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The Brink

Using Cognitive Science to Reconceptualize Islamic Ethics and “Islamist” Socio-political Movements

This article explains how insights from recent research in cognitive science can be used to rethink the related phenomena of traditional Islamic ethics and modern Islamist socio-political movements.

Since the 1970s, “Islamist” movements have risen to prominence in many parts of the Muslim world. These movements promote a greater role for Islam in society and/or government. Different approaches exist for analyzing Islamism. One of the most influential derives from the “practice theory” developed by thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Anthony Giddens. Practice theory is concerned with the mind, and attributes characteristic of the mind.[1] These attributes include desires, beliefs, character traits, emotions, and so on. Practice theory posits that repeated action (i.e., “practice”) can alter the mind’s attributes. This process is explained using insights from Aristotle. Thus, it is held that particular attributes are associated with particular practices (i.e., patterns of behavior). For instance, desire for reading (an attribute) is associated with the practice of reading. Belief in God (an attribute) is associated with the practice of prayer. In keeping with Aristotle, it is argued that an individual may develop an attribute by continuously performing the associated practice. For instance, a woman may develop a desire for reading through the practice of continuously reading books. Likewise, she may develop belief in God through the practice of continuous prayer. Notably, Aristotle holds that people should strive to acquire good attributes by performing associated practices. For Aristotle, “ethics” centers on this process.  

Practice theory blends Aristotle’s ideas with an analysis of power in society. For practice theory, social institutions favor particular attributes. They use their power to promote practices designed to instill such favored attributes. For instance, the church may promote prayer as a means of instilling belief in God.

Talal Asad is famous for pioneering the application of practice theory to religion in general, and to Islam in particular.[2] Anthropologists and historians have drawn on the Asad’s work to understand how the Islamic tradition shapes life in premodern and modern societies.[3] Asad posits that the Islamic tradition values a particular set of attributes. Islamic institutions (e.g., mosques, schools, governments, families) use their power to prescribe practices which instill these attributes. One strength of Asad’s perspective is that the perspective actually echoes ideas found in medieval Islamic treatises on ethics (akhlāq) and Sufism.[4] Such treatises explicitly draw on Aristotle’s ethical thought, including the notion that one should seek to acquire good attributes by performing associated practices. Nevertheless, Muslim thinkers hold that Islam values a distinctive set of attributes (akhlāq, faḍāʾil, ṣifāt maḥmūda) laid out in scriptural texts. These attributes include belief in God (īmān), fear of God (taqwā), generosity (karam), humility (tawāḍuʿ), gratitude (shukr), and shame (ḥayāʾ). Muslim thinkers also posit that the Sharīʿa (i.e., Islamic law) prescribes practices that instill Islamically-valued attributes. For instance, the Sharīʿa prescribes the practice of daily prayer (ṣalāh), which instills belief in God. The Sharīʿa also prescribes annual almsgiving (zakāh) which instills generosity. Advocates of the Asad’s ideas have argued that Islamist movements propagate the Islamic tradition in the present era. Such movements do so by promoting institutions and Sharīʿa related practices which transmit Islamically-valued attributes to contemporary Muslim populations.[5]

The Aristotelian claim that individuals can acquire attributes through associated practices has a long and distinguished history. Yet, it is not obviously true, at least in any general sense. Indeed, Asad himself admits that he does not know whether and to what extent the claim is true. Rather he suggests that further research should be devoted to the issue.[6] I would suggest that some of the most relevant research comes from cognitive science.

 Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary scientific study of the human mind. It draws on various fields like biology, psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and history. One major line of research within cognitive science is concerned with the biological/psychological foundations of learning, including how attributes are transmitted from one generation to another.[7] This line of research gives extensive attention to the learning of religious traditions.[8]  

Cognitive science considers numerous models for how humans learn. Here is it useful to consider two very basic models. Consistent with Asad, the first model posits that an individual can acquire certain attributes by performing practices associated with the attributes. I refer to this as the “acquisition by practice model”. The second model posits that an individual can acquire certain attributes by observing others performing practices associated with the attributes (e.g., X acquires a desire to read books by observing others read). I refer to this as the “acquisition by observation model”. These two models are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, in the Islamic tradition, they are closely related to one another. Hence, Islamic treatises on ethics emphasize that a religious student who wishes to acquire good attributes should seek out a suitable exemplar (qudwa) who already possesses these attributes (e.g., a virtuous religious scholar). The student should spend a lengthy amount of time with the exemplar (ṣuḥba), observe their religious practices (mushāhada), and then perform the same practices – imitating the exemplar. After doing this, the student will acquire the exemplar’s attributes.[9] Following Aristotle, medieval Muslim thinkers (as well as Asad) hold that what ultimately causes the student to acquire attributes is that s/he performs (the exemplar’s) practices. Yet, this position could be partly or entirely wrong. It is possible that what ultimately causes the student to acquire attributes is that s/he observes the exemplar. This would lead to a new perspective on the nature of Islamic ethical practice.

The cognitive science literature provides some evidence for both the acquisition by practice model and the acquisition by observation model. However, it provides stronger evidence for the latter. Thus, much research suggests that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms which cause them to naturally and unconsciously “copy” what they observe from others, including others’ behaviors/practices and attributes (e.g., beliefs, desires, character traits, emotional tendencies).[10] Consider one instructive example. Experiments indicate that humans have evolved a special and somewhat complex mode of copying (i.e., learning) social rules.[11] Thus, from age three, children instinctively assume that social rules exist and should be followed – even if such rules are arbitrary (e.g., food taboos) or not explicitly stated. Children deduce the rules based on the actions they see from others. When in doubt about whether a particular action is based on a social rule, children incline towards the view it is.[12] For example, when three-year-olds see an adult move a wooden block across the top of a board, they automatically infer that this is a social rule which should be followed. They spontaneously develop a desire to follow the rule which causes them to follow the rule (i.e., push the block across the top of the board). In doing so, they “copy” the adult’s rule-following behavior. Additionally, they spontaneously develop an emotional reaction of anger towards those who do not properly follow the rule, and a desire to punish rule-breakers (e.g., rebuking individuals who move the block, but not over the board).[13] Experiments further indicate that once individuals have inferred a social rule, they develop an emotional reaction of shame when they themselves break the rule.[14]

Such phenomena have great significance for understanding religious learning. Suppose that there exists a Muslim group. This group could be composed of premodern religious scholars committed to Islamic ethics (e.g., teachers at a madrasa or pesantren, members of a Sufi order). It could also be a modern Islamist group (e.g., members of the Muslim Brotherhood, members of a Salafi community). The group practices various Sharīʿa rules (e.g., praying, veiling, avoiding pork, etc.). The group is also characterized by attributes related to the rules (e.g., they desire to follow the rules, they get angry at rule-breakers, they desire to punish rule-breakers, they feel shame at breaking the rules themselves). Children raised in the group observe others practicing the Sharīʿa rules, and thereby develop the same attributes (e.g., desire to follow the rules, anger at rule-breakers). In this way, observation causes the new generation to copy the attributes of the preceding generation.

Both premodern Islamic ethics and contemporary Islamist movements arguably exhibit the same biologically/psychologically rooted learning behavior (e.g., acquisition through observation).     

Asad is famous not only for his efforts to theorize ethical practice in Islam, but also for his efforts to theorize secularism. Asad posits that modern Muslim societies are characterized by political conflicts between Islamic/Islamist and secular-liberal forms of power.[15] Islamic/Islamist forms of power operate by prescribing practices which instill Islamically-valued attributes. Secular forms of power seek to curb these practices, insisting that proper religion is a private matter of the heart that does not involve practice.[16] By curbing Islamic practices, secular power blocks the transmission of Islamically-valued attributes, thereby weakening the Islamic tradition.

I wish to argue that a better understanding of Islamism and secular liberalism requires greater emphasis on the acquisition by observation model. From this perspective, Islamist movements propagate the Islamic tradition by making religious practices highly visible in the public sphere (e.g., praying or veiling in public) and in the media sphere (e.g., producing television and social media content which features praying or veiling). Secular liberalism advances its competing socio-political project by banishing observable religiosity – insisting that proper religion is a completely invisible/unobservable private matter hidden in the heart. This would explain liberal tendencies to eliminate religion in the public sphere by prohibiting/stigmatizing observable religious behavior (e.g., religious dress, religious greetings) and by creating built environments which center on non-religious structures (e.g., malls and stadiums rather than mosques and mausoleums). This would also explain liberal tendencies to create a media sphere centered on movies, television, ads, and internet content which depict a hedonistic materialistic lifestyle. Where religious content enters this sphere (e.g., social media), it is carefully monitored and policed on suspicion of engendering intolerance, hate, and extremism (e.g., “CVE initiatives”).[17]

In conclusion, there are compelling reasons to agree with Asad that understanding Islamic ethics is relevant to understanding Islamist movements. However, Asad’s theoretical framework might need to be adjusted in light of findings from cognitive science.

[1] See Aria Nakissa, The Anthropology of Islamic Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 1-63.

[2] E.g., Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Qui parle 17(2)(2009): 1-30; Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[3] For examples related to premodern societies see e.g., Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). For examples related to modern societies see e.g., Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[4] See Nakissa, Islamic Law.

[5] See e.g., Mahmood, Politics; Hirschkind, Soundscape.

[6] Asad, Formations, 249-250.

[7] Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. Not by Genes Alone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Joseph Henrich, The Secret of our Success (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[8] Justin Barrett, Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2011), 40-57, 142-145; Will Gervais and Maxine Najle. “Learned faith: The influences of evolved cultural learning mechanisms on belief in Gods.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 7:4 (2015): 327-335; Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), 87-154.

[9] Nakissa, Islamic Law, 91-180.

[10] I.e., “social learning” mechanisms. See Boyd and Richerson, Genes; Mesoudi, Evolution; Henrich, Secret. See esp. Richerson and Boyd, Genes, 5-6,62-63; Mesoudi, Evolution, 2-3.

[11] Marco Schmidt, Hannes Rakoczy, and Michael Tomasello. “Young children attribute normativity to novel actions without pedagogy or normative language.” Developmental Science 14:3 (2011): 530-539; Marco Schmidt, Lucas Butler, Julia Heinz, and Michael Tomasello. “Young children see a single action and infer a social norm: Promiscuous normativity in 3-year-olds.” Psychological Science 27:10 (2016): 1360-1370; Henrich, Secret, 185-211.

[12] See Henrich, Secret, 185-211; Schmidt et al., “Promiscuous Normativity”.

[13] See Schmidt et al., “Attribute Normativity”; Schmidt et al., “Promiscuous Normativity”; Henrich, Secret, 185-211.

[14] Alec Beall and Jessica Tracy. “Evolution of pride and shame.” In Lance Workman, Will Reader, and Jerome Barkow (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020): 179-193, esp. 185-186; Henrich, WEIRDest People, 34-38.

[15] See e.g., Asad, Formations, 205-256.

[16] See e.g., Asad, Genealogies, 27-54.

[17] See Aria Nakissa. “Security, Islam, and Indonesia: An Anthropological Analysis of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 176:2-3 (2020), 203-239.

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