For many centuries, fields of study or subject areas within the mainstream intellectual tradition of Islam have been categorised as rational or textual[i]. For instance; the science or art of logic undeniably falls under the category of ‘rational’, as does the study of prophetic narrations fall under the label of ‘textual’. Mysticism/gnosis, for those who studied it or considered it among the Islamic disciplines, either enjoyed its own category or was seen to be derived from the aforementioned two. Within these subjects and disciplines, there are those that are studied as tools and for the purpose of aiding the study of another subject, and those that are studied for their own sake, as ends and not means[ii]. This can be seen in the example of Arabic grammar, which is studied not because there is an innate desirability in knowing it, but rather because it serves as a tool to study the primary texts of Islam. On the contrary, the field of philosophy is studied because of the knowledge it brings, a type of knowledge that has innate desirability and is not studied for the sake of other sciences[iii].
The classification of the subjects into textual or rational is based on the primary and fundamental methodology employed in them[iv]. This does not mean however, that they cannot accept premises from a science outside of their own category, or from ‘non-Islamic’ disciplines. One other method of inquiry which has played a notable role in some of the premises adopted in various Islam-related disciples, and even in redefining the world view of a number of Muslim scholars is scientific investigation and empirical research.[v] As an example, Murtadha Mutahhari (d.1979) states:
‘The method of inquiry in Philosophy is purely rational. Yes, it is possible in instances that philosophy makes use of results and findings from empirical sciences, and use them as a minor premise (specific statement) for a syllogistic argument with a philosophical and purely rational major premise (general statement), and yield a philosophical conclusion. Such results, in respect of them being produced from an empirical and philosophical premise, they are considered partially empirical; meaning the findings of empirical sciences impacts the final outcome. If through the advancement of empirical sciences, the empirical premise changes, then it follows that the conclusion of the syllogistic argument will also change.’[vi]
That empirical research can have philosophical implications is not a novel idea, nor one addressed only by Muslims philosophers. Nonetheless, the concept is often neglected in public assessments of the relationship between the two, or disciplines in general, and we’re often offered an image which suggests they are incompatible. However, it must also be noted that views regarding empirical research themselves may be traced back to philosophical presuppositions and beliefs.
A number of philosophical arguments presented by Muslim scholars as sole or additional proofs for religious concepts essentially rely on empirical evidence, in part. As an example, one of the proofs for the soul used by Mesbah Yazdi is based on findings of empirical sciences. Yazdi argues:
‘Likewise in order to establish the existence of the spirit one may employ the biological fact that the cells of the bodies of men and animals gradually die and are replaced by other cells so that during several years all the cells of the body (except the cells of the brain) are replaced, and by adding the fact that the structure of the cells of the brain also gradually change with the consumption of their contents and renewed nourishment, for individual unity and the persistence of the spirit are cases of consciousness and are undeniable. The body, however, is constantly in a state of change. Hence, it becomes clear that the spirit is other than the body, is persistent and unchangeable. Even in some proofs of the existence of God the Exalted, such as the proof from motion and the proof from creation, in one sense, empirical premises are used.’[vii]
As was mentioned earlier, if empirical evidence lead us to new contrary findings, these arguments would no longer be valid, and other proofs would have to be sought. Another major example was the use of premises based on ptolemaic astronomy in structuring philosophical arguments[viii]. While Mulla Sadra has been charged with depending on the ptolemaic worldview for his arguments, Hossein Nasr argues that Sadra’s arguments are in fact independent of Claudius Ptolemy’s theory, and that his arguments are presented without reference to this astronomic system[ix].
The usage of empirical evidence as premises and information that guides discussions in other fields is by no means limited to philosophy, and it has impacted discussions of theological arguments, understanding religious teachings, exegesis, jurisprudence, legal theory, etc.
Abd Al-Hadi Mas’udi suggests that research and findings in psychology can impact the way we analyse certain narrations, and allow us to delve into further depth regarding the possible meanings of the narrations[x].
Jawadi Amuli, who is very careful not to exaggerate the value of empirical evidence, and does not shy away from mentioning its limitations in a number of his works, also states that empirical findings, with particular conditions, can aid in explaining and clarifying some of the apparent meanings of the Quran[xi].
As such, though the confines and epistemic value of empirical evidence must be thoroughly discussed and clearly defined (as they have been by many Muslim scholars), their general contribution in helping the furtherment of other disciplines cannot be easily denied.
There are many possible implications associated with this discussion and those closely related. The purpose of this short piece was only to share some observations and basic notes as a partial preliminary for other discussions.
[i] The Muqadimmah, Ibn Khaldun (Translated by Franz Rosenthal), p.562
[ii] Sharh ‘Uyun Al-Hikmah, Fakhr Al-Din Radhi, v.1, p.49. Mantiq 2, Mahmud Muntazari-Muqaddam, p. 44.
[iii] Zan Dar Aayeneh Jamal Wa Jalal, Abdullah Jawadi Amuli, p.262. Jawadi Amuli mentions that in reality, no study has innate value, and that technically, even philosophy is studied to be acted upon. There are varying opinions on this issue.
[iv] Philosophical Instruction, Mesbah Yazdi, p.58.
[v] See: Islam & Science (Does Science Offer Evidence of a Transcendent Reality and Purpose?), Mehdi Golshani, Vol. 1 (June 2003) No. 1.
[vi] Falsafeh Muqadammati; Bar-Grifteh Az Athar Ustad Shahid Murtadha Mutahhari, Abd Al-Rasul Ubudiyat, p.41.
[vii] Philosophical Instruction, Mesbah Yazdi, p.93.
[viii] Al-Ilahiyat Min Kitab Al-Shifaa’, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Annotated by Hasan Zadeh-Amouli, p.28
[ix] A History of Muslim Philosophy, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Vol. 2 (Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra)), p. 959. The Cambridge History of Iran (Volume 6), Seyyed Hossein Nasr, (Intellectual and Spiritual Figures), p.683. It is possible that critiques of Sadra were also considering his works in other areas (exegesis, theology), while Nasr was defending his philosophical approach.
[x] Ravish-i Fahm-i Hadith, Abd Al-Hadi Mas’udi, p.203-205.
[xi] Shari’at Dar Aayeneh Ma’rifat, Abdullah Jawadi Amuli, v.1, p.169.