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Intellect vs Love: Aql vs Ishq

ONE of the lively intellectual engagements in the Muslim (as well as in other) societies has been the debate between aql (often translated as intellect/reason) and ishq (love or intense/crazy love). There have been enough proponents in each camp, generating a heated debate.

The debate is: which one — aql or ishq — is more reliable as a source of guidance and salvation, knowledge and wisdom. According to Prof Annemarie Schimmel (a well-known scholar on Sufism), this debate is known by ‘virtually all religions’, but we focus here on the way the debate has been framed in Muslim societies. Very often, Muslim thinkers and Sufis have juxtaposed the two (aql and ishq) as mutually exclusive ways of being and knowing, while some integrate the two as symbiotic forces that human beings are blessed with.

Philosophers see aql as the main source of generating reliable knowledge for constructing a better human society and leading to the fulfilment of the human soul. On the other hand, the Sufis, led by Rumi (d. 1173), the most eloquent spokesman of this school, argue that human intellect is not a leader, but a misleader; it gives false pretence of the capacity of knowing reality, and creates barriers between partial intellect (aql-i juzwi) and that of the Universal Intellect (aql-i kuli).

Some see ‘aql’ and ‘ishq’ as complementing each other.
Rumi, however, has metaphorised aql with the role of a father, and ishq with that of a mother. Iqbal primarily followed Rumi in this regard while overall rejecting some forms of Sufism that he thought were at variance with the Islamic spirit.

Some scholars argue that the downfall of Muslims since the 13th century is not necessarily due to the Mongol invasion and destruction of Muslim lands, but mainly due to many Sufi ideas, like the alleged anti-intellectualism, that were seen as detrimental to human intellectual development. Whether it is Sufism or not, it seems that in many Muslim societies, some sections of society have tended to ignore or even downgrade the role of reason in understanding faith and shown complete lack of trust in its fruits vis-à-vis revelation on the assumption that revelation rejects human reason — an assumption that is quite some distance from the Quranic perspective.

The fact of the matter is that the Quran is replete with the invitation to think, to ponder, to reflect; but often interpreters of religions have ignored the very intellectual side of sacred texts, and focused on the ritual and ceremonial, daily routines and visible practices. They ignored the less public, but equally or more important dimensions of our religious life, like the reflection on and understanding of the faith, the world around us, as the locus full of the aayaat of God.

In between these contending camps, there have been those who have tried to see both as complementing each other by arguing that both have a place in human life and they should be understood in their own ways, rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive forces. Both have an indispensable place in human life, like the metaphor of Rumi of father and mother. Forsaking this life — claiming that one is devoted to ishq or worship — leads to apathy, neglect, and undervaluing of life.

If this world, as the Prophet (PBUH) tells us, is mazra’a al-aakhira, ie, the ‘cultivation field’ for the coming world, then it assumes a prime place. Islam teaches us to seek the best in this as well as in the next world (Quran, 2:201). Hazrat Ali is reported to have said that when you work (for this world), work as if you are going to live here eternally; and when you pray, pray (with so such humility) as if you are going to die tomorrow.

The study of intellectual traditions in Islam (see for example Intellectual Traditions in Islam by Dr Farhad Daftary), and Sufi traditions (Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Prof Schimmel) show that both have immensely contributed to Muslim cultures/civilisations. The intellectual traditions in Islam have expressed themselves in many shapes and shades, and helped us develop and interpret many disciplines of Islamic/Muslim sciences, including theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, art and architecture, governance, philology, calligraphy, history, ilm al-rijal, medicine, and what have you.

Similarly, the Sufi and other traditions of spirituality have also evolved in different forms and expressions that have enriched our life and contributed to human civilisations in so many areas such as symbolism, spirituality, poetry, stories, apart from spreading the message of love, unity of humanity and transcendental unity of religions, thus leading to religious pluralism.

Today, we need both — the proverbial ‘Sufi love’ to bind various peoples as God’s creatures (ayaal) or His signs (aayaat) and intellect — to improve the quality of life for all, seeing them both as synergistic forces.

By JAN-E-ALAM KHAKI, an educationist, with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2015: http://www.dawn.com/news/1194926

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