Why an Islamic Approach to Statistics?

{bit.ly/WaIAtS} On first appearance, the idea of an Islamic approach to statistics seems absurd and ridiculous. After all, 2+2=4, regardless of whether you are a Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, or Muslim. Statistics is presented as a method for objective analysis of numbers, which would give the same results regardless of your religious orientation, or lack thereof. However, this appearance is an illusion. Actually, statistical analyses contain lot of hidden assumptions, which can project the biases of the researcher, while making them appear to be objective facts conveyed by the data. The most widely sold book on statistics is entitled “How to Lie with Statistics” – at last count, it had sales greater than that of all other statistics textbooks combined!  Why is it that statistics has an appearance of objectivity, while the flexible methodology and variety of assumptions allow the same set of numbers to be used to convey radically different messages? This video lecture (and the writeup below the video) provides a brief sketch of an answer to this deep and difficult question. For further details, see previous post on Preface to Radical Statistics

The Power of the Quranic Message

The message of the Quran transformed ignorant and backwards Bedouin into world leaders. It created a civilization which enlightened the world for more than a thousand years. The Quran mentions that God will provide knowledge to mankind which they did not have.This leads to the following questions:

  1. What was this knowledge?
  2. How did it transform the Muslims?
  3. Does this knowledge have the same power today?
  4. Can this knowledge be of use in the context of modern studies like statistics?

One Element: The Thirst for Knowledge

The teachings of Islam start with the command to Read, and strongly motivate believers to pursue knowledge:

  • And say: My Lord, increase me in knowledge. (Quran 20:114)
  • Say, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?“ (Quran 39: 9)
  • Hadeeth: the ink of scholars outweighs the blood of martyrs.
  • Hadeeth: Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.

As a result, the Islamic Civilization gathered knowledge from all civilizations across the globe.

Puzzle: How and Why was this thirst for knowledge LOST? Why are Muslims backwards and ignorant, when the first revelation was “READ” in the name thy Lord?  What happened?

Islamic Distinction: Useful & Useless Knowledge

One element of the solution to this puzzle lies in the Islamic distinction between useful and useless knowledge. The Prophet SAW prayed for useful knowledge, and sought protection from useless knowledge:

اَللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَسْأَلُكَ عِلْمًا نَافِعًا, وَ رِزْقًا طَيَّبًا, وَ عَمَلاً مُتَقَبَّل

O Allah, I ask you for knowledge that is of benefit, a good provision and deeds that will be accepted.

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ عِلْمٍ لَا يَنْفَعُ وَمِنْ قَلْبٍ لَا يَخْشَعُ وَمِنْ نَفْسٍ ‏لَا تَشْبَعُ ‏ ‏وَمِنْ دَعْوَةٍ لَا يُسْتَجَابُ لَهَا‏

“O Allah, I seek refuge in You from knowledge which does not benefit, from a heart that does not entertain the fear (of Allah), from a soul that is not satisfied and the supplication that is not answered.”

Before studying any subject, we must ensure that this is useful knowledge. To do this, we must know: “What is USEFUL knowledge?”. For a detailed discussion, see Useful Versus Useless Knowledge: http://bit.do/azuvuk. Briefly, Useful knowledge teaches us how to make the best use of our unique and precious lives. Useless (or harmful) knowledge PREVENTS us from making the best use of our lives, and traps us into delusions which cause us to WASTE our lives.

Source of Problem: RADICALLY different GOALS for life lead to RADICALLY different classifications in terms of Useful/Useless. Rejection of Christianity in the West led Europeans to focus on worldly goals, and this led to the development of knowledge suitable for pursuit of worldly goals. This type of knowledge is very different from the type of knowledge we need to achieve success in the Akhira, and arrive at closeness to God. Some more details of this brief explanation are provided below.

History of Intellectual Developments in West

In 16th Century Europe, goal of life was success on day of Judgment. The Bible states that: “Love of wealth is the root of all evil”. However, by the 19th Century, the maxim was inverted by Bernard Shaw: “Lack of wealth is the root of all evil”. To understand the toxic philosophies concealed within the European intellectual tradition, we must study the European Transition to Secular Modernity (see:   http://bit.do/etst1a). A change in COLLECTIVE goals of society to worldly goals, led to a change in the type of knowledge which was prized, studied, and accumulated. For Muslims, it is especially important to understand how this happened, because the Eurocentric accounts paint a false picture (see “Deadliest Weapon: Fabricated History” http://bit.ly/AZDeadly ). A very brief outline is provided below:

Reconquest ends the dark ages of Europe: In the dark ages, Europe was a collection of barbarians, constantly at war with each other. The Islamic Civilization was vastly more advanced in knowledge, standards of living, governance, and wealth. The Crusades were attempts by Europeans to steal knowledge and wealth from their advanced neighbors. Decay and degeneration of Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus), after seven centuries, led to the successful Re-Conquest, and acquisition of millions of books in Islamic libraries. The Toledo school of translators gave Europeans access to the treasures of knowledge from across the globe and ended their dark ages.

The Battles Over Knowledge: New knowledge flowing into Europe was dramatically in conflict with Catholic orthodoxy. The Church created many mechanisms to control and prohibit this influx. Every book published had to have approval of Church authorities. Translations of doctrines contrary to Church dogma were forbidden. However, many found ways to access these prohibited materials. As one significant example, the Rosicrucian Society claimed to possessors of secret knowledge (hiding its origins). Member Rene Descartes became the father of Western philosophy by adapting the works of Imam Al-Ghazali. Many other translators hid the Islamic origins and claimed translations as their own productions, in order to avoid persecution by the Catholic Church. For more details, see “Is Science Western in Origin?” (http://bit.do/azswo). What European intellectuals refer to as the battle between science and religion was actually a battle between this influx of new knowledge, and doctrines of the Catholic Church. This (and other causes) eventually led to the breakup of the Church into Catholic and Protestant factions, and over a century of warfare between these factions. These religious wars have dramatically shaped the development of European thought.

Over A Century of Religious Wars: The Peace of Westphalia is the collective name for two peace treaties signed in October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. They ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), and brought peace to the Holy Roman Empire, closing a calamitous period of European history that killed approximately eight million people. These wars devastated Europe, destroyed vast amounts of villages and cities, pitted brother against brother, and had an enormous impact on shaping European thought.  

Emergence of Secular Modernity: Critical Problem facing European intellectuals: Creating rules of conduct for public behavior – Christianity had obviously failed, so alternatives had to be devised.

Religion = personal belief system + rules for behavior (morality) on individual, social, national levels (DEEN or way-of-life)

Christianity was abandoned as DEEN, and restricted to a personal belief system. A new DEEN had to be devised from scratch. Secular Modernity is the outcome of these effort to construct a DEEN without moral foundations.

Fundamental, Insoluble, Dilemma of West: How to devise a way-of-life for a community with conflicting goals, without agreement on a moral framework? More starkly: How to protect the weak against the rich and powerful? What are the basic rights that should be ensured for everyone in a society? What are the collective obligations of the wealthy to society?

European Conceit: Reason CAN find the way!

Can “reason” provide us with guidance on appropriate tax rates on the wealthy, the powers of a government, the rights of the poor on the wealth of others? Breakdown of faith in Christianity as a collective code of conduct FORCED European intellectuals to answer “yes”, even though this is an impossible enterprise. Enlightenment philosophers faced the task of defining the role of the state, on the basis of reason alone, and without any moral guidance. A broad range of views emerged, which could be lumped into three categories for simplicity:

Hobbes: had a dim view of human nature, and thought the life would be “nasty, brutish, and short”, a war of all against all, without a powerful state to regulate such conflicts.

Locke: was mainly concerned to protect the power and privileges of wealthy landlords – the aristocracy of England. The primary purpose of the state was to protect the wealth and property of the aristocracy from the masses of the poor.

Rousseau: thought that human nature was fundamentally good, and anarchy – no state at all – was the best form of social organization.    

Whereas Hobbes and Rousseau have a difference of opinion about human nature, Locke’s political theory is an example of how power shapes knowledge. Human societies have experimented with a huge variety of political, economic, and social organizations. Without a clear conception of what constitutes a good society, it is impossible for reason to chose among them. Reason cannot arrive at the purpose of human existence, nor can it arrive at a description of an ideal society. However, European intellectuals were forced to deny these obvious truths, and to assert that reason – unaided by intuitions of the heart, and by revelations from God – could in fact legislate the right forms of social, political, and economic organization. This was because rejection of Christianity left them without consensus on a moral basis on which to construct a DEEN – a way of life for a society.  

To understand this issue more clearly, suppose we leave everyone free to do whatever they want, without any rules, or morals. Then, according to Hobbes, society would face “the war of all against all”, and “life would be nasty brutish and short”. On the other hand, Rousseau thought that men could live freely and peacefully in an ideal state of nature, without any government, rules or regulations. Islamic teachings provide us with the insight that all human are born on a good state of nature, but parents and society can educate them away from this natural ideal state. So construction of a good society requires a good educational system which provides moral guidance and trains the character of children. Moral guidance and character cannot be provided by reason alone, and efforts to do so are bound to fail. For a more detailed discussion, see “Marginalization of Morality in Modern Education” http://bit.ly/AZmme    

Consequences of reliance on “reason” alone:

Despite claims by some European philosophers to the contrary, reason by itself cannot take us very far. The standard modes of reasoning work from some axioms to logical consequences. But as many have remarked, these consequences are already contained within the premises. There are many areas of human knowledge which are not accessible to reason alone. One of the most important ones is the problem of how to construct a good society. Political science was the first of the modern secular sciences to emerge, since it was a burning need of Europe, after failure of Christianity to provide a suitable framework. However, rejection of the moral framework of Christianity, and the reliance on reason alone, led to the creation of hidden & concealed moral foundations for political, economic, and social theories required to regulate a secular modern society.

European intellectuals faced the dilemma that one cannot construct a good society without moral foundations, but moral foundations of Christianity led to disastrous outcomes. Some aspects of the solutions they found are discussed very briefly below:

Gradual Transition in Social/Personal Goals:

Freedom and Wealth are INTERMEDIATE goods – anyone can use them to achieve their goals. BUT, they are NOT valuable for themselves. Consensus in a secular society can ONLY be achieved on Freedom and Wealth – let everyone pursue whatever goals they want to pursue. This is a very important transition that occurred in European thought, which requires some effort to grasp. Intermediate goods – useful for achievement of final purpose – were transformed into goals. As many have philosophers have understood, it is irrational to pursue wealth (and freedom) for its own sake – wealth is valuable because it allows us to achieve some other goal. Similarly, freedom is valuable as a freedom to pursue some desirable end, not in itself. Nonetheless, in a secular society, these intermediate goals gradually became final goals, desirable for themselves. Genuine final goals relating to the purpose of our lives, individual and collective, were lost from sight. 

Individualism and Hedonism: A secular society was created to allow followers of different factions of Christianity to live together in peace. However, relegation of religion to a private belief system eventually led to Individualism – pursuit of personal goals, without regard for community and society. Also, rejection of God, Judgment, and afterlife naturally leads to hedonism, or unconstrained pursuit of pleasure, power, and profits in this worldly life.   

Deification of Science: With loss of collective belief in the certainties provided by religion, it was natural to turn elsewhere for secure foundations for collective knowledge. This was accomplished by elevating “science” to be the only source of valid knowledge. This was a huge mistake because the vast majority of human knowledge is based on our personal experiences which are unique and ephemeral, and cannot be experimentally replicated. But, one of the founders of secular modern philosophy, David Hume, argued that all books which did not deal with experimental observations and mathematics should be consigned to the flame:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

 Effectively, secular modernists threw out all of traditional human wisdom into the flames, and assumed that science would provide a replacement. This was an unjustified faith in science, which cannot provide us with guidance on crucial issues, central to creation of a good society.

Handicapped Reason: “Reason” is a very broad term which includes looking at the beautiful design of the universe, and inferring the existence of a Creator. However, European intellectuals limited the meaning of reason to prevent the use of such arguments  – because that would get us trapped into Christianity again!! Reason was bound by rules which PREVENT this derivation. This created a huge dilemma for the philosophers of science: We cannot use order of the Universe to infer existence of a creator. BUT, we can use a falling apple to infer existence of force of gravity! The philosophy of science was created to distinguish between these two inferences and validate the second one while rejecting the first. Because this is an impossible task, philosphers of science continue to be completely confused as to the nature of science and scientific methodology. See for example, a popular textbook called “What is this thing called Science?” by Chalmers, who argues that no one knows the answer to this question.

Logical Positivism & Social Science: The effort to prove that science was the only valid source of knowledge, while religion was pure superstition was crowned with apparent success with the development of the philosophy of Logical Positivism (LP) in early 20th Century. The key idea of LP was that Science relies only on observables. Science, and only science, leads to certain knowledge. All statements regarding unobservables are meaningless nonsense (Religion, Morality). Social Sciences were built in early 20th Century on basis of LP. For example, in economics, the idea of “utility” as the (unobservable) pleasure we derive from consumption was replaced by the observable choice we make when we choose what we prefer over something else. LP had a spectacular crash in 1960’s and 1970’s: philosphers realized that science also involves unobservables like electrons, gravity, quasars, and many other concepts. BUT the foundations of Social Sciences (especially economics) were NOT reconstructed in light of the crash of Logical Positivism. This means that current philosophical foundations of modern economic theory are known to be invalid. For a more detailed discussion, see “The Emergence of Logical Positivism” http://bit.ly/AZelp

Central Defects of Logical Positivism: Logical Positivism is based on the idea that Observations and Reason are the only source of certain knowledge. Imam Al-Ghazali showed, over a thousand years ago, that this assumption is false. We cannot arrive at knowledge using observations and logic alone. Something must be added to this. To cover this gap, Logical Positivist methodology makes ASSUMPTIONS about the hidden structures of reality. These are not articulated, and remain concealed within frameworks used. When used as a foundation for the social sciences, the LP approach lead to a methodology which uses hidden moral foundation. Everything in built on these hidden foundations. The Moral foundations assumed by Western social science are toxic for human development. One of the exponents of Logical Positivism, A. J. Ayer, stated that “morals are just meaningless noise”, since they cannot be derived from observations and logic. But assuming morals are meaningless leads to laws of the jungle, with society shaped by cutthroat competition and survival of the fittest. This is indeed the framework assumed by economic theory, but this contrasts sharply with the Islamic efforts to build a society guided by cooperation and generosity.

How does LP shape modern statistics?

Logical Positivism had a deep influence on the foundations of modern statistics. The central assumption of LP, coming from the denial of God, Judgement Day, and afterlife, is that “Unobservables cannot enter into science”. From this, it is a short step to the idea that everything observable is quantifiable. This has been expressed as Lord Kelvin’s dictum:

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.

This leads to the idea that numbers represent the deepest form of certain knowledge. In the social sciences, it leads to attempts to measure and quantify everything. These myths about the nature of human knowledge have prevented the development of statistics on sound foundations.

Counter-Narrative: Foundations of this course

The Quran starts with the verses “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah – Who believe in the unseen”. The first characteristic of those who are conscious of God is that they believe in the unseen. This is directly opposite to the Logical Positivist philosophy which denies the unseen. This creates dramatic differences between an Islamic approach to statistics, and the conventional positivist approach. These differences will be developed over the course of the twelve chapters which follow. A brief sketch of central differences is listed below.

Real Statistics is directly concerned with learning about the hidden realities which are being partially and imperfectly captured by numbers being used for measurements. This is the opposite of the positivist approach, which treats the numbers as the best and most accurate measures, and ignores the complex realities which create these numbers. In Real Statistics, we must always look beyond the numbers, to understand them. The MEANING of the numbers is NEVER on the surface – the observables are never enough to understand reality. We must interpret and understand numbers within their real-world context.  Because real world contexts will often (almost always) depend on assumptions about unobservables, the numbers can never fully represent the facts.         Therefore- “Numbers cannot lie” is the greatest lie. Numbers ALWAYS lie by concealment and oversimplification of complex realities.

Causality is at the heart of statistics. Learning which variables exercise causal effects on others is what enables us to take informed actions which can reliably shape the future. However, as many have noted, causal effects can never be discovered from numbers alone, because these are intrinsically unobservable. We can observe that X happened and it was followed by Y, but we cannot observe that X caused Y to happen. Causal effects can NEVER be observed in the data. Causal Effects are in the NARRATIVE we weave about the hidden structures of reality which create the patterns in the observations we see.

These ideas lead us to define Statistics as a branch of modern rhetoric. Statistics makes arguments about causal effects using data. Modern statistics is deceptive because these arguments ALWAYS rely on assumptions about hidden real structures, but pretends to be purely about numbers. That is, correlations are measured, but the arguments being made deceptively replace correlation with causation.  These brief and cryptic remarks will be clarified in the final chapters of this textbook.

Rejecting the Theory Practice Divide

Any Islamic theory of knowledge must begin with an understanding of the distinction between useful and useless knowledge. Our Prophet Mohammad SAW prayed for acquisition of useful knowledge, and also sought protection from useless knowledge. To know the difference, we must have a conception of the sources of human welfare, and also of human degeneration. This means that all knowledge about human beings is built on moral foundations, which allow us to differentiate the two. This is puzzling and confusing because Logical Positivism led to the construction of modern social sciences on the opposite premises. It was argued that knowledge must not contain any moral inputs, and that objective knowledge is possible. It was also argued that statistics is a kind of objective and technical knowledge which did not require any moral basis. This illusion created by an artificial separation between theory and practice. We must eliminate this barrier in order to arrive at moral inputs into statistical reasoning?

A fundamental methodological principle for this course is the idea that theory can only be understood within the context of an application. We will teach statistics by explaining how it is used in context of real-world applications. The conventional approach makes a distinction between the Statistician and Field Expert: the statistician understands and analyzes the numbers, without much knowledge about the real-world context from which these numbers come. The field expert takes the statistical analysis and uses it to solve the problems arising in the real world. We argue that the two CANNOT be separated – the statistical analysis depends greatly on the application; exactly the same numbers would lead to radically different analyses in different contexts. We will illustrate this issue clearly by several examples in the text.

Integrating theory and practice leads to Holistic Thinking which goes from End to end, and avoid the problem of fragmentation of knowledge. Suppose that we are working to discover which types of wheat lead to increased yield in which climate/soil? We must ask “WHY are we doing this analysis?” What will this knowledge be used for? Statistician shares moral responsibility for the USE made of this research. Taking the USE into account leads to deep insights, in addition to requiring a moral framework to make such judgments.

Concluding Remarks

A very sketchy outline of a deep and complex subject has been given. More details are available from the links provided. Our goal has been to provide the motivation for the development of this course. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This discussion has been about how the recipe was created. This textbook is meant for a first course in statistics. Our intended audience is undergraduate students encountering statistics for the first time. The level of depth and complexity in this section may be beyond the reach of most of this audience. The course itself is far simpler, and does not require any understanding of the philosophical battles which led to the development of this course.

This course/textbook is an illustration of the Ghazali Project. The central battle facing the Islamic Civilization is the intellectual one. The West has made impressive advances in knowledge, apparently far outdistancing and outshining the intellectual heritage of Islam. This is problematic for Islam since the final message of the God to mankind provides us with complete and perfect guidance until the day of judgement. How can it be possible to make advances on this messaage and to render it obsolete, as Western knowledge claims to do? The Ghazali project brings the out the hidden assumptions made to create the body of modern secular knowledge, show their defects, create alternative sound axioms, and rebuild the entire body of the social sciences on correct moral and methodological foundations.

Links to related materials

This entry was posted in Uncategorized 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.

4 thoughts on “Why an Islamic Approach to Statistics?

  1. Pingback: Islamic Statistics: A Disruptive Technology | An Islamic WorldView

  2. Pingback: Real Statistics: A Radical Approach – WEA Pedagogy Blog

  3. Pingback: Real statistics: a radical approach | Real-World Economics Review Blog

  4. Pingback: Three Foundational Flaws in Statistics | An Islamic WorldView

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