Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Answer to Modernism
Summarized by Ali Altaf
Mawlana Ashraf Ali
Thanawi (1863-1943) is the foremost representative of Islam in the last
century. In his era some “New-Age Muslims” had fallen prey to Empiricism,
and had begun to challenge and object to the most fundamental tenets of
Islamic belief. Mawlana Thanawi proves that the objections raised by the
Western-oriented Muslims are irrational. Not only are Islamic creedal tenets
defined in revelation (the Qur’an and the Hadiths), but they are rational as
well. In his famous treatise, Answer to Modernism, he lays down seven
principles by which all of these modern objections can be refuted. The study
of these principles will prove to be an intellectual tool for Muslims living
in contemporary times. These principles will rationally aid the Muslims to
refute all modern notions in contradiction with the Qur’an and the Hadiths.
Mawlana Thanawi’s Seven First
- One’s inability to understand
something is no argument for its being false.
principle is based on Ibn Sina’s famous philosophical notion:
عدم الوجدان لا يدل على
“Absence of understanding does not warrant absence of
example, 200 years ago, if a commoner was informed that in the future there
would be airplanes and satellites, he or she would not understand this
concept; however, he or she could not make an argument that airplanes and
satellites are impossible. Thus, not understanding a concept of something
unobserved does not warrant its non-existence.
- If a thing is rationally
possible, and its existence is attested by sound report, then it is
necessary to accept its existence. On the other hand, if its non-existence
is attested by sound report, then it is equally necessary to accept its
to Ibn Sina, “Being” is of three kinds:
- Necessary (wajib)—e.g.
- Impossible (mumtani)—e.g.
- Possible (mumkin)—e.g.
There are 200,000 trees in Santa Barbara, California.
two types are clear. The third type is contingent upon further verification.
If information is received from a person that there are 200,000 trees in
Santa Barbara, it is possible that they may be right. There are two ways one
can go about verifying this report:
Counting all the trees in Santa Barbara (a task
which is very difficult).
Evaluating the reliability and credibility of the
conveyer is a sound reporter (mukhbir al-sadiq), then it is rational
to accept their report. However, if the conveyer is unsound and unauthentic,
then one can not rely on his or her report, and must conduct the
verification by him or herself. In Islam, the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad
(peace be upon him), is the conveyer of revelation to his followers. We rely
on him and accept his reports unconditionally because of his matchless
genuineness and truthfulness. The Qur’an says about him:
وَمَا يَنْطِقُ عَنِ
Nor does he speak of (his own) desire.
إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا
It is only a Revelation revealed (al-Najm: 3-4)
conveyed to the Muslims that there is one God, Allah, and that there is
paradise (jannah), hellfire (jahannam), the Day of Judgment (yawm
al-qiyamah), the Jinn, the angels (al-mala’ika), etc. Allah
revealed to him the Qur’an that informs of their existence, thus, whatever
he conveyed to us, we believe wholeheartedly. Furthermore, it is rational to
accept the attestation of possible existences by a sound reporter. The
reason that we claim that these creedal beliefs of ours are rational is
because irrationality arises upon impossibility, which in turn arises upon
the following two conditions:
Gathering of opposites (jam‘al-didayn)—e.g.
If one says that at this time (let us suppose its 2:30 P.M) there is both
day and night, or if one says that I am here and not here, etc.
Absence of opposites (raf‘al-didayn)—e.g.
If one says that it is neither day or night at this time, or says that I am
not here and not anywhere else, etc.
in this context refer to the four logical statements:
Universal Affirmative—e.g. all humans are mammals.
Particular Affirmative—e.g. some humans are
Universal Negative—e.g. no humans are trees.
Particular Negative—e.g. some humans are not
the four has an opposite:
opposite of Universal Affirmative is Particular Negative (in other words,
only a particular negative is needed to cancel out a universal affirmative).
opposite of Particular Affirmative is Universal Negative.
that the above two sets of opposites are both true is to gather two
opposites and to assert that both are false is to have both opposites
absent. Both conditions warrant impossibility. If the existence of something
does not fall in the two categories mentioned above, then its existence is
not Impossible (mumtani), but either Necessary (wajib) or
Possible (mumkin). The presence of paradise and hellfire is
“Possible” and not “Impossible,” and when a sound reporter informs of their
existence then it is rational to accept this report, because relying on
sound report is not irrational.
- What is rationally impossible
is something totally different from what is merely possible. The
impossible is opposed to reason itself, while the possible is opposed
merely to habit. The predicates of reason and those of habit are quite
distinct, and it is erroneous to identify them with each other. What is
impossible can never exist, but what is merely possible may exist. It is
the impossible alone which can be described as irrational, while the
possible is only something which reason cannot understand by itself. It is
a great error to confuse one with the other.
principle corresponds to the explanations of the previous principle. By
“habit,” Thanawi means the usual nature of things. It is correct to say the
possible is unusual but it is wrong to say that the possible is impossible.
- If a thing exists, it is not
necessary that it must also be sensible and visible.
principle is Thanawi’s main refutation of Empiricism. He points out that
there are three ways of ascertaining the truth of a fact:
- Through personal
observation—e.g. I see Zaid, therefore I believe that Zaid exists.
- Through sound report from a
truthful/genuine reporter—e.g. someone honest and trustworthy informs me
of Zaid’s presence, therefore I believe that Zaid exists.
- Through Rational Argument—e.g.
Although, I do not see the sun, but seeing its light from the window, I
believe it is day and not night.
among these three ways of ascertaining the truth of a fact, Thanawi
explains, existence is present in all, but sensory observation is involved
in only one. Similarly the Qur’an says that there are seven heavens, and
just because we do not see them, it does not mean that they do not exist.
- It is not possible to prove a
purely reported fact by a purely rational argument. So it is not also
permissible to demand a rational argument for it.
Thanawi gives the following example to illustrate this principle:
tells us that Alexander and Darius were two kings who went into battle
against each other. Now, if another person were to demand a rational
argument in order to establish this fact, even the greatest philosopher
would not be able to present any other argument except this—the existence of
two such kings and a war between them is not impossible, but possible
enough, and trustworthy historians have reported that this possibility did
come into existence, and since it is rationally necessary to affirm a fact
as real when we learn from a truthful reporter that what was possible did
really happen, we must necessarily accept the report about the two kings as
an actual fact (25).
the case with believing in the previous Prophets of God and the events
associated with them. One can not demand a rational argument from the
believer, because relying on the report of a truthful reporter is not
irrational to begin with. We believe in history based on the report of
historians. Today, people believe in Abraham Lincoln not because they have
seen him, but because historians have recorded and reported to us that he
existed and these are his conditions and this is his picture, etc.
- There is some difference
between a precedent and an argument. It may be justifiable to demand an
argument form the man who makes an assertion, but it is not valid to
demand a precedent from him.
It is not
just to demand an example from the past to prove an argument. For example,
if a person is informed that South East Asia was recently hit by a Tsunami
(December 2004), one cannot demand an earlier example of a Tsunami, and say,
“I will only believe in this Tsunami if you give me the example of an
earlier Tsunami.” Such a demand would not only be irrational but also
عَلَى أَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَتُكَلِّمُنَا أَيْدِيهِمْ وَتَشْهَدُ أَرْجُلُهُمْ بِمَا
This Day, We shall seal up their mouths, and their hands
will speak to Us, and their legs will bear witness to what they used to do.
On the Day
of Judgment, limbs of the human body will testify. If anybody says, “I will
only believe in this if you show me speaking limbs in this world.” Such a
demand would be absurd as well.
- There are two types of
arguments: conclusive and approximate. A conclusive argument is a logical
argument that cannot be contradicted. An approximate argument is one of
the possible explanations that may be contradicted. Reason and religious
reports have four relationships as far as contradiction is concerned.
- Conclusive contradicting
arguments are presented by both reason and report. This is impossible,
for two truths cannot contradict each other.
- Conclusive argument is found
with report and an approximate argument is found with reason. In this
case, the report would be accepted and reason would be rejected.
- Both contradicting
arguments, from reason and report, are approximate. In this case, report
would be accepted and reason would be rejected.
- Reason gives a conclusive
argument and an approximate argument is conveyed by report, either
because of its connotation or its authenticity. In this case, the report
is to be interpreted in a non-literal way that does not contradict
it is only the last of the above four cases, in which reason (dirayah)
is given superiority over a religious report (riwayah).
application of this last principle is not the task of every person, but such
investigations can only be carried out by Islamic theologians who are
well-versed in the knowledge needed for such a task.
May Allah guide us all to accept, practice, and
explain the truth. Amin.
Thanawi, Ashraf Ali. Answer to
Modernism. Karachi: Maktaba Darul Uloom Karachi, 1976.
Naeem, Fuad Shahid. The 'Ulama
of the Indian Subcontinent at the Rise of the Modern Age: Mawlana
Ashraf 'Ali Thanawi and His Response to Modernism. Thesis submitted to
the Faculty of Columbian College of Arts and Sciences of the George
Washington University. January 30, 2003.