Natural Islam and Revealed Islam: two sources, one truth
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
When we use the name of Islam, most of us think of Islam as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, or perhaps even more broadly of the religion practiced by all true prophets. It is the religion that teaches people to submit to their Creator. However, the reality of Islam is even more comprehensive than this, as even the heavens and the earth submit to their Creator.
ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ وَهِيَ دُخَانٌ فَقَالَ لَهَا وَلِلْأَرْضِ ائْتِيَا طَوْعًا أَوْ كَرْهًا قَالَتَا أَتَيْنَا طَائِعِينَ
Then He turned to the heaven while it was smoke and to the earth, and He said: Come willingly or by force. They said: We come willingly.
Surat Fussilat 41:11
Since the heavens and the earth submit to the laws of their Creator, the laws of nature are, in fact, the laws of Islam as well. This is sometimes referred to as natural law, or simply nature, but which we can rightly call “natural Islam.” Nature will always conform to the same patterns created by Allah and will never deviate from them, whereas people must choose to accept or reject them. As rebellion against the Creator leads to disaster, so does rebellion against the laws of nature.
Natural Islam, or natural law, is the source of truth that comes by observing the purposes in the patterns of creation and acting upon them accordingly. It exists independently of revelation but conforms to it in every way. This is why the Quran describes Islam as the natural religion and the revelation as conforming to the laws of nature which preceded it.
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا ۚ لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth, the nature of Allah upon which He has created all people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.
Surat Ar-Rum 30:30
This is the reason all world religions share similar features to the extent that they have conformed to natural Islam. It is also the reason revealed Islam has been so readily accepted by people all over the world because it fits comfortably within human nature. Every person is born with the disposition to believe in God, as psychologists are now discovering, and it is only the man-made distortions of this natural religion that cause humankind to go astray.
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَا مِنْ مَوْلُودٍ إِلَّا يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ وَيُنَصِّرَانِهِ وَيُمَجِّسَانِهِ كَمَا تُنْتَجُ الْبَهِيمَةُ بَهِيمَةً جَمْعَاءَ هَلْ تُحِسُّونَ فِيهَا مِنْ جَدْعَاءَ
No one is born except upon natural instinct, then his parents turn him into a Jew or Christian or Magian. As an animal produces their young with perfect limbs, do you see anything defective?
Such distortions, known in Islamic tradition as bidah (religious innovations), are the ways that humankind has co-opted religion away from the purposes of Allah in defiance of revelation and natural law. This occurs by twisting the meaning of scripture to justify what human nature would reject under normal circumstances.
Hence, the Prophet told us to not solely to rely upon scriptural arguments for what is right and wrong, but also to examine our hearts. If some religious claim does not sit well with our conscience, that is probably because it is a specious claim that violates natural law and, if were we to dig deeper, violates the scripture as well.
Wabisa ibn Ma’bad once asked the Prophet about the definition of righteousness and sin. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, replied:
اسْتَفْتِ نَفْسَكَ اسْتَفْتِ قَلْبَكَ يَا وَابِصَةُ ثَلَاثًا الْبِرُّ مَا اطْمَأَنَّتْ إِلَيْهِ النَّفْسُ وَاطْمَأَنَّ إِلَيْهِ الْقَلْبُ وَالْإِثْمُ مَا حَاكَ فِي النَّفْسِ وَتَرَدَّدَ فِي الصَّدْرِ وَإِنْ أَفْتَاكَ النَّاسُ وَأَفْتَوْكَ
Consult your soul, consult your heart, O Wabisa. Righteousness is what is satisfying to your soul and your heart, and sin is what wavers in your soul and causes hesitancy in your chest, even if the people give you a judgment, and again give you a judgment.
In other words, if a religious judgment (fatwa) violates our conscience or natural law, according to the Prophet’s advice we should not act upon it. Any argument from scripture cannot be true unless it is compatible with the reality of nature both in the external creation and within the human soul.
Acknowledging natural law, or natural Islam, means that all knowledge can only be derived from two independent and mutually compatible sources: revelation and reason. The earliest Muslim scholars understood this division in their understanding of epistemology.
Imam Ash-Shafi’ee, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
إِنَّمَا الْعِلْمُ عِلْمَانِ عِلْمُ الدِّينِ وَعِلْمُ الدُّنْيَا فَالْعِلْمُ الَّذِي لِلدِّينِ هُوَ الْفِقْهُ وَالْعِلْمُ الَّذِي لِلدُّنْيَا هُوَ الطِّبُّ
Indeed, knowledge is of two types: knowledge of the religion and knowledge of the world. The knowledge of religion is to achieve understanding (fiqh) and the knowledge of the world is medicine
In the time of Ash-Shafi’ee, long before the scientific revolution, the two main areas of study were religious scripture and medicine. These two areas have since developed significantly into the broad categories we understand them to be today: religion and science.
Religion is the study of scripture, ethics, and the human spirit, whereas science is the study of the world in all of its manifestations. These two bodies of knowledge are complementary and can never truly contradict each other. Any contradiction we encounter between them can only be an apparent contradiction, due to our lack of knowledge or poor understanding, and it cannot be a true contradiction.
With this in mind, the potential religious and scientific renaissance in the Muslim world is long overdue. An imbalance in either branch of knowledge can have catastrophic consequences. Religion without science descends into superstition and makes it easy for weak minds to lead the masses astray, while science without religion endangers humanity by harnessing enormous powers without moral guidance.
Rather, the way forward in terms of societal development is to embrace revelation and natural law together as a cohesive whole. This is easier said than done as it requires constant effort and struggle to learn, research, and reconcile complicated ideas. Sometimes we may need to suspend judgment on an issue when confronted by an apparent contradiction until further study can be made. It will be a test of our faith and perseverance, but the current imbalance in our collective knowledge is an expense we can no longer afford.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.