Lecture for Post-graduate students on 10th December 2000 by Professor Omar Hasan Kasule Sr.

4.0 ISLAMIC CRITIQUE OF THE EMPIRICAL METHOD, naqd al manhaj al tajribi



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, and objective.



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.




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.



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 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.



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.






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



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 their existence.

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 and morality.


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.



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 order.



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.



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.




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.



Tauhidi 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.



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 potential bias.


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 following statements.

Methodology is the determinant of knowledge

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 the whole.

Wide but finite frontiers of human knowledge

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 (Istikhlaf),)

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.

Professor Omar Hasan Kasule Sr. December 2000