Statistics: An Islamic Approach?

On Thursday, 5th April 2018, I had a extended discussion for over three hours, with students and faculty of business and economics at the Ibn-e-Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey, which has been launched with a view to re-integrate Islamic teachings into a modern education. I discussed themes covered at length in my lecture AM29 on “Origins of Western Social Sciences” which is 29th lecture in my Advance Micro course. This lecture explains how social sciences arose in the West after the rejection of Christianity, as an attempt to find alternative bases for the study of human beings and societies. The foundations of this approach are anti-thetical to religion, even though this is concealed within a mask of objectivity and rationality, which has deceived Muslims into accepting these sciences on face value. Once we understand these origins, the necessity for creating a radically different approach to social sciences in general based on Islamic ideas becomes very clear. [shortlink: ]

In the context of this discussion, I described the many courses I have developed to illustrate this concept. The idea that there could be an “Islamic approach” to statistics was puzzling to the audience. How can one say whether “2+2=4” is Islamic or otherwise? There are some common elements of knowledge which would be universally acceptable to all rational human beings, lying outside the scope of religion. Statistics seems to have this nature, where the body of the knowledge has no overlap with religion. These ideas about the nature of knowledge, which are part of modern Western approach, have been absorbed my Muslims without realizing that they conflict with Islamic teachings about knowledge. The MAIN idea of secular modern thought is that there domains of knowledge with are completely outside the scope of religion. On the other hand, Islamic teachings provide comprehensive foundations for all aspects of life, and any knowledge relevant to how we should act lies within the realm of Islamic teachings. This rejects the secular idea of realms of knowledge outside the scope of the religion. Because the secular ideas have taken firm roots in our minds as a result of the western education we have received, it is necessary to explain this further, to clarify certain common confusion which arise regarding the matter.

The first lecture of my course on Statistics: An Islamic Approach, is devoted entirely to answering the puzzle created by the title – how can their be an Islamic approach to a purely technical subject based purely on mathematical manipulation of numbers, with no apparent links to moral or spiritual concerns which form the core of Islamic Teachings? A 40m video lecture solely devoted to answering this question is linked below:

For the whole course, with lectures, slides, transcripts, and related reference materials, see “Introduction to Statistics: An A Islamic Approach”. Below I explain a few key points which show why we need an Islamic approach even to the teaching of apparently purely technical subjects like statistics.

Note that we have been only created for worship, and our living, dying, struggle and sacrifice must all be for the sake of Allah, the Creator, Protector, Sustainer, and Cherisher of all Worlds. So the first question to ask is: how can we teach statistics so that the teacher and student are both engaged in acts of worship. Since the ink of the scholars is more valuable than the blood of the martyrs, would it be true that the ink used for notes made by students in the statistics course would carry heavy weight on the day of judgment. I believe that this can be true but only if we use an Islamic approach to the teaching of statistics, and not if we use the standard Western approach.

Since the worth of actions depends on intentions, the first step to turning teaching and learning statistics into worship is make the correct intentions. I ask my students to make the intention to use the knowledge they gain for the purpose of providing benefits to the Ummah, and the entire creation, which is the family of Allah, for the sake of the love of Allah. When we study the subject with this intention, it will obviously be an act of worship. More specifically, as many books and papers show, it is easy to deceive people by using statistics. For example, see “How to Lie with Statistics” as well as “Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man”. So we can make the intention to learn statistics with the intention of protecting the Ummah from being deceived in this way. As Joan Robinson said, one learns economics not to acquire answers to economic questions, but to avoid being deceived by economists. Similar concept is valid for statistics – as famously quoted: there are Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

The second step towards an Islamic approach requires understanding that the Prophet Mohammad SAW prayed for useful knowledge, and prayed for protection from useless knowledge. Useful knowledge that which enables us to carry out and implement the orders of Allah in our personal and social lives, so as to enable us to fulfill the goal of our life. Useless or harmful knowledge is that which distracts from this goal, or else creates temptation to go against the orders of Allah. Since Islam differentiates strongly between the two kinds, while the West does not, it is essential for Muslim teachers to ensure that what they teach constitutes useful knowledge.  To achieve this goal, it is crucial to break down an artificial and false barrier created by the West between theory and practice. According to Western ideas, statistics is purely manipulation of data in form of numbers, while applications require looking at the real world context in which these methods are to be used. The statistician relies on the field expert for the application and is concerned purely with the numerical part. In my course, I emphasize that one cannot do statistics without knowing the real world context and the problem which we are trying to solve. Statistical DECEPTION depends heavily on this separation, where theoretical manipulations on numbers are done without any knowledge of the real world origin of these numbers. My course uses an integrated approach and argues that what statistics we use depends crucially on the real world context, and cannot be done without it. Exactly the same set of numbers will require different types of analysis depending on the real world problem that needs to be solved using this analysis. Contrary to western teachings, the statistical consultant cannot remain detached from the issue of the purpose for which the analysis will be used. Once we focus on the real world purposes, then the necessity of using Islamic teachings becomes apparent, because for all real world purposes, we would have to engage in moral judgements regarding the worth of the purpose. In particular, the Islamic statistical consultant would refuse to do analyses which are intended to deceive people to achieve some evil goals.

These are just a few of the highlights of the differences which an Islamic approach make. It is not just a matter of starting with Bismillah, and then teaching a standard western course. The subject matter itself changes radically when we make a serious effort to ensure that concepts being taught are useful and relevant to solving real life problems which face us as a society. See link for a list of significant differences and other features of the Intro Stats: Islamic Approach, which differentiate it from conventional stats courses.

POSTSCRIPT: This course will made available online, free for all teachers, and students, soon — Teacher Training was carried out at PIDE to enable teachers to deliver this course. Videos for Two lectures for the teacher training are linked below:

Contrast Between Western and Islamic Views on Knowledge and Education

Teacher Training for Introduction to Statistics: An Islamic Approach

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About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

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