The Intellect and Its Limits:
The intellect is restricted by the realm of the senses [and is not capable of] passing judgement on the realm of the unseen (the metaphysical). This is because the intellectual faculty in us, which combines real images, memories, imaginary images, and [sheer] wit, carries out its mighty work of unraveling and constructing, combining and separating, deducing general principles and universals, comparing similar and equivalent things to each other, after the various senses transmit to the theater the film of what it has observed in the cosmos: the visual film, audio tape, the strip of flavors, smells, and tangible things, and the cord of emotions/passions within the human, thus its judgements are restricted to the bounds of these things which come to it via the senses.
This intellectual faculty within us is totally incapable of issuing verdicts on such metaphysical things that were not presented to it by its recording devices, due to the fact that every ruling it issues is only uttered as a result of the evidence given to it by the sensory film. The metaphysical and sensory worlds differ from each other completely, so it is not possible to pass verdicts on them through analogy. The principle established amongst the scholars is that a verdict on anything is a branch of conceptualizing it.
Thus, our intellect is not able to autonomously pass a ruling of affirmation or negation on anything in the realm of the metaphysical, unless such information comes to it, whose existential possibility and honesty of its transmitter is verified by the intellect; at that time, one will accept its contents completely, without arguing or objecting.
Since, the realm of our senses is limited, our intellect is also limited in two ways:
1. It is bound between two things (i.e. time and place). Because of this, the intellect always asks, “When?” and “Where?”
This is because all of the things connected to our senses must be found in a place and [should be such] that times passes by it. The intellect is incapable of conceptualizing or imagining existing things without place, or things which time does not pass by. Based on the fact that one of the established principles according to all of the vigilant and fair intellectuals that the Essence of Allāh, Exalted is He, is not such that times flows by it, nor is it in need of place because Allāh is the Creator of time and place.
2. The intellect is limited when it announces its inability of accepting one of two possibilities in the cosmos which has no third possibility.
Example: Every intelligent person questions in his heart: does the cosmos have a termination point or not?
Here, let us go behind deep contemplation; the first thing that will come to us when we move from the sheath of this world is a void, and after that an abyss possessing a collection of celestial bodies, after which is an abyss possessing another collection of celestial bodies, and after that we will move from the galaxy which looks at our world within it as a speck of dirt, and after that another collection of galaxies.
And let us move to that which is known as the first heaven, then the second, until the seventh, until the cArsh, until the Kursī; and let us invite the mind to swim in accordance with the wishes of its imagination, eventually the intellect must reach a point where it gets lost, bewildered and incapable of speculation, unable to be convinced of infinity nor able to admit a terminal point.
When it says to itself, “The cosmos has ended,” it’s misgivings reply, “What is after the end?” and when it says, “The cosmos is infinite,” it replies to itself, “How can a thing have no end?!”
He is then forced, rationally, to wander between the two possibilities, there being no third, without accepting either one, and that is only because the intellect is limited.
Since the intellect is incapable of understanding things in the cosmos around it, and incapable of grasping its true form, it is even weaker and more incapable of understanding any form of the reality of the unseen things which are metaphysical.
Since the intellect is limited, as we have seen, how would it be able to comprehend Allāh, Pure is He from all defects, since He is not bound [by anything]?!
Imām Shāfīc, may Allāh be pleased with him, said, while explaining that the intellect has limits, “Indeed, the intellect posses a limit at which it stops, just like the sight has a limit at which it ends.”
Imām Ghazālī, may Allāh have mercy on him, said, “O you who dwell in the rational world, do not think it farfetched that beyond the intellect exists a (ṭūr) mountain on which is manifested that which is not perceptible to the intellect.”
In view of the preceding, we may summarize the following facts:
1. Our senses which are our means of knowledge are limited, and do not grasp everything that exists.
2. Our ability to imagine is limited to the bounds of what reaches us by means of the senses.
3. Our intellect is limited and unable to clearly grasp all of the existing realities, even if it is forced to accept them rationally.
Ustādh cAlī al-Ṭanṭāwī has an excellent discussion on these facts in the treatise “Baḥth Fī al-Īmān” in his book Fikr wa Mabāḥath.
Source: al-cAqīdah al-Islamīyyah wa Ususuhā by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman Hasan Habannakah al-Maydani. Dār al-Qalam. Page: 13-22