Social Sciences and Religion: What Relationship?

The nature of the relationship between the social sciences and philosophy.

What is agreed between men of science, scholars and philosophers alike, is that philosophy was the 'mother of science'. However, this belief which prevails in Western culture does not have a place in an Islamic setting. Thus, philosophy has never been regarded as the 'mother of science' in the field of Islam. Here it is the judicio-religious sciences based on the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet (thesunnah), which are the supreme sciences, and the basis of all the sciences.

Greek philosophy passed through many phases during the course of history, i.e.. during the pre-Christian period, the post-Christian period, the Islamic period, and finally its recent development during the contemporary Western period. We will confine our attention to the latter two phases. In the following paragraphs a brief account of the position of philosophy and its relationship with the other sciences during these two phases is given.

  1. Philosophy's status within the Islamic civilisation framework.

Philosophy or wisdom (hikmah) had not gained much importance in the history of the Arabs prior to Islam. As a matter of fact, philosophy did not occupy any scientific seat during the first chapter of Islamic history, which covered the Prophetic period and the Caliphates of the rightly guided Caliphs. This was simply because the Holy Qur'an and the honorablesunnah, as origins of faith and jurisprudence, amply sufficed the early Muslims to answer their questions related to the universe, its Creator, life and death, the creation of man, and his nature and his mission. However the rapidly spreading conquests, and extensions of the boundaries of the Caliphate resulted in the Arab Muslims coming in contact with a number of different cultures and philosophies, such as the Greek, Persian, Indian, and Judeo-Christian philosophies and  other religions and philosophical sects. It is against this background that the science of scholastic theology (kalam) emerged during the Abbasid period. Indeed, the Mutazilites came into existence in response to the deviated streams and false trends that appeared as the Muslims came in contact with the Magians of Persia and the Hindus. In order to defend the Islamic beliefs (aqida) the Mutazilites resorted to Greek philosophy, which was at the time gradually being translated into Arabic (Kasim, 1969). Whilst there is no need to dwell upon the various schools ofkalam here, it is perhaps worth noting that their intellectual exertions and struggles ended with the loss of the Mutazilites to the Asharites, the victory of the  'People of thesunnah' (Ahli al-sunnah), and the Jabarite (determinist) trend succeeding over the supporters of the rationalist school and the school of free arbitration (Kasim, 1969. Bintu Shati, 1983). This win has been one of the biggest causes of the underdevelopment amongst the Muslims during the last few centuries.

The nature of the struggle between the various schools was such that theulema , being so absorbed in the issue ofaqida , did not show enough interest in the psychological, sociological, economic and political problems of the Muslim society. Instead, more often than not, their intellectual exertions served as a disguise for a struggle for power and a concealment of real social and economic issues. Kasim (1969)  pointed to this fact when he said: "The Ummayad sided with the Jabarites because their protagonist views suited, and endorsed the ruling class against their opponents, explaining that the transition of the Caliphate to them was only by  God's Destiny." (p.7)

Coincidentally, these were the same tactics followed by the French colonialists in Algeria, as they too mobilized the Sheikhs of some Sufi orders to spread theJabarite (determinism) trend among the population, to make them believe that the French colonization was a predestined that could not be revoked, afait accompli! Imam Abdul-Hamid ben Badis fought with great courage and decisiveness against the defeatist attitude which was predominant as a result of that campaign.

The position of philosophy in comparison to the other sciences remained weak in the context of Islamic thought, until the time ofMaimonides who founded a library,Dar-al Hikmah , for the translation of the Greek philosophical heritage, which, as it is known, was an ensemble of philosophy, medicine and mathematics. There is no doubt that the logic of Aristotle and his views on the soul, the physical world and metaphysics, ran through the works of many Muslim philosophers, doctors and mathematicians. However, despite the indisputable impact of Aristotle, Plato and other Greek philosophers, we find that a number of Muslim philosophers found the courage to be critical of these great masters, and, being inspired by the Qur'an, thesunnah, and also by the civilization progress, they added to their works concepts that could never have occurred to the Greeks. Admittedly, it was the topics related to metaphysics and the unseen that the Muslims were most fervent about; but the topic of the soul (al nafs ) gradually gained momentum among the philosophers and doctors, some of whom had different concepts of the soul from Aristotle's. Thus, Al-Kindi, in opposition to Aristotle, asserted that  the soul is an entity separate from the body  (Kasim, p.15). Similarly, Al-Farabi whose opinion on the soul combines both the views of Aristotle and Plato, as, in his eyes, the human being is made up of two entities: the body and the soul. Al-Farabi however did not agree with Plato's position regarding the transmigration of the souls (ibid, p.16). Yet, despite these additions made by the Muslim philosophers particularly by Razi and Ibn Al-Qiyam on the concepts of the soul and the spirit, their addendum were not considered as topics that stood apart from philosophy. The same happened to Muslim scholars who wrote about ethics, for example Ibn-Miskawayah's in hisTahdib Al - Akhlaq wa Tatyib Al - A'raq, and Ibn-Hazm in hisMudawatu - nufus , although the influence on these subjects derived more from the Qur'an and thesunnah, than from Greek philosophy.

What I am trying to convey through this brief account of the status of philosophy in the domain of Islamic thought, which started with Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and ended with Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd, is the emphasis that was placed on science during this period of Islamic civilization, which demarcated their place from those established during the reign of Greek philosophy. At this time there were also developments in the fields of mathematics, logic, natural sciences, and theology by Muslim philosophers using as their main sources the Qur'an and the prophetic traditions (Hadith). In addition to the gains made from Greek and other philosophies, there appeared new disciplines in the sciences of the Qur'an  and Hadith, and other disciplines that developed from them, for example, the study of the Arabic language and literature. While some philosophers like Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were trying to reconcile the views of Aristotle with the Islamicaqida , others such as Al-Ghazzali accused this group of heresy and disbelief. After refuting the science ofkalam and philosophy, he concluded that the Sufi path was the way to attain 'true knowledge' (Kasim, 1969); whereas Ibn Rushd endeavored to reconcile philosophy with religious law (shari'a ).

Whilstulema like Ibn Taymiyyah, who concentrated on jurisprudence, refuted Greek logic, he said: "I always knew that Greek logic is not needed by an intelligent person and not beneficial to a stupid one." (p.29)

Ibn Taymiyyah criticized the Greek philosophers by showing the corruption of their ideas in metaphysics and logic, due to the corruption of their principles, and their restricting the means to achieve knowledge to definitions and 'syllogistic demonstrations'. He goes even further and refutes their arguments about 'the definitions' with which 'concepts' are known and also the various forms of 'syllogisms' and their components 'the invariables'. Ibn Taymiyyah also criticized the use of Greek logic by Al-Ghazzali in such works asAl-Mustasfa andMi'yar Al-ilm andMihaku Nadhar . Briefly, Ibn Taymiyyah's refutation of Greek logic is specifically a refutation of Greek "formal logic", due to its sterility, a view that has just recently been agreed to by Western scholars, too.

When we look at Ibn Khaldun's work, we see that he reserved a whole chapter of hisAl-Muqadima to "the refutation of philosophy and the corruption of its source." He highlighted the predicament in which Aristotle, his disciple Plato and the Muslim philosophers who followed them, fell into, especially those Muslim philosophers who shaped their metaphysics obsequiously on Aristotle (excepting Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina).  Ibn Khaldun dismissed the philosophers' contention glorifying reason and rational thinking, summing up his views he said that "Philosophy does not correspond with its aims, furthermore, it contradicts Divine law."

Despite his harsh criticism, he does remain objective, and fair towards philosophy by stating the positive aspects of this science such as:

  • Nurturing mind,

  • Training in organizing one's argumentation,

  • Training in arriving to the point of an intellectual discussion, by means of arguments and proofs (critical thinking).

In his final point, however, he advises the students of philosophy to resort to the status of  "religious" law, and to adhere to Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir ) and jurisprudence (fiqh ). If such was the position of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Khaldun vis-a-vis philosophy and Greek logic, what place then did they, and other Muslim thinkers reserve for sciences in their classifications of knowledge?

The classification of knowledge in Islamic thought.

After Ibn Khaldun insisted that sciences prosper when urbanization and civilization develop, he produced a classification of knowledge organizing the sciences of his time. According to his classification, sciences form into two groups: one is natural, human beings attain it through intellectual acquisition; the other is traditional, they inherit it from revealed sources. The first one refers to philosophical sciences and the second one refers to natural sciences transmitted through revealed knowledge information. Following this overview, he delved into the details of these sciences and organized them as follows:

1)Traditional religious sciences, which are divided into: exegesis, Qur'anic recitation, science of the Hadith, science of the foundation of the law (usul al fiqh) and he adds to them mysticism (tasawwuf) and dream interpretation.

2)Kalam , which explains religious beliefs and defends them by means of rational arguments.

3)Linguistics , the study of language, grammar, rhetoric, and literature.

4)Rational sciences , which he classified as those sciences, known (during his time) under the name of the 'philosophical sciences', into four groups: logic, physics (to which is attached medicine and agriculture), metaphysics, and mathematics (to which is attached arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). To these groups Ibn Khaldun added the science of magic and talismans, and the science of chemistry. After he identified all of these sciences and exposed their benefits and their harms, only then did he reserve a chapter to "The refutation of philosophy and the corruption of its origin" as mentioned above.

What we observe regarding this classification is as follows:

  1. Ibn Khaldun classified the various sciences of his time into two distinct groups by virtue of the source (revealed and rational), by virtue of the topic (law,aqida , language, logic, physics, astronomy, geometry, music, agriculture etc.) and finally by virtue of their methodology (based on revealed knowledge or reflection).

  2. Despite Ibn Khaldun's distinction between the "revealed sciences" and the "rational sciences", it is worth noting that he does not, however, separate the natural sciences from philosophy andhikmah .

  3. Ibn Khaldun invented a new science, with its own subject matter and

method (sociology), but he did not mention it in his classification.

There are, however, a great many Muslim thinkers who, in producing their classifications of knowledge, have shown that the majority of non-religious sciences and linguistics are intimately attached to philosophy. When speaking of the classification of knowledge in the field of Islamic thought, Al Najjar (1987) commented that the final purpose of science was "to be a servant of religious truth, which is the ultimate objective for the emergence of sciences and their progress." This seemingly elegant expression leaves us, in actual fact, with a number of unanswered problems that Al Najjar did not attend to.

  1. He did not explain the concept of 'religious truth' in his paper.

  2. He asserted that this 'truth' "is the ultimate objective for the emergence of sciences and their progress." Which sciences are referred to here? and have all sciences really progressed to the level of this ultimate truth "the service of religious truth"?

After describing the classification of knowledge of numerous Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Nadim, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Khaldun and Ahmed ibn Mustapha; Al Najjar raises questions and levels a criticism at these classifications and claims that in the main they were based on descriptions of science as they "were in reality", and not as "they really ought to be."

The crux of the problem here is Al Najjar's desire for pure rationality which revolves around 'how things ought to be'. This is an instance of philosophical and ethical reasoning, being to the detriment of attempts to come to terms with reality, and trying to change it or reform it in the light of "how things really are". In fact, this escapism from reality and its portrayal in the above terms, as well as escapism  from the study of  causal and correlational relationships among the different phenomena, amounts, although indirectly, to a refutation of the inductive experimental method which is founded upon investigation. The renunciation of the experimental method, dwelling upon Greek logic or on Sufi thought, limiting ourselves to interpretation of the sacred texts (i.e.. the Qur'an and thesunnah ) are factors which have led to the underdevelopment of the Muslim nations,  and is still draining their mental energies.

These energies and efforts that often start with good intentions, end up generating ethical and idealistic concepts that are far from the reality of the Muslim society at large. They are also far from providing us with practical means to escape this retrogressiveness, and tackle the issues through a grasp of the psychological and sociological aspects of the Muslims' condition as it is today.

Therefore, the majority of publications now tend to come under the heading of "the way things ought to be", thereby ignoring reality. However, it is impossible to alter behavioral and social phenomena to "the way things ought to be", if these phenomena are not comprehended "as they really are".

Perhaps, mentioning psychology as an example of a social science that endeavors to study and describe "reality as it is", as much as possible, may assist us in discerning the aims of philosophy and ethics from those of social sciences when analyzing behavioral phenomena.

Some of the aims of psychology as mentioned by Zimbardo (1980) are as follows:

  1. To describe behavior, activities and experiments following gathering the data and information related to the area which is under study.

  2. To interpret given behavior within either a cultural framework or model, or a particular theory.

  3. To predict anticipated behavior based on prior information and data, and then to understand the possible relationships between them to enable conception of new relationships between certain variables.

  4. To control behavior so that it becomes possible to monitor different variables and also to change some types of "deviated" or abnormal behaviors.

  5. To ameliorate people's standard of living starting with an improvement in the various sectors including: the health, education and social sectors.

Thus, although psychology is a science that occupies itself with the study and reporting of behavior 'as it is', it should not be labeled as a science that cannot actually help in modifying behavior, and elevating it to the level of 'the way things ought to be'. Altering and improving behavior is precisely one of its aims and that is achieved by means of training, education, learning and at times, treatment.

At this conjuncture I would like to indicate that one of the aims of psychology from an Islamic viewpoint, may well be to fill the gap between that which is 'ideal' and that which is 'real', primarily at the conceptual level, and secondly at the behavioral level.

Before embarking on the topic of psychology in general, and psychology from an Islamic perspective in particular, I wish to make reference to the classification of the sciences by Ibn Khaldun and others. The topics which form the social sciences at present, were not, in the estimation of the earlyulema,   topics which were distinguished from philosophy, ethics, or religious sciences. On the contrary, we notice that  subjects relevant to the social sciences were scattered either under the category ofkalam, as in the case of the concepts of freedom and responsibility; or under the category of philosophy and ethics, as in the concept of the soul, its potentialities, its actions, and the scope of its knowledge; or in the case of  "illnesses of the heart", they were included under the headings of ethics ortasawwuf .

Although this may have been the general trend, we know that tentatively some topics began to enjoy increasing appeal to the point that they appeared as categories of their own. This included tax and financing in economy, and power, its delegation and execution in politics. Others dealt with various psychological and spiritual disturbances and their respective cures (spiritual healing), as well as topics covering the field of nature, education and sociology. This specialization and show of interest, and most importantly innovation in some cases, reflects (as Ibn Khaldun indicated) the spread of civilization in the Islamic cities, as well as an expressed need to arrive at practical solutions to the diverse problems faced in these cities, in the intellectual fields and other areas of life.          Despite there being no conflict to speak of between science and religion as such in Islamic civilization; we find that there were some major differences between someulema in the field offiqh and some philosophers, and that these were not rare. These conflicts however need to be viewed in the context of intellectual exchange. We have for instance, the discussion between Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal and the Mutazilites over the issue of the creation of the Qur'an, and the arguments that took place between Imam Al-Ghazzali and Ibn-Rushd which were compiled in the famousTahafut al-falasifa (The Refutation of the Philosophers) andTahafut-u-Tahafut  (The Refutation of the Refutation). Some scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah may have, indeed, accused scholars like Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina of disbelief, but this charge was not put forward during the philosopher's lifetime, nor did it lead to punishment.

What we hope to retain from these discussions is the manifestation of different subjects and methods of dealing with them from the examples of the Muslim scholars, as they studied the situations that were facing them; especially in the areas ofaqida , fiqh , logic and situations related to political power. In the field of physics, there was no fundamental conflict between Muslim thinkers, as they did not mix matters of faith with those that pertained to the physical sciences. In the domain of history, the innovation of Ibn Khaldun for instance, revolves primarily around his criticism of the methods followed by his predecessors. He presented their mistakes and mishaps objectively and eventually suggested a new subject and method for study, which he called the sciences of civilization (sociology).

Interestingly, scholars like Ibn Khaldun, innovators of new topics and disciplines, who extended their own ideas, as well as gaining expertise in the field of education and learning, did not call for a detachment or a separation between their area of specialization and the rest of the sciences, such as the religious sciences. In spite of the lack of a background to the claim for separation in the history of Islamic thought, the dismemberment of the various disciplines of knowledge is, however, being proposed today.

Is it really their detachment from other disciplines that has impeded the advancement of the social sciences in the Muslim world? Is there a definite need to detach the social sciences from the rest of the Islamic sciences? And what is the real difference between 'detachment' and the 'dismemberment' of the sciences?

To answer these questions, however, briefly, we need to address the following issue of the relationship between the topics of modern social sciences and those of religious sciences (aqida , law andfiqh ) in the Islamic setting.