Kantian Philosophy From An Islamic Viewpoint

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as a philosopher not only sought his own answers to philosophical questions but was also an expert on the history of philosophy. Having a thorough grounding in the philosophical tradition of the past, he was keenly aware of the standpoints of rationalists and empiricists. He believed that both were partly right and partly wrong in that the rationalists laid too much emphasis on contribution of reason and empiricists on sensory experience. It has been theorized that Kant wanted to preserve the basis for Christian faith. He was a Protestant and since the days of Reformation, Protestantism has been characterized by its emphasis on faith.

Some of his important philosophical postulates are:

    – Kant believed that it is not only mind which conforms to things but things also conform to the mind. He called this the Copernican Revolution in the problem of human knowledge.

    – There are two elements, according to him, that contribute to man’s knowledge of the world. One is the external conditions that we cannot know of before we have perceived them through the senses, also called the “material of knowledge”. The other is the internal conditions in man himself, such as processes conforming to an unbreakable law of causality, also called “form of knowledge”.

    – Kant believed that there are clear limits to what we can know. Thus to questions like “Where did the universe or God come from?” we cannot have definitive answers.

    – Kant rejected the idea that either reason or experience is any certain basis for claiming the existence of God. And this vacuum, where both reason and experience fall short for him, can be filled by faith.

    – He believed that it is essential for morality to presuppose that man has an immortal soul, that God exists and that man has a free will. He called faith in these three ideas practical postulates. That is to say, for man’s morality, it is necessary to assume the existence of God.

    – Kant felt that the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is inherent in human reason. He calls it “practical reason”, that is, the intelligence that gives us the capacity to discern what is right or wrong in every case.

    – Kant formulates the moral law as a “categorical imperative”, implying that the moral law is “categorical”, or that it applies to all situations. It is also “imperative”, which means it is absolutely authoritative.

For Kant, only when you do something out of duty can it be called a moral action. Therefore, if you acted out of good will, it is this good will that determines whether or not the action was morally right, not the consequences of the action [Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World, Berkley trade edition, January 1997].

Many of these ideas are inline with the broad Islamic perspective. The existence of immortal soul, free will (within the moral arena), and faith in a Creator are clearly Islamic ideological strains. Likewise, the existence of a priori information in human consciousness to distinguish between right and wrong is an idea that finds mention in the Qur’an:

“We showed him the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will).” (76:3)

“By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it; And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right.” (91:7-8)

It appears that Kant’s ethical system is based on a belief that reason and “the moral law within” are the final authority for morality. It is also suggested that he believed we must filter Scripture through reason, which necessitated his denial of miracles.

From an Islamic standpoint, though vital, reason and innate guidance are prone to blunder for which purpose revealed guidance comes into play. Purporting to reinforce the innate guidance, revelations build on it providing a beacon for reason. Thus, even though the recognition of particular revelation as being truly from God is itself based on reason, yet reason needs to be filtered through scripture and not the other way round as per the Islamic understanding.

As for Kant’s assertion that if you acted out of good will, it is this good will that determines whether or not the action was morally right, not the consequences of the action, it appears to come close to the Islamic concept of Niyyah (intention). The Prophet(P) is reported to have said:

“[The reward of pious] Deeds are dependent only upon intentions [of the performers]. Every person shall only get that, which he actually intended [while performing a pious deed]. Thus, whoever actually migrates towards [another land, for] God and His Prophet, his migration shall be [counted in the Hereafter, as one] toward God and His Prophet [and shall, thus, follow great rewards]; while, whoever migrates toward [another land, for] a worldly gain, which he wants to earn or a woman, whom he wants to marry, his migration shall be [counted in the Hereafter, as one] toward what he actually intended it for [and shall, thus, carry no weight in the eyes of God].”

Lastly, insofar as Kant’s view of faith in a Creator without reasonable proof is concerned, it would not sit well with the exhortatory discourse of the Qur’an.

For Kant, reason and experience cannot conclusively form the bases of faith in the existence of God. Hence to some, “first he is very critical of everything we can understand, and then he smuggles God in by the back door”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.