Posts Tagged With: epistemology

Religion and Post-positivism in International Relations


MAKATI CITY (MindaNews / 20 March) – Way back in early 1990s in Mindanao State University, main campus, in order to facilitate easy memorization, we had to literally sing the ‘six principles’ of Hans Morgenthau’s neoclassical realism in International Relations (IR).

No doubt, alongside Keohane and Nye’s Power and Interdependence (1977) and Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979) that respectively represent two sides of the neoliberalism-neorealism divide, Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1960) had been the IR bible of the Cold War era.

IR as discipline

As a distinct discipline that was born out of the ashes of the First World War, IR deals with both substantial and methodological issues. In particular, it endeavors to identify which issues should be treated as the most important ones, and which method to use in studying a given issue.

State sovereignty, international anarchy, diplomacy, foreign policy, and international organizations and institutions are among the examples of substantial issues perennially dealt with in IR, and as such, countless written works are devoted to them.

Methodological issues encompass both ontological and epistemological questions. What is the nature of the social world which includes international relations? How is our knowledge related to that world? Is there an objective reality in the social world, or is everything there just a social construct of people? How can we acquire knowledge of that world? Is it through ‘explanation’ or ‘understanding’?

Gone were the days of IR positivism which used to privilege state-centric or inter-state substantial issues such as those mentioned above.

Gone also were the days of IR positivism which used to posit that ‘there is an objective reality out there’ (ontology) and that ‘explaining’ is the only way to acquire knowledge of the social world by means of building a ‘valid social science’ on the basis of verifiable empirical propositions (epistemology).


In positivist approaches in which secularism in the post-Westphalian international system is a given, religion is relegated to the fringes of domestic politics and private domain. In structural realism’s anarchical world, for instance, religious beliefs and ideological convictions are located at the bottom of the hierarchy of state interests.

This is no longer the trend in recent years.

Research works and studies about religion in IR – both in its positive and negative lights – are on the rise. Even in thesis defense sessions I sat either as a mentor or a panelist this month, the number of theses with religious underpinnings is quite conspicuous.

One thesis, for example, is about two Buddhist transnational societies that push for cosmopolitan causes such as humanitarian services, poverty reduction, universal education, nuclear disarmament, and environmental protection.

Another thesis is an analysis of Pakistan-Bangladesh diplomatic relations through the lens of faith-based diplomacy.

Yet another thesis is an assessment of Islamophobia in the U.S. media narratives and its impact upon U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.


Alongside the surge of other substantial issues such as religion, women, and the environment, among others, which had been marginalized in IR literature for decades, there is also the entrance of post-positivism in the methodological debate within the discipline.

United not in what they commonly believe but in their dissatisfaction with the established IR theoretical traditions, post-positivist alternatives are challenging positivism’s postulates of an objective external reality, the subject/object distinction, and value-free social science.

Ontologically, post-positivist approaches reject any notion of an objective reality out there, for the social world is nothing but a product of intersubjective conception of people. Epistemologically, they lean toward ‘understanding’ (in contrast to ‘explaining’) as the means to obtain knowledge of the social world by comprehending and interpreting the substantive topic under study. In sum, post-positivism is anti-foundational in methodology, for, all theories make their own assumptions about the social world, and therefore, as Steve Smith argues, “There can never be a ‘view from nowhere’.”

In the aforementioned thesis about two Buddhist transnational societies, for instance, the researchers utilize the eclectic and middle-way International Society Theory, which is better known in the IR circle as the ‘English School of International Relations’, or the ‘English School’, in short. In particular, the thesis is informed of Barry Buzan’s concept of ‘world society’ (in contradistinction with the ‘international system’ and ‘international society’) which, according to him, is the “Cinderella concept” of the English School for receiving almost no conceptual development.

The second thesis which is about faith-based diplomacy employs Peter Katzenstein’s strand of social constructivism that highlights the internal makeup of states in affecting their internal behavior. Accordingly, the domestic normative structure of every state shapes its identity, interests, and subsequently, its foreign policy.

The last thesis mentioned above, which examines the influence of Islamophobia in American media narratives toward the U.S. foreign policy, is inspired by Anthony Giddens’ sociological theory of structuration, which is anchored in the analysis of both structure and agents, without giving primacy to either.

In conclusion, in today’s age of globalization, there will be a resurgence of substantial issues in IR, which for many decades were deemed peripheral or secondary in importance. There will also be parallel mushrooming of post-positivist theories that will pose as alternative lenses in methodologically looking at those substantial issues in IR.

Expect for a recurring saga of re-centering and de-centering in the years to come.


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Ways to Attain Gnosis (ma‘rifah)


In general, man can attain ontological (takwīnī) and legislative (tashri‘ī) knowledge through the following four ways:

  1. Sensual way (ṭarīq-e ḥissī) or sensual knowledge: sensual knowledge has the following characteristics:

Firstly, it is particular and personal.

Secondly, it is confined to material realities.

Thirdly, it is limited to the outward aspects of material phenomena and it has no access to the quiddities of things.

Therefore, although it has an important contribution in worldview and man is not independent from it, sensual knowledge cannot provide a comprehensive and firm worldview for man.

  1. Rational way (ṭarīq-e ‘aqlī): the components of this type of knowledge are universal rational principles and rules and its form consists of rational analysis and synthesis. This knowledge has the following characteristics:

a. It is universal and all-encompassing.

b. Its scope is the absolute existence including both the material (māddī) and the immaterial (mujarrad).

c. It encompasses even the essence and quiddities of things, yet it is incapable of discerning and knowing the manifestations and particularities of things.

In view of the above points, we can conclude that since some manifestations and particularities are outside the domain of the sensual and rational knowledge, it follows that the sensual and rational knowledge cannot separately or jointly address the epistemological need of man, although they have a big share in this regard and without them, the epistemological system of man cannot take shape.

  1. Way of inward overture and intuition (ṭarīq-e kashf wa shuhūd-e bāṭinī) this type of knowledge is intuitive (shuhūdī) and presential (ḥuḍūrī); that is, through his heart and soul, man directly witnesses the truths within and outside his being.

Intuitive witnessing and discernment of external truths can be realized provided that the self (nafs) is purified through abstinence (riyāḍah) and free from the entanglements and fetters of materialistic inclinations. Abstinence necessitates rational and lawful regulations. For this reason, this method is in need of reason (‘aql) and the Divine law (sharī‘ah)

  1. Way of the Divine revelation and inspiration (ṭarīq-e waḥyi wa ilhām): although this type of knowledge is based upon sensory perception (ḥiss) and reason, Divine revelation deepens man’s sensual and rational knowledge because Divine revelation unveils truths which are beyond the realm of man’s sensual and rational knowledge; for example, knowledge of the details of laws and morality (the branches of religion or furū‘ al-dīn) as well as issues pertaining to the high levels of discursive knowledge about God such as the Divine Unity (tawḥīd) or subjects related to the next world.

DiscursiveTheology2 (An excerpt from ‘Ali Rabbani Gulpaygani, DISCURSIVE THEOLOGY, Volume 2, trans. Mansoor Limba (Manila: AIF, 2015), pp. 368.)

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Mutahhari’s Reply to the Skepticism of Pyrrho


Thus, the first question about knowledge is the issue about the possibility of knowledge—is it possible for man to know?[1] Pyrrho said that knowledge or ma‘rifah is impossible (for reasons I enumerated earlier). Of course, others exposed the flaw in Pyrrho’s argument. On our part, we exposed this flaw elsewhere in the footnotes of Uṣūl-e Falsafeh wa Rawish-e Realism (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism).[2] It is thus said to Pyrrho: “You say that senses make mistakes because sometimes your eyes squint; you see a person as if having two heads; you see a piece of wood as broken in a water container; and so on and so forth. You say that you observe that the senses make mistakes. When you observe that senses make mistakes, do you know that senses indeed make mistakes, or do you still doubt that the senses make mistakes? When you say that when you wake up and rub your eyes, you can see double, with a person standing in front of you as if they are two, having four eyes (instead of two), you say that it is not so. Do you really know that it is not so, or you just guess that it is not so?” He says, “No, I know that it is not so; that person does not have two heads or two noses.” Then he would be told: “So, you realized this mistake with certainty by yourself; how can you say then that you have not obtained knowledge? This is itself [a kind of] knowledge. When you say that reason makes a mistake in a particular instance, you say with certainty that it makes a mistake. That is, you know that it makes a mistake; therefore, you have arrived at the truth. Unless a person has arrived at the truth, he cannot perceive that the opposite view is wrong.”

As such, it must [rather] be said: “The human being makes mistakes in some of his sense perceptions, but not others. So, we must classify the issue; we must look for a criterion. With a certain criterion, let us see if we could somehow correct the things in which we make a mistake, or not. Just because of the fact that we make a mistake in some cases, why should we deny the essence of knowledge?! Why [we should treat as identical] the cases in which we make a mistake and the cases we do not doubt that we make a mistake (such as the instance when we realize that we have made a mistake)?” The [above] argument of Pyrrho is like the following couplets of Sa‘dī:[3]

چو از قومي يكي ﺑﻲدانشي كرد     نه كه را منزلت ماند نه مِه را   

ﻧﻤﻲبيني كه گاوي در علفزار                   بيالايد همه گاوان ده را

When one of a tribe has done a foolish thing

No honor is left either to the low or the high.

Can’t you see how one ox of the pasturage

Defiles all oxen of the village?[4]

This is true for social issues. If certain members of a society belonging to a certain class—say, the clerics—behave untowardly and wickedly, the integrity of others would also be tarnished; otherwise, there is no point in hanging ‘Amr for the sin of Zayd:

گنه كرد در بلخ آهنگري              به شُوشتر زدند گردن مسگري

A blacksmith committed a crime in Balkh[5]

They beheaded a coppersmith in Shūshtar.[6],[7]

Some of our sense perceptions make mistakes; some others are definitely correct. Let us look for the solution to erroneous perceptions. Out of this, the science of logic (manṭiq) came into being. Logic is a science which is [the foundation of] the theory of knowledge. That is, in this very theory of the possibility of knowledge and impossibility of knowledge, it makes no difference for the one who said that it is impossible to know while the one who said that it is possible to know is looking for a criterion for distinguishing erroneous knowledge from correct knowledge and [assuming that] there must be such a criterion. Now, as to what extent logic could play a role or function is a question which, if we try to address, would prevent us from dealing with more important issues.[8]

We must see what the Qur’an says in this regard. Does the Qur’an support the view that knowledge is possible? Or, does the Qur’an also say that it is impossible to know? Now, if knowledge is possible (as there is the Qur’an and the religion), then the very knowledge in ideology must have a ruling, and that ruling would answer: Is knowledge lawful or not? Is knowledge permissible or not? There are two questions here. [One is whether knowledge is possible or not, and the other is whether knowledge is permissible or not.] As you are well aware of, the issue is presented in the Torah in a specific way and since according to us, the Torah is one of the books that experienced distortion (taḥrīf)—that is, in assessing a case mentioned in both the Qur’an and the Torah by the criterion of the Qur’an—when we see that the account of the Torah contradicts that of the Qur’an, for us there is no doubt that the account of the Torah has been distorted. In the Qur’an—a religious scripture—the issue is never raised in a philosophical manner—whether knowledge is possible or not. Rather, we must see and analyze whether the Qur’anic inferences of these issues are based upon the possibility of knowledge or its impossibility. Are the Qur’anic injunctions justifiable on the basis of the possibility of knowledge or its impossibility? And the other question is: is knowledge permissible or not?


[1] Knowing (shinākhtan) is equivalent to certainty (yaqīn) as doubting (shakk) is the opposite of knowing. “Knowing” means for me to reach a point to think it is such and not to doubt that what I think as such is correct; that I do not doubt its correctness, for if I doubt then there is no knowledge for me but only “Is…?” “Is it so?” “I do not know.” “Perhaps there is.” “Perhaps there is not.” There are many “I-do-not-know’s”. Knowing is “knowing” when there is no doubt. If there is doubt, then it is [the same] “I-do-not-know” [episode].

[2] It refers to ‘Allāmah Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Ṭabaṭabā’ī’s work in collaboration with his student Āyatullah Muṭahharī who provided footnotes and explanations easily comprehensible to the common people. The work was designed to present Islamic philosophy as a superior alternative to Marxism. [Trans.]

[3] Shaykh Muṣlīḥ al-Dīn Sa‘dī (1184-1283) was one of the greatest Persian poets. Born in Shīrāz, he studied Sufi mysticism at the Nizāmiyyah madrasah in Baghdad with Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī and with Shahāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca many times and traveled to Central Asia, India, and the Seljuq territories in Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Yemen, Abyssinia, and Morocco. His best known works are the Būstān (Garden) and the Gulistān (Rose-Garden), also known as Sa‘dī-Nāmeh. The former is a collection of poems on ethical subjects while the latter is a collection of moral stories in prose. He also wrote a number of odes and collections of poems known as Pleasantries, Jests and Obscenities. His influence on Persian, Turkish and Indian literature has been very considerable, and his works were translated into European languages from the 17th century onward. [Trans.]

[4] Gulistān, chapter 2 “The Morals of Dervishes,” story 5. Edward Rehatsek (trans.), Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa‘di (Tehran: Peyk-e Farhang, 1998), p. 38. [Trans.]

[5] Known as Bactra to the Greeks and Baktri or Bagdhi to the Persians, Balkh was an ancient city and center of Zoroastrianism in Khurāsān in today’s Northern Afghanistan. [Trans.]

[6] Shūshtar: an ancient fortress city in the Khūzistān province in southwestern Iran and approximately 92 km away from Ahwāz, the center of the province. [Trans.]

[7] Among the Fārsī-speaking people, this couplet is known as Dīwān-e Balkh, literally “the Court of Balkh,” which alludes to any office or authority whose judgment is not based on logic and reason as well as what is right and just. [Trans.]

[8] This is because we want to have ample time to deal with this subject: on which criteria is the issue of knowledge based in this divine school—this divine worldview of ours upon which our ideology is based? This is our main concern. Other issues are preliminary or introductory in nature for us. That is, we shall touch upon them only to the extent necessary; otherwise, if we want to tackle logic, then we have syllogistic logic; we have symbolic logic; the Organon (manṭiq-e arasṭū) claims to be syllogistic logic. Has the Organon duly performed its alleged function or not? To address them requires many sessions, which are not necessary for our discussion, for these questions are presently not raised among materialists and non-materialists.

The Theory of Knowledge(Murtada Mutahhari, THE THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE: AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE, trans. Mansoor Limba (Tehran: IHCS and ABU, 2011), pp. 9-11.

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