Cultivating a Mi’raj and Isra of deliberative rationality

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Glorified and Exalted is He (Allah) who took His slave Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah Almighty be upon him) for a journey by night from Al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the neighborhood whereof we have blessed, in order that We might show him of Our Proofs. Verily, He (Allah Almighty) is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer (Al-Isra, 17:1)

And follow not that of which you have no knowledge. Verily the hearing, and the sight and the heart, of each of those one will be questioned (Al-Isra, 17:36)

Critical, rational inquiry has been the work of Muslim philosophers for a long time: al-Farabi’s persuasion consists in offering argumentative reasons for holding a certain position; ibn Sina’s dialectics involves a process of rational argumentation; al-Ghazzali’s practical reasoning and autonomy of the moral agent value independence of the rational mind. Mulsims who are not critical are often criticised for not being agents of rational inquiry, which to my mind is a justifiable criticism. This paper explores what Muslims ought to do in order to be considered as critical and rational (deliberative).


I begin this paper by offering an account of what it means to be a rational (deliberative) inquirer. The above-mentioned verses clearly establish a conceptual link between the auspicious “journey” (al-Mi`raj and al-Isra) undertaken by the Holy Prophet (May the peace and blessings of Allah Almighty be upon him) and the notion of deliberative rationality. This claim is supported by the Qur’an’s reference to Allah Almighty’s attributes of Hearing and seeing and humankind’s cognitive capacities of hearing (sam`a), seeing (basr) and spiritual cognition (fuad). These cognitive human capacities ought to be the basis of any type of critical engagement. The point about deliberative rationality is that it forecloses any form of human engagement which demands that people offer some justification for what they think, understand and do. Justification often takes the form of giving reasons for what one does and attempting to persuade others of the “reasonableness” of one’s reasons. For instance, a person offers reasons why she holds a particular view and in turn attempts to persuade others of the “reasonableness” of her views, that is, why her views are acceptable and should hold sway. But then, offering reasons is not sufficient to lead to understanding. Rather, one’s reasons need of the kind to persuade others of their “reasonableness” before understanding can be considered a legitimate outcome. Therefore, offering reasons does not necessarily result in understanding. Instead, one needs to persuade others by having one’s reasons put to question by others – learning to move from merely having reasons towards subjecting one’s reasons to evaluation by others. Only when one has subjected one’s reasons to critical scrutiny by others, and others in turn have found one’s reasons persuasive, can one begin to talk tentatively about understanding. Put differently, one has offered reasons and in turn others have found one’s reasons persuasive, that is to say, others have understood one’s reasons. But perhaps others have not understood one’s reasons, which means that others have not regarded one’s reasons as convincing – a situation which also involves understanding, that is, understanding that one’s reasons are not persuasive.

The point about having reasons and persuading others through one’s reasons involves having the capacity to do this. A person gives an account of her religious views by offering reasons which others (perhaps non-Muslims) might find persuasive or not. If her reasons are persuasive, she has demonstrated a capacity to make independent rational judgements, since rationality can be linked to offering persuasive reasons. But then, having the capacity to make rational judgements on her own also presupposes that she has knowledge about the things which she makes rational judgements on. “These things” can be ideas, concepts, opinions, interests and even choices of others. When she is able to make independent rational judgements, she then has knowledge of others, which also implies that she must have engaged with knowledge of or about others.

The point about engaging with others in order to persuade others of one’s reasons has some bearing on what it means for human interaction to be deliberative. Without engaging with others we cannot impute to others the kind of reasons for their actions that are intelligible to us that would enable us to respond to them in ways that they too can find intelligible. In other words, we can only understand others and respond to them in ways which could be intelligible if we could justify to others why we find their reasons “reasonable” or not. In this way, engaging with others through a justifiable multi-directional proffering of reasons contributes towards rational action which is deliberative. Hence, the Qur`anic reference to sam`a (hearing). Certainly if one hears, one ought to have engaged with the thoughts of others which one might have found to be persuasive and rational.

What does it mean for rational human action to be deliberative? As has been argued previously, deliberative rationality involves offering persuasive reasons through interacting with others to ascertain why they hold certain views or not and why they do certain things and not others. However, deliberation involves more than just offering persuasive reasons when one engages with others. Earlier I alluded to the fact that one has to subject one’s reasons to critical scrutiny by others. Once this happens, one is held accountable by and to others for the “reasonable” conclusions one has reached. But then, firstly, one also needs to “stand back” or detach oneself from one’s reasons and to ask if this or that particular reason is in fact justifiable or not. Here one moves away from merely having reasons for acting towards being able to evaluate those reasons – a matter of having basr (seeing or having gained insight). And when one evaluates one’s reasons one would invariably set out to revise them or abandon them or replace them with other reasons. In this way, one not only becomes critical but also deliberative in the sense that one detaches oneself from one’s own reasons to revise or abandon them in the light of what others (with whom one engages) have to offer. We come to know when we are able not just to evaluate our reasons as better or worse, but also when we detach ourselves from the immediacy of our own desires in order to imagine alternative realistic futures through engaging, deliberatively with others.

My potential critic might justifiably claim that offering persuasive reasons in deliberative action mostly favours those who possess the skills of rhetoric, eloquence and articulation, while others who lack the capacity to express themselves in communication with others might actually be excluded from deliberation. Deliberative rationality is imperfect and one is challenged to move beyond its limitations. I shall now attempt to address some of the limitations of being a rational (deliberative) inquirer.


Certainly in the South African Muslim community where the majority of people’s language of communication in society is not necessarily their mother tongue, eloquence and rational articulation would seem to curtail their aspirations to make arguments more persuasive. Thus, to expect argumentation to be persuasive seems to be elitist and exclusionary, since people with less eloquence and rational articulation might become marginalised in pedagogical conversations. Such kind of deliberation is competitive and agonistic and privileges those who know the rules of the language discourse, privileging dominant communication styles. If this argument is right, setting out to teach deliberative rationality is likely to silence some people, advantaging those who know eloquence and deliberative argumentation. Therefore, deliberative argumentation also needs to endorse greeting, rhetoric and narrative (storytelling). Greeting enables participants to recognise what one another has to say, which in turn establishes conditions for deliberation and relations of trust. Rhetoric (an attempt to grab people’s attention) allows speakers to listen carefully what others have to say, thus building respect for the viewpoints of others. However, rhetoric does not simply mean that one has to listen uncritically to what others have to say. Sometimes deliberations could be uneasy, for instance, provocative or even threatening. But respect has the effect of participants not abandoning the conversation through lack of trust in what each has to say to the other. It is for this reason that narrative or storytelling, which enhances the possibility of understanding the contending viewpoints of different people, albeit in terms of values, experience, culture, language and ethnicity becomes apposite. Narrative thus creates opportunities for people who might be less eloquent and articulate to tell their individual stories, but which are now shared collectively amongst participants as socially situated knowledge not available from just one position.

The idea of narrative can be linked to the notion of deliberative rationality. Individual and collective ideas, experiences, values and cultures brought about through deliberation in a Muslim community, have to be shared with others in the same community. Narrative offers rich possibilities for deliberative engagement in our community, since it creates conditions for Muslims to listen and appreciate the points of view of others who might not be Muslim. It is this capacity on the part of Muslims to value different viewpoints which helps to advance deliberative rationality in our multi-cultural societies. However, the question arises whether greeting, rhetoric and narrative (as moments of deliberative rationality) can lead to people becoming full participants in deliberative engagement? To address this question, I shall argue that disadvantaged groups – even if they fully participate – are unlikely to be able to influence debate appropriately.


Disadvantaged groups (those who might not be as eloquent and articulate), even if afforded opportunities to fully participate in pedagogical conversations, are least likely to shape deliberations, since the potential does exist that everything they say might not be “heard and understood”. This makes sense, considering that in deliberations more advantaged groups – those who put forth arguments about the world which rest on premises which are more generally accepted by other members of such groups, since they are deemed to be more rational and articulate – seem to dominate. In deliberations with people from disadvantaged groups (by language of course) I have often encountered moments whereby more eloquent persons have posed the question: “What do you mean?” which suggests that claims of disadvantaged people were perhaps not comprehensible to more articulate persons. Of course the argument can be used that more eloquent and articulate people have different experiences of the world and would invariably question some of the assumptions of the linguistically disadvantaged. For instance, in South Africa many Muslims might claim that to question elders would not be feasible, since in traditional homes authority remains unquestioned. This idea might be rejected as outrageous, since more articulate and advantaged groups consider questioning, challenging and debate as salient features of deliberation. In this case, the deliberation is unlikely to be substantively inclusive and therefore, from the disadvantaged group’s point of view, unlikely to be legitimate.

It is in this regard that I propose that Muslims need to learn how to express themselves in terms others would naturally understand, that is, to master the language of power in one’s community, country and the world. On the one hand, learning to master the dominant language seems to be necessary if one wants to be an effective member of a deliberative conversation. This requires that one learns how to listen to others irrespective of how unappealing or confused their claims might appear on the surface. Similarly, it also requires that we learn to express ourselves in ways that others might find palatable and easier to hear and understand. This requires that we as Muslims should learn and speak the “language of power” (in South Africa this language is undoubtedly English) that is not intrinsically our own. This aspect of deliberative rationality is of special interest to me for two reasons.

First, learning and mastering a language of power could create conditions whereby relations of trust among deliberative inquirers could be nurtured. It builds confidence in people when all participants feel comfortable in expressing themselves in a language (as “insiders” although really “outsiders”) the other understands and can respond to.

Second, learning a language of power not only relates to expressing good ideas about culture, society and politics linguistically but also meaningfully. By this I mean that what might not be considered a good idea for deliberative participants of a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic or multi-religious group needs to be made clear in a language they best understand. For instance, the negative effects of poverty and famine could be made clearer to people who are not perhaps familiar with cases of hunger and suffering.

Of course, learning a language of power is not without its dilemmas. Certainly in South Africa, acquiring a language of power (which in this instance is English) could further widen the gap between Blacks (the majority population group) and White, Coloured and Indian students, most of whom have not mastered a Black indigenous language. One would not necessarily consider an African language a “language of power”, but it is certainly a compelling language to acquire in a post-apartheid society, where the achievement of reconciliation and social justice could be enhanced through mastering the indigenous languages of the previously racially oppressed and marginalised. It would certainly enhance the process of reconciliation if our communication with fellow-South Africans (the majority of whom are Black) was given a higher priority. Similarly, learning a “language of power” might also reduce the emphasis on people having to acquire some sense of understanding the indigenous African cultures and ethnicities of the country’s majority population. But then, the effects of a globalising world are placing considerable demands on people, certainly all South Africans including Muslims, to cope with the stark realities of what could be considered as one-sided information disseminated through “technologies of power” such as the Internet, nightly news, lobbyists and organs of state power. The ideas disseminated through these “technologies of power” pose a challenge to Muslims, which I contend can be attended to by means of their learning a “language of power”. Only then will we seriously be traversing a path of deliberation – a journey which conceptually underscores one of the distinct lessons of al-Mi`raj and al-Isra; a matter of using one’s fuad or spiritual organ of cognition.