Remarks on method in religious matters


Prof. Richard C. Taylor (c) 24 November 2015

Ibn Rushd on Method in Religious Matters

In his Kitāb faṣl al-maqāl wa-taqrīr mā baina ash-sharīcah wa-l-ḥikma min al-ittiṣāl the title of which I earlier rendered as The Book of the Distinction of Discourse and the Establishment of the Connection between the Religious Law and Philosophy, Ibn Rushd reasons to the priority of philosophical demonstration in the attainment of truth and the interpretation of scripture over religious literalism in cases in which conflicting interpretations are found over matters where religion and philosophy intersect. While clearly setting aside the possibility of a double truth, one for religion and one for philosophy, by explicitly asserting that “truth cannot contradict truth,” Ibn Rushd nevertheless holds for a distinction of discourse and also a human educational psychology in which people are seen generally to fall under three classifications.

According to his educational psychology, some people are in fact intellectually weak in argumentative skills and easily swayed to assent by emotions under the influence of rhetoric; some see reality through foundational assumptions and build their thinking and reasoning on those, being persuaded to give assent by dialectical engagement; and some are skilled in philosophical logic and reasoning through the method of demonstration and so give assent to truth per se and with necessity because such is the nature of the product of demonstration. People of all three levels are required to assent to knowing the existence of God, his sending of prophets, and the promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife. Later in this work he goes on to explain that those skilled in philosophical demonstration should not be so incautious or even destructive as to reveal truths and interpretations of scripture obtained by demonstration to those unable to understand. He makes this particularly clear in the context of the nature of the afterlife but it applies equally to the other two requirements.

It is essential to the wellbeing of individuals, the community and society that there be a clear distinction of discourse between (i) religious accounts of practical living value suitable for presentation before people of all three modes of assent and understanding, the rhetorical, the dialectical and the demonstrative — even if those of the demonstrative group have another interpretation they keep to themselves — and (ii) truthful philosophical and scientific accounts garnered through demonstrative method suitable only for the third group. To divulge indiscriminately the truths attained through this latter method would engender confusion and surely lead, as Ibn Rushd says, to undermining faithful belief perhaps to the point of unbelief.  In his al-Kashf ʿan manāhij al-adilla fī ʿaqāʾid al-milla or The Explanation of the Sorts of Proofs in the Doctrines of Religion Ibn Rushd refers to this distinction of discourse in matters of religion when he writes,

In a separate work we have already made clear the congruity of philosophy with religion (al-ḥikma li-sh-shar‘) and the command of religion for [the doing of philosophy]. We said there that religion (ash-sharī‘a) has two parts: [one] evident and [one] interpreted (ẓāhir wa-mu’awwal). The evident is obligatory for the majority (al-jumhūr) and the interpreted obligatory for the learned (al-ulamā’). The obligation of the majority in regard to it is to take it according to its evident sense and to refrain from interpreting it; for the learned it is not permitted to inform the majority of its interpretation.

In this way Ibn Rushd sets out a methodology of maintaining a distinction of discourse in the discussion of matters of religion which intersect with philosophical studies. In his own works this distinction — or something quite close to it — is maintained with the Faṣl al-maqāl, the Treatise on Divine Knowledge (the so-called Damīna), al-Kashf ‘an manāhij, and the Tahāfut at-tahāfut classified as dialectical works with their starting points being principles of religion. In contrast, his philosophical works which he calls demonstrative are concerned with what can be determined through human rational investigation and learning. While these two modes of discourse are to be employed and affirmed for the good of the majority in society, the principle of the unity of truth still applies. That is, in matters of religion where religious teachings and philosophical reasoning intersect there is one truth, not two, and the primacy of philosophy with its method of demonstration must be maintained, precisely as argued in the Faṣl al-maqāl.

I have argued elsewhere that this distinction is maintained by Ibn Rushd regarding the issues of personal immortality, divine providence AND CREATION. As he points out in the Faṣl al-maqāl, the issue of the afterlife is a matter of considerable dispute over its full meaning and purpose and disputation of that sort must not be shared with the majority who would surely be confused and harmed by such questioning. Instead, they must be permitted only the evident understanding — the external, we might call it — and not be exposed to the interpreted understanding — the internal, we might call it. Following the guidelines of the Faṣl al-maqāl reiterated in the al-Kashf ‘an manāhij and the Tahāfut at-tahāfut, the truth of the matter is to be determined in the philosophical sciences. There we find no doctrine of an afterlife in his Short and Middle Commenaries on De Anima and even assertions of the absence of an afterlife for individuals expressed in his Long Commentary on the De Anima and his Long Commentary on the Metaphysics. And in the matter of divine providence, in his Tahāfut at-tahāfut he works with the evident or external sense with God as the intentional agent of providence and affirms it, while in the Long Commentary on the Metaphysics he denies divine intentionality through direct efficient providential causation and instead affirms God’s providence must be understood as per accidens to God’s own self-understanding. Hence, in these cases the true understanding of each issue is to be had in philosophy with the consequence of interpreted meanings for the religious teachings, interpretations that must be kept from the majority.