My Journey from Theory to Reality

I have now created a new website to use for the “final” version of a course on “Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach.” I have been working on this course for more than ten years. The journey started when, inspired by Tableegh, I started thinking about how to turn all of my life into worship, as required by the Quran (51:56) “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” As a professor, a large part of my life consisted of teaching. At the time, I also believed in the myth of “secular knowledge” — statistics is just objective facts about numbers, and as such, it would be same subject whether approached from Islamic perspective or from Western. The laws of gravity are the same in the East and the West. As I progressed in the journey, I learned that this was not so — the subject matter itself changed, when approached from an Islamic angle. However, this was not clear to me at the start.

But it was clear that an Islamic approach did make a difference. An act of worship must be done with the intention to serve Allah. If I teach statistics in order to earn money to feed my family, this may be permissible, but it is a secondary level, a worship after other worships. Furthermore, for people who are sufficiently well off, this may not be permissible. Furthermore, there are some restrictions on buying and selling education. It seemed better to target for a higher intention, where these doubts would not arise. I made the intention to provide USEFUL knowledge to my students, and also to ask my students to USE this knowledge to provide SERVICE to the Creation of Allah, for the sake of the LOVE of Allah. This involves two changes from the standard approach to teaching, one for the student and one for the teacher:

  1. As a Teacher, I am committed to providing USEFUL knowledge, instead of covering whatever is written in the textbook. I wanted to go from the theory to the application, to show how the material covered is used to solve real world problems. I found that typical textbooks were useless for this purpose. They covered concepts in a purely theoretical way. Real data was often used, but it was always for SHOW – it created an IMPRESSION that these techniques can be used on real data sets, but there was no actual problem which occurs in the real world, which could be solved by these techniques. The UNIQUE textbook that I found which did actually cover real world problems was “Statistics” by David Freedman. This books starts with a discussion of real world problems, and every technique discussed is illustrated in context of real world use of statistics. I immediately adopted this textbook for use in my teaching of statistics, as being clearly useful knowledge. Even though I had Ph.D. level training in statistics, I found this book very hard to read — even though it covers very basic concepts. The reason is that the theoretical training we receive in statistics does not prepare us to solve real world problems.
  2. For Students, I asked them to change the intentions with which they were sitting in my course. Typically, the students assume that the subject being taught is of zero relevance to the real world (as in fact most social science subjects taught in universities are). They are sitting with the intention to acquire enough knowledge to pass the exams for the course. When you try to teach them something difficult, they immediately ask if it will come on the exam, so that it would be worth making the effort to try to understand. Passing the exam is required for the degree, and the degree is required for the job, and the job is required for money. Making money is the goal of life. I asked the students to change their intentions. I told them that statistics is routinely used to deceive people (see “How to Lie With Statistics”), and Economic Hit-Men use statistics to deceive nations into following wrong policies. I committed myself to working hard to ensure that they received knowledge which would be more than just bookish and theoretical, and would actually have application to real world problems. In turn, they should commit to making a real effort to understand and learn what I teach, and to use it to create a better world, to serve mankind, for the sake of the love of God.

With this change in intention on part of the teacher and the student, both can be considered to be performing an act of worship in the process of studying statistics. Of course, it can be argued that earning money is also an act of worship (under suitable restrictions) so that the standard methods of teaching and studying would also qualify as acts of worship. Without going into controversial discussion, note that Quran (67:2)”[He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving“. We are not here to do what may or may not be permissible — this is a competition to see who can do the BEST deed. It should be clear that an intention to use knowledge to serve humanity, for the love of Allah, makes studying much closer to a best deed, compared to the intention to get a degree and earn money for personal benefits, regardless of whether or not this is permissible.

At the start of my journey to convert my teaching to a form of worship, I did not expect that there would be changes in the subject itself. I expected to make myself and student ‘responsible’ users of knowledge. They should not learn how to build atom bombs, and then claim that they have no responsibility for how it is used. A statistical consultant who studies how to raise taxes should have awareness of whether or not this is in the public interest. However, much to my surprise, I found that the subject matter itself changed, as I struggled to make it useful to students. In the two commitments to convert study and teaching into worship, I was trying to live up to my commitment to ensure that the topics I were teaching were actually useful. Working on making the subject useful led to a lot of surprises for me. The standard approach to education which had been given to me was ‘analytical’ — acquire small pieces of knowledge A,B,C, …. and then put them all together to arrive at the big picture. I discovered, to my bitter experience, that all the small pieces I had been taught did NOT add to a bigger picture — they just remained small pieces. See “Recovering from a Western Education“.

Instead of teaching techniques T, R, S, separately and asking the student to put them all together to solve real world problems, I wanted to combine theory and application by showing students how techniques are used in the real world. Of course, the standard objection to this approach is that each technique is not applicable by itself — rather, it is a whole package of techniques which are used together to solve a problem. To resolve this problem, I decided to do ‘reverse engineering’. Start with a real world problem, and introduce whatever techniques are required for its solution in the process of finding the solution. This will have the advantage of keeping students motivated, because we will work together on solving real world problems which actually matter. This methodology will also show how techniques are used in real world contexts, ensuring that these techniques are indeed “useful” knowledge. I decided to follow this INVERSION principle in teaching. Instead of teaching techniques T,R,S, … and hoping that in some later course, someone else would put them together in order to solve real world problems, I would devote the course to the solution of problems P1, P2, P3. I would pick the simplest possible real world problems. I would ONLY teach techniques which were ACTUALLY useful in solving these real world problems. At the end of the course, the students would actually have knowledge of how to solve at least a few real world problems.

This INVERSION methodology goes against the separation of theory and practice which is often done in Western education. By studying how to solve real world problems, we guarantee that knowledge being given is useful. We also study theory ONLY in the context of how the theory is used to solve real world problems. We DO NOT study theory in isolation, separated from how the theory is used in the the real world. Doing this created a dramatic change in the topics that I started to teach. My original training was heavily mathematical. A Bachelors in Math and more advanced training created within me an extreme admiration for the beautiful, elegant, and complex proofs, that we learned for deep and difficult theorems of mathematics. To my mind, this was the highest form of learning. As I started studying about how I could use my knowledge about how to prove theorems to solve real world problems, I was extremely disappointed. I could not find a SINGLE real world problem where my abilities to prove mathematical theorems would be helpful in finding a solution. Very gradually, hesitantly, and reluctantly, I reversed my position about the value of learning proofs of mathematical theorems. I started expressing this insight in terms of the metaphor of the car engine and the driver. An excellent car driver need not know anything about the car engine. Conversely, an excellent mechanic who knows everything about radiators, spark plugs, and cylinders, may be very poor as a car driver. What mattered for practical purposes, for most people, was learning how to drive. Our education — in terms of proofs of mathematics, was training us to open up the engine and analyze all the parts — but DID NOT TEACH us about driving the car. Learning how to drive the car — that is learning how to solve real world problems — was VERY DIFFERENT from the process of learning how to put the engine together, and learning about how the different parts of the engine function.

I started teaching students how to solve real world problems, and teach them ONLY those parts of theory which they needed to solve them. In this process, I learned (much to my surprise) that HUGE portions of the theory that I had learnt were completely useless. The blinders fell from my eyes when I realized that the beautiful Gauss-Markoff Theorem, which is at the center of every basic econometrics course, is completely useless. This theorem shows that OLS, the most important regression estimator used, is BLUE – Best Linear Unbiased Estimator. However, this property has no relevance to whether or not we should use it in practice. The student who knows this theorem is no different from the one who does not know it, when it comes to practical applications. Instead of teaching students the theory of regression models, I did ‘reverse engineering’. I would start by taking data and running a regression, and my goal in the Econometrics course was to ensure that the students would understand all the numbers that are written on the regression printout. During the process of teaching in this way, I came to realize the UNDERSTANDING concepts was VERY DIFFERENT from actually learning how to carry out computations, or doing theorems and proofs. I started explaining in an intuitive way the MEANING of the concepts being studied, rather than explaining the technical details. For example, the calculation of the OLS estimates involves forming the matrix X’X, inverting this matrix, and multiplying by X’y. However, students can understand the meaning of the OLS estimates without knowing any linear algebra, or even anything about matrices.

This insight — heavy mathematical training is not needed to learn how to drive — allowed me to launch the first Ph.D. program in Econometrics in Pakistan. I was encouraged to do this by the HEC Launch of the Indigenous Ph.D. Fellowships, which allowed me to take students for this program without worrying about financing them. I realized that it was possible to teach students to DO econometrics, without learning years of heavy mathematical theory, in the way that I had been taught. This program proved to be very successful. It produced students who were able to write research papers at world-class levels, contrary to my initial expectations. I was also able to create a radically different course in research methodology, which focused on having students define a real world research problem, and then doing whatever research was required to find solutions to this problem. This methodology created a stream of M. Phil. and Ph. D. students at IIIE, IIUI, whereas previously research had been at a standstill.

Sometime during this process of switching from teaching theory to teaching how to solve real world problems, I came across the “Statistics” textbook of David Freedman. This textbook actually implemented exactly this idea that I had come to believe in — do statistics in context of solving real world problems. One amazing characteristic of this textbook is that it has no mathematical formulae – ZERO. Freedman explained that students use formulae as crutches to prevent them from thinking. So he explains all concepts in words only, exactly the same insight that I had learnt on my own. Formulas teach you techniques for calculation. We don’t need these techniques — leave them to the computer. We need to UNDERSTAND what these calculations mean. That is a VERY DIFFERENT process. I got involved in an email correspondence with David Freedman, who had very similar experience to mine. He had started out as a very heavily mathematically oriented researchers. His early papers are all very heavy mathematically. Later, when he got involved in doing some testimony in real world court cases, he realized that all of the theory he had learnt was useless in the real world. This is because the assumptions we make in theory are almost always false in the real world. Then he had to learn how to do real world statistics, exactly as I have had to do. Since most fancy assumptions we make in statistics and econometrics are wrong, we need to learn how to do simple and basic inferences, which actually makes life much easier for students of the subject — we need to teach them basic and intuitive things, not complex models and math.

David Freedman died in 2008. Around this time, some of my students in Turkey were trying to launch a new International Journal in Econometric. I had asked David for an article for our first issue. He had written a draft, and it had been circulated for comments to other leading econometricians. The first issue of the journal, International Econometric Review, Vol 1, No 1, April 2009 contains my short memorial note for David Freedman, which describes his intellectual journey. It contains his article on “The Limits of Econometrics”, which explains how the assumptions we make for running regression models are almost always wrong in real world applications. Then it contains comments by famous authors Arnold Zellner and Richard Berk, on the problems created by Freedman’s approach, and how we could do realistic econometrics.

The proposed course on Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach is a continuation of efforts to teach students USEFUL knowledge, as required by Islam. In the process of trying to do so, I have made very unexpected discoveries. I have learned that the problems created by splitting Theory and Practice are not a small and isolated set of problems which do not affect most of Western knowledge. In fact, three divisions which are made in Western education are extremely harmful for students, because they prevent understanding. One division, between theory and practice, has already been discussed. Because of this division, a HUGE amount of useless theory, which has NO POSSIBLE application to real world problems, is developed. One example is the entire theory of Unit Roots, which is completely useless from the perspective of solving real problems we face in the real world. Another division is of the Head and the Heart – see my personal experiences with this in “The Great Divide: Head and Heart“. A Western education places enormous emphasis on ‘reasoning’ and very little on intuition. But our learning proceeds from the heart, which can feel and sense truths, rather than our head, which has limited abilities to reason. So explaining concepts, as I learned to do, requires appealing to the hearts of the students. The third major divide has been recognized as a serious problem by many academics, and has been named “the Fragmentation of Knowledge.” Everyone knows a in great detail about very small piece of the picture — which is his own speciality. No one has any idea of the big picture. The theoretician does not know about the practice, and the practitioner does not know the theory. When I got my Ph.D. in Economics, I had deep knowledge of a very specialized area of econometrics (Bayesian and Decision Theory), but only superficial knowledge of many other areas of econometrics (for example Time Series, Simultaneous Equations, and other areas). What is much more important, I did not know what role econometrics plays in the area of economics as a whole — how does it contribute to the advancement of human knowledge? Even more, I did not know the significance of the study of economics, within the entirety of human knowledge. 

Over the twenty years that I have been pursuing an Islamic approach — focusing on the production of USEFUL knowledge, I have managed to heal all three of these divides. This happens naturally, when you focus on solution of real world problems. You automatically need to combine information coming from many different specialization areas. You need to use reasoning and also intuition. You also need to use both theory and its applications to the real world experiences. This leads to substantial changes in the subject matter itself. I have applied this approach with great success to Econometrics, Statistics, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Experimental Economics, and even Mathematics itself. I am in process of creating textbooks and teaching materials in all of these areas. Because my work is most advanced in the area of Statistics, I am working on putting it all together in a new course on Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach. There is a large amount of pre-existing material – lectures, texts, exercises, references – that I have created over the past decade on working on this course. However, as I progress, I keep learning new things, and this time I want to put together a polished new version of this course for public use. My primary target audience is teachers of statistics — I  would like to persuade them to use this new approach to teach statistics. Those who would like to follow my progress as I construct a new website on a lecture by lecture basis gradually are encourged to fill in the following Registration form. I will use emails to notify them when I complete a new lecture, and also invite feedback on what is there, so that we can build it up with clarity and consensus. 

To register for the first module, on general principles of an Islamic Education, fill in Google Form: Registration PIE. The course is free, online, and students can work at their own pace, going through a sequence of lessons which will be provided to them.

POSTSCRIPT: Previous posts about this course are:

  1. Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach — provides a draft introduction, which explains how European history led them to reject the unseen and focus on the observable and the quantifiable. Methodology of modern statistics suffers from this defect of only looking at the numbers, and not looking at the complex reality which produced these numbers.
  2. The Quran: Faith and Reason: Instead of subjecting Quran to the test of reason, we must learn to reason according to the ways taught by the Quran. The Quran teaches us how to look at the signs of Allah, and to come to understanding the ways of our Creator. Statistics is also a way of looking at the observations and trying learn about the hidden realities which generated these observations. We can create an approach to statistics based on the way that strategies of persuasion in the Quran are structured.
  3. Economic Theory: Purpose of Life – All knowledge that we acquire is subordinate to the purpose of life. Knowledge is useful and valuable only if it helps us achieve our goals in life. When the goal is just the earning of money, then whatever sells is worth learning. When the goal is to seek beneficial knowledge which teaches us how to spend our unique and precious few moments on this planet, and how to serve humanity, the nature of knowledge, and the process of teaching and learning, all change radically. All courses based on an Islamic approach must begin with a discussion of our goal and life, in order to clarify and purify our intentions regarding the acquisition of knowledge.

Later posts are:

  1. The Forest and Tree Principle:  In this post, I explain how the forest (a theory, a generalization, a collectivity) cannot be understood without reference to the trees (example, special case, application), and a collection of trees becomes a forest by applying a theory which groups them together. This principle is of fundamental important in terms of the organization of the course on Real Statistics.
  2. Underground Railroad: The Path to Freedom — How historical forces have shaped our thoughts, and how we can become by standing outside the streams of history to observe how minds are shaped by history. In particular, what we believe about knowledge, and about our own identities, has been shaped by our experience of colonization, and by our Western education. Our approach to knowledge (and statistics) changes radically if we liberate ourselves.
  3. From Light to Darkness:  The West seems to enjoy the light of knowledge, while Muslims are covered in darkness and ignorance. This is in conflict with the Quran, which states that those who reject the faith will be led from light to darkness. To understand this puzzle, we must change how we understand knowledge itself. This is in line with the principle in the post on Quran: Faith and Reason, where we must learn how to reason from the Quran, instead apply reason to judge and interpret the Quran.
  4. Connecting Statistics to Reality: This post provides a sketch of the propose first lecture for RSIA, which summarized and encapsulates many issues discussed in all the posts listed here.



This entry was posted in Islamic Knowledge, methodology, Real Statistics 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.

15 thoughts on “My Journey from Theory to Reality

  1. Pingback: Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach | An Islamic WorldView

  2. AoA Dear Sir,
    I really enjoyed reading your article. I am so happy that some one has started the REAL contrubution of knowledge in solving the real world problems. Loved the “inversion methodology” and am excited to learn from the courses that you developed. My great wishes for your future courses and I am hereby registering to recieve updates on it.

    Inayat Ullah
    PhD in Public Policy
    KDI School of Public Policy and Management,
    South Korea.

  3. Pingback: The Forest and Tree Principle | An Islamic WorldView

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  9. The main theme of the Islamic Approach to study a subject matter, according to Asad Zaman sahib is:
    “By studying how to solve real world problems, we guarantee that knowledge being given is useful. We also study theory ONLY in the context of how the theory is used to solve real world problems. We DO NOT study theory in isolation, separated from how the theory is used in the the real world.”

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