Compassionate Justice: Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Part 6

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

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Compassionate Justice: Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Part 6

by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

TABLE OF CONTENTS  Due to limitations on the length of articles on The American Muslim site, this important article has been put online in a serialized format.  The Table of Contents link gives the links for all chapters.

Part Three

Consonance, Complementarity,  and Mutual Engagement in Science and Religion: ‘Ilm al ‘Adl and ‘Ilm al Taqwa

Chapter Twelve

The Islamic Spiritual Perspective on Human Rights

Contrary to the assertion by Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, the spiritual perspective on human rights is shared equally and entirely by the greatest traditionalist thinkers in both Christianity and Islam, as well as in Judaism.  They recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore conceive of human rights as sacred, including the right of persons and communities to a government that is limited by the sovereignty of God.

Above all, they recognize that the practice of morality, traditionally known as the virtues, is the purpose of spiritual wisdom.  In the language of Christianity this means that moral theology is united with dogmatic theology in a single discipline of knowledge. 

Classical Islamic thought is built further on the conviction that both are united with natural theology, known as natural law, the sunnat Allah.  This is expressed in the tripartite Islamic conception of knowledge based on haqq al yaqin, divine revelation, ‘ain al yaqin, natural law, and ‘ilm al yaqin, the human reason that combines them both.

Perhaps the best discussion of religion by Christian theologians relevant to Islamic jurisprudence may be found in the treatise by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in his 479-page magnum opus entitled Christian Perfection and Contemplation according to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross.

Of all the most eminent Christian scholars of the past two millennia, these two, writing respectively seven hundred and four hundred years ago, were probably most familiar with Islam.  St. Thomas wrote that the master of masters in philosophy and moral theology was Avicenna (Ibn Sina), through whom he absorbed Aristotelian methodology. 

According to Miguel Asin Palacios in his book Saint John of the Cross and Islam,  the Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, borrowed his entire methodology and terminology from Shaykh Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili, who was a contemporary of St. Thomas.  Shaykh Shadhili of North Africa founded what came to be known as the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order, which is the only great tariqa to originate outside of Central and Southwest Asia and is ancestral to many of the modern Sufi paths in Europe and America.

St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross are usually considered to be opposites in that St. Thomas emphasized the rational basis of faith, whereas St. John of the Cross emphasized the higher level of infused wisdom.  Together with all the Muslim theologians, theosophists, and jurisprudents, both St. Thomas and St. John agreed that there could not possibly be any contradiction between faith and reason, or between religion and science, and that if one saw an appearance of such then one’s understanding of at least one of the two must be wrong.

All of these wise thinkers, however, went far beyond the negative belief that there could be no contradiction between the truth that God reveals though nature and the truth that he reveals through human intermediaries, known as prophets.  They also believed that each of these two sources of truth is designed to reveal and enrich the other and that they both have a common purpose.

Father Garrigou-Lagrange compellingly demonstrates that St. Thomas and Saint John of the Cross agreed on everything and that only the materialist mind could fail to understand Saint Thomas’s insistence that the purpose of every person and of moral theology is a closer “union with God.” Muslims call this union wahdat al wujjud.  One may debate the extent to which this concept of union with God is more epistemological than ontological, that is, whether the experience is more subjective than objective.  My extensive discussion on the subject in suggests that merely discussing this issue intellectually obscures the value of the experience both for the individual person and as a source for a higher perspective on human rights.

This background would cast doubt on the supposition that three months before he died St. Thomas became a doctrinaire Muslim when a gift of contemplation from the Holy Spirit (ruh al quddus in Islamic terms) caused him to terminate his multi-volume Summa Theologica in mid sentence and refer to all he had ever written as “only straw” in comparison with what he now beheld.  He was ordered to appear before the Pope in the Vatican and supposedly was murdered along the way.  This is sheer speculation designed to undermine appreciation of the common essences of the Christian and Islamic religions.

Like classical Islamic jurisprudents, St. Thomas taught that “dogmatic theology,” which deals with what one can know only by revelation from Ultimate Being, i.e. God, such as life after death, must be considered together with moral theology as a single science.  Moral theology deals with ethics and the virtues in human action and interactions in the world of Existence, as distinct from the higher level of Being.  The virtues can be known by human reason based on observation in the material order of reality, but Revelation has enlightened and ordained them to a supernatural end. 
These two methods, the deductive or analytical from the higher world of Being and the inductive or synthetical from the lower world of Existence must be combined, because they have the same end.  This end is based on the mystery of God, known best through infused contemplative prayer in the realization that God is closer to the soul than it is to itself.  This is expressed in the Qur’an by the statement, Wa nahnu aqrabu ‘alayhi min habil al warid, “We are closer to him [the human person] than is his own jugular vein.”

The theme and purpose of Father LaGrange’s major life work was to revive St. Thomas’s teaching that ascetical and mystical theology is nothing but the application of broad moral theology to the direction of souls toward ever closer union with God’s love.  This, in fact, might be considered to be the Christian definition of religion.

If one’s personal relation of loving submission to God, which Muslims call taqwa, is the essence of higher religion, then the human right known as freedom of religion is axiomatic.  The ultimate freedom is when one’s only desire, as Thomas Merton once put it, is to become the person that one is, in other words, to become the person that God created one to be.  This includes the freedom not to do so.

This spiritual perspective, which raises human rights to the sacred level as ultimate ends of existence, necessarily implies also the opposite.  Any perspective that raises an ideology of power to the practical level of an ultimate end and rejects justice even as a concept in foreign policy, inevitably will lead from cosmos to chaos.

Chapter Thirteen

Walaya: Linking the Transcendent to the Immanent

The common bond of Sunnis and Shi’a is their classical reliance on justice as central to their Islamic faith.  They have a common need to re-emphasize this in order to apply Islam as a constructive force in the world.  They also need to appreciate the central role of justice in the founding of America so that they can work to revive classical American and classical Islamic thought as the common heritage of Western civilization and indeed of all civilizations.

Although the very concept of justice died out in much of the Sunni world, it survived among the Shi’i scholars over the centuries because justice, ‘adl, as a normative framework of thought among the Shi’a had always been the second of the five statements in the Islamic creed, second only to awareness and love of Allah, and immediately prior to the acceptance of prophecy as a means of divine communication by the Creator to sentient beings in the Created world. 

In the Shi’a school of thought, what might be known as the knowledge or science of justice, ‘ilm al ‘adl, encompasses all three of these highest purposes.  Within its purview are not merely what Ibn Ashur introduced as ‘Ilm Maqasid al Shari’ah but the still prior role of intermediation between the level of existence, within which the jurisprudential maqasid function, and the still higher level of intermediation between this and the Being of Allah.  In this intermediation, prophecy is one form of the more generic phenomenon known as walaya.

Since Shi’a scholars over the centuries have focused equally on both fields of normative thought, the jurisprudential and the ontological cum epistemological, they have a responsibility to make their wisdom known.  Their challenge therefore now is to emphasize ‘ilm al ‘adl as it was developed in fact though not in form by Imam Jafar al Siddiq, ‘alayhi as-salam, into a distinct set of what one might call the primary maqasid (purposes), or kulliyat (universals), or dururiyat (essentials) in the Shi’a statement of Islamic belief, namely, taqwa, ‘adl, and walaya.

The Shi’a concept of walaya or intermediation between the divine and the human through the spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad was first developed as a jurisprudential principle by the sixth Shi’a imam, Jafar al Sadiq, who founded the first of the six currently recognized schools of Islamic law.  Although it is rejected by the Sunni Muslims, walaya is directly related to the concept and role of justice because it emphasizes the higher awareness of the transcendent, which is basic to ‘ilm al ‘adl. 

Since all spiritually attuned persons in all religions experience God as light, it is natural to conceive that ultimate reality becomes manifest only like rays of light emanating outward from the One and diminishing in intensity as it moves outward from the center.  Most people live on the periphery or circumference of the circle, not near its center, which is God, and will continue to do so until they come into the presence of God at the end of this life.  In his Being as Al Rahman and his manifestation as Al Rahim, Allah has always provided guidance to the many through the few, which is what one may call intermediary guidance as expressed in the term walaya, of which prophecy or nubuwiya is one form.

The two levels of guidance are not explained merely by the difference between Revelation or wahy and inspiration or ilham.  The latter is accessible to every person regardless of one’s “closeness” to Allah, but is not binding in any way on anyone else.  Revelation, which is the primary source of haqq al yaqin as one of the three sources of knowledge, is guidance that comes only through prophets, for which all Muslims believe there has been no further need since the final revelation in the Qur’an.

The Shi’a believe that the Qur’an exists at two levels, one the exoteric in what one might call the ‘ulum al shari’ah, and the other in the batin through ta’wil or knowledge of the higher meanings that form the inner mystery of the shari’ah or Islamic jurisprudence as a tariqa or path to knowledge.  In His mercy, Allah provides an infallible guide to the inner meanings of the Qur’an in order to protect this Uncreated Truth for future generations.  The Shi’a believe that this intermediary guidance, which is just as essential as the revelation itself, has been provided by the spiritual successors of the last prophet.

While rejecting the Shi’a credal principle of the Imamate, which is the fourth of the five in the Shi’a creed, the fifth being recognizing qadir or the absolute power and authority of God, the Sunnis would do well to learn the history and substance of Shi’i concepts of both ‘ilm al ‘adl and ‘ilm al taqwa, regardless of their differences over accepted sources of authority.  Working together and with scholars from other religions, the Sunni and Shi’a scholars can best contribute the wisdom of Islam as the principal Islamic contribution to a new, pluralistic, and global civilization based on the consonance, complementarity, and mutual engagement of science and religion in the pursuit and application of knowledge.


32.  Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, 2003, 470 pages, translated and reprinted from the original French Perfection chretienne et contemplation, 1937.

33.  Palacios, Miguel Asin, Saint John of the Cross and Islam, translated by Douglas and Yoder, Vantage Press, 1981, 94 pages.

34.  Crane, Robert D.,  “Wahdat al Wujud: Fact or Fiction,”, August 9, 2004.

35.  Surah Qaf, 50:16.  The entire chapter of Qaf is on this theme.

36.  Crane, Robert D., “Justice in Classical Islamic Thought: The Ontology of ‘Ilm al ‘Adl,” discussed in Part Three: Links to the Dimension of Being, pp. 12-18, February 7, 2007,