Why I’m Still Talking About Epistemology

If you’ve been following my page for a while, you’ve probably seen me mention the word ‘epistemology’ and ‘pedagogy’ more than a few times. Why do I talk about it so often?

One of the most important crises human beings are facing today is what I like to call epistemic dysfunction. This is a disease of the intellect, and like any other disease its infection spreads throughout the individual themselves and society as a whole. It is when our understanding of knowledge, fact and truth is broken and corrupted, and it has become infectious in our understanding of all of reality. We lack structure and system in our knowledge of things.

Reasons for epistemic dysfunction & my own experiences of it

When I first started studying Islam, I also had epistemic dysfunction. My understanding of things was incongruous, fractured, random and without much structure. This affected my university studies as well. I had trouble with some of my courses because I could not acclimatize to the structure of those subjects.

Why does this happen? There are multiple reasons:

  1. The hyper-availability of unstructured or incorrectly structured information via the internet. What makes this worse is that the internet can give off the image of authority without structure using fancy marketing and social media.
  2. The abundance of self-study, do-it-yourself learning. Learning without a teacher has become extremely common, but the problem with it is that while you obtain information this way, you can easily build the wrong structure to support it.
  3. The emphasis in education (especially Muslims) on STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) subjects. The more we drown in the mechanical world of STEM subjects, the more we become detached from the human condition, and are less able to appreciate more subjective, socially grounded & philosophical topics like pedagogy & epistemology.
  4. The abuse of epistemic authority by experts, people of knowledge and institutions.
  5. The spread of Western individualism and anti-intellectualism. Scholars in traditional Islamic society occupied important social, cultural and political roles. The authority of knowledge, learning and people of knowledge was well-established with plenty of precedent from the time of the Companions themselves. The advent of modernity in the Muslim world destroyed much of that.

During my period of epistemic dysfunction, all of the above applied to me. My parents bought encyclopedias for us when we were kids and in the ‘always bored’ pre-teen age I read them cover to cover multiple times. When the internet became more accessible in high school and university, I became a self-study maestro. In the initial stages of my Islamic learning, unfortunately I did not have access to teachers of Islam with a strong understanding of pedagogy and epistemology, so this did not change. To some extent, they themselves were also suffering from it. Epistemic dysfunction is a problem in the Islamic da’wah scene too, as I’ll get to later below.

The damage caused by epistemic dysfunction

Epistemic dysfunction is not isolated to the study of a specific subject – like the Islamic sciences for example. If you have epistemic dysfunction in your understanding of one subject and have justified your poor pedagogy and epistemic malfunction to yourself, then it is extremely likely that your epistemic dysfunction has spread to the rest of your knowledge and understanding of reality.

Is it any surprise that those Imams or du’at who are advocating for absurd political beliefs or conspiracy theories for example are very often individuals who are self-taught in the Islamic sciences or have a poor grasp and limited experience of systematic study in subjects like usul-ul-fiqh and fiqh? Is it any surprise that those individuals with a poor grasp of pedagogy and learning or a lack of experience in teaching usually end up learning Islam the wrong way?

On the converse end, we can see that those who have a firm grasp of traditional Islamic education and the wisdom of classical pedagogy are usually the ones also involved in constructive knowledge acquisition of non-Islamic subjects. For example with regards to the subject of Covid-conspiracies, it has been people who are both seekers of knowledge or Islamic scholars AND medical doctors or scientists who have been the most constructive in dismantling these conspiracies and more importantly, providing a way forward for Muslims to move on from the current crisis.

Look at the political condition of the world and the spread of harmful conspiracy theories. Epistemic dysfunction is no longer an issue of priority for individuals or teachers, it has become a major social and political issue as well. As I say often, in a world where 50% of the USA voted for someone like Donald Trump and organizations like QAnon play a powerful role in US politics, epistemic dysfunction is a massive problem.

This is not just an American problem either, anyone who has lived in a Muslim country or takes an active role in the Muslim community knows how powerful rumors, conspiracies and wild political beliefs are among Muslims. Millions from the Egyptian population for example, were expecting the Egyptian General Sisi to be a suitable replacement for President Mohammad Morsi and supported a military coup over their freedom to choose their own leader.

Epistemic dysfunction percolates throughout our knowledge. If we do not acknowledge and appreciate the role of structure, systematization and authority in our epistemic frameworks, that problem becomes systemic and infects all aspects of our knowledge, not just one subject.

Overcoming epistemic dysfunction

How did I overcome epistemic dysfunction? Besides the blessings of Allah, what enabled me to recognize my own epistemic dysfunction, have the humility to dismantle it and reconstruct it anew was the experience of being a teacher & studying Islam with teachers at the same time.

If you maintain your epistemic dysfunction, you will never become an effective teacher. You will not be able to construct effective understandings for your students because your own knowledge structure is broken. In my now decade-long experience of being a professional educator, I have always looked to improve the learning outcomes of my students on a year-by-year basis. I adjust my content, lesson planning and teaching methods every year and try new things to ensure my students are achieving the results I want from them. Pedagogy and curriculum became subjects of great interest and fascination for me.

During my initial experience teaching (I was an ESL teacher at a university), I was also studying privately with teacher. This was also good practice, as given that I was not in an institution, I had some freedom in charting my own curriculum (under the guidance and suggestions of my teachers) and either adding or removing texts when necessary depending on my own learning needs. I was exploring and experiencing pedagogy and curriculum from the angle of the student as well as the teacher.

Then came my studies of epistemology itself. My initial experiences with it were in classical texts of fiqh, usul and kalam. Then came intensive readings in the subject form contemporary sources. Also, at this time I suddenly had complete freedom in constructing my own curriculum to use in my current teaching position. I had a chance to finally put my previous experience and knowledge into practice. More importantly, I had to put aside my Western arrogance and stubbornness and acknowledge that my teachers (and the scholars whose books I was studying) had a better understanding of Islam than I did, and that I had to earn my place at their side rather than assume that I knew what I was talking about.

Why we need to be teaching pedagogy, epistemology & emphasizing their importance

As a professional educator, teacher of the Islamic sciences AND a seeker of knowledge and Islamic commentator online, I have recognized – as many have – that one of the main problems Muslims have today is ignorance of their own religion. I want to help Muslims understand the important of learning Islam properly and in a way that is constructive in the world they live in. I want Muslims to appreciate the traditional methods and texts of Islamic study, but I also want them to appreciate the contemporary understandings of the tradition as well. I want Muslims to understand that they will only be able to do that properly i.e. in a structured and systematic way, if they are willing to sit in the classroom (literally or figuratively, given Zoom etc).

However, I have found that this simple message does not reach a lot of Muslims because their very understanding of how knowledge and learning work is corrupt – as a side note, its remarkably interesting that the people who agree with me the most on my approach are professional educators themselves, even if they barely know anything about Islam.

Increasingly, I find when addressing a question or issue raised by a student or community member, I first have to talk about the dangers of learning Islam from YouTube, Twitter or random websites on the internet. I increasingly find that I must thoroughly explain the importance of studying with a teacher from Islamic, pedagogical, epistemic, and psychological angles before I can get through to some people.

To make matters worse, entire Muslim movements and public figures have emerged challenging the very concept of epistemic authority in Islamic thought. Attacks on scholarship and scholars are garbed in sectarian Islamic discourse, pietistic polemic and anger, modernism, or even Orientalist-inspired critique from Muslim academics. It does not help that some Western academics in Islamic studies are conducting research in Islam that is of a quality beyond much of what is being produced in the East.

Epistemic dysfunction has grabbed the attention of not just scholars of Islam and seekers of knowledge, but also of intellectuals in the Western world. I have two books thus far written by philosophers discussing ‘applied epistemology’. The breakdown of facts, logic and knowledge and their importance in society has become a commonly discussed topic in the media and on the news. It even has a name, the post-facts era or post-truth politics.

If we want our study and teaching of Islam to address the needs of the time, discussing and addressing epistemic dysfunction is critical.

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