Islamic Perspectives on Theory-Building In the Social Sciences
Islamic Perspectives on Theory-Building
In the Social Sciences
[Theory-Building - Social Sciences – Islamic Perspectives - Research Methodology –
Positivism – Post-positivism – Spiritual Factors - Ibrahim Ragab]
Ibrahim A. Ragab Ph.D.
Professor & Chairman, Dept. of Social Work
Al-Imam University, Riyadh Saudi Arabia
Paper submitted to the 21st Annual Conference, Association of Muslim Social Scientists , East
Lansing, Michigan , October 30 -November 1,1992 ; Jumada Alawal 3 - 5,1413 .
Islamic Perspectives on Theory-Building In the Social Sciences
The issue of the relevance of Islam to modern "scientific" thinking is
flanked on both sides by extreme claims. On further investigation, however,
these claims turn out to result from certain misconceptions. On the one hand, we
have those legions of Muslim social scientists who may still flinch at hearing of
attempts to integrate Revelation with science. Many would find the title of this
paper problematic, if not outright self-contradictory. What does Islam (or any
other religion, for that matter) have to do with science, or with theory building,
they would ask. This attitude should hardly be unexpected , considering the type
of academic and professional socialization that we all went through. The
scientific establishment, with its overriding positivist/empiricist leanings has for
long adopted and encouraged an attitude - or more correctly a "faith" - of
separation between science and religion. Consider, for example, the following
statement by no less an authority than the National Academy of Sciences in the
United States, in 1981, to the effect that: "Religion and science are separate and
mutually exclusive realms of human thought, presentation of which in the same
context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."
(Sperry, 1988: 608-609). This terse statement illustrates the attitudes of those
scientists still clinging to the old paradigm, who seem totally oblivious of the
fundamental criticisms leveled from all directions at such an outdated view of
On the other hand, we have those Muslim scientists, active in the Islamic
Science movement, who may find the content of the paper (not its title) rather
objectionable, because it does not depart enough - for them - from the western
model of science. Islamic, they would argue, is synonymous with originality and
uniqueness. Islamic science is expected to detach itself completely from the
contemporary materialist , Western-minded, positivist/empiricist model of
science. Any convergence with that inherently defective model, even
inadvertently, would be detrimental to our pure Islamic version of the truth, they
Despite the disparity between these two extreme positions, they both have
something in common, that is, a failure to see the innate "wholeness" of any true
search for the truth. Truth, according to general Islamic principles, should be the
judge of men. Men do not judge truth. Those who in modesty and sincerity
search for the truth shall be guided by God to ultimately find it. The first group
of objectors are to be reminded that search for verified knowledge (if that is what
science is all about ) is only another human activity pursued by the Muslim
scientist, which should be guided by the same Islamic values that guide his entire
life. Divine Revelation should be his main source of inspiration, particularly when
he deals with the world of the "unseen", which cannot be ignored in the study of
man. The second group of objectors are to be reminded that Islam is the final
word from The Creator of the universe, hence it bears guidance to all people.
Creating artificial boundaries that separate rather than integrate people does not
serve humanity nor serve the cause of Islam.
Mainly for the benefit of the first group of objectors, the first part of this
paper is devoted to a detailed critique of the traditional model of science. The
roots of its positivist/empiricist biases are laid bare. It is argued that the schism
between modern science and religious belief is as unnecessary as is artificial , is
ideologically inspired, only resulting from peculiar historical and geographical
nuissances. Our hope is that this expose may help the contingents of social
scientists who received their professional socialization within the prevalent
western paradigm to see the scientific method as it really is - nothing more than
one possible way of knowing the world, and one with many shortcomings and
flaws that cry for rectification.
It will be shown that the "traditional" view of science and of the scientific
method , which the social sciences inherited from the natural sciences, did indeed
thwart our efforts to understand man, or to improve the human condition. We
will also show how its positivist/empiricist biases had contributed immensely to
the poverty of the social sciences, by the arrogant dismissal as non-scientific , or
even as non-sensical , any reference to the spiritual/religious aspects of the
In the second part of the paper we suggest an alternative scheme informed by the
Islamic paradigm that aims at integrating the empirical and the non-empirical
aspects of man into a unified system of explanation of human behavior . Theory
building, from that vantage point, is explored, with an emphasis on the utilization
of revelation i.e. the Quran and Verified Hadith as a major source for plausible
hypotheses. This is not meant as a naive or simplistic attempt to superimpose
religiously derived concepts over the science of man without proof. It is rather a
deliberate attempt to bank on the rich insights derived from these transcendent
sources after subjecting propositions derived therefrom to stringent procedures
of verification . The proposed model does not in any way allow for unwanted
dogmatism, nor for unwarranted xenophobia which a priori rejects anything that
comes by way of non-Muslims. Verification is achieved through the good old
mechanisms for self-correction of the traditional model of science i.e. testing and
falsification, however with a different twist !
The genius (and maybe the proof of the truthfulness) of a true Islamic
science lies not in its exclusiveness or parochiality, but rather in its inclusiveness
and universality, and in its embracing and welcoming all "well-founded" truths -
irrespective of their original source. Islam is a religion for all humanity, not an
occult. Those ready to go to extremes in digging the esoteric aspects of Islamic
civilization, pretending they represented mainstream Islamic science only do a
disservice to Islam and to science. Nasr (1988) seems to have done just this
when he suggested that Islamic science should be based on the metaphysical and
cosmological doctrines of certain Sufis of his own selection, whose ideas
squarely fall outside the mainstream of Islamic thought. Sardar (1988) rightly
described Nasr as a traditionalist guilty of unnecessary violence to Islamic
science when he consistently ignores "non-Sufi traditions of Islam and offers his
variety of Sufism as the only complete solution to all problems". He also
declares that Nasr's insistence on "the methodology of the gnostic tradition, more
particularly Sufism, does not work", because we cannot "have access to it
independently or at will". (p.14). Add to that pronouncement the fact that
Islamic epistemology acknowledges the role played by the senses and the human
mind beside intuition as media for valid knowledge of the universe. Sardar
dismisses Nasr's formulations as inadequate and one-sided, advising us: "The
exponents of Islamic Science must go beyond gnosis to produce something that
is clearly distinguishable as science" (p.15).
Anees and Davies (1989) in contrast with Nasr, perceive of Islamic science
in a much broader perspective. They call for the revitalization of the concept of
ilm, which they describe as the Islamic concept of knowledge, the pursuit of
which is guided by the Islamic world-view. In Islam, knowledge "can be pursued
only within the framework of values". These values according to those authors,
guide Islamic science towards a healthy, "balanced interaction of revelation and
reason". The scientific endeavor should be "founded upon accountability and
social responsibility". They also argue that Islamic science "is not to be equated
with re-inventing the wheel. There is no subtle attempt to undermine or sabotage
the cumulative human labor of amassing wisdom" (p.253). A very wise piece of
advice indeed .
The same authors, however, do not seem to follow their own
prescriptions. They indulge into exaggerated language in their attempt to
dissociate Islamic science from western science. They repeatedly emphasize that
"Islamic science is an entity on its own, not defined in comparison with and
amendment of an already existing science".(p.253) They take the Islamization of
knowledge movement to task for its supposedly
"lack of attention to an Islamic theory of knowledge..., [This] holds out the
prospect of an easy accommodation to a synthesis between western 'scientific'
knowledge and Islamic sentiment and belief, the primrose path to mental
inertia...it is a very short and seductive step from this easy synthesis based upon
the status quo to the notion that no synthesis at all is needed..."(p.256).
Fortunately, Winkel (1990) responded to these assertions with equally strong
and recriminating statements. He even described similar, but more recent,
writings by Sardar and Anees as "potentially disastrous", more interested in
"demolition" than "construction". We would like to add at this point that a truly
"Islamic" perspective on the whole debate should be characterized by
moderation and fairness. Even as we reject the extremes of western science, we
cannot but be fair, for "let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to
wrong and depart from justice" (Quran, 5:8)
Although western science is clearly guilty of many errors of omission and
of commission (Capra, 1982; Augros & Stanciu, 1984; Alvares, 1988; Ravetz,
1988; Wilber, 1990), it still is worthy of and capable of overhauling. Its
methodology could be reconciled with broader world-views. Islam can provide
science, not only with a set of coherent values which could rid it of most of its
destructive consequences, but it could equally offer a more integrative, holistic
methodology commensurate with these valuative parameters. Sardar's work
described by Anees & Davies (p.p. 254-255) and Faruki's work (as edited by
AbuSulayman, 1989) provide us with a general framework of Islamic values with
a bearing on Islamic scientific thinking. This framework effectively sets up the
boundaries for the working Muslim scientist's job and provides him with
guidelines for doing his daily work. What we badly need is a framework for
theory building that would incorporate and express such framework in practical
terms. The model presented in the second part of this paper is proposed by way
of introducing a modest attempt to fill in this gap.
The approach we opted for in this presentation, in general, could be
described as a "minimalist" proposition, although for many Muslim social
scientists it could be seen as rather "revolutionary". We should remember that
this is a transitional period, where the social sciences seem to be feeling the
throes of some really radical changes. Most Muslim social scientists, however,
still complacently subscribe to ideas informed by the traditional model of western
science - with its implicit ontology and epistemology, and the methodologies
emanating therefrom. It would be unreasonable and unproductive indeed to go
on the business of bombarding them with rhetorical statements on how great
Islamic science is and how good its "pluralistic methodology" is. Nor is it
helpful to take them - in the name of Islam - to trips into the uncharted lands of
esoteric Sufi experiences or intuition as methodologies (cf. Bakar, 1985). It
would be only fair to the traditionalists to start from the old consensus, and then
to start building towards a higher consensus. This seems to be a more realistic
The strategy adopted here is based on doing our best to salvage any
elements deemed - after careful scrutiny - to be sound in the traditional scientific
method, to the extent that they would prove to be so. No element is a priori
discarded until it is judged without doubt to be worthless, flawed, or harmful;
with due process! Muslim social scientists can hardly afford the luxury (or the
foolhardiness) of throwing away - in exchange for ego trips - a legacy their own
ancestors helped bring into existence, even with the tears and twists it has
incurred at the hands of others. The overall criterion for omission or
commission of any aspects of the traditional scientific method is ultimately that
of compatibility with the tenets of mainstream Islamic thinking. In the proposed
model, the ontological and epistemological assumptions of Islam are assumed to
provide the general framework without which no discussion of methodology
would be valid.
One of the advantages of this strategy is that it allows us to start from
where we actually are today without loosing sight of the Islamic ideal, rather than
starting from where we should have been, had not Islamic history went awry.
Another advantage is that it allows for the utilization of the dire criticisms from
within the western scientific community itself - as far as these go. It is not
coincidental that we find most of these self-reevaluations of western science
pointing in directions that Muslims have always - throughout their earlier history -
held to be true. This, of course, does not mean that all the prescriptions of the
western new paradigmers are valid, from an Islamic point of view. Nor does it
mean that we stop where they did. Western critics of the traditional scientific
method seem very confused and perplexed themselves. It is time Muslim social
scientists extended a hand-once again - to help invigorate the scientific venture,
derailed ( while also served ) by others during centuries of stagnation of the
II. THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD AND THE POSITIVIST/EMPIRICIST
Contrary to what is widely believed, contemporary reevaluations of the
history of science have shown that the "idea of science... [as we know it today]
is only one of many, and that it is a product of temporary circumstances"
(Ravetz,1975: 366). Historians of science, according to Ravetz, are also coming
to view present conceptions of science as "one phase in a continuing evolution,
and that modern science as we know it is an integral part of European civilization
(and the Western way of life), reflecting "its faults as well as its virtues" (p.375).
In the same vein, Johan Galtung (1977) adds that any discussion of scientific
methodology "without reference to the underlying social structure is misleading.
That kind of discussion will only lead to pretenses of universalism and
Tudor (1982) completes the demystification process by stating that
"science is a social activity like any other and thus subject to similar 'irrational'
constraints and virtues". (p.31). So, far from being the certain, unbiased,
immutable, and heroic activity that we think, the scientific method was, and is in
fact shaped through its development by such mundane things as culture,
ideology, politics, self interest, and raging passions. These and similar eye-
opening insights teach us how fallible we all are, and that we cannot grant, even
to science, the kind of respect and trust that only religion did one day muster,
which science valiantly fought to dispossess it of!
Bergin (1980) sums up the situation beautifully when he states:
"Science has lost its authority as the dominating source of truth it
once was. This change is both reflected in and stimulated by analyses that
reveal science to be an intuitive and value-laden cultural form...Although a
belief in the value of the scientific method appropriately persists, there is a
widespread disillusionment with the way it has been used and a loss of faith
in it as the cure for human ills" (p.95).
We have a moral, and even a "scientific", obligation and responsibility to examine
very closely our conceptions of the scientific method to see where it went wrong,
particularly in the study of man. This takes us directly to its positivist/ empiricist
Any standard definition of the traditional scientific method at once reveals
its positivist/empiricist biases. Theodorson and Theodorson (1969) define the
scientific method as "the building of a body of scientific knowledge through
observation, experimentation, generalization, and verification." To this they add
that it is based on "the assumption that knowledge is based on what is
experienced through the senses ... [and that it] must be empirically verifiable"
The same dictionary defines "positivism" as "the philosophical position
holding that knowledge can be derived only from sensory experience" (p.306).
A variant of positivism, "logical positivism", only concedes that also "logical
analysis is needed to clarify meanings that have been verified or falsified through
sense experience, but such analyses should be closely associated with empirical
observation..." (p.307). Logical positivists at the same time condemn"...as
nonsense (really non-sense; i.e.., complete absence of factual meaning)...all
moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical assertions". (Feigl, 1975: 879).
"Logical empiricism", a modified version of the above, developed in the
mid third of this century, relinquished the designation "positivism" because of the
negative attitude it carries toward the existence of any "theoretical" entities.
"Empiricism" is, however, retained as it insists on "the requirement that
hypotheses and theories be empirically testable". (p.881). Logical empiricism,
which is the dominant philosophy guiding scientific inquiry today, also insists
that "all statements about moral ...or religious values are scientifically unverifiable
and meaningless" (Levi, 1975: 273)
But how the messianic zeal with which the empiricists defend the senses as
the only source of acceptable "scientific" knowledge be explained ? And why
that vehement insistence on the complete rejection of all other possible sources
for attaining knowledge, especially revelation? It would have been interesting to
trace here the historical development of science and the scientific method to be
able to give detailed answers to these two questions. That, however, goes
beyond the scope of this paper. Fortunately, there exists a vast literature on the
subject, some of which is fairly accessible, to which the reader may be referred
(Levi, 1975; Ravetz, 1975; Sperry, 1988).
Suffice it at this point to conclude with Polkinghorne (1984) that:
"In Western philosophy, there has been an ongoing search for a
foundation or ground upon which to secure true knowledge. After scriptural
authority and Descartes' clear and undoubtable ideas...were found wanting,
there was a general acceptance of sense experience as the base for certainty".
(p.418) [emphasis mine].
There seems to be general agreement today that the emergence of that biased
positivist/empiricist tradition, with its singleminded emphasis on human sense
experiences was only the bitter harvest of the unfortunate conflict between
church and science during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment . While
scientists were decidedly bent on breaking loose from church authority at any
price, it seems that they went on to throw the baby with the bathwater.
We are told by historians of science that "Western philosophy in the
Middle Ages was primarily a Christian philosophy, clarifying the divine
revelation...[but] the Renaissance mounted its revolt against the reign of religion
and therefore reacted against the church, against authority, against
Scholasticism, and against Aristotle." (Levi, 1975: 261). Toulmin (1975) adds
that "Francis Bacon, author of the method of exhaustive induction...reacted
against the Scholastic reliance on Aristotle's authority by calling for a return to
firsthand experience...was preoccupied with empirically observed facts as the
starting point for all science..." (p.378) To clear away from Aristotle, whose
ideas were adopted as official doctrine by the church, an alternative source for
gaining true knowledge independent from the church had to be found and to be
consecrated! Sense experience, available to everybody and not monopolized by
the clergy was the answer. However, to free science - forever - from the grip of
the church or from any other arbitrary authority, for that matter, sense
experiences were to be seen as the "sole source" of scientific knowledge. This
was meant to completely exclude revelation - true or false, christian or otherwise
- from occupying any place in the scientific enterprise.
This empirical bias served its purposes very well when physical scientists
studied natural , non-human phenomena. The subject matter they dealt with, by
its nature, was amenable to observation through the senses and through
equipment designed to extend their reach. Verification of the findings was
guaranteed through replication of experiments. Certainty was easier to achieve, or
so it seemed - up to a point. This explains the exemplary success of the
"traditional" scientific method in the study of natural phenomena.
Hoping to achieve the same degree of success in the study of man, social
scientists (or rather philosophers) vehemently called for the application of the
same methods used in the natural sciences in their own field. But this was not the
only motive behind the call for emulating physical science. Scientists were also
keen to seal out any influence the church may still claim on the "scientific" study
of man. This is where Auguste Compte's positivism fits in, with its insistence
that "The methods of physical sciences are regarded as the only accurate means
of obtaining knowledge, and therefore the social sciences should be limited to the
use of these methods and modeled after the physical sciences". (Theodorson &
Theodorson, 1969: 306). Feigl (1975) points out the antichurch motive behind
this call when he states that "In its basic ideological posture, positivism is thus
worldly, secular, antitheological, and antimetaphysical" (p.877). But what did all
that mean for the social sciences, and to the helping professions? How did
nineteenth century views on the world and the methods of knowing about it held
by the physical scientists affect the study of man?
III. IMPACT ON THE SOCIAL SCIENCES:
IN 1843 John Stuart Mill wrote: "The backward state of the moral (human)
sciences can be remedied by applying to them the methods of physical science,
duly extended and generalized." (Polkinghorne, 1984: 416). This advice was
scrupulously heeded by social scientists since then. Similar sentiments are still
being expressed by leading philosophers, such as Willard Quine, until recently.
(Wilber, 1990:25). The consequences of emulating the physical sciences proved
to be dire indeed. To appreciate the extent of the harm done through the
application of these same methods to the social sciences, let us examine the
character of science and its methods which were applied in the physical sciences
at that time and which still drag on up to this day. Authorities on the subject
would tell us that nineteenth century science could be described as materialistic,
mechanistic, and reductionist, reflecting conceptions of reality which were
prevalent in that era.
In physics, Newton's formulations have since the seventeenth century been
successfully applied to explain much of the physical world on the basis of the
existence of "matter" alone. As a result, scientists came to view "materialism" as
part and parcel of the scientific method itself (Augros & Stanciu, 1984). This
was, according to Capra (1982), coupled with a "mechanical" view of the
"For two and a half centuries physicists have used a mechanistic
view of the world to develop and refine...classical physics...Matter was
thought to be the basis of all existence, and the material world was seen as a
multitude of objects assembled into a huge machine...[that] consist of
elementary parts...complex phenomena could be always understood by
reducing them to their building blocks and by looking for the mechanisms
through which these interacted. This attitude, known as reductionism, ...
has often been identified with the scientific method." (p.p.31- 32).
When the traditional scientific method was applied to the social sciences, it
carried with it this intellectual (?) baggage. Man was understood and has been
studied in the same mechanical, reductionist, and materialist terms. Research
methods and research designs reflecting these same ontological and
epistemological assumptions were used (Ford, 1984). All this was done without
serious reflection on how the subject matter of the social sciences differed in
very significant ways from that of the physical sciences. This type of confusing
very different phenomena is sometimes called a "category error" or a "category
mistake" , which "occurs when very different categories of phenomena are
treated alike" (Weick, 1987:222) . The effects were debilitating indeed.
We do not need to go to great lengths documenting the failure of the
behavioral and social sciences in their efforts to understand man and to account
for his behavior. This is well documented and all too familiar. And many critics
are indeed coming to see the connection between these failures and the utilization
of that outdated view of the world and of science which still dominate the social
sciences even today.
Many critics of psychological research and practice for example, are
expressing this realization in words not very different from the following:
"Psychology has an identity problem. After more than a century of
official existence...there is even debate of our subject matter...Staats and
Kosh agree that psychology's splintered condition results, at least in part, and
probably most importantly, from the existence of sharply polarized opinion
about the epistemological underpinnings of psychology". (Kimble, 1984:833).
Similar assessments of the situation in psychology abound. (Howard, 1985;
Augros & Stanciu, 1984; Bergin, 1980; Polkinghorne, 1984). The same applies
to sociology (Dixon, 1973; Gouldner, 1970). Echoes of the above could be also
heard in the other social sciences. (Moten, 1990). In social work, a heated
debate has been going on for a decade to the same effect. (see references to
such works in, Peile, 1988).
The basic themes which run through most of these critical reviews revolve
around the fact that human beings are different in many ways from things,
machines or other living organisms. This fact should, accordingly, entail
corresponding modifications in the theoretical models and research methods
used to study those human beings. Howard (1985) puts it nicely when he says
that "...if humans possess characteristics that are unlike the characteristics of
subject matter studied by other sciences, then an appropriate science of human
behavior might need to be somewhat different from other extant sciences".
(p.p.259-260). Polkinghorne (1984) goes one step further by identifying five
areas in which the "human realm" is different, and suggesting the appropriate
research stance corresponding to each. The human realm is different in terms of
a) its systemic character; hence, contextual relations are more important
than those among parts.
b) its unclear boundaries is the rule not the exception; hence, the
inappropriateness of deductive-numeric operations.
c) unfinished quality; the human realm is in flux, and has a history;
hence, correlations between elements may hold at one time but not at another.
d) composition, knowing humans is a "human" activity; hence, there is no
absolute point outside ourselves from which to investigate.
e) difficulty of access, the human realm is not directly observable from
the outside, is saturated with meaning, hence, we have to accept evidence
with a different nature other than observation.
Another theme that runs through criticisms of a social science following on
the footsteps of the physical sciences is the total exclusion of the "spiritual" or
religious dimensions of the human being. Bergin (1980) for example reports that
"an examination of 30 introductory psychology texts turned up no references to
the possible reality of spiritual factors. Most did not have the words God or
religion in their indexes". Any comparable study of textbooks used in most
Muslim countries would certainly reveal comparable findings. How can this ever
be explained in our case, except on account of uncritical emulation or blind
imitation of western traditions ?
Fortunately , Roger sperry (1988) describes a "theoretical turnabout"
which is taking place in psychology. He tells us, at long last, that the emerging
"new view of reality ... accepts mental and spiritual qualities as causal
realities...Instead of excluding mind and spirit, the new outlook puts subjective
mental forces near the top of the brains's causal control hierarchy and gives them
primacy in determining what a person does" (p.p 608-609). But how did this
turnabout come through? Was it the result of literal "soul"-searching on the part
of behavioral and social scientists experiencing a theoretical near-breakdown?
Far from it! The emerging new paradigm was, to a great extent, a direct result of
revolutionary discoveries in - again - the physical sciences! Classical physics
first failed under the weight of new discoveries in the first three decades of this
century.And then it took to replacing old conceptions with a new paradigm in
physics. Then, social sciences had to wait for fifty more years till the new
developments sonk in, before we could sheepishly follow the new paradigm in
the physical sciences. As far as Muslim social scientists are concerned, they had
first to see all of these changes unfolding in front of their astonished eyes before
they could allow their enslaved selves to act, no! to react!
IV. THE NEW PARADIGM
According to Augros & Stanciu (1984) science has, since the beginning of
this century, undergone a series of exciting revolutions in physics, in
neuroscience, in cosmology, and in psychology. Capra (1982), a physicist,
documented these developments in detail, then followed through with a
description of their ramifications and consequences, and went on to map out
radical changes in our present culture which are clearly mandated by these
changes. He states that the
"dramatic changes of concepts and ideas that has occurred in physics...in
our current theories of matter...[have] brought about a profound change in our
worldview; from the mechanistic...to a holistic and ecological view...[with] deep
insights into the nature of matter and its relation to the human mind...The
worldview implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society...A
radically different social and economic structure will be needed: a cultural
revolution in the true sense of the word." (p.p XVII-XVIII)
Space would not allow a fuller appreciation of the fascinating
developments which shaped modern physics as a result of Albert Einstein's
pioneering work on relativity, and of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg's work
on quantum theory. Capra's work contains sufficient details to that effect.
However, because of the centrality of these ideas to our argument, we may have
to use some extensive quoting here. Capra tells us that these developments
"shattered all the principal concepts of the Cartesian world view and
Newtonian mechanics. The notion of absolute space and time, the elementary
solid particles, the fundamental material substance, the strictly causal nature of
physical phenomena, and the objective description of nature - none of these
concepts could be extended to the new domains into which physics was now
One of the most important consequences of the theory of relativity for example
was "the realization that mass is nothing but a form of
energy...Physicists...measure the masses of particles in the corresponding
energy units...Atoms consist of particles, and these particles are not made
of any material stuff. When we observe them we never see any
substance;...[only] dynamic patterns continually changing into one another -
the continuous dance of energy"(p.p 81-82).
The new discoveries in atomic and subatomic physics came as a "great
shock" to scientists. Even Einstein reportedly felt as though "the ground had
been pulled out from under one". Far from being hard, solid particles, atoms
were found to consist of vast regions of space in which electrons moved around
the nucleus, which in turn is comprised of protons and neutrons. Even those
"were nothing like the solid objects of classical physics...[They] are
very abstract entities which have a dual aspect. Depending on how we look
at them, they appear sometimes as particles, sometimes as waves...The
situation seemed hopelessly paradoxical until it was realized that the 'particle'
and 'wave' refer to classical concepts which are not fully adequate to describe
atomic phenomena. An electron is neither a particle nor a wave, but it may
show particle-like aspects in some situations and some wave-like aspects in
others". (Capra: 67).
The discovery of the dual aspects of matter has far-reaching consequences for
our understanding of the universe. As Neils Bohr wrote, "Isolated material
particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only
through their interaction with other systems! Subatomic particles, then, are
not 'things' but are interconnections between 'things', and these 'things', in
turn, are interconnections between other 'things', and so on. In quantum
theory you never end up with 'things'; you always deal with interconnections.
This is how modern physics reveal the oneness of the universe".
Capra comments on these insights by saying that theories of contemporary
science reveal a conception of the world which can be "in perfect harmony with
[the working scientists'] spiritual aims and religious beliefs". Capra's critics,
however, spared us the need to comment on the connection he makes to Eastern
religions and to Taoism in particular (Alvares, 1988).
In another vein, new developments in neuroscience and psychology in the
last twenty years proved to be no less revolutionary than those described above
in physics. Let's first examine the "traditional" model of neuroscience and
psychology. That model
"had proclaimed a full account of brain function and behavior to be
possible in strictly objective physiochemical and physiological terms, with no
reference to conscious experience...Things such as moral values, the human
spirit, purpose, dignity, and freedom to choose, if they existed at all, were
supposed to be only epiphenomena..[that] supposedly, in no way changed the
course of events in the real world...(Sperry, 1988: p.p. 607-608).
Contrast this with what the early nineteen seventies brought about. Sperry tells us
that with a remarkable suddenness, a revolution in the scientific treatment of the
relation of mind and brain was taking place. In his words
"The new mentalist thinking brings basic revisions of causal explanation that
provide scientists with a new philosophy, a new outlook, a new way of
understanding and explaining ourselves and the world. The full range of the
contents and qualities of inner experience...are not only given a new legitimacy in
science but are also given primacy over the more physiochemical forces". (p.
He further elaborates on the causality model on which this "cognitive",
"mentalist", or "humanist" revolution is based. He explains that:
"The traditional assumption in neuroscience...implicit in...all the natural
sciences, supposes everything to be determined from below upward, following
the course of evolution. In this materialist 'microdeterministic' view of
nature, all mental and brain functions are determined by, and can be
explained...[in the last analysis] in terms of subatomic physics and quantum
mechanics...[In contrast] the new mentalist-cognitive tenets...take into account
new, previously nonexistent, emergent properties, including the mental, that
interact causally at their own higher level, and also exert causal control from
above downward...over their constituent neuronal events - at the same time that
they are determined by them. Microdeterminism is integrated with emergent
The new paradigm has now been reflected in a "new philosophy of
science". It seems also to be rapidly gaining momentum in all of the social
sciences and the helping professions. And the movement is manifesting itself in
many different ways. Declarations, for example, that the basic assumptions that
informed the traditional model of science are "no longer considered viable" are
repeatedly made. In 1974, Suppe wrote that "the vast majority of working
philosophers of science seem to fall on that portion of the spectrum which hold
the [traditional view of science] fundamentally inadequate and untenable".
Starting from Suppe's statement, Polkinghorne proceeds to list the indictments
against the traditional scientific method, which read like the following: a)
difficulties with using observational methods as foundational; b) difficulties with
moving from individual observations to general statements; and c) difficulties in
relating language to extralinguistic reality (p. 420). He elaborates on and provides
supporting evidence with bearing on each of these counts.
Sociologists also are increasingly voicing dissatisfaction with the
experimental model, with operationalization, and with the perennial preoccupation
with statistics and numbers. Another significant aspect that reveals the extent of
dissatisfaction with the old model is the revolt against the once-popularized
"myth" of value-free sociology. Alvin Gouldner (1973) strongly attacked the
dogma that 'thou shalt not commit a value judgement', which many sociologists
propagated. He analyzed Weber's position with regard to this conception of
value-free social sciences, and then concluded that it was only time- and place-
bound. It served, for Weber, both personal and institutional purposes.
Interestingly, however, Gouldner relates that doctrine also to the science-religion
conflict. He puts it this way:
"...the doctrine of a value-free sociology is a modern extension of the
medieval conflict between faith and reason. It grows out of, and still dwells in,
the tendency prevalent since the thirteenth century to erect compartments
between the two as a way of keeping the peace between them".(p.20).
The advocates of value-free social science would still argue that this
doctrine is meant to guarantee the objectivity of the scientist, who might
otherwise fall victim to his own biases. However, the new paradigm replaces the
idea of objectivity with that of intersubjectivity. "External reality, as existing apart
from the perceiver, simply cannot be objectively known. Shared realities are
intersubjectively valid, but their objective validity cannot be known"(Strong,
1984: 471). The exclusion of values would never solve the problem. Instead, the
cause of scientific inquiry may be better served if the particular values on which
any theoretical framework is founded were explicitly laid out. This renders them
open to criticism by others, instead of allowing them to operate sub rosa.
Search is on for alternatives to the narrow positivist/ empiricist orientation
in the social sciences, by way of reform or of revolution (Peile, 1988). The new
discoveries in neuroscience referred to earlier gave a new legitimacy to the study
of inner experience - including the spiritual aspects - as causal factors in
determining human behavior. Droves of theoreticians and clinicians are now
coming to question traditional formulations that denied any legitimate place for
the spiritual or religious factors, neither in theory nor in practice. This was
unthinkable in the past, where it took only individuals with extreme personal and
scholarly courage to venture into that realm, often shyly and only as a side-issue
treated in the shadow of more "important", broader subjects.
We may need to pause here for a moment to recapitulate. In the previous
section, we have shown that the new developments in the physical sciences,
reflected in a new philosophy of science, seem to be ushering in what may be
called the postpositivist era in the social sciences. The new paradigm recognizes
the important role played by cognitive and other inner, conscious phenomena in
determining human behavior. In this way "empiricism is seen in its rightful place,
that is, as only one of many approaches to knowing" ( Weick, 1987: 223). It was
found that the spiritual factors and religious insights, after all, have an important,
rightful place in the "Scientific" enterprise . Let's turn now to an exploration of
the significance of all this to theory building from an Islamic point of view .
V. THEORY-BUILDING : AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE
Man, according to the new paradigm, and also to the Islamic faith, is not
only his material being. He combines material, observable, empirical aspects
(body) with spiritual, non-empirical aspects (soul), in an integrated, indivisible
unity (as long as he lives). Human behavior is the resultant of the dynamic
interplay between these forces. Man according to both Islam and the new
paradigm cannot be understood when reduced to either of these components to
the exclusion of the other , or when "interaction" between the two components is
ignored. But this is where similarities between the new paradigm and Islam ends .
Islam does not stop with the vague idea that there are "spiritual" factors at work
on human behavior. Islam goes on to provide a coherent conceptualization of the
relationship between body and soul, the source of which is no less an authority
than the Creator of man, through authentic Divine Revelation . According to the
Quran and verified Hadith , before human beings were brought into this world, a
covenant was made between themselves (their souls) and their Creator, the One
God, where they all declared that He is their One and only Lord, their Sustainer .
This event is the original point at which human beings came to know about their
Lord, the point at which the spiritual relationship between man and God originally
"When thy Lord drew forth from the children of Adam - from their loins -
their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves saying : Am I
not Your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you) ? They said Yea! We do testify!
(This) lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment : we were never mindful. Or
lest ye should say : our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are
their descendants , after them : wilt thou destroy us because of the deeds of men
who were futile? " (Quran, 7:172-173) .
Men are then born and brought up in human environments, where they may
keep their original spirituality (Fitrah) intact, or may become forgetful of their
God and his covenant and go astray. But God sends Messengers with scripture
containing prescriptions as to how to return back, to "remember" the original
covenant. Those who are sincere, who have kept their fitrah intact will
immediately follow the guidance of the Messengers. Those who became callous
and unmindful will not. So, God has decreed that those who maintain a strong
affinity with Him and who obey his commands will surely lead a "good" life in
this world, and will be saved and duly rewarded in the hereafter . And
conversely, those who dissociated themselves from their Lord will live a
miserable life now , and will be duly punished in the hereafter.
"As is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me , whosoever follows
My guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall into misery . But whosoever turns
away from My Message , verily for him is a life narrowed down , and We shall
raise Him up blind on the Day of Judgment . " (Quran, 20: 123-124)
It is clear , then , that Islam assigns a very high place for spiritual factors
(i.e. the quality of the relationship between the human being and God) in
determining human behavior. So, we may conclude that in Islam , there can be no
true "science" of human behavior that excludes the spiritual aspects of man.
Man's relationship with his Creator is the most important influence on his life .
But how can social scientists could ever hope to achieve any such insights into
the "unseen" components of man or of the dynamics of the interactions among
the empirical and the "unseen" components - except through Divine Revelation?
But the inclusion of revelation as a source of verifiable social scientific facts -
side by side ( or should we say over and above) with sense experiences, and
mental processing introduces new challenges which Muslim social scientists have
to deal with in a rather unconventional fashion.
Normally, we should not expect to face any serious problems when the
focus of our study is on the observable and the empirical. After all, most of our
research methods and techniques in the past have been geared to the investigation
of empirical phenomena. Our "senses" provide the raw material for knowledge,
and "reason" is supposed to enmesh these together in a logical and in a
meaningful way. The big question is, how are we ever to study the
"nonempirical" aspects of our being? The soul, the spiritual aspects are by
definition not amenable to study through sense experiences. This aspect of
human existence is not space- or time-bound. The vehicle for understanding such
phenomena cannot be the sense organs. Nor could it be reason alone, for reason
can only process bits of data - sensory or otherwise - in accordance with its
But the question has still to be answered : now that we agreed to
incorporate revelation as a significant component our epistemology, how can we
incorporate it at the methodological level? The answer to that question may be
conveniently arrived at through a consideration of theory building - first from a
traditional perspective, and second, from a new paradigm stance before we
consider the Islamic perspective.
There is general agreement that "the goal of science is to develop theory"
(Turner, 1978:24). As Dawis puts it, "theory is the end product of scientific
activity, but an end product that is never final because it is subject to revision and
eventual rejection if a better theory is found (1984:468). Kerlinger (1979) explains
the "high esteem" held by scientists for theory. He tells us that such esteem
"springs from the basic purpose of science, and theory is the vehicle for
expressing the purpose. Science, then, has no other purpose than theory, or
understanding and explanation" (p.280) .
Many people see empirical observations as the solid, building blocks of
science. However, the new paradigm has shown that observations are first made
and are later interpreted and given meaning only within a specific frame of
reference, a theory of sorts - explicit or implicit. So, observations - whatever the
degree of validity ascribed to them do not determine theory. Howard (1985)
explains the nature of the relations between observation and theories as follows :
"Because empirical 'facts' can support a multitude of incompatible theoretical
positions, and [because] observations in science are, in fact, theory dependent,
the link between theory and observation must be tentative" (p.257) .
But theories are based on certain assumptions, which "are not for testing",
while they limit the situations under which the theory applies. If a situation
violates the assumptions, "it is not legitimate to apply the theory" (Lin, 1976:16) .
How then do we appraise theories? . Howard asks, "What are the criteria
whereby choices among theories are made ? . McMullin held that the appraisal of
theory is in important respects closer in structure to value-judgement than it is
to...rule-governed inference"... (Howard:257). For this reason, assumptions upon
which a theory stands should be always explicitly laid out, even if they cannot be
tested. This makes it possible for others to agree or disagree with the
assumptions and to produce alternative assumptions that may prove more useful
when hypotheses based on them are tested .
And it is here that the value of Popper's idea of falsifiability is appreciated.
Theories, for Popper, are often "bold conjectures". Scientists should be
encouraged to construct theories "no matter how they deviate from the tradition".
But "all such conjectures should be subjected to the most severe and searching
criticism and experimental scrutiny of their truth claims. The growth of
knowledge thus proceeds through the elimination of error, i.e. through the
refutation of hypotheses that are logically inconsistent or entail empirically refuted
consequences" (Feigl, 1975: 880).
In this way according to Champion (1985) Popper destroyed the logical
positivists' theory of induction. He proposed a "theory of conjectural objective
knowledge that grows by a process of trial and error, controlled by imaginative
criticism and empirical tests". Champion adds that this is based on a realization
"that there are numerous sources of knowledge: tradition, observation,
imagination, mathematical and logical deduction...but none of these provides
anything like a certain base or a criterion of truth." (p.1415).
Informed by these insights one can hardly disapprove of Dawis's call for
allowing the largest number of theories:
"The world of science should be like a classical free enterprise
marketplace, with theories as commodities. When there is a demand for theories
(of one sort) it is to the consumers' advantage to allow the largest possible
supply...I find no problem with including objectively unobservable 'internal
states' in our theories, so long as such theories can be tested" (Dawis, 1984:469).
In the same vein, Allen Bergin (1980) encourages us to examine our values,
admit that they are subjective, be clear and open. Then we state our values as
hypotheses for testing and common consideration by others, and subject them to
test, criticism, and verification (p.102). He goes on further to offer a few testable
hypotheses as examples. And, it should be always born in mind that "the
ultimate test of an epistemology is in the crucible of empirical or theoretical trials"
(Borgen, 1984: 458) . That is the limit of where the new paradigm can take us.
And this is where "revelation" fits into the general picture of theory
development in the social sciences from an Islamic perspective. If theories are
made possible in the traditional model through the creative use of our
imagination, then what do we loose if we substitute imagination with insights
gained from revelation? Homans tells us that "a leap of imagination" is required to
bring observations together in a meaningful way (Homans, 1980:19). Dubin
(1978) also asserts that "a theoretical model is limited in no way except by the
imagination of the theorist in what he may use as elements in building the
model...", then it is for research tests to decide on its reality. (p.12) .
We cannot make exemptions of these rules for the insights generated from
our understanding of what revelation stands for. Scripture is something, our
human understanding derived from it is another. So, the basic strategy suggested
here for the incorporation of religious insights into the scheme of theory
development in the social sciences - without loss in external validity - would
include the following:
1- Theoretical frameworks regarding human nature, man's place in the universe,
societal arrangements, causes of individual and social problems would be
generated from religious sources i.e. the Holy Quran and Verified Hadith,
alongside their interpretations by authorities.
2- Hypotheses would be generated from these theoretical frameworks for testing
in the "total reality" which includes both the empirical and the nonempirical
aspects of the world (as shall be elaborated upon later).
3- If hypotheses derived from theoretical frameworks generated from religious
sources are confirmed (or if they failed to be falsified), this means that: a) we
positively succeeded in generating valid facts, and that b) our confidence in the
theoretical framework we derived from religious sources increases.
4- If hypotheses were rejected, that means either
a) that our research methods and our research procedures are wanting. or:
b) that our understanding or interpretation of revelation is incorrect and needs
The proposed strategy rests on the following assumptions:
1- We do not expect contradictions between the Quran and Verified Hadith, or
their correct interpretation on the one hand, and validated facts on the other, for
God is at once the source of scripture and the Creator of the universe .
2- To the extent that we correctly interpret the Holy Quran and understand
Verified Hadith, we would be able to generate plausible theoretical frameworks
which most probably will succeed in meeting the demands of rigorous testing in
the "total reality" .
3- Generating such theoretical frameworks from Quranic and Hadith sources
guarantees for us valuable insight with higher degrees of certainty - compared
with mere conjecture - and thus, is more economical in terms of the research
4- If hypotheses generated from such frameworks fail the test of research in
the total reality, it would be pru