Does the Qur’an advocate ethical subjectivism, ethical objectivism, or
ethical voluntarism ? In other words does the Qur’an assume that what
is right can always be known by revelation- independent reason alone ;
what is right can be known in some cases by revelation- independent reason
alone and in others by revelation and revelation- derived sources whereby
both of these sources are complementary and in agreement, or in order
to know what is right, humans must always rely only on revelation and
revelation- derived sources and can never know what is right by independent
This leads us into the widely discussed theme in Islamic tradition of
the nature of the relationship between reason and revelation (whose exact
relationship is yet to be systematically arrived at.
Elsewhere I demonstrated that the legitimacy and the place
of reason in conceptualizing the nature and the interpretation of Qur’an
and Sunna during the first three to four generations of Muslims was much
broader and reason inclusive than in postformative Islamic thought. I
argued that it was only in the middle of the second century of the Islamic
calendar that the epistemological- methodological framework behind the
concept of the nature of the relationship between reason and revelation
and revelation derived- sources started to initiate the mechanisms that ultimately
resulted in introducing a qualitative change to the reason- revelation
dynamic. This change completely subordinated ontologically, epistemologically,
and methodologically the scope and the legitimacy of reason and
reason- derived opinion ( ra’y ) to that of the textually based sources of revelation,
i.e., Qur’an and Hadith. With this process in completion by the
middle of the third century of the Islamic calendar, reason was primarily
used in a derivative sense to assist in arriving at the consensus of opinions
( ijma’ ) of the Muslim Community or in its analogical ( qiyas ) function.
The above described tendency toward ahistorical, decontextualized,
and philologically oriented manahij to Qur’anic interpretation was based
upon a particular concept of the nature of the primary sources of Islamic Weltanschauung . Once Sunna was conceptually equated with Hadith and
made epistemologically and methodologically dependent upon canonical
hadith compendia and the hadith- based hermeneutic of the Qur’an was
elevated to the highest ranks of the interpretational endeavor, the role of
reason in the overall Qur’anic hermeneutic was relegated to the background.
The reason- based interpretation had now to function within the boundaries
of the entirely textually based interpretational framework. This narrowing
of the interpretational scope of reason was hermeneutically incapable
of going beyond the text and searching for the possible moral trajectories,
rationale, and objectives ( maqasid ) of the Qur’anic revelation.
Furthermore this manhaj permitted only a derivative use of reason in
the form of an analogy ( qiyas ), which was epistemologically and methodologically
embedded firmly in the normative textual indicants. The
role of reason, thus, was seen as strictly instrumental. The Divine Will,
as embodied in the normative texts, was considered by the majority of
legal philosophers as the sole determinant in the realm of law and “no
concept of human reason as [being] author of ultimate source of law”
was developed. Indeed, in the context of characterizing classical Islamic
law, argues Weiss, that “between human reason and the law of God there
stretched an essentially unbridgeable gap.” Weiss terms this hermeneutical
tendency in premodern manahij as voluntarism . It permeated the way
in which nature of law, ethics, morality, and ontology was conceptualized.
A subscription to voluntarism has important interpretational implications.
Firstly, it affects the way in which the nature and the character of
Qur’anic revelation is perceived and interpreted. Voluntarism was responsible
for infusing the Revelation with a comprehensive legalistic ethos and
subsequent marginalization of some of its other dimensions such as those
that could be broadly termed ethicoreligious in nature. This distorted the
way in which the overall nature, character, and “purpose” of the Qur’anic
Revelation and its message were perceived and subsequently conceptualized.
Voluntarism also implies a legalistic expression of the Will of God
that can only be known from commands and prohibitions. This approach
renders the law entirely dependent upon a sovereign and unbound divine
will that denies any rational element in it as well as views humanity as not
being capable of comprehending independently of the help of revelation.
An interpretational model premised on voluntarism also assumes that the
text includes the complete knowledge and that the role of reason in interpretation
of the text is minimal. All four Sunni premodern major schools of
jurisprudence and theology adopted in various degrees a “voluntarist” view
of the relationship between reason and revelation. As argued in the second
chapter NTS school of thought went further by even disputing the legitimacy
of analogical reason in any branches pertaining to ‘ilm may that be in usul- ul- fiqh or theology.
This voluntaristic hermeneutic, as espoused by the most widespread theology of Sunni Asha’rism,
is ultimately responsible for the subversion of rational ethics and authority
in Islamic law and ethics according to which “an act can be gauged as
good from a certain perspective and detestable from another,” and “both
analysis would be in accordance with the sovereign will of God.” Al Attar
describes this view of ethics and morality as being based on a “Divine
Command Theory,” which presupposes that “divine commands and rules
have to be obeyed regardless of the social or moral implications, as there is
no rationale beyond their being divine commands.”
Taken from Chapter 3 of this book ( free PDF).