Deconstructive Review of “Epistemological Bias”

Epistemology is roughly defined as “The Theory of Knowledge” and is considered one of the important sub-fields of philosophy, emphasizing what constitutes as knowledge and how or if we are able to obtain it. Many philosophers and various schools of thought have often debated on whether Epistemology should be considered the foundational field of philosophy or whether subjects like Ontology or Phenomenology should assume the throne. Nevertheless, every philosopher agrees that the field holds special importance, for without it, how do we claim that we know of something or anything? Of course, this is an epistemological question and the circularity may be deemed ironic, however it makes a point: knowledge of the substance of reality and phenomenon are all necessary, but pointless if we don’t know how we know.

Islam has always been a religion fixated on knowledge as a virtue and a necessary trait of the believer. Without knowledge, one cannot be considered a practicing Muslim since it is necessary for performing ones religious duties and coming closer to Allah (swt) – what are considered essential aspects of the human being. Given such, it an an obligation for the Muslim to not only obtain knowledge, but to know what it is and how it is obtained. In this realization, Muslims will naturally also ask what Epistemologies ground other belief systems contrary to their own and allow them to adequately analyze and deconstruct other perspectives with ease.

The following review is one such deconstructive analysis of the book Epistemological Bias: In the Physical & Social Science, a collection of articles written by Muslim thinkers in various fields attempting to define and critique the implicit and explicit biases of contemporary western sciences in light of Islamic philosophy and scientific inquiry. Though many of the positions taken therein are those held by individuals from the same religious perspective as the researcher, it is imperative to be critical within one’s own tradition as well so as to ensure quality of arguments within the Islamic tradition. Since this study is a commentary and critique of the former, special emphasis will be made on the foundational perspectives motivating the authors as well as if their analyses are valid and consistent. Also, given that the the first chapter of this compilation deals with the philosophical underpinnings of what constitutes bias – and is also a reflection of the methodology that the authors appear to be adhering to in their critique – it will be the primary reference and focus of analysis throughout this study. We hope that by grounding our commentary and deconstructive approach in the foundational chapter of the book, that this will present a far fairer understanding of the text as well as providing context to each author’s individual concerns and critiques.

The Goals of Epistemological Bias

The question of bias in methodology and terminology is a problem that faces researchers east, west, north and south; however, it faces Third World intellectuals with special keenness. For although they write in a cultural environment that has its own specific conceptual and cultural paradigms, they nevertheless encounter an alien (foreign) paradigm which attempts to impose itself upon their society and upon their very imagination and thoughts.1

The beginning of Epistemological Bias, written by the editor, Abdelwahab Elmessiri, who is also the author of the first chapter of this book – the focus of our analysis – characterizes the major theme of these collection of articles. The foreign paradigm that Elmessiri speaks of is that of the so-called ‘Western’ perception of the physical and social sciences based purely on a utilitarian materialistic viewpoint of the world without reference to the Divine2. This is problematic for the editor given that he feels it is too narrow a perception and excludes the fundamental aspects of religious knowledge. As such, he wishes to create a new science that unveils the implicit biases in all fields of knowledge (with emphasis on the contemporary saturation of Western mentality) so as to come to an objective understanding of what is being studied – removing any view that may inhibit the truth. Elmessiri hopes “that the aim of this new science (fiqh) of bias will not be merely deconstructive”, but will be able to revitalize other sciences in order to cultivate the positive aspects of all paradigms despite their inherent biases3.

In the first chapter of the book, Elmessiri’s objective is to construct this new ‘science of bias’, or ‘deconstructive revitalization’:

“Why not establish a new science with its own mechanisms, methodologies and points of ultimate reference to deal with epistemological biases and open up the gate of ijtihad with respect to them? In my paper entitled, ‘The Gate of Ijtihad: Introduction to the Study of Epistemological Bias,’ I advocate doing this very thing, i.e., opening anew the gate of ijtihad, or interpretation.”4

This new science (‘fiqh’, as he calls it) of bias, which is supposed to bring about a renewal of interpretation, is the primary focus of Elmessiri’s paper. The question then is whether or not he is successful in his attempt to objectify the approach to knowledge, outside the bounds of contemporary Western thinking, while promoting a perspective not implicitly burdened by similar problems.

Defining Bias

Abdelwahab Elmessiri begins his study by first attempting to define what bias in in the light of certain real-life examples. One such example – that we feel is the most adequate in expressing his point – gives particular emphasis to the dilemma regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

With other tourist, I stood before the barbed wire wall separating the two halves of the Egyptian and Palestinian town of Rafah. The occupied part of the sad town was under curfew, which turned it into a ghost town. The only visible sign of life was three Israeli armored cars moving together. A fourth luxury car would be speeding by every now and then. Impressed by the scene, a smart journalist from Cairo remarked, “Look at the Israeli armored cars! They’re moving in perfect discipline; and the military governor’s car never stops checking on them. The Israeli’s efficiency is really admirable.” An Egyptian soldier guarding the border gate overheard the conversation and burst out laughing. “The Israeli armored cars move together out of fear,” he corrected. “Despite the curfew, everybody is still scared to death of the Palestinians,” the soldier added. “And the military governor is in more panic than they are, which explains why his car runs at this mad speed.”

Then the Egyptian soldier went on relating stories about the heroic behavior of the oppressed people of Rafah, who resist the occupation and support each other through acts of mercy and collaboration. During the curfew, one household runs out of flour, so they throw their neighbors a paper ball message which is received by another family, which in turn throws it to another till it lands in a house that has a surplus of flour. Immediately then, a sack of flour flies from their house to another till it lands in the house of the family that needs it. Pointing to the gate we stood by, the guard said, “As for this gate, it is Saladdin’s Gate through which he passed to liberate Jerusalem centuries ago.” What a difference between inner defeat transforming everything into a sign of downfall, and inner victory transforming the very same objects into signs of triumph.5

The contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is characteristic of two different perspectives which can be viewed from various angles depending on the foundational biases inherent within each observer. From this point onwards he offers a definition of bias on the basis of the Qur’anic term ‘mutaayyizan, which literally means ‘joining one team against another6. A deeper understanding of the term is also mentioned:

Every human behavior has cultural significance and represents some epistemological paradigm and perspective. A paradigm is a mental abstract picture, an imaginary construct, and a symbolic representation of reality that results from a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The mind assembles some features from reality, rejecting some and keeping others, rearranging them in an order of priority to make them correspond to reality. According to the nature of the paradigm, it can exaggerate those elements which it deems essential and underplay all other elements….In other words, behind each paradigm – the process of inclusion, exclusion, reconstruction and exaggeration – there are intrinsic criteria, a set of beliefs, hypotheses, presuppositions, axioms and answers to the total and ultimate questions that make up its deeply-rooted fundamentals.7

He also adds – in discussing the inevitably of bias – that it is a product of the human mind, which is not passive, but vital and selective8. This is, however, contentious. Certainly the human mind is vital and selective when dealing with paradigms, but not in all cases. Human beings are clearly passive when it comes to foundational aspects of reality. No matter what paradigm a person holds, things will appear as they appear, regardless. This phenomenological9 aspect of human beings – often mistaken as ‘realism’10 – is a trait that no person can overcome or select to the contrary since these are the grounds by which selectivity is possible to begin with. An example of this passivity is in regards to our daily experiences of the world around us. No paradigm can rationally conclude that every phenomena we encounter is somehow a false appearance. While we may disagree on the ultimate reality behind said experiences: trees will always appear to be trees. In fact, if someone were to argue that the appearance of a tree was actually an appearance of a pink-flying elephant, we would question their sanity before their chosen paradigm.

Elmessiri may not be aware that his assumption that the mind is ‘vital and selective’, as opposed to passive, creates more questions than it answers. Perhaps he was concerned primarily with man’s ability to choose between multiple backgrounds and paradigms, seeing bias as having some positive aspect in regards to human free will11. This of course seems to be bias on his part (something he may not disagree with, but did not account for), and as a consequence of, did not predict the possible problems with his approach.

If the human mind is purely active and not passive, it calls into question by what and how it can be active. Certainly there needs to be something foundational by which every person grounds their choices – even their choice of paradigms – else we are constantly choosing on the basis of a void, abstract consciousness: turtles all the way down12. I cannot choose something unless I am ‘moved’ to choose. However, what makes me choose? What aspects of my humanity – what makes me human – allows my mind to be vital and selective, and what attributes are being utilizing to do so?

Elmessiri does offer a foundational element – though inevitably contradictory – in order to ground his focus on human freedom and the in-absolute nature of bias:

Human beings were created by one God with a single fitrah [instinct] in common. The Creator, however, wished that they not be one nation, but rather a variety of peoples and tribes, each with its particular set of choices. This does not necessarily mean that they should be in conflict with each other, nor does it mean that the one has to negate the other; after all, the possibility of communication and mutual understanding is always there…Despite its limits, human language is capable of achieving successful communication and of expressing truth that can help overcome bias and build epistemological paradigms which, though they arise from a particular cultural experience, can render communication both successful and fair to all concerned.13

With emphasis on the common, instinctive aspects of humanity, Elmessiri grounds his assumption of a ‘vital and selective’ mind while simultaneously promoting the idea of the inevitability, yet undetermined nature of bias. Essentially, “bias will always happen”, he argues, but that it can always be overcome. By assuming a common, instinctive nature, however, does he not admit that the mind is both passive and selective? Certainly if there is a Creator that chose to make all tribes and nations different from each other, placing them in various geographical locations – with their own distinct environments – and different time periods – with different influences from history and surrounding cultures – then certainly is not the mind passive to some degree? How can the mind be purely vital and selective when it was created to have very little to be vital and selective from?

Further, and perhaps the most important point of contention with Elmessiri’s assumptions, is that in suggesting that bias is not ultimate, he undermines the entirety of his deconstruction of bias itself, even contradicting himself in the following passage:

“1. There is bias in favor of what one believes to be the truth. This is commitment. When one is biased towards the truth, one is enthusiastic and motivated, but is ready to subject himself and his judgments to the value system and to the truths that exist outside him. In this case, one is also ready to test the result of his search, for he does not believe that his (biased) judgment is the final absolute verdict, for it is, first and foremost, an ijtihad; and of this he is quite aware.”14

In asserting that there is a form of bias for “what one believes to be the truth”, then the former is not only inevitable, but also ultimate, since the latter influences the former and cannot be subject to it. Indeed, bias can color us to what the truth is, but it can never change it nor does it influence it into existence. Without Truth, there is nothing to be biased about. Even if we were to argue, as Elmessiri does15, that one can be biased towards what is false, this is contrary to human thinking and behavior in accordance with their choices or respective worldviews. Human beings are not motivated by what they consider to be wrong. No person can be motivated by something that does not exist as certain in their mind. If they know something is false, then they cannot willingly operate on that assumption or paradigm. Even if one appears to be operating solely on their base desires, this can only be the case if they willingly accept that there is nothing wrong with doing so.

What Elmessiri does correctly indicate are the limitations of perspectives from various biases, but once again, he does not appear to subject his understanding of bias to the same limitations. Clearly, we are limited, but if we are not certain of our positions there is no point in suggesting what we say or believe is true at all. Lacking conviction in one’s beliefs is no different than suggesting that they aren’t true to begin with. Would Elmessiri admit that Islam is merely an ‘ijtihad’ or that it were the Truth? Even in admitting his own limited human understanding, I do not believe he would be so eager to ascribe the former status to the very religion he adheres to – nor should he be expected to. Truth is seen as Truth and nothing less, for without such conviction, Elmessiri would not have written this analysis to begin with. The realization of error usually comes about not by understanding human limitation (for that is always considered), but by being exposed to anomalies that run contrary to one’s paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn notes:

If awareness of anomaly plays a role in the emergence of new sorts of phenomena, it should surprise no one that a similar but more profound awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory. On this point historical evidence is, I think, entirely unequivocal. The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’ announcement. Galileo’s contributions to the study of motion depended closely upon difficulties discovered in Aristotle’s theory by scholastic critics. Newton’s new theory of light and color originated in the discovery that none of the existing pre-paradigm theories would accept for the length of the spectrum, and the wave theory that replaces Newton’s was announced in the midst of growing concern about anomalies in the relation of diffraction and polarization effects in Newton’s theory. Thermodynamics was born from the collision of two existing nineteenth-century physical theories, and quantum mechanics from a variety of difficulties surrounding black-body radiation, specific heats, and the photoelectric effect.16

These anomalies, whether they are sought for or accidentally found, can either be easily assimilated into one’s paradigm or run so-counter to it that a shift to another paradigm is necessary to conform to the more passive elements (fitrah) of the human mind.

Given these inconsistencies and inadequacies in Elmessiri’s explication of bias, one should seek alternatives that conform more to his initial definition, such as a framework that does not rely on a human mind that is purely ‘vital and selective’, biases that are undetermined, or forms of bias that are focussed on falsehood as their objective. Perhaps a better framework of bias can be garnered from one of the first examples that Elmessiri provides at the beginning of his paper: the different perspectives regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict17. Bias certainly clouds each’s view of what is actually going on, but one seems to lack sufficient data by which give a proper interpretation. The Egyptian soldier is far more aware of what goes on at these borders, while the journalist is not. While the former may have closer ties to the victims of the conflict (the Palestinians) and therefore be in their favor, this does not necessarily make his information any less valid or correct. His paradigm – Islam – could also be a contributing factor to his view and thus be declared a ‘bias’, but none of these things should be taken into account when assessing the reality of situations. His testimony should still be taken seriously and examined by the person inquiring. Which of the stories seems more feasible given all the data. Are the Israelis comfortable in this area or do they fear for their lives? What does their behavior reflect in light of actual events? And more importantly, is there truly an objective manner by which the truth can be assessed or is one option simply more rational than the other by being able to account for more anomalies than the opposing paradigm?

Deconstructing Elmessiri’s Bias

After providing examples of and defining bias, Elmessiri goes on to explain the explicit and implicit biases of Western culture and its epistemological paradigm inherent within Muslims societies and ways of thinking today. Here begins his deconstruction of Western bias – something he claimed rather openly in the very introduction of this collection of articles18 yet contradicts at a later point in his paper:

“The aim of these criticisms is not to expose or deconstruct the West (an exercise worthy of nihilists or Post-Modernists). Rather, they are an attempt to sort out the Western arsenal of knowledge, dividing it into ‘Western,’ that is specific to Western civilization, and universal, expressing our common humanity.”19

Either he has forgotten the aim of his own analysis or misconstrues what ‘deconstruction’ actually entails. Certainly, Heidegger20, the first deconstructionist, was neither a nihilists or a post-modernists in any sense of either terms. Little more will be mentioned about Heidegger later in contrast to Elmessiri’s critiques, but for the meantime we will continue to focus on his own self-denied deconstruction, much of which we agree with.

To begin, he provides, yet again, more suggestive examples of the problem. One that stands out amongst the rest is his observation on chairs:

When universities were built in the Arab Gulf states in the 1960’s, it was ‘natural’ to adopt chairs in the auditoriums and classrooms…Perhaps no one thought about the fact that Westerners used chairs to avoid sitting on the cold and wet ground, which explains their lack of interest in carpeting…Nevertheless, chairs have come to symbolize progress despite the historical fact that until the 9th century, the Slavs offered human sacrifices while sitting on chairs. Meanwhile, their Arab and Chinese contemporaries sat on the floor and possessed civilizations of the highest sophistication.21

The inclusion of chairs in a civilization that has no real need for them, much less an intimate cultural attachment, is alarming and indeed suggestive of a foreign paradigm imposing itself (either through ignorance or force) on populations whom this technology was never meant for. Why is it that chairs are seen as highly sophisticated and necessary objects for universities and even common household use? Is this not the projection of a foreign superiority complex? Elmessiri explains the the beginning of this imposition by the Western paradigm as follows:

The Islamic world entered into a bitter conflict with this cultural formation from the very start. The Ottomans defended the ‘land of Islam’ in the Arab East and elsewhere against the colonialist assault. This explains why Western imperialism circumvented the Ottoman empire, occupying parts of Africa and India and the New World. With the crisis of the Ottoman Empire, however, Western armies started to invade the Islamic East. The arrival of Napoleon’s forces in Egypt (1798-1802) marked the West’s attempts to dismember this Empire and the Islamic world at large. This was followed by the annexation of the Turkish emirates on the Black Sea by the Russians and the British invasion of Cyprus (and later of Egypt). This the Islamic world was ultimately divided among Western imperialist powers.22

In the impending division and weakening of the Islamic Empire, Western forces began to colonize and impose their self professed superiority on to the rest of the world. Elmessiri, we believe, rightly points out that from this time forward, the Muslim world (Arab nations especially) was made to feel inferior, as though the revival of their culture and Islam rested in “catching up with the West”23. He accuses contemporary Islamists24 of working within the same sentiments and that the “West has been taken as the ultimate point of reference”25 by which to enact their policies:

“Thinkers compete to offer evidence that Islam had already given women their rights and that it had reached, a long time ago, the recently discovered rules of ‘modern’ organization. The fatal significance here, again, is that Islam gains legitimacy inasmuch as it approaches the Western cultural paradigm. In other words, the Islamic paradigm is being subtly Westernized from within, with no cultural invasion from without.”26

Education – Western, that is – is primarily to blame for the ignorance of one’s own heritage and the inability to understand the imposition of foreign values and ideas on the people. Elmessiri is direct in his condemnations of those educated in western universities who attempt to, whether explicitly or implicitly, import said foreign values through their power and influence. Some of the beliefs he condemns the ‘educated’ for holding are still relevant, but others suggest that his article was written in the 1950’s as opposed to the 2000’s. Take for instance his suggestion that “They [the educated] consider Nietzche to be the greatest philosopher of humankind (rather than the philosopher of the death of God and of the human race). Finally, they believe that structuralism and deconstruction are mere schools of literary analysis (not methods of thought that reflect an anti-humanistic attitude)”27.

In the contemporary period, Nietzche isn’t considered much more than one of the great existentialists among academia and his fame as the supposed ‘greatest’ (already an arbitrary title) began to wane quite quickly after the second World War when the Nazis bastardized his thinking to justify their own superiority28. Since then, he’s been taboo to bring up at dinner parties. Perhaps this is Elmessiri’s view of contemporary Arab academics, but then it would be difficult to credit the West for an influence they’ve outlived for nearly half a century. Certainly, if such an imposition were still taking place, Arabs would be up to speed by now with contemporary perspectives in thought.

Further, Elmessiri’s critiques of deconstruction and reconstruction as being perceived as mere schools of literary analysis were criticisms first brought forth by modernists analytical philosophers beginning from the 1920’s and are in no way merely considered as such today – at least not at the popular level. And it is, once again, difficult to suggest deconstruction as anything near anti-humanistic if we understand what deconstructionists think of “Humanism”. Heidegger, the founder of deconstruction, who was ironically a Nazi that had Jewish followers, such as Derrida (who Elmessiri blames for the school’s origin, among other things29), was against contemporary perspectives of Humanism during his time, which focussed solely on human beings as the arbiters of all knowledge and values30, something that Elmessiri would certainly agree with.

What is revealed, in these short segments of his article, is that he holds a bias strangely still connected with the modernist western mentality, with little interaction with Post-Modern (and post that) thought and critiques since that period.

The Nature & Manifestation of Western Materialism

Elmessiri, despite his own unjustified biases, still produces many valid critiques of contemporary Western thinking – especially in regards to knowledge and morality. What we believe he fails to acknowledge is the dichotomy between previously held, explicit viewpoints of Western thinkers, and weaker variations, but culturally manifested views of their contemporaries. This distinction is crucial given that while the latter may still behave like the former (if not worse in many cases), they will openly deny holding the same views given that such bold expressions in the past were correlated with many of the perverse political atrocities of the 20th century, such as the Holocaust. Given this, we must be far more nuanced in our critiques by acknowledging what is said to be believed and pointing to the more obvious manifestations.

For instance, the first aspect of the materialists epistemology that Elmessiri points out is:

“1. The (modern materialist) Western epistemological paradigm is based on the assumption that the center of the universe exists within it and not beyond it; in other words, it is immanent, not transcendent. This means that either God does not exist at all or that if He does, He has nothing to do with humankind’s epistemological, moral, semiotic or aesthetic systems which exist within the world of temporality.”31

This may have been the case among the general public and academia half a century ago, but recently it has become more popular to assert that one is simply ignorant of God’s existence and transcendence in general because they have yet to be proven or made valid by the materialist paradigm – what is formally called “methodological naturalism”. This fein of objectivity therefore leaves open the relative comfort of pluralistic societies while conveniently evading the concerns of the religious majority as they conform to the system of rules and obligations placed upon them by said paradigm.

Second, he asserts that the materialist paradigm functions on physical monism:

“…that all creatures (human beings included) are subjects to the same blind laws of things. This is the over-arching, central idea of the Western epistemological project: there there is one single law, one single culture, one single humanity, whose unity derives from the fact that it is an organic part of the natural system, having no existence outside of it. This leads to the rise of the unity of science and knowledge…which fails to see any difference between humankind and nature”32

Once again, this is rarely stated explicitly and is often substituted for claims to ignorance due to “insufficient data”. It is better to remain objective in appearance while still holding these views in a ‘methodological’ fashion so as to continue the program of productive results and technological progress, which are the still the primary focusses of contemporary Western culture, as stated by Elmessiri: “Moral codes are non-existent, since the only purpose of life is profit and pleasure, in addition to the maximization of production and consumption.”33

This continues to appear to be the defining trait of the Western moral compass, though after World War II and the Declaration of Human Rights, many philosophers and political scientists attempted to re-ground their moral ideals in the concept of the natural rights tradition popularized by scholastic theologians and enlightenment revolutionaries prior – of course, with findings in contemporary science. Since then, the dialogue has always been focussed on ‘rights’ that people ought to be given on account of being human, rather than whether or not they are weaker than others. This does not change the fact, however, that the weak are still oppressed and killed without justification and continued economic prosperity for the rich, just that they now have a more convenient excuse for their behavior. This is no more obvious than such campaigns as the “War on Terror” being waged on a global scale, by more powerful Western nations, to stop the threat of terrorism, when in fact it has merely sparked dissent and vengeance among previously peaceful populations (especially in the Middle East) and made richer weapons contractors and those who wished to exploit the resources of the unfortunate countries targeted for attack.

Though understanding the nature of the Materialist Epistemology is necessary to give an accurate understanding o the underlying foundations, so too is understanding the various manifestations that these foundations have produced, uninhibited, over the course of only a few centuries. The greatest manifestation, correctly diagnosed by Elmessiri, is the idea of “material progress”:

‘Progress’ is the cornerstone of Western Modernity. Modernization takes place for the sake of progress; development serves progress, construction and destruction projects, five-year plans, drastic changes. Etc. – all are done in the name of that magical entity known as ‘progress’….the concept of progress is dependent on the concept of nature-matter. Progress, like natural laws, is an inevitable process that takes place despite the will of individuals and can in no way be contravened…[,]a natural law that applies to all societies at all times…[that] presupposes the existence of a single human history rather than a common humanity that manifests itself in a variety of historical and cultural forms…[while] Western societies, particularly those of Western Europe, are considered the peak of this universal, evolutionary, unilinear, natural process and are, therefore, the model to be imitated…The idea of progress is based on the assumption that human knowledge can be accumulated indefinitely…[and that] human control over reality increases steadily…[while] natural resources are not limited or finite.34

He also rightly points out the consequences of such a view, such as the fact that many of these ideas are completely flawed and without justification. For instance, human resources are not infinite and continuous mobility towards an unending goal can destroy one’s psychological health35. The entire framework ultimately has no real goal either, since ‘progress’ is seen as an end in and of itself with no direction other than what others make of it – a very nihilistic conception of the world. Other consequences of this worldview are in the fact that “people are seen as a mere purchasing power that buys commodities and consumes them…to produce in order to consume and consume in order to produce, serving only their own interests and struggling against others, unburdened by any ethical or epistemological values or traditions”36. And in order to manage and continue such a machine, a strong central state would be needed to be “the supreme agency to realize this objective by means of comprehensive plans to unify, standardize, and quantify social reality, eliminating all ethnic and linguistic enclaves so as to control and utilize this reality and to develop the infrastructure necessary for the achievement of all these goals in both the material and human spheres” while “the so-called sovereign individual (the citizen-natural human) – divorced from any groups or institutions (such as the family) which would mediate between him and a monolithic state – becomes the only social unit”37. In other words, a mega corporation functioning at the optimal level of productivity with no concern for the spiritual or psychological well fair of its workers as long as efficiency is protected.

And the product of this paradigm now? The contemporary world drowns in un-payable debt while continuing to support unjustified wars of aggression against sovereign nations, for the sake of stealing their resources, and the masses continue to become poorer and more mentally unstable as they strive to consume that which they don’t have and the rich watch over them gleefully, still growing their pockets. This is the current state of the world powers known as “the West”. For such a pragmatic appeal to reality, it is ironic that most people who follow the Western cultural paradigm have not given up on the model since it is clearly not workable.

Prescription or Deconstructive Genesis?

After 67 pages of deconstruction of the Western-materialists-epistemological paradigm, Elmessiri only uses the remaining 10 pages to provide us with a vague model to form alternatives. What we were expecting was a lucid platform by which Elmessiri derived his critiques – the foundation of his reasoning, his respective worldview and its superiority to the before-mentioned and now destroyed paradigm. What we are given, however, is merely a general scope on how to reconstruct a paradigm and replace the old one on the basis of a general “Islamic” approach and heritage, which is neither well-defined or concrete. Given the variety of viewpoints on what constitutes as “Islamic”, such as the Modernists, the Traditionalists, Salafis, Shi’a, etc. a direct offering would have been helpful in this regard. At this point, without knowing Elmessiri’s own background, any of the above mentioned approaches could be used to justify the first recommendation in his list38.

His second criterion suggests for us to create a “comprehensive theory” that is only “relatively grand” and is only “within the limits of what is humanly possible”39. In other words, he wishes for us to know our limitations as human beings, but to create a theory that in the very least, explains everything on the basis of those limitations, unlike the Western materialists paradigm that sees no real limitations and continues to move forward towards unseen ends.

The third and fourth criterion request a balance between the configuration of man as the “starting point” and importance of knowledge and morality, while looking to the Divine as the ultimate reference, and the focus on the non-material aspects of existence and not merely the material40.

Finally, the last point, which is the most controversial, is that we should create a paradigm that is non-cumulative, but generative – “not in one humanity that can be monitored and examined the way merely natural-material phenomena can be, but rather in a common humanity, a generative potential energy latent in all human beings which takes different cultural forms when realized in different times and places”41. Elmessiri’s drive to ground his reconstructive focus in the freedom of human beings as well as their latent capacities would be admirable if it were not, at the same time, open to the validation of all cultural paradigms as granting some form of true knowledge. In a way, this is a weak version of the perrennialists view. What we share in common is the fitrah, but it can manifest itself in various ways depending on place and time, and that it should. The difference between the descriptive view of reality that such cultures come about naturally, is very different than the prescriptive view that Elmessiri has here – that they should. Is not Islam the truth? Why would he advocate for this capacity-based-chimerical approach when he could just offer everyone the correct (most biased in favor of the true) perspective by which to obtain knowledge?

His recommendations for a ‘new science’ are no less vague than his suggestions for an overall worldview – and he already touched upon many of them in the critique – so as such we see no need to give further analysis on his minimal reconstructive approach42.

Final Sentiments

We conclude that while Elmessiri has written a remarkable article that has displayed many of the inadequacies of the Western materialists paradigm, he himself as succumbed to many of the biases he himself defines throughout the work. In remaining vague at the end and also not explicating his own paradigm, he has done a disservice to the reader by subjecting them to a ruined worldview and asking them to rebuild on their own. His vague recommendations at the end serve no direct purpose other than to outline what can only be seen as obvious and gives us no other way forward but to contrast ourselves from the Western paradigm. Ironically then, it still remains the ‘ultimate reference point’ as a result.

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1Elmesseri, Abdelwahab “Epistemological Bias: In the Physical & Social Sciences” (The International Institute of Islamic Thought: VA, 2006), xi

2“The modern Western cultural paradigm, utilitarian and rational-materialists…” Ibid, 29

3Ibid, xvii

4Ibid, xii

5Ibid, 2

6Ibid, 5

7Ibid, 4

8Ibid, 5

9Referring to phenomena or things as they appear to us. This is associated with the philosophical field of Phenomenology, which seeks to understand said appearances and how our minds interpret them.

10A sub-perspective under Empiricism which suggests that what appears to us is actual and not an illusion of a greater reality.

11“…bias can be re-defined as the inevitability of human uniqueness and the possibility of freedom of choice.” EB, 6

12“Turtles all the way down” is considered philosophical slang for ‘infinite regress’, in reference to ancient mythology that suggested that the earth is held up by the foundations of an endless stack of massive turtles.

13EB, 6

14Ibid, 7

15“2. Bias in favor of falsehood can take different forms. Bias towards the Self is one example. When people make thesmelves the only acceptable point of reference, the idea of a transcendental truth is dropped, and they cannot be judged from any point external to them. This form of bias is assicated with bias for power, which means that when one is victorious, one enforces one’s own will; if one is defeated, one becomes a pragmatists who accepts the rules of the victorious Other, without necessarily accepting the truthfulness of the other’s statements or judgments. ” EB, 2

While there certainly is a bias in favor of Power or Pragmatism, neither can be considered outside the bounds of prespectives of what constitutes as “Truth”. Certainly, existentialists like Nietzche considered that human beings moved in accordance with the ‘Will to Power’, in that what inevitably grounds the truths of value were those which reigned supreme. Pragmatism is also seen as being “truthful” in that it grounds truth in what works or can be utitlized. Absolute Relativists, with their insistance that “there is no Truth” cannot be taken seriously or used as a validaton of the assumption that there are biases in favor of falsehood since such a view must be considered “true” to have any meaning at all.

While we may be able to argue against these conceptions of truth, to claim that there is a “bias in favor of falsehood” is ultimately fallacious in that no human being is motivated in accordance to what they think is wrong or outside of truth.

16Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1996), 67

17See Note, 5

18See note, 3

19EB, 60

20Martin Heidegger, writing during the modern era, was fiercly against nihilsm and saw it as the culmination of western thought and philosophy beginning with Plato. He sought to overcome philosophy in that form and to create a new way of thinking that was not only starkly opposed to modernity. He was also not like post-modernist in suggesting that differing worldviews or positions could be true at the same time or true “in their own way”. He was very much for truth, but saw truth in two ways: one that was in conformity with logic (the correspondence theory of truth) and a more primordial variation of truth that grounds the first – what he called, altheia, or ‘unconcealment’. His deconstruction of philosophy aimed to find the problems inherent within and to search for solutions out of the dilemmas that contemporary thinking had produced, such as dualism.

21EB, 14

22EB, 17-18

23Ibid, 18

24Islamists are considered political activists/parties within democratic systems that attempt to win support through promises of implementing some form of Sharia in government. Islamists views can range from “liberal”, often focussing on Islamic ‘principles’ that are in conformity with non-Muslim, Western standards, or “extreme”, as in those who wish to do away with democracy and bring back the traditional Islamic governance of the caliphate.

25EB, 20

26Ibid

27Ibid, 21-22

28On page 45 of EB, Elmessiri incorrectly ties Nietzche’s perspective to Social-Darwinism. While the former did believe in the “Will to Power”, this was an answer to the lack of values he saw in society as a result of them having rejected God (“the death of god”), not as a cause of any real death. The strongest would survive as a result of their convictions towards life and not necessarily because they were biologically more ‘fit’. The Nazis bastardized this view to conform with a more materialistic perception of superiority, which they found comfort in a Social-Darwinian paradigm. If anything, Nietzche was mistakingly borrowed to support that paradigm and was not involved with it.

29On page 65 of EB, Elmessiri claims deconstruction as one of the Western ideas of Jewish-Kabbalic origin given the fact that Derrida, who is a Jew, is a deconstructionist. What of his analysis if he were to learn that Derridas teacher, the first deconstructionist, was a Nazi? Would deconstruction all of a sudden become anti-Jewish and pro-Islam? Or perhaps Elmessiri is reading too much into others biases to see that he is operating on unjustified biases of his own?

30See Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” and his attacks on Sartre for claiming that Existentialism was synonymous with Humanism.

31EB, 29

32Ibid, 31

33Ibid, 33

34Ibid, 38, 40-41

35Ibid, 41

36Ibid, 46

37Ibid, 46, 47

38Regarding Part I, Sub Section I, on page 68 of EB

39Ibid, 69

40Ibid, 69-71

41Ibid, 71

42From pages 72-76 Elmessiri outlines a basic plan for a science that is (1) Lacks complete certainty, despite the fact that certainty is not the reason for stagnation in scientfic discoveries, as noted earlier (2) For us not to assume we have full control of reality, which is valid, but only makes sense in light of contrasting ourselves from the Western cultural paradigm, (3) To not reduce things to their parts or eradicate dualities, which once again is specific to the contrast with Western sciences, (4) To not subscribe to Causal Monism, though Islamic orthodoxy has typically adhered to a Causal Monistic view called “Occassionalism” and (5) To create new terminology, though old, Arabic terminology seems perfectly fine as well as any in understanding the sciences since it is the worldview that defines the words and not the other way around. It appears that Elmessiri’s reconstruction is based solely on his deconstruction of the Western paradigm – making it once again the ultimate refrence point.

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4 thoughts on “Deconstructive Review of “Epistemological Bias”

    • As-Salaamu Alaykum.

      I have a question about “extreme” Islamists who want a Khilafah, e.g. Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Why is their desire for a Khilafah less valid than that of the Murabitun? Do they somehow compromise Islamic principles? Also, in your recent YT posts, you seem sympathetic to the MB. Is it more out of concern for the fact that they are being banned just for being Muslim, or do you actually agree with their goals (according to Sh. Umar, they compromise Islam with Western principles)?

      Also, since you and muslimphilosphy.com are pretty much my only Islamic philosophy sources am I understanding Occasionalism correctly: God is the cause of every single event in the universe (i.e. he constantly recreates it), but it simply appears to us that there is some sort of other cause and effect, thus we formulate scientific laws.?

      Sorry in advance if you don’t have time to answer these 😛

  1. Salaam Skhan,

    The “extremist” sentiment I stated in that footnote was not my own, but the general perception. I am not sympathetic to the Brotherhood, but I am moreso on their side than pure secularlist forces. I find it hypocritical how the “free world” suppresses everyone they disagree with.

    Also, Occasionalism has strong and weak elements, the former suggesting that God controls all things, while the second suggests that while He controls all things He allows us our free will to the extent that He moves things for us when we will them.

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