Islamic Approaches to Knowledge

The previous post — “Diagnosis: Absorption of Secular Thought” — we argued that the central problem facing the Ummah is the acceptance of Western ideas which are directly in conflict with Islam, without realization of this conflict. The most important of these ideas is the idea of “Secular Knowledge“: there exist domains of knowledge which are outside the purview of religion. It is worthwhile articulating the problem to clarify its scope and dimensions before suggesting a solution. Does all of modern university education lie outside the purview of religion? For precision and clarity, let us focus on the subject of “Statistics”, as currently taught in universities all over the world, including the Islamic world. Does Statistics lie OUTSIDE the scope of Islam?  Do the Ahadeeth about the merits of seeking knowledge apply to students who are making efforts to learn Statistics? SHOULD we follow the rules described in the book of Imam Al-Nawawi on Etiquettes of the Scholar and the Learner for the study of this subject? Should we tell our students that seekers of knowledge of statistics will have the path to paradise made easy, and that the ink they use will be weighed like the blood of the martyrs?

Or should we NOT tell them this, because this knowledge is NOT the knowledge which the Ahadeeth refer to? Accepting the idea of secular knowledge leads to this position. Statistics is not part of “Knowledge”. However, this position causes even greater difficulty. The Prophet Mohammad S.A.W. made dua seeking useful knowledge and also made dua seeking protection from useless knowledge (See “Useful Versus Useless Knowledge“). If Statistics is “Useful Knowledge”, included in this Dua, then it must be classified as a form a knowledge to which the standard merits of knowledge apply. Consequently, we must study it following the Etiquette of the Scholar and Learner, laid out in so many textbooks of Islam. But if Statistics is NOT “Useful Knowledge”, then can it be permissible to study it at all? If it is useless knowledge from which the Prophet Mohammad SAW sought the protection of Allah, then surely it must be Haram to teach it and to study it. It might actually even be harmful knowledge of the kind taught by the Angels Haroot and Maroot, which was forbidden, and given as a test. At the very least, we must make a determination on “What kind of knowledge is Statistics?”, before we can determine whether or not it is permissible to study statistics, and also on HOW we should approach such a study.

The traditional books of FIQH cannot provide us with the answer to these questions, because the subject of modern statistics was invented in the 20th century. A superficial look at the subject also cannot inform us about the answer. Western education provides us with seriously misleading answers to the questions regarding the relation of religion and morality to the subjects that they teach us — for instance the idea that economics is positive, and not normative is just absurd. It is the blind acceptance of the idea that Western Social Science is OBJECTIVE, impartial, neutral, value-free, and rational, that is at the root of the crisis of knowledge facing the Ummah today. We need to learn and recognize that “The Origins of Western Social Science” lie in the rejection of Christianity and hence are antithetic to fundamental Islamic principles.

Today, the concept of secular knowledge poisons the minds of nearly ALL muslim students, because they study so many subjects which do not mention Allah T’aala and the revelation. The proportion of time we spend on Islam shows the students, BY DEMONSTRATION, the importance we attach to the final message of Allah. If we do not mention Allah in the entire course, then we show the complete irrelevance of the final message. It is said that when Napolean asked Laplace why, in a volume on astronomy, he had made no mention of God, the creator of the universe, he said “I have no need of that hypothesis”. A Western education teaches us Laplacian philosophy — that God and Religion have nothing to do with secular subjects — by DEMONSTRATION. When we teach calculus, we never mention religion or morality, so we teach students that calculus — and mathematics — has no relation to religion. Therefore we prove, by demonstration, that there are EXTENSIVE fields of knowledge which have no relationship to religion. In fact, Islam provides us with NO GUIDANCE on nearly ALL of relevant and useful knowledge, to which we devote sixteen to twenty years of study,  This is what we are teaching our students in the ENTIRE course of a Western education. When a Ph.D. student spends 20 years studying the irrelevance of religion to all practical matters of life, it becomes difficult to explain to him why Islam matters.

Today this position is nearly universally accepted, by secular modernists, as well as Islamic scholars. When Islamic scholars exclude a subject from their study, then they implicitly declare the subject to be outside the scope of religion. In my view, revival of religious today depends on showing that this is FALSE. We must show that all domains of useful knowledge lie within the scope of religion. That Islam has something HIGHLY relevant and useful to say about how we should teach statistics and how we should do statistics — as well as all other supposedly secular subjects. This is something NEW, which has to be DEMONSTRATED, because we will not find an Islamic treatment of statistics in the traditional books of FIQH.

Deep analysis of Western epistemology, as expressed in their approach to statistics, leads me to the conclusion, that statistics as currently taught, is based on logical positivist philosophy. This philosophy starts with rejection of the unseen, and states that only observables matter for human knowledge. Observables can also be measured, and these measurements lead us to the best and most precise form of knowledge. Even though this is not explicitly mentioned, it is the subtext, and this makes the positivist message even more powerful, because it is hidden and fed into minds which are not prepared to reject it. This way, we learn atheistic and anti-Islamic philosophies without even being aware of them. Based on this analysis, I come to the conclusion that the standard secular approach to “Statistics”, as taught and presented in conventional textbooks on the subject, is actual “Harmful Knowledge” of the type that is not permissible to teach or learn. The same is true of Economics, which teaches us that rational behavior consists of maximizing the pleasure we obtain from consumption of goods and service.

If my analysis is correct, then we have only two choices. We can completely abandon all fields of secular knowledge (not much of a choice), or we can complete revamp them, eliminating the poisonous elements from them in order to Islamize them. My course on “Statistics: An Islamic Approach” is intended as a DEMONSTRATION of how Islam guides us in ALL FIELDS of knowledge. The first lecture — linked below — deals SOLELY with the question of WHY we need an Islamic approach to what appears to be a value-neutral and objective subject, which should be the same for all observers. This is a 41m short version of a longer, 90m lecture on the same topic linked in The Second Poison: Secular Knowledge. [Shorter Intro – 41m Lecture]

POST-SCRIPT: It is essential for Muslims engaged in the project of Islamization of Knowledge to realize that what the West calls “Knowledge” is completely different from what Islam calls “Knowledge”. In more technical terms, Western epistemology is radically different from Islamic epistemology. For more details on this point, and the huge difference it makes in our theories of education, see “The Search for Knowledge“.

This entry was posted in econometrics, ghazali, Islamic Knowledge by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

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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