Islamic humanities vs. Western experimentalism: the grand epistemological warfare of all time

February 13, 2021 - 15:52
Islam’s plan for transformation of sciences

TEHRAN- After the Islamic Revolution’s victory and during this decade, there have been many discussions on Islamic humanities, and we still need a lot of discussions, researches, and dialogues. There are many perceptions on the subject which requires contemplation.

Various Perceptions of Islamic Humanities

Some people think of it as, proving and solving significant scientific problems in the world, using religious texts and arguments about devotedness and narrated reasoning instead of adopting the empirical methods. We consider this to be incorrect. Islamic scholars’ way of research from very long ago shows that they have adopted empirical method in such a way that some have claimed: In getting introduced to empirical method, Europeans have benefited from the work of Iranian and Muslim scientists. Furthermore, the mission of religion is to guide humans toward true salvation, and science and technologies are subject to constant change and evolution. As a result, religion has no mission regarding science and technology. Instead, religion talks about how these sciences can move humans toward excellence. In other words, the duty of religion is guiding humanity, not solving problems of science and nature. 

Another perception is that introducing the motto of “Islamic humanities” has a political or perhaps a nationalistic background and politicians introduced this motto with political motives in order to realize their own goals or they wanted to take advantage of people’s nationalistic tendencies and incite them against those who had brought them oppression and persecution so that they can say “We do not need you. We have our own science and we have to develop domestic science.” This perception is also incorrect. Nationalistic tendencies, even though they are correct and effective in some instances, have no practicality in discovering the truth and answering the questions of humanity. So they should not be engaged while solving scientific and philosophical problems.

In order to explain our point about Islamic humanities and also to clarify our position toward the so-called western science, we should state our definition of western or un-Islamic science and also explain what makes a science Islamic. 

Discovering the Truth, a Transnational and Trans-regional Value

For a Muslim, science as a means to discover the truth originated from anywhere, any region, or anyone is of value, and based on Islamic teachings such science should be sought out in any country and from anybody. Therefore, science as a means to discover the truth might be in possession of people who are of different races or live in different regions or follow different religions and madhhab than us. But these differences are not something that undermine the value of their scientific works and we respect their science and try to make use of that science. 

When we oppose western science and want to eradicate some of its data from our universities, it is because there are deficiencies, shortcomings, and perhaps errors and fallacies in their data, and our sense of truth-seeking in addition to our religious duties demand us to fight with those failures and distortions in order to seek out truths in a more accurate and more genuine manner. We believe that Islamic teachings educate Islamic scientists in a way that they can be safe and be protected from these failures and distortions. In this regard, we consider the way that is dominant in the western world which has more or less transmitted to other countries, to be incorrect overall, even though there are correct elements in it. In contrast to the western way, we introduce a path that can curb those harms and blights and name this path “Islamic” because of the reason that follows. So far, the concept of Islamic humanities has been explained. 

We now explain the arguments for proving this subject – Islamic humanities. Proving the deficiencies of western science - what is currently dominant in western scientific circles and more or less in countries under their influence - identifying the kinds of deficiencies, and elaborating the ways to confront them, can help us understand that why we talk about the need for transforming the science; the kind of transformation that we call Islamic transformation. 

Weaknesses in Epistemological Foundations of Western Science

The main factor of deficiencies in western science emerged since empiricists and positivists and other similar schools of thought claimed that true science is something that only through sensory experience can be proved and its results can be presented to others. They called such knowledge “science” and discarded other forms of human epistemic knowledge such as philosophy, art, morality, and in general metaphysics from science and believed that you cannot make a definitive judgment on them because these kinds of knowledge are arbitrary and anybody, based on his taste, can choose one of these theories. They believed that only empiricist science is credible and should be discussed and disputed in scientific circles. Thus, they limited science to empiricist science and discarded other forms of human knowledge from the realm of science. 

In contrast, we believe that all the aforementioned epistemic fields - either those which westerners are calling “science” or those identified as “knowledge” and things like that - are provable and can be elaborated and each of them has its own unique method and are not limited to empirical method because the empirical method is about understanding things with our five senses, perhaps studying their many aspects, recording the conditions in which those phenomena are happening, and generalizing the outcomes; doing that, we have ourselves a scientific theory based on experiments. Considering empiricism with regard to epistemological principle of these scientists, it gets clear that this theory has no credibility because, on one hand, the basis of this theory is that truth can be discovered through senses, while sensory perceptions from the epistemological standpoint are disputable and reaching definite outcome from them is hardly possible. On the other hand, this subject is based upon unproven assumptions because if we conduct lab experiments on any two phenomena that we have perceived through senses, we see that whenever phenomenon A happens then we have phenomenon B and in this manner we discover the causality relation between the two phenomena and we identify the first one as the cause for the second one. However, first of all, accepting the causality relation is a metaphysical and philosophical matter and these scientists do not consider metaphysics credible scientifically and recognize it as a subject that is susceptible to expressing different theories, but all experiments need this metaphysical principle. Secondly, after accepting the causality principle, we can only discover the relation between two phenomena when the conditions of experiment for them are completely controlled, meaning it should be proved that no other factor has any effect on the environment of the experiment, but this is not provable. Controlling all natural factors is out of our power and it is also possible that there are some factors unknown to us, as electromagnetic waves were unknown to us long time ago and no one was aware of them, or radio and electronic waves which in today’s world are the basis of most technologies and scientific procedures, were unknown before and nobody believed that they exist. So it is also possible that today, there are also other factors - unknown to us - influencing on a phenomenon’s occurrence. Therefore, you cannot get a definite result from sensory experiments. Thus, the empiricist method never gives you an absolute result and you cannot obtain a general and absolute scientific theory using experiment and this is not in line with what empiricists and positivists, and other similar schools of thought claim. 

Foundation of Western Science on Incorrect Metaphysical Principles

Moreover, many of the subjects which are being introduced as scientific theories in different and prominent fields of science and then find global credibility, are based upon an incorrect metaphysical principle. For instance, in cosmology, the theory of coincidental creation of universe (big bang theory) has a global reputation. This theory implies that there was an explosion in a dense matter and as a result, the cosmos, different solar systems, astronomical objects, etc. were created. If you ask these scientists why there was an explosion, they would tell you that it was happened by accident. Submitting to this argument means wrongly accepting the metaphysical possibility that some phenomena may happen without any cause; something called ‘the random creation’. However, in metaphysics, we prove that this is impossible and no phenomenon can occur without a cause. Therefore, many scientific theories are founded on an incorrect metaphysical principle – such as the probability of coincidence. Even in new physics, the theories such as random exiting of an electron from its circuit are based upon accepting the principle that things can occur randomly. Firstly, we need to examine in a theological and metaphysical way, whether or not coincidences are possible, and if we were able to prove that coincidences are not possible, all theories based upon this supposition would become invalidated. 

Therefore, one of the problems with the kind of sciences that are called ‘western science’ today, is that they are founded on a series of man-made principles which have to be examined in other sciences including metaphysics and epistemology; but the scientists developing the so called western sciences are actually accepting the theories as ‘facts’ which either have not valid bases or have been invalidated. Even if the principal bases of those facts have been proved, based on their own opinion, the arguments leading to the proof are not valid, because these scientists believe that anything besides empirical methods is not of scientific value.

Weaknesses in Anthropological Fundamentals of Western Science

Since “human” is subject to imperative humanities and matters that are mainly value-related - such as morality, politics, practical economics, etc. - making a definite judgment on these value-related commandments should be founded upon understanding humanity and all of its existential aspects. But science cannot examine or prove beyond the material aspect of human, and because of that, it is even claimed that human is nothing but its body, there is no soul, and soul is the interactions of brain and nervous system. If we perceive humanity’s true nature to be only this material being which has a short life, we will not be able to prove valid moral values and general, absolute moralities for it. But if we prove and understand that other than body, humanity has a nobler element called soul with its own commandments and that there is an interaction between soul and body, and they both have influence over each other, the results will be different. Making a definite proof on any value-related commandment about a being that has an immaterial aspect brings us to understand the relation between body and soul, and the effects of these interactions on the eternal human life. However, the natural sciences with their empirical way are unable of proving such things and should resort to metaphysical principles, though they believe these principles hold no values. 

Considering the aforementioned deficiencies in western science, it is concluded that scientific advancement and reaching more accurate and more certain results, particularly in humanities, firstly entails an understanding of humanity, paying attention to its existential aspects, and understanding the relationship between body and soul. Secondly, to prove many of the necessary matters - including the idea that whether or not humans have other elements than the body - we need ways other than method of sensory experience. We have to use spiritual experience, rational arguments, and mystical intuitions to be able to elaborate on the existence of the soul and its relation with the body. Thus, before addressing anthropology we have to investigate ontology and we need to prove necessary principles for anthropology and in general, humanities matters – particularly value-related matters. An obvious example for this subject is the causality principle or invalidation of coincidence (effect without any cause). Therefore, we have ways for acquiring epistemic knowledge other than sensory means, through which we can discover and prove such matters. Solving this matter using only empirical way is not possible, because empirical way is limited to senses, while our subject of discussion is beyond senses. So, in order to prove them, we have to recourse to other methods. There is a more valid method for gaining epistemic knowledge other than sensory and empirical methods. Proving that there are methods for gaining epistemic knowledge other than senses, brings us to the realm of epistemological science. In such science, we should examine issues such as how many ways are there to reach epistemic knowledge? How valid are those ways? What is the true nature of reason? What is the value of rational perceptions? Are rational perceptions more valuable than sensory perceptions? What is mystical intuition and is it trustworthy? Can things that prophets have claimed as revelations from God be a source of knowledge for us? 
And the list of questions goes on and on. 

Grand Plan for Transforming Science

In this regard, transforming science, particularly humanities, requires us to strengthen the realm of epistemology in the first step, prove the accurate ways of discovering the truth, and conclude that there are methods other than sensory perceptions in order to understand the truth; methods which can also be a lot more credible than sensory perceptions. After solving epistemological challenges, we have to go to the realm of metaphysics and ontology and try to prove and elaborate the rational principles that are credible philosophically and are required for science – such as causality principle and matters related to it. At the next step, we have to step into the realm of anthropology and understand the true nature of human beings. These three scientific fields respectively have priority over humanities; humanities that today is called human science, examines the actions and qualities of humans and based on those examinations develops prescribed sciences and presents recommendations for morality, politics, economics, family matters, etc. Before researching these kinds of sciences, those three scientific fields must be strengthened and their respective rational path from epistemology to ontology, from ontology to anthropology, and from anthropology to human values in different fields like family, economics, morality, politics, etc. must be taken. 

Making a fundamental transformation in humanities demands such a comprehensive and broad plan, and accepting such plans is completely in line with our Islamic teachings. In Islam, we prove that ways of gaining epistemic knowledge are not limited to mere senses and that we can use all the methods provided for human beings – such as reason, mystical intuition, more prominent humans, and revelatory epistemic knowledge that elite humans like prophets can directly get from God - to seek out knowledge; methods which are even more credible than sensory perceptions which form the basis of western science. 

We call this comprehensive plan for transforming science “Islamization of Science” according to our own culture, but we hold no prejudice toward any particular religion, madhhab, ethnicity, language, and race. We respect and embrace the kind of science that discovers the truth, whether it comes from the west or from the east, from Muslims or non-Muslims, from whites or blacks.

*This is the text of Ayatollah Mesbah’s speech at International Congress on Islamic Humanities in May 22nd, 2012.