Limitations of Intellect
By Shaykh-ul-Hadīth Hadrat Mawlānā Muhammad Saleem Dhorat hafizahullāh
Every capability and strength in the human body has limitations. For example, the human capability of seeing is limited; one may be able to see someone walking at a distance of 100 metres, but as the person walks further away, it will become increasingly difficult to see him. After travelling a certain distance, the person will completely disappear from sight. The human capability of hearing is also limited; one is able to hear a person speaking from a close distance, but is unable to hear a person speaking from a far distance. Similarly, every strength and capability granted to us by Allāh ta‘ālā has limitations.
The intellect is also one of these limited capabilities granted to us by Allāh ta‘ālā. There are many things which the human intellect cannot perceive as it has boundaries beyond which it cannot function. Therefore, just as we do not expect to be able to see everything with our eyes or hear every sound with our ears, we should not expect to be able to understand everything with our intellects.
The Three Sources of Knowledge
There are three sources of knowledge:
- The first source of knowledge is the five senses. We use our five senses (i.e. eyesight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) to perceive different things. For example, when we touch a surface, we learn that it is smooth or rough. When we taste a fruit, we gain knowledge of whether it is sweet or sour etc.
- The second source of knowledge is the intellect. If used within its limits, the intellect is a great blessing of Allāh ta‘ālā. By using the intellect to ponder upon the creation, one can attain the recognition of the Creator. This alone shows how great of a blessing the intellect is.
Allāh ta‘ālā states in the Glorious Qur’ān,
Allāh brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you had no knowledge whatsoever. Allāh ta‘ālā made for you the sense of hearing, the sense of seeing and hearts so that you may be grateful. (16:78)
From the five senses, we most often use the senses of seeing and hearing, thus Allāh ta‘ālā sufficed on mentioning only these two when referring to the five senses. Thereafter, He mentioned the heart with which we think and understand. Thus, in this verse, Allāh ta‘ālā states that He granted us senses and intellect, through which we can acquire knowledge.
- The third source of knowledge is wahy (Divine Revelation). Allāh ta‘ālā revealed wahy upon the Prophets ‘alayhimus salām and they conveyed the knowledge of wahy to their nations.
Limitations of the Intellect
From the three sources of knowledge, the five senses and intellect have limitations:
- The five senses cannot perceive what the intellect is able to perceive.
For example, the intellect can perceive that there is oxygen in a room but the five senses cannot. Intellect tells us that a human cannot survive without oxygen; therefore, the fact that people in that room are alive certainly means that oxygen is present in the room.
Now, if a person refuses to believe that oxygen exists in the room because of not being able to perceive oxygen with his five senses, then we would all deem him to be irrational. We would explain that he will only be able to come to the correct understanding by applying his intellect, as the five senses have their limitations and cannot perceive what the intellect is able to perceive.
- Similarly, the intellect cannot perceive what wahy is able to perceive.
Just as the five senses fail to grasp what the intellect can grasp, the intellect fails to grasp what wahy can grasp. Therefore, just as we accept the limitations of the five senses, we also need to accept the limitations of the intellect. Hakīmul-Ummah, Mawlānā Ashraf ‘Alī Thānwī rahimahullāh very beautifully explains the limitations of intellect. He says, ‘…Like other senses the perceptions of intellect have limits. Beyond these limits, wahy is needed. The example of this is that if a person (mounted on a horse) desires to climb a mountain, the horse will only be able to go till the bottom of the mountain. To climb the mountain, one will have to go himself. Similarly, the feeble intellect is incapable of climbing the mountain (which can only be climbed by wahy)…’
Do Not be Self-Opinionated
After recognising the limited nature of the intellect, we can understand how a person will be prone to making mistakes if he was to apply his intellect beyond its boundaries. We can also better understand the dangers of the norm today, where each person has taken his own intellect as the sole authority in deciding what is right and wrong. This attitude is a sign that one has too much reliance on his own opinions, a quality regarding which Nabī sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam warned the Ummah. Rasūlullāh sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam said,
When you see (that it has become rife in society, that people) obey (the demands of their) greed, follow (their unlawful) desires, give preference to the world (over Dīn), and that every person is fond of his own opinion (thinking of it to be always correct), then worry about yourself and leave aside the affairs of the general public. (Abū Dāwūd, At-Tirmidhī)
Sayyidunā ‘Umar radhiyallāhu ‘anhu said,
Indeed, what I fear upon you most, is that greed which is obeyed, that desire which is followed and a person’s fondness of his own opinion. And this (last one) is the worst of them. (Musannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah)
There are many Islamic beliefs and teachings which we cannot comprehend with our intellects, yet we still have conviction in their truthfulness solely because Allāh ta‘ālā has revealed them in the Glorious Qur’ān or through His Messenger. For example, we believe in the existence of Jannah and Jahannam and in the life Hereafter despite not being able to comprehend them. We wholeheartedly accept these because they have been sourced from wahy which is beyond the perception of our intellects. In fact, attempting to understand such beliefs with the intellect will lead one astray. It was due to applying the intellect beyond its limits that many individuals and sects rejected the truth and deviated from the straight path.
Do Not Follow Mere Speculations
One incorrect use of the intellect is to jump to conclusions by following whatever comes to mind, especially when it comes to the matter of religion. By doing so, one is basing his religion on mere speculation. Allāh ta‘ālā states regarding those who disbelieve in the Hereafter,
They do not have any knowledge. They follow only speculation, and speculation is of no avail in the (matter of) truth. (53:28)
Some people are such that they debate about Allāh with no knowledge, no guidance and no enlightening book. (22:8)
We must understand that our duty as Muslims is to submit wholeheartedly to the beliefs and teachings of Islām, whether our intellects are able to comprehend or not. This can only be done when one acknowledges the limitations of the intellect, thus accepting the knowledge received through wahy. We should be confident in this regard and should avoid attempting to justify all the injunctions of Dīn through the intellect. May Allāh ta‘ālā grant us the ability to totally submit our intellects to wahy and grant us steadfastness on Dīn. Āmīn.
Extracted from Riyādul Jannah, Vol. 29 No. 9, 2020
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