Comparing Islamic Intellectual Discourse to Empirical Science

by / Tuesday, 13 May 2014 / Published in Articles, Faith and Science

Given my views on evolution and science in general, I receive pushback from Muslims who, for one reason or another, are skeptical of the possibility of a radical critique of science. One common line of argumentation is that a radical critique of science will be just as applicable to the Islamic sciences and therefore undercut traditional disciplines like aqidah, fiqh, tafsir, tasawwuf, usul al-fiqh, hadith, kalam, etc. Is this true? Here is part of an edited conversation I had on this topic, where I make a first attempt at distinguishing Islamic and scientific/naturalistic intellectual discourse and their respective rational-normative projects.


I certainly agree that basic discursive consistency requires us to be wary of deploying arguments against the empirical sciences that will simultaneously undermine the Islamic sciences, which we are committed to on a religious and intellectual level. That being said, I think that the similarities between empirical science and the Islamic sciences are superficial and that, when we look closer at both discourses, the epistemological, ontological, and methodological differences are as fundamental as they are overwhelmingly numerous.

Before delving into those details, I should mention that I am not a committed antirealist or realist.

Underdetermination in the Islamic Sciences

I actually think that the Islamic sciences are at home with some aspects of a “light” antirealism of some variety. For example, underdetermination. Let’s focus on fiqh. I do not think the majority of Muslim scholars have believed that the evidences of the Quran and Sunnah are determinative of ahkam for all or even most circumstances addressed by fiqh. Within schools, you find a plurality of opinions, some even mutually contradictory, yet all acceptable within the bounds of the madhhab. On certain issues, this plurality was seen to mirror the fact that, in actuality, there are multiple rulings that are equally correct before Allah, as evidenced by incidences in the sirah (“…do not pray asr until you have reached the village of Bani Qurayzah…”). Even in those circumstances where it is assumed there is, in reality, only one correct position, the possibility of divergence is explicitly accommodated and sanctioned due to, among other things, the Prophet’s (sas) saying that the correct verdict earns two rewards while the incorrect verdict receives one. No, this is not the kind of extreme indeterminacy you find in, for example, Quine, because of course it is not that any and all verdicts are equally feasible. The mujtahid, by his very appellation, is tasked with the moral duty to struggle with the text, and we believe that there is something uniquely sacred and value-laden about that struggle of a sincere scholar to arrive at a ruling consistent with the sharia, something that is not shared by the cold reasoning of a scientist theorizing in his lab about, say, the Standard Model.

(In general, in ensuring that our criticism of empirical science does not endanger our own tradition, we should also be careful about going too far the other way, viz., inadvertently undermining the fact that, from our own perspective, there is something cosmically different about the sacred pursuit of knowledge vis-a-vis dunyawi concerns. Consider the ahadith about angels seeking gatherings of sacred knowledge and fish making dua for the seeker of `ilm, etc.)

Verisimilitude and Progress

Personally, I am keen to undermine the broad notion of verisimilitude in science, i.e., that science is progressive such that scientific theories, as representations of reality, progressively converge upon that reality. One may claim, however, that such a critique would simultaneously undermine the Islamic sciences which, at first blush, also seem to strive toward convergence on the truth.

In response to that, I am not convinced that the schools of thought in fiqh, kalam, tafsir, etc., became more convergent through time overall or were striving toward convergence in the way modern science does. Of course, madhahib would coalesce around convergence on specific issues, e.g., the uncreatedness of the Quran, but that is not the same as saying that the schools converged overall or are even tending toward convergence. If anything, we see a proliferation of opinions within the madhahib, which themselves became more sophisticated in ordering these divergences into hierarchies (mashur, mutamid, etc.). This plurality is not surprising given the general attitude to diversity of opinion in Islamic thought generally, as I mentioned above, i.e., it does not even seem like traditional scholars past or present view themselves as participants in a progressivist project of determining a unitary and exclusivist explication of the sharia or tafsir of the Quran that the salaf possessed; it was well known, of course, that the salaf themselves differed on many an issue.

Again, the Islamic sciences were inherently pluralistic. This is in stark contrast to western science, which tries its best to forget, not order and accommodate, past theories. Again, focusing on fiqh, the opinions of the earlier fuqaha are seen as carrying normative weight even if the school has officially taken a different opinion. What is the analog of this in empirical science? In the mind of the modern scientist or engineer, does Newton’s or Galileo’s view on pendular motion have any bearing on modern laboratory investigations or technology? Well, given the nature of scientific training, the modern scientist is hardly aware of the particulars of Newton or Galileo’s work, let alone conversant with them. The fundamental difference I believe is that the Islamic sciences are ineluctably diachronic whereas historicity purposely has no place in the empirical sciences. Past theories are only relevant insofar as and to the extent that they accord to or are subsumed by the current theory.

The Logic of Islamic Discovery

Which brings me to another significant disanalogy between Islamic science and empirical science, namely that the Islamic sciences are not attempting to “discover” truths in the way that empirical science does. One could claim, for example, that what an 8th century mujtahid is doing is collecting evidence from the Quran and Sunnah in an attempt to discover/derive/systematize the correct and true opinion. Is that not similar to what a scientist does, except that, instead of reading the Book of Revelation, he reads the Book of Nature?

Well, as Muslims, we do not believe that the truth of Islam has been lost and now our scholars are striving to “recapture” it. An alternative and better way to understand most of the intellectual work that has happened historically in fiqh and usul al-fiqh is as an effort to formalize the intuitive understanding of earlier generations. No one would claim that Imam An-Nawawi, for example, was more knowledgeable than a companion like Abu Dharr, even though the former was a prolific scholar of the first order. Imam An-Nawawi did not “discover” fundamental truths in fiqh, tafsir, or aqidah of which past generations were ignorant.

There is no clear parallel for any of this in the empirical sciences. No one believes that Newton or Einstein or Bohr had an intuitive understanding of the fundamental reality of physics and the task at hand for modern physicists is simply to formalize a tacit knowledge that has been passed down generation after generation. No one believes Darwin knew more about the reality of speciation and heredity than modern evolutionary biologists do. The whole notion of progress in science and verisimilitude is precisely that new knowledge is gained, not that currently available and accessible but tacit knowledge is articulated, formalized, and systematized a la the Islamic sciences.

Accommodation of Plurality

Obviously, this whole discussion is premised on the claim that we cannot undermine verisimilitude in the empirical sciences because that will undermine the Islamic intellectual tradition. But, do we have a clear conception of “progress” in the Islamic sciences? And is that conception analogous to what scientists actually understand progress in their field to consist in? One might argue that in the Islamic sciences, historically, scholars made an attempt to accommodate past opinions and methodologies into their thought. You see this in kalam and fiqh, where diverse views were slowly subsumed under a single school of thought. Something similar seems to occur in empirical science. For example, General Relativity appears to subsume the empirical results of Newtonian dynamics. This is seen as a manifestation of verisimilitude in science, i.e., progressive theories increasingly approximating reality. However, the accommodation of past theories is only one of the many characteristics scientists and philosophers of science associate with scientific progress, and a minor one at that. Other characteristics include explanatory power, simplification, and, most importantly, anticipation, discovery, and explanation of new empirical phenomena. In other words, even if I concede that the Islamic and empirical sciences share some features of progressivism/verisimilitude, I can still launch a critique of the various unshared features and that not implicate anything on the home front.

The disconnect here is that one can characterize the Islamic sciences by emphasizing the discourse surrounding accommodation of plurality, subsuming disagreement under the umbrella of a school, etc. But, I would counter by emphasizing the transmission-based nature of the Islamic sciences in that most of the intellectual work in the tradition historically was devoted to preserving understanding of the canonical sources and, thereby, deploying normativity across time and space. It is difficult, for me at least, to see a meaningful connection with physics, biology, or even the “natural philosophy” that predated modern science.

The Rational Projects

That being said, yes, we can see a thin connection between some of the dialectical features of the Islamic sciences and western empirical science. For example, both employ induction, abduction, deduction and can be said to be constrained by basic logic, etc. I do not view antirealism to be an attack on these seemingly universal components of human rationality. If it were such an attack, then antirealism would be self-defeating because, of course, modern philosophical discourse, of which antirealism is a part, also appeals to these cognitive faculties. Some may think antirealism is pathetically self-defeating in this way. I think there is more to it than that.

Another notion of progress that may seem to connect Islamic science with empirical science is this: Both discourses assume that the consistent application of rationality drives one progressively closer to the truth. A person who denies that science has progressed over the centuries would thus similarly undermine the Islamic sciences. Contrary to this, however, there are certainly many disciplines that depend on consistent use of evidentiary reasoning and so could be characterized as “progressive” but plainly have no connection to reality, e.g., the large and dynamic field of chess strategy. Perhaps centuries of chess strategizing has allowed modern chess theorists to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and peer deeper into the underlying “truths of chess.” But, these are not the truths we care about. Of course, theoretical science does make claim to representing reality in a way chess does not, so I would still have to provide a story for why Islamic science is connected to reality in a way that, say, Darwinism and evolutionary biology is not, and it would involve, among other things, the distinctions above. But my point is that, certainly, I am not undermining the Islamic sciences by denying the veridicality of chess theory despite its use of inferential reasoning. As another example, I imagine that this view of progress and verisimilitude in the Islamic sciences equally applies to a field like western philosophy, which utilizes inferential reasoning in spades. Yet I am not worried about rejecting out of hand, say, Korsgaard’s theory of normativity or Parfit’s notion of personal identity or even Aristotle’s physics despite them being seemingly rationally consistent and evidentially guided and there being blow-back to, say, usul al-fiqh to contend with. In sum, if the purported connection between empirical science and Islamic science also, as a consequence, ties together empirical science with western philosophy and any other rationalistic discourse past and present, many of which are in the dustbin of intellectual history, then this is a bad result. One would have to distinguish how empirical science and its critique is uniquely relevant to the Islamic sciences as opposed to these others all and sundry.

Again, I am not committed to any particular argumentative strategy made by antirealists/postpositivists like Feyerabend, Kuhn, Van Fraassen, et al., though I do have independent reasons for being skeptical of the scientific enterprise and the notion of scientific progress specifically, but we can perhaps discuss some other time.

One Response to “Comparing Islamic Intellectual Discourse to Empirical Science”

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