The growing fragmentation of knowledge, which has produced a myopic and disfigured picture of human behavior and social processes, has been a matter of deep concern and anguish for a growing number of natural and social scientists. The Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy has observed that the method of analytical decomposition, which is a characteristic feature of the scientific method, has produced what he calls the robot model of man. Many distinguished scholars and scientists have suggested that there is a need to rethink the imperialistic claims of the scientific worldview and that social reality cannot be fully and adequately captured within the conceptual and methodological framework of a single discipline. There is also a growing realization that scientific and academic research cannot be divorced from moral concerns. This realization has prompted a rethinking of the conventional boundaries that separate the natural sciences from the social sciences and the humanities. This has brought about what the distinguished American anthropologist Clifford Geertz aptly called academic deprovincialization and has resulted in an increasing porousness of disciplinary boundaries.
A pioneering contribution to bridging the gap between the natural sciences and the social sciences and the humanities was made more than a half century ago by the Hungarian scientist and polymath Michael Polanyi. The increasing permeability of disciplinary boundaries and the creative mixing of academic genres are reflected in the emergence of hybrid perspectives and disciplines. Mention may be made of epigenetics, neuroeconomics, psychoneuroimmunology, the various strands of structuralism and hermeneutics, medical sociology and medical anthropology, and the representation of society as a text. The growing prominence of the holistic perspective in the social sciences is reflected in holistic management, holistic medicine, integral ecology, holistic education and holistic social work. A significant aspect of the mixing of academic genres is that analogies from the humanities and the arts are now frequently drawn to illuminate the complexity and dynamics of the human condition.
Another significant development in the current academic scenario is the growing recognition of the bearing of moral issues and concerns on researches in the natural and social sciences. This is particularly manifested in biology, medicine, economics, ecology and anthropology. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has written a thought-provoking book Ethics and Economics.
A grave impediment to the integration of knowledge is represented by the pervasive Eurocentrism in the Western intellectual tradition and in contemporary academic discourses. This is reflected in the Western view – at best condescending and at worst demeaning – of non-Western peoples and cultures, in the perception and projection of Europe as dynamic and progressive and of Asia and Africa as static and decadent, in the history of science, medicine and technological innovations, and in the trajectory of the social sciences, philosophy and historiography. In his thought-provoking book The Theft of History (2006), the eminent British anthropologist and historian Jack Goody has presented a massive critique of the Eurocentric bias that permeates much of historical and social science writing in the West.
Before I move on to the substantive part of my presentation, I would like to draw attention to two significant dimensions of the integration of knowledge. One of these relates to the integration and synthesis of what may be called, for want of a better word, secular knowledge and revealed knowledge. The other concerns the integration of theorizing, research and methodology in an overarching Islamic framework. I will talk about these issues at some length a little later.
As an academic discipline, sociology has great potential and promise. It has the unique ability to link the microcosm – the individual’s behavior, thoughts and feelings – to macrostructural factors and processes, such as class, ethnicity, gender, state and even the wider forces of globalization. As a quintessentially comparative, humanizing and emancipative perspective, sociology is concerned with the unraveling of the socially constructed world and the complex interplay between the individual and the social context. It is a contextualizing discipline par excellence.
At the same time, paradoxical as it may sound, sociology has been vulnerable to certain baneful influences, including its parochial and Eurocentric underpinnings, its subservience to the natural science model and a tendency to proffer generalizations on the basis of extremely limited data. As a distinctive academic discipline, sociology emerged in Western Europe in the 19th century in a specific political, social and intellectual context, which was provided by the massive, unprecedented changes that were unleashed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, industrialization, large-scale migrations, urbanization, the rise of nation-states and the ascendancy of the scientific worldview. American sociology, which has exercised a profound influence on the discipline in large parts of the world, developed in the context of the massive changes that took place in American society in the aftermath of the Civil War, industrialization, migrations and urbanization, and the Christian project of social reform. The growth of sociology broadly coincided with the transformation of Western societies brought about by the collapse of the feudal order, unprecedented industrial growth, colonial expansion, and the ascendancy of science and technology, which brought in its wake secularization and the emergence of new professional and mercantile classes.
Most of the key concepts and methodological perspectives in sociology are embedded in the historical, social and political context of Western societies and represent responses to critical problems and issues that confronted European and American societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the 19th century, sociology has sought to model itself after the natural sciences and has accordingly projected itself as a universal and generalizing science concerned with the discovery and explication of laws governing human behaviour and social processes. Until quite recently, positivism has been the bane of Western sociology. Positivism holds that there is no qualitative distinction between the natural and social sciences, that both seek invariant, universal laws, and that the scientific method should be applied in equal measure to the study of human behaviour and social processes.
In recent years, many eminent Western sociologists have pointed out that sociology’s pervasive Eurocentrism, its infatuation with the natural science model and its excessive preoccupation with the cult of narrow empirical research have sapped the discipline’s creative energies and potential. Howard Becker, for example, has lamented that sociology has become so hopelessly fragmented that it finds it increasingly difficult to define its subject matter. There is now a growing recognition of the need for a rethinking of sociology’s cherished goals and aspirations and of the plurality and contested character of theoretical perspectives and methodological orientations in the discipline. In 2010, the International Sociological Association published an important volume Handbook of Diverse Sociological Traditions, which focuses on diversities within and between the sociological traditions of many regions and nations around the world.
Restructuring the Epistemological Paradigm
The issue of the restructuring of sociology in an Islamic framework, which is in the focus of my presentation, necessitates a rethinking of its epistemological presuppositions. I, therefore, wish to submit that the project of recasting the discipline in an Islamic framework should entail an alternative epistemological paradigm.
The scientific worldview, or the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview as it came to be known, rested on two interrelated epistemological premises: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is the belief that the cosmos and all phenomena that are a part of it are governed by universal, invariant laws. Empiricism, on the other hand, holds that the laws governing natural phenomena can be discovered through the methods of scientific observation and experimentation. The rationalist principle was propounded by Rene Descartes, while the empiricist canon was enunciated by Francis Bacon. Alfred North Whitehead has observed that the most distinctive feature of the scientific revolution was the blending of the principles of rationalism and empiricism in a unified framework. The social and human sciences, which were fascinated by the ascendancy and triumph of the natural sciences, eagerly sought to appropriate their concepts and methods.
Scientific rationalism regards reason as the primary source and test of true knowledge while empiricism rests on the assumption that anything that cannot be perceived or experienced through the senses or which is not measureable in quantitative or statistical terms is unreliable. Cartesian epistemology identifies reason exclusively with scientific rationality and reduces all experiences into sensory data. It considers other modes and sources of knowledge, such as introspection, insight, empathy and intuition, which play a highly important role in human perception and experience, as illusory. Cartesian epistemology draws a sharp line of separation between subject and object, fact and value, and reason and morality. Rene Descartes argued that one must separate facts from values and the domain of reason from that of morality and faith.
Cartesian epistemology is fraught with many inherent flaws. It is reductionistic in that it confines the sources of knowledge to sense experiences and fails to take cognizance of other, equally valuable, sources. Its view of rationality is monolithic and monochromatic, which ignores the fact that rationality has manifold and complex dimensions. Max Weber, for example, spoke of Wertrational or value-oriented rationality. In recent times, a devastating critique of the imperialist claims of scientific rationality was launched by the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend. Jack Goody has challenged the nation of a special Western rationality and its assumed supremacy. The eminent American anthropologist Clifford Geertz has rightly argued that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences. The distinguished British social anthropologist Edmund Leach has observed that “all the anthropologists’ most important insights stem from introspection.”
The Cartesian dichotomy of the subject and object has spawned the canon of objectivity and value neutrality in sociology and other social sciences. Recent studies in the history, philosophy and sociology of science have taken the wind out of the sails of this fallacious notion. In his path-breaking work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn has convincingly shown that the image of science as an absolutely objective pursuit of inquiry is illusory. Kuhn has argued that science is an essentially collective, communal undertaking in which non-rational factors such as the distribution of scientific power play an important role. Researches in the history and philosophy of science show that even in the natural and exact sciences, personal commitment and involvement are an integral part of scientific research. Michael Polanyi and H. Prosch have observed that science is not “the Simon-pure, crystal-clear fount of all reliable knowledge and coherence, as it has long been presumed to be. Its method is not that of detachment, but rather that of involvement.”
Positivism or the application of the scientific method to the study of human behavior and social and cultural processes is riddled with serious flaws. Michael Polanyi has observed that positivism offers a false account of knowledge and seriously undermines our highest achievements as human beings. The canon of objectivity and value neutrality, which has been the Holy Grail of sociology and anthropology for nearly a century, has lost much of its hallowed status in social science research. A growing number of social scientists around the world are inclined to think that sociology and other social sciences can become irrelevant and meaningless if they remain detached from human affairs and concerns. Edmund Leach, for example, has observed that the cult of scientific detachment isolates the individual scholar from his environment and his community. The American anthropologist Gerald Berreman has observed that more often than not, the so-called ideal of objectivity and uncommitted research actually entails a tacit commitment to the status quo. There is a growing recognition, in sociology, anthropology, economics, law, education and international relations, of the bearing of moral values and concerns on academic research.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between Cartesian epistemology and Islamic epistemology. Islamic epistemology eschews the reductionistic fallacies and pitfalls of Cartesian epistemology and espouses a unitary framework of knowledge that takes due cognizance of the multiplicity of modes and sources of knowledge and experience, including sense perception, imagination, introspection, intuition, empathy and revelation. Islamic epistemology holds that there is no disjunction between fact and value and reason and faith; they are in fact closely intertwined. The Quran says that what differentiates man from animals and the rest of nature is that he has been endowed with a reasoning ability and the capacity for moral choice. It repeatedly urges its readers to reflect over the mysteries of the cosmos, the animal kingdom and human existence. The principle of rationality is recognized and employed as an analytical tool in the critical study of Hadith, especially in the discipline of al-jarh wal-ta’dil, which deals with the critical examination of all available information on the narrators and transmitters of Hadith, with a view to ascertain their credibility and trustworthiness. Its use is also reflected in the legal principle of analogical reasoning (qiyas) in the Hanafi and Maliki schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as in Islamic historiography.
To put it in a nutshell: in contrast with Cartesian epistemology, Islamic epistemology offers a far more expansive, inclusive and holistic perspective on knowledge and experience.
A Sociological Perspective on Tawhid
Western sociologists generally concede that religious beliefs constitute a legitimate and significant domain of sociological inquiry because they are invested with meaning, provide the organizing principles of a people’s worldview and have tangible consequences for human behavior and society. I would like to go one step further and suggest that religious beliefs, especially those of a global faith like Islam, offer ideas and principles that can be useful in sociological analysis and theorizing.
It goes without saying that belief in the oneness and unity of God (Tawhid) is Islam’s foundational doctrine. The tenet of monotheism – an inadequate translation of Tawhid – has profound connotations and implications for human nature and the social process, for philosophy and ethics and for social science theorizing. A distinctive feature of the doctrine of Tawhid is that it represents a unitary and holistic view of reality, including the cosmos, flora and fauna and the human species.
Islamic beliefs, especially the tenet of Tawhid, offer a holistic, realistic and balanced perspective on human nature and society. The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by six distinctive characteristics. In the first place, Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds, designated as God’s vicegerent on earth and given dominion over all that is in the universe (Quran 2: 30; 6: 165; 14: 32-33; 45:13). Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. At the same time, the Islamic view steers clear of the fallacy of the apotheosis of man committed by the Enlightenment philosophers.
Second, the equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of descent, class or caste, is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. According to the Islamic view, all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Prophet categorically declared in his Farewell Pilgrimage: “O people! Verily your Lord is One and your father is one. All of you have descended from Adam, and Adam was (created) from dust. The most honoured in the sight of God is the one who fears Him the most. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, except in respect of piety”.
Third, human nature is characterised by a certain duality or polarity. On the one hand, man has been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather paradoxical and contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 14:34; 17: 100; 43:15; 70:19; 95:4-5; 100:6). The polarity of human nature is symbolized in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5: 27-31). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23). Fourth, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice (76: 3; 90: 8-10). Man has the freedom to choose between good and evil (Quran 8:53; 13:11; 15:29). The Quran says: “We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up…. ..” (Quran 33:72). Most commentators of the Quran are of the view that the word amanah refers to the capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice.
Fifth, Islam recognizes the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: “A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore you should be watchful about the person you befriend.” The Islamic view of human nature is not confined to an explication of its nature and dynamics; Islam also suggests a normative framework and an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature. Finally, Islam places great emphasis on kindness, compassion and fellow-feeling as the defining features of a humane society. In an evocative metaphor, the Prophet (SAAW) alluded to mankind as “God’s family.” He is thus reported to have said,” All of mankind is (like) God’s family, and the dearest of them in God’s sight is the one who is the most kind and helpful to His family.”
In many societies across the world one finds an excess of either communitarianism or individualism. Societies such as India and China privilege society and community over the individual whereas contemporary Western societies consider the individual as the basic unit of society. In the traditional Indian and Chinese worldviews, society is not just the sum total of all individuals but has an autonomous reality of its own, which takes precedence over the interests and identities of individuals. The tenet of individualism in the West, which is embedded in the doctrine of liberalism, emphasizes the autonomy and freedom of the individual from all kinds of tyrannies. Liberalism holds that what is morally sound and desirable is to be determined by each individual. In his thought-provoking book The Individualised Society Zygmunt Bauman has argued that the tenet of radical or exaggerated individualism has become a defining feature of modern Western societies.
Both exaggerated communitarianism and radical individualism take an extreme, reductionistic view of the interface between individual and society. While societies such as India and China suffer from a surplus of communitarianism and a deficit of individualism, the equation is reversed in the context of Western societies. The problem with exaggerated communitarianism is that it takes little or no cognizance of human freedom, autonomy and agency. Radical individualism, on the other hand, ignores the fact that the individual does not exist apart from society, that no man is an island, that his personality, identity and values cannot be dissociated from the social milieu in which he is located.
Islam avoids the pitfalls of exaggerated communitarianism and radical individualism and considers the individual and society not as polar opposites but as parts of an inseparable unity. It seeks to harmonize individual autonomy and agency with societal cohesion. It provides sufficient autonomous spaces to the individual and at the same time urges him to engage with his community and to take an active part in the moral reconstruction of society. Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency, between determinism and free will and provides substantial scope for human intervention. The Quran says, “That man can have nothing but what he strives for” (53:39). Further: “Surely God will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). A man came riding his camel to the Prophet and asked him, “O Messenger of God, shall I leave my camel untied and trust in God?” The Prophet replied, “First tie your camel (to a tree) and then repose trust in God”.
Islam offers an alternative to the reductionistic conceptualizations of human nature in the Western intellectual tradition and in the social science discourses, including homo economicus in economics, homo natura in psychology and homo sociologicus in sociology. In mainstream Western sociology, human beings are portrayed as products of social institutions and processes. The concepts of socialization, social self, role and status and social structure in sociology highlight the myriad ways in which human behavior and personality are said to be moulded by social processes. The well-known American sociologist Dennis Wrong aptly characterized this view of human nature in Western sociology as the ‘oversocialised conception of man.”
Restructuring Sociology in an Islamic Framework
In my view, the project of restructuring of sociology in an Islamic framework should entail five prerequisites:
(i) The replacement of Cartesian epistemology with an alternative Islamic epistemological paradigm
(ii) A reconceptualisation of human nature and the social process in light of the tenet of Tawhid in particular and Islamic principles in general
(iii) A critical appraisal of the Western sociological tradition, involving the identification of its positive and negative elements, including its parochial and Eurocentric moorings, and a selective, critical appropriation of its positive features
(iv) Formulating a genuinely comparative and authentic science of society and human behavior premised on (a) Islamic epistemology and worldview (b) moral sensitivity, philosophical depth and historical and literary sensibility (c) selectively and critically appropriated elements and features from sociological traditions developed in the West as well as in South Asia and parts of Africa (d) a broad-based, eclectic methodology
(v) An authentic sociology of Islam.
The project is undoubtedly fraught with complexities and knotty problems. It raises, for example, the following questions: What are the boundaries that separate the social sciences from the natural sciences? In what sense, if any, is sociology a science? Is sociology a purely inductive science, as Western sociologists generally claim? Is it also a moral discipline? Does sociology share anything with historiography and the humanities? What should be an appropriate methodology for a sociology cast in an Islamic mould?
The inductive approach is based on reasoning that aims at constructing or evaluating general propositions derived from specific examples or contexts. In deductive reasoning, on the other hand, specific examples are derived from general propositions. In the Western tradition, sociology is generally viewed as a purely or predominantly inductive science. This represents a myopic view of the philosophy and epistemology of social sciences, including sociology. The fact of the matter is that sociological theorizing involves both inductive and deductive reasoning and logic. The role of deductive reasoning in sociological analysis and theory is reflected in the generally unstated epistemological presuppositions, in generalizations about human behavior and social processes, and in the construction of theoretical models. A classic example of the juxtaposition of inductive and deductive reasoning is provided by Max Weber’s conceptualization of “ideal types.”
My own view is that sociological analysis and theorizing is located at the confluence of inductive and deductive reasoning. It is interesting to note that the eminent British anthropologist Ernest Gellner calls Ibn Khaldun a “superb deductive sociologist.”
There is a profound difference and divergence between the logic and method of the natural sciences and those of the social sciences. Sociology, in my view, has a closer affinity with historiography and the humanities than with the natural sciences. Therefore, the project of restructuring of sociology in an Islamic framework should be informed by the breadth and sweep of historiography, philosophical depth and acuity, literary sensibility and moral imagination. Sociology is not, and should not strive to be, an abstract, ivory-tower discipline, engaged in disinterested academic research and unconcerned with current issues and concerns. Rather, it should be attuned to and animated by a concern and engagement with wider societal and public issues.
The project of restructuring of sociology in an Islamic framework should involve the adoption of an inclusive and eclectic research methodology that combines the conventional methods and perspectives of field work, survey research, statistical analysis and the comparative perspective with the methodological approaches adopted in historiography, literary analysis, hermeneutics and textual study.
One may raise a pertinent question: How should one look, from an Islamic standpoint, at the conceptual and methodological corpus of Western sociology? I would say that there is much in the Western sociological tradition that is valuable and can therefore be selectively and critically appropriated. Islamic epistemology, which has a refreshingly open, inclusive and accommodative perspective on knowledge, can be a valuable source of guidance in this matter. The Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) is reported to have said: “Wisdom is the lost animal of a believer; he catches hold of it wherever he finds it.” He is also reported to have said: “You know better about the matters of your world.” Our illustrious forbears had no hesitation in drawing on the researches and contributions of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Indian scientists, mathematicians, physicians and philosophers. One should therefore steer clear of the slippery path of cognitive and cultural xenophobia. The wholesale rejection of the legacy of Western sociology will be as unfortunate and short-sighted as its uncritical acceptance. Sociology is and should remain a comparative discipline and should draw on the cultural and religious traditions of different communities and civilizations as well as the reflections of social thinkers from around the world.
Sociology of Islam
In Western discourse, the sociology and anthropology of Islam are generally viewed as the comparative study of Muslim societies in an empiricist, often synchronic, framework. Some Muslim sociologists have uncritically imbibed this view.
The sociology of Islam cannot be adequately defined or pursued within the conventional empiricist and synchronic framework of Western sociology, which takes little or no cognizance of textual and historical sources. The sociology of Islam should take into account the Islamic Great Tradition, which is rooted in textual sources and which has a highly significant bearing on contemporary Muslim societies. Similarly, it should take cognizance of historical continuities which pervade Muslim societies around the world. In other words, the sociology of Islam should be located at the confluence of text and context.
The scope of the sociology of Islam is, or should be, wide and expansive, and should encompass Islam as a faith and as the blueprint of a social order, a civilization, and as the defining feature of a large segment of humanity that constitutes nearly one-fourth of the global population. The methodological framework for the sociology of Islam should be informed by a synthesis of a variety of approaches, orientations and techniques, including textual study, the comparative method, the use of historical (including oral traditions) and literary sources, introspection, field work and participant observation.