The Place of Intellect in Islam


"The first thing created by God was the Intellect" (hadith)

In the following discussion on the place of intellect in Islam, the analogy of a computer may help clarify some of the points made. This is an analogy used only to provoke some thought and is not meant to be carried too far. There is, after all, no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy would, in fact, BE the thing described.

Imagine the screen and all activity on the screen to represent the world of material existence. The screen is considered as the horizontal dimension of the computer. A program is running that simulates a small universe complete with simulated beings (with senses that let them interact with other objects on the screen) and simulated laws (much like some computer games) - the attempts of the beings to understand the environment (on the screen) represents science and all its branches (physics, chemistry etc.). This science can give these fictional beings an understanding and control over this HORIZONTAL (screen) dimension of their simulated universe.

Now in order to create this onscreen world, complex processes are occuring within the computer. The images on the screen are generated by rays tracing pixel by pixel across the screen. There is a program (or perhaps many interacting programs) running in the RAM. At another level there are patterns of electricity (of information) flowing and tracing complex paths through the chips on the motherboard. There is the static storage of the uninitialized program stored on a disk. All these represent levels of realities (the Universe on the screen exists on all these levels). The projection on the screen is the visual (material) manifestation of these other levels of existence. These other levels of existence are the foundation, or the substratum of the universe on the screen. They represent the VERTICAL dimension of the simulated universe.

A creature in the simulated universe relying upon the senses given to it by the program could achieve a good understanding of the simulated universe, but it would not necessarily be even aware of the huge edifice which exists as a support to its very existence (the program itself, the patterns of electricity flowing through chips, the RAM, the actual hardware which supports the software, etc.). It would be restricted to understanding the horizontal world - the world on the screen. All the other planes of its existence would be invisible to it.

Using this analogy only as a starting point, let us briefly examine the concept of intellect in Islam.

Science is a horizontal undertaking since it expands our knowledge outwards. It brodens our understanding but does not necessarily deepen it. Science is unstable from a theoretical view point - it is based on hypotheses and experiment not on self-evident principles.

Science can provide a model of the world as it is (albeit an ever changing model), it describes the world for us but it cannot tell us anything about the foundations or the underpinnings of the world and of the purposes behind it. It describes our horizontal existence but is incapable (at least in its current form) of telling us anything about our vertical existence.

Science and reason have width and length but lack depth. They are missing this third dimension so that those who see the world only through the glass of science are like a one-eyed man. He perceives the world, but it is a flat dimensionless world having extent and width, but no depth, no firm solidity.

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