4.0 ISLAMIC CRITIQUE OF THE EMPIRICAL
METHOD, naqd al manhaj al tajribi
BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EMPIRICAL
The European use of the empirical
method has two established characteristics: (a) It is pragmatic and basically atheistic (b) only observation is the source
of valid knowledge; other sources of knowledge such as istinbat, tarikh, naql are
rejected. The following characteristics of the empirical method are alleged. They may not always hold in practice (a) It is
open-ended, theories are abandoned if no longer sustained by facts (b) It is
methodological (systematic, repeatable, and consistent) (c) It is accurate, precise,
Scientific investigation starts with
hypothesis formulation. The hypotheses are tested by empirical observation and deductions/inductions are made. Ibn Haytham, in his ‘Book of Optics’, kitaab
al Manadhir, illustrates the use of the empirical method. He did a lot of
experiments and interpreted the findings. He realized the importance of mathematics. He used a combination of both inductive
and deductive logic. Ibn Hytham formulated hypotheses in 2 ways: (a) by observation of natural phenomena. For example
he observed that light passing through a hole has the shape of that hole and therefore formed a hypothesis that light travels
in straight lines (b) by analogy for example the moon gets light from the sun; stars by analogy get light from the
sun. To verify the hypotheses about the stars above, Ibn Hytham made the observation that unlike the moon, the shapes of the
stars did not change with distance from the sun. He concluded that the stars emit light of their own. Ibn Hytham moved from
experiment to generalize into a law by concluding that (a) light of whatever type travels in straight lines (b) the incident
ray, the reflected ray, and the normal are in the same plane.
B. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
EMPIRISISM IN INNATE
Empiricism could be said to be an
innate character of humans. They share it with animals. Humans always want to know the explanation of natural phenomena and
what relates one event to another. In the absence of empirical knowledge or wahy
they have sometimes resorted to superstition.
MUSLIM PIONEERS OF THE EMPIRICAL
It is not easy to assign credit for
discovery of the empirical method. Available evidence shows that Muslim scientists in the golden era of Islam were pioneers
of the systematic use of the empirical method. Hitti, William Smith, and George Sarton concluded that it was Muslims who first
used experimentation and observation in a systematic way. Greek science was conjectural and hypothetical. Greeks preferred
reasoning and looked down upon perceptual knowledge. They would spend years in their comfortable arm-chairs reasoning instead
of going out of the room and making observation or setting up a simple experiment to close the issue. Aristotle for example
never thought of testing his theory about the speed of fall of heavy and light objects. Dr Sulaiman Daud concluded after an
analysis of Muslim and European writings that Muslims were the first to criticize Greek logic, al qiyaas al mantiqi, and that they were the first to develop a complete
empirical methodology in the form of qiyaas usuuli.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal in his ‘Reconstruction
of Religious Thought in Islam’ argued that the empirical method was not a European discovery. He quoted contributions
of Ghazzali, Ishraqi, Ibn Taymiyyat, Abubakr al Razi, and Ibn Hazm. Other pioneers of the empirical method were: Ibn Sina,
Al Biruni, al Kindi (d. 260 AH), Jabir Ibn Hayyan (d. 200 AH), Ibn Haytham (d. 340 AH), al Khawarizmi (d. 387 AH).
EUROPEAN PIONEERS OF THE EMPIRICAL
European history ascribes ‘discovery’
of the empirical method to Roger Bacon (1561-1626 CE). According to Prantl, Roger Bacon learned the empirical method from
Arabs. Other European pioneers of the method such as San Simon 1760-1825 CE, August Kant 1798-1857 CE, Emile Durkheim 1858-1917
CE built on Bacon’s ideas.
METHODOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE
The Qur’an was and continues
to be a methodological inspiration to Muslim scientists. Qur’anic, hadith,
and usul al fiqh sciences are a rich intellectual heritage on which Muslim scientists
built their methodology. They learned from and improved Greek science. The improvements were inspired by the Qur’an
and the sunnat. Muslims pioneered the empirical methodology and transmitted it
to Europe just before
the renaissance. The European copied the empirical method but not its context
hence their misuse of the method. Methodological development in empirical science in the ummah has stagnated over the centuries.
The Greek deductive logic hampered the development of the Qur’an-based inductive method. In inductive logic an observation
is generalized in the form of a hypothesis that can be tested empirically. In deductive logic, a hypothesis is verified experimentally
and the findings are used to interpret other facts based on the hypothesis. Induction usually is followed by deduction. Biased European methodology was imposed on the Muslim world over the past 2 centuries.
It was claimed to be the only source of valid knowledge. Many Muslims unaware of their heritage accepted this.
C. STRENGTHS OF THE EMPIRICAL METHODOLOGY
C. WEAKNESSES IN THE USE OF THE EMPIRICAL
PROBLEM IN USE AND NOT IN ESSENCE
The empirical methodology is innately good but the manner and context of its use lead to the following problems: (a)
biases due to a priori assumptions (b) limitations of observation by human senses (c) limitations of human intellect (d) lack
of an integrating paradigm
BIASES DUE TO PRIOR ASSUMPTIONS
European use of the empirical method
has many biases. A priori assertions or non-assertions, assertions by default, bias the selection of fields/issues of investigation, formulation of hypotheses, selection
of hypotheses for testing, reporting of data, interpretation of data, and use of information. The source of frustration with
European empiricism is that some assertions are understood but are not stated explicitly so that the uninitiated may not recognize
European thought is basically materialist.
It has several manifestations as positivism, empiricism, pragmatism, and semanticism. A materialistic view of the universe
contradicts the Islamic view of duality of matter and spirit, mind and body, soul and intellect, philosophy and religion,
here and the hereafter.
The theory of evolution evolved England
in the 19th century. It coincidentally provided ‘scientific’ justification for industrial exploitation
for the less fit in Europe and the colonies by the fittest that alone had the right of survival. The
theory has had a big impact on the thinking of many natural and social scientists.
Scientific hypotheses, scientific
language, and choice of what to study reflect an underlying assumption of the innate superiority of the most ‘evolved’
human species in Europe. Psychological leanings cause
bias. Personal or group selfish interests can unconsciously lead to bias because of the European dichotomy between science
The life of the scientist is not
put in the equation. A scientist is a prisoner of his culture. Only the aqida of
tauhid that is based on universality can rescue him from such a prison. Many of
the leading scientists were morally corrupt even psychologically sick yet their theories and discoveries were not suspected.
There is an implied unscientific assumption that a person who tells lies in his ordinary life will not do so about his laboratory
research. The character and moral worth of the investigator is not taken into account when judging the validity of the data
on the assertion that science is morally/ethically neutral, hiyaad akhlaqi. This
is the cause of so much scientific fraud most of which is undetectable. The Islamic approach will involve checking the moral
worth of the researcher in the assessment of any research data to void the possibility of scientific fraud.
Regarding natural laws as final and
accepting the laws of evolution that explain the start and progress of life as chance or accidental events make the European
scientist consider the existence of a creator superfluous. No empirical experiment can be set up to test the proposition yet
there are observable indications especially in empirical behavior of humans that there is a super-natural power.
Diseases of the heart can lead to
biased empirical observations. Among these diseases are: hiqd, kibr, kadhb. Medical
literature is replete with biased research and conclusions that associate undesirable diseases and conditions like low IQ
& low educational achievement with the disadvantaged races or ethnic groups. In most cases it is the poor physical and
social conditions of the disadvantaged that cause the disease or the conditions and not their race or ethnicity.
LIMITATIONS OF OBSERVATION BY HUMAN
Empirical knowledge is relativistic
and probabilistic. European science is too arrogant in stating its conclusions as established facts when the observations
on which they are based may be wrong. Empiricism depends on human senses. Human senses are limited in their observation and
can be deceived; this failure is not cured by use of instruments because they are aids and extensions of the basic human senses.
Both European empiricists, those
who assert that empirical experience is a source of knowledge, and rationalists, those who assert that human reason is source
of knowledge, agree that there is no source of knowledge outside the human. The assertion that empirical knowledge is the
only source of valid knowledge excludes 2 major fields of study: (a) ultimate questions about the universe that can not be
proved rationally: its start, its future, its end, purpose of human life, life, death and after-death (b) human behavior:
motivation, and spiritual experiences.
There are ultimates of religion that
cannot be proved rationally or empirically. The European paradigm that does not recognize existence of limits to human senses
and intellect cannot accept that some matters cannot be investigated empirically; other sources of knowledge such as wahy (knowledge of ghaib) must be used. They are just ignored as if
they do not exist. A proper approach would have been a declaration by the empiricists and rationalists that some questions
lie outside the bounds of unaided human investigation. A clear distinction must be made between assertions that can be investigated
empirically (scientific) and those that cannot be investigated empirically (non-scientific).
The argument of secularist empiricists
and rationalists is flawed because there are many phenomena in science that are believed but are not yet proved. A good example
is the disease of cholera. It was established that contaminated water was a cause of cholera and that the disease-causing
agent is transferred from the sick to the healthy by means of such water. It was only later that the vibrio cholerae organism was isolated. By that time public health measures had already controlled out the disease
in the industrialized countries. These measures did not depend on complete knowledge and had a measure of belief in the unseen
yet no one disputed their effectiveness.
Islam recognizes three sources of
knowledge, 2 being primary and the third being dependent on the other two. Revelation (wahy)
and empirical observation are independent. They however both need intellect, ‘aql,
for understanding. Muslim thinkers have mentioned other sources of knowledge such as intuition (hadas), inspiration (ilhaam), and instinct (wijdaan). These either have revelation (wahy) or an empirical basis
that may not be obvious to the unitiated. Wahy remains the absolute source since
human senses and intellect are known by ordinary human experience to be fallible.
The empirical method performs well
in investigation of the present but is awfully incompetent in its historicity and futuristicity. Investigation of the past
and the future requires knowledge of the unseen (ilm al ghaib) that comes only
from wahy. Ghaib can be absolute or
relative. Empirical investigations continually roll back the frontiers of relative ghaib
but cannot even start looking into absolute ghaib. The problem is that the European
use of the empirical method just assumes that uninvestigatable matters just do not exist or are irrelevant. Untestable assertions
are classified as unscientific.
Existence, al wujuud, is at 5 levels: inner/real, dhaati, empirical/perceived,
hissi, imaginary, khiyaali, intellectual/abstract,
‘aqli, and illusionary, shibhi.
The empirical method can only observe the hissi, the rest have to be inferred.
It is therefore limited in the understanding of the whole existence.
European empiricism, by looking at
the human as only matter, does not have the tools to understand human duality. It fails in understanding causal relations
in situations in which humans change the ecosystem and their own internal environment. Humans can create new facts that accord
with their inner biases such that an investigator coming later is confused about the causal chain and cannot tell the correct
LACK OF AN INTEGRATING PARADIGM
Too narrow specialization in science
has resulted in a situation of knowing the parts and failing to put them together. Knowing the whole picture makes the study
of the parts more meaningful and is the Islamic approach. European empiricism as
used does not acknowledge the basic assertions of tauhid that there is one creator
for the universe and that therefore there must be an integrating paradigm for
all human research and actions. A practical consequence of this is that one advance in one area is a catastrophe in another
to the extent that many insightful scientists fear the ultimate destruction of the ecosystem. Industrialisation causes air
and water pollution. The modern society has destroyed the family. Nuclear power generates electricity but is also a potential
destruction of the whole universe if nuclear weapons are ever used.
The claim of universality and objectivity
is not true. It would have been more honest to accept the minimum that European science reflects a Euro-centric view of the
world. Many illustrations of this can be given. The European development model failed when transferred to third world countries.
The failure was not due to intellectual deficiency among third world recipients but due to incompatibility of the underlying
world-view and philosophies of life.
LIMITATIONS OF THE HUMAN INTELLECT
Human intellect is necessary for
interpretation and understanding of empirical observations. This intellect has
limitations and there are matters like the human himself that lie outside its reach. A human cannot understand himself fully.
Rationalism has a basis in the Qur’an. Reason is needed to understand the Qur’an and the sunnat. However there
are transgressions in the use of reason that lead to false results. This occurs when reason is employed in areas that are
exclusive for wahy. The Ummat like the Europeans has had excesses by rationalists
like the mutazilites. Ibn Taymiyyat, al Ghazzali, and other scholars of the same
calibre came to bring the ummat back to the original methodology after the excesses of the Muslim rationalists.
5.0 TOWARDS AN ISLAMIC METHODOLOGY
A. UNIVERSALITY OF ISLAM
A valid fear could be expressed that
correcting the European bias in science will produce another type of bias this time being towards Islam. Islam is the only
religion that claims universality as a central and dominating doctrine. The Islamic world-view is the universal view and is
therefore not a bias. The comprehensiveness of the Islamic frame leaves no room for bias. Bias is in essence standing apart
and looking at a phenomenon from a certain pre-determined point of view only. A Muslim scientist with a universal outlook
is therefore protected from such bias.
B. TAUHID and CAUSAL RELATIONS
science starts with the following prior assumptions: (a) tauhid (Allah, His attributes,
uluhiyyat, rububiyyat) (b) limitations to human knowledge (c) causality, sababiyyat, is the relation between the cause and effect. The main field of scientific investigation are the causal
relations. The causes are creatable by Allah and He could change them. Thus causal relations are not always what humans expect.
The creator can disregard the so-called natural laws. A Muslim believes that miracles are associated with causal relations
that are in the realm of ghaib but also recognizes that in practical terms he need
not delve into this field.
C. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ISLAMIC
Dr Abdulhamid Abusulayman presented
characteristics of the Islamic methodology as follows:
scope: The Islamic methodology has a very wide scope that encompasses and harmonizes both the seen and the unseen,
takaamul al ghaib wa al shahadat. Empirical research is in the province of the
seen and cannot trespass into the unseen. Guidance from the unseen helps encourage empirical research and guide it away from
Sources: There are three main sources of knowledge and methodology: Revelation (wahy), Intellect (aql), and Empirical observation, kawn. These sources are complementary and are never contradictory. Full knowledge requires use of all the sources
Basic principles: Islamic methodology has 3 main principles: one-ness/unity, wahdaniyyat,
vicegerancy, al khilafat, moral responsibility/accountability, al masuliyyat al akhlaqiyyat
Basic concepts: The Islamic methodology relies on the following basic concepts: creation and existence have a
purpose, ghaiyyat al khalq wa al wujuud; truth
is absolute; however humans are at different relative distances from it, mawdhu’iyyat
al haqiiqat wa nisbiyyat al mawqiu minha; humans have a free will that carries responsibilities with it, hurriyat al qaraar wa al iradat al insaniyyat wa masuliyyatuha; ultimate
reliance on Allah (SWT), al tawakkul; causality
as a basis for human action, al sababiyyat fi adaa al fi’ilu al insaani;
Peculiarities: A distinguishing characteristic of the Islamic methodology is its comprehensiveness, shumuliyyat.
The above analyses have shown that
the actual processes of the empirical methodology (hypothesis, testing, conclusion) are not the problem but the context and
manner in which the method is used. What is therefore needed is to define the Islamic context and make it predominant. The
reframing will succeed most if it is part of the education of the Muslim scientist. The education of a Muslim scientist should
encourage development of a culture involving attitudes and values that can be learned from the Islamic methodological sciences.
Studying the methodological Islamic sciences of usul al fiqh, hadith, and tafsir will help mould the personality and intellectual preparation of the future researcher within an Islamic
context. Studying the history and achievements of the early Muslim scientists will be an inspiration for the young generation.
Give your views about each of the
Methodology is the determinant of
Muslim scientists should start with,
develop, and build on the ummah’s methodological heritage in inculcating a culture (attitudes and values) of systematic
scientific enquiry to be able to make original and innovative contributions to scientific knowledge
Empirical research is a type of ijtihad
The basic elements of the empirical
method are valid; Muslims do not object to the essence but to the Eurocentric philosophical frame and inappropriate use
A tauhidi and not a Euro-centric frame can motivate excellent and innovative S&T in the ummah.
Unstated and stated a priori biases in the formulation of hypotheses, selection of hypotheses for testing, interpretation, and use of scientific knowledge
The assertion that only empirical
knowledge is valid
Arrogance in not acknowledging limitations
to human observation and interpretation of physical phenomena
Dealing with the parts and missing
Wide but finite frontiers of human
Appreciating tauhid as an integrating holistic universal intellectual paradigm for all processes of empirical research
Accepting natural laws (sunan al llaah) as a basis for an orderly universe with stable causal relations
Study of physical phenomena ( tadabbur aayat llaah) as basis for empirical observations and interpretation
Uprightness (Istiqamat) as protection from methodological biases
Vicegerancy of the human on earth
placing the universe at the service
of humans (taskhiir),
and (building civilization (isti’imaar)
The concept of abrogation (naskh) motivates understanding of the dynamic changes and growth of scientific facts and theories
Scientific exegesis (tafsir ‘ilmi),
subject-based exegesis (tafsir maudhui)
The science of hadith critique (‘ilm naqd al hadith) relate to data interpretation.
The science of narrators (‘ilm al jarh wa al ta’adiil/’ilm al rijaal) relates to the assessment and development of an
honest and ethical personality in the scientific researcher.
The discipline of qiyas usuli relates to the inductive logic empirical science.
The theory of the general purposes
of the law (maqasid al sharia) relates to the generalization or external validity
of empirical observations and theories. The axioms of the law (al qawaid al fiqhiyyat al kulliyat) relate to established
scientific laws. There are parallels in S&T practice for the following sources of law: istihbaab, istihsaan, istislah, ijma, and ‘urf.