, then comes to count as the enemy of the rational establishment and the authoritative system of thought. It comes to represent potential danger and a threat to order and stability. One wonders whether this—the sparks thrown by imagination and their subsequent extinction—underlies the (mis)adventures of reason in Islam: on the one hand, boundless expansion, and, on the other, restrictive authoritarianism.
To this day, Muhammad’s sacred text exercises power because it counts as a “once-in-a-lifetime” miracle of Arabic poetic prose. Though the power of poetic imagination had long attuned the desert mind to the power of the word, created the framework for human thought and action, and prepared the cultural grounds for what would follow—nothing could compare with the upheaval that occurred in the wake of Islam’s message as expressed in the Qur’an. It manifested a linguistically commanding form hitherto unseen and unheard; it elevated the spirit to unparalleled heights; its sparks fired scholars to consider its full implications: reason in Islam was born.
The divine poetry fueled imaginations already fired by the mystery of the world, and fanned them even more.
Murmurs of doubt notwithstanding, the verses Muhammad shared about the nature of God could now be thought about and discussed in earnest among his companions and followers. The divine poetry fueled imaginations already fired by the mystery of the world, and fanned them even more. Beholding their awe-inspiring surroundings, the desert dwellers were now prompted to consider all that they saw as signs, or keys, for unlocking the secret behind them—a sovereign order holding all things together. Other verses also unsettled standing convictions about natural phenomena, what even counts as natural in the first place: “Behold ye the mountains, that thou believest are frozen, but verily they pass along like the clouds.” Could such massive structures really move, just like fleeting puffs of air? The idea defied common wisdom, shaking the trustworthiness of sensory perception. This, in turn, implied the need to change other inherited beliefs and ways of viewing the world.
Then as now, Qur’anic verses fed the imagination, raising questions and offering a glimpse of what links the finite and the infinite, the transitory and the eternal, appearance and reality. The verses oscillated with the precision of a pendulum, moving between the metaphysical and the psychological, the ethereal and the stuff of daily life. One can imagine how the rhythmical words opened an entire world, disclosing an infinite horizon of wonder and speculation while pointing to the architecture of the cosmos. Now, the inhabitants of the desert had, in their own language, a treasure house of declarations about God and themselves—challenging both intellect and imagination, inviting further reflection and interpretation.
The Arabs had been outsiders to such controversies and disputations, strangers to a conflict that didn’t quite seem to concern them. Now, they were no longer mere listeners or onlookers at an unfathomable discourse about the mysteries of the universe—how the skies and the earth are held together, how day gives way to night, and night to day, how the uncertain future yields the immutable past, how life and death each prevail in turn.
Nor did they feel like outsiders to the discourse that presented these mysteries and the manifold phenomena of nature in a unified theory. The news did not come from some extraordinary figure whose origin was itself an enigma, but from an ordinary man who belonged among them—someone who didn’t pretend to be more than a messenger, the medium through whom the singular truth about existence and the universe had been revealed. In other words, spectators and outsiders now possessed the means to become participants. They had the material in their hands, and a language, too. More than anything else, this is what sparked the birth of reason in the Arabic-speaking world.
Even though a Qur’anic verse warns that their words lead astray, Arabian poets continued to cast a spell on their fellow inhabitants of the desert. Language—both as an artful craft and as a stimulant for the imagination—maintained its role as a medium of sovereignty and individual freedom. At the same time that the Qur’an dispossessed poets of the throne of meaning, it coronated a new voice declaring the wonders of the beyond. Lyrical expression yielded to discourse about the mysteries of the world and the models for human life articulated in holy writ.
In turn, scholars would follow this rationalist inclination, delving deep into the text of the Qur’an to sound its intellectual depths. Soon, the brazen free-spiritedness of the more outspoken poets would founder on the cliffs of the new religion that was in the course of emerging. At yet another level, others of a mystical bent would attempt to break the bonds of language altogether, considering it too constricting, and seek insight into higher realms. But common to all of these endeavors was the soul’s inner yearning to be free, the search for the medium in which liberty might find expression. Eventually, all these different orientations would compete to announce the truth of what was stirring in the desert sands.
This post was adapted from Sari Nusseibeh’s The Story of Reason in Islam.