Critical Thinking in Islam

Islam is a progressive religion that encourages learning and beholds those who seek knowledge in a high regard. In fact, the first word revealed in the Quran is ‘Iqra’ meaning ‘Read.’ Seeking knowledge is a tenement of the faith and something greatly expounded upon; therefore, asking questions is not an action that is inhibited in Islam. Some ways that critical thinking can be seen in Islam is through the concepts of ijtihad, qiyas, tafakkur, from the verses of the Quran, and also from the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The word Ijtihad means to make an effort either physically or mentally on a particular issue. It refers to the ability of independent reasoning where after thoroughly examining an argument and comparing it with previous parallel arguments, one comes to a solution. Likewise, someone who wants to employ critical thinking would go through these motions. To do ijtihad, one will have to use the sponge and the panning-for-gold method of thinking. Sponging requires “knowledge acquisition” while panning-for-gold “stresses active interaction with knowledge as it is being acquired” (Browne and Keeley, 3). A person conducting ijtihad does both as they research and contemplate on what they are learning. However, it is a common understanding that someone who does ijtihad, called a mujtahid, should have knowledge of theology, the Quran, the Arabic language, and principles of jurisprudence which are basically some of the important sources of research

Similar to ijtihad is the concept of qiyas which denotes analogical reasoning and is mainly used on Islamic legal matters (Young and Sharma, 2004). This is because qiyas (and ijtihad) allow for jurists to create new laws based on the changing times of the world as the culture of daily life changes though these new laws are based on previously settled analogous claims.  But unlike ijtihad, a layman can do qiyas on their own yet on smaller matters such as determining which direction one faces when praying when they don’t have an official guide to help them out. Qiyas doesn’t necessarily have to be done on religious matters. For example, if a person had an apple that is soft in some areas, they can use their logic and deduct (qiyas) that some of the apple might be rotten based on prior knowledge from either their experience or from learning about when fruits become rotten through books or teachers.

Furthermore, the word tafakkur is cited multiple times throughout the Quran. Tafakkur means to (intellectually) contemplate. It is also based on the reordering of previous knowledge to come to conclusions on unknown things. It is often used in religious reference but can be used otherwise as well. One of the places in the Quran where tafakkur is mentioned is in Surah (chapter) Al-Imran, verse 191, “Who remember[s] Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.’” The words ‘give thought to’ are translated as tafakkur in Arabic, indicating those who contemplate about the creation around them on earth and the creation seen of the heavens. One can also contemplate on the following (non-religious) topics:

  1. If we didn’t have legs, how would we walk from one place to another?
  2. What would happen if our teeth grew continuously like our hair?
  3. How does the gravitational pull of the moon keep waves on Earth perfectly controlled?

Therefore, while practicing tafakkur, one is being a critical thinker by reflecting and actively asking questions (Brown and Keeley, 5). Tafakkur is such an important concept that one of the greatest Imams in history, Imam Shafi’i, said that ‘Tafakkur sharpens one’s intelligence.’ Asides from tafakkur, there are other similar words mentioned in the Quran such as tafkir, tadabbur, and nazr which all revolve around the meaning of pondering and completely understanding motioning that Islam encourages thinking and questioning; it does not deter one from critically thinking.



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Badi, Jamal Ahmed. “Tafakkur from a Qur’anic Perspective.” Tafakkur 3.1 (2001).

Browne, M. Neil, and Stuart M. Keeley. Asking The Right Questions: A Guide To Critical    Thinking. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Esposito, John L. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.” Oxford Reference (2009): n. pag. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Sharma, Arvind, and Katherine K. Young. “Chapter 7: Islam.” Her Voice, Her Faith: Women Speak On World Religions. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004. 215-42. Print.

Vikor, Knut S. Between God and the Sultan: A History of Islamic Law. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.