Reconciling religion and social science

After a decade of wrestling with ideas, torturous writing and revision, Wilfrid Laurier University professor Ali Zaidi finally punched the last period onto the introduction to his book Islam, Modernity, and the Human Science.

The book launch took place on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 whereby Zaidi celebrated the completion of his book that was the result of considerable dedication.

It isn’t that he took ten years to write the introduction to his book. Rather, the assistant professor of global studies and Muslim studies said that the introduction was the last section of the book he wrote.

“[Writing] is a complicated process,” he confessed. “It’s a complicated process. I write something, then I go back and I revise it.”

Zaidi’s writing process was a very draining one.

He explained how he’d have ideas simmering in his mind. His thoughts would, like a coil, get tighter and tighter until it would reach the point where he was able to extract ideas to put on paper.

His research began in 2001 when he came to the realization that there was a great amount of emphasis being put on politics in the Muslim world. Critical social science was saying that “Muslims [were] turning to Islamism in order to make a political statement.”

But Zaidi said this was only part of it.

“The other part is that maybe they genuinely want to connect with some sacred feeling,” he explained. But critical social science would disregard that and look instead towards economic or political reasons for Muslims turning to God.

Zaidi speaks to this and three other things in his book.

The first topic he examines is, what he feels is, a lack of dialogical understanding. Social scientists and those in the Humanities weren’t capturing what was happening in Muslim societies with the resurgence of religion.

“One of the reasons for that, I believe, is that there’s a very strong emphasis on critique in social sciences,” Zaidi said, expressing his take on the movement he sees happening.

What is occurring is that so much emphasis is being put on the critique that people are no longer focussing on what the person is saying, but rather looking at other factors they feel are more significant.

Zaidi elaborates on this, “Modern social science is arguing here that we have a better understanding of reality than people themselves have an understanding of their own reality.”

What he suggests in his book is that we need to revert the focus back to what people are actually saying about themselves.

The second theme Zaidi’s book addresses is whether or not it is possible to make strong social insights and also be a religious believer.

He poses this question in response to the idea that is typically asserted when making social insights: that we need to be objective and not allow religion to influence these insights.

“And by the end,” Zaidi said of his book, “I come to say that yes you can. It is possible to be a believer and to have very meaningful insights about how things work in this world.”

The third division of his book is devoted to comparative analysis. Here, Zaidi looks to two Western social thinkers, Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, who greatly influenced social science.

A third figure he researched was Ibn Khaldoun, a man who died 600 years ago and yet was widely acclaimed in the 20th century. Khaldoun, as Zaidi explained, gave good insight to the reasons why societies rise and fall, while simultaneously using religious language and insights.

“That lead me to realize finally,” said Zaidi. “That in fact it is possible to reconcile religious understanding of reality with good social science.”

These concepts are the composition of his book, which he says is not an “easy read,” but quite dense. However, he hopes that it will reach an audience beyond one of graduate students and his colleagues in the social sciences and philosophy.

“One hopes,” Zaidi expressed, “That when one writes a book it will find a readership. And then perhaps those who read the book and are influenced by it can then take those ideas and popularize them.”

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