Measuring worth of theories


ABOUT a month ago, I was invited to deliver a brief talk on the Universe being the Created Book, which is one of the constitutive, conceptual elements of the worldview of Islam.  

As expected, just as had happened in many of my other lectures, a question was posed, rather unhesitatingly, during the question and answer session: “How can we translate this concept into action?”  

Yes, one thing I have personally found recurrent when deliberating on conceptual subject matters with a largely Muslim audience is the question: “How are we going to apply it?” 

The translatability of any concept into any sort of positive action – or, if you like, its applicability – is often taken by many Muslims to mean that it is a beneficial knowledge (al-‘ilm al-naafi‘).  

Its applicability is then linked – in fact, in many instances, is assumed to be equivalent – to its relevance; relevance being regarded as the determinant of its worth and importance. 

One can therefore discern a somewhat reductionistic pattern here: a concept’s worth and relevance being finally reduced to how pragmatic it is. 

Such experience, however, is by no means personal only to me.  

Many of my colleagues, let alone those whom I regard as my intellectual masters – who are equally serious, if not more, with things conceptual and theoretical – have also been asked basically the same question. 

Some of those who raised such questions may well have been prompted to do so because they have got rather fed up with too many slogans and years of empty talk.  

They may also have been raised in the conviction that actions, as well as results, are what matters. And, to such a person, a concept’s relevance basically consists of whether or not it can be translated into any form of action with a tangible outcome. 

But can a true Muslim really hold such a conviction without ultimately involving himself, or herself, in a paradox concerning matters of pure knowledge and belief, at the very least?  

The answer to this, to my mind, very much depends on what such a conviction really means and entails. And it is indeed important to make people with that conviction aware of what it truly means and entails. 

Such awareness in turn partially revolves around what is actually meant by “a theory being put into practice,” or “a concept being translated into action.”        

This naturally leads us to ponder what a concept is, in the first place. Generally having a concept of something means “one’s grasp of something.”  

For sure, the act of “grasping” therein is by no means physical, but rather mental and immaterial. To use a much less ambiguous word, one is here concerned with “understanding.” (I had touched on this subject in my article in The Star in May last year, which is available on the IKIM website.) 

One’s understanding of something may well result in one expressing it verbally or in writing, especially if one needs to convey it to others for whatever purpose and reason.  

Nevertheless, once a concept is formed in one’s mind, regardless of whether one keeps it to oneself or one makes it manifest through written or spoken words, one is said to be possessed of it. 

In this regard, written or spoken words, as long as they are not translated into action, will remain conceptual or theoretical, even if they are put together nicely in the form of a book, titled with such appealing headings as “a practical guide,” “an application,” “a pragmatic approach,” etc. 

Having said that, there is still a set of related questions which any Muslim seriously concerned with the practical translatability of a concept cannot but meaningfully address in order to avoid the aforementioned paradoxes.  

“Must every concept be translated into action to remain useful and be beneficial?”  

“What kinds, or modes, of concepts and actions are there?” 

“Are there concepts which one can never put into practice – in the sense of making or doing – but nonetheless have great and lasting impact on one’s character, attitude and actions?” 

In other words, can there be concepts which, notwithstanding their being not directly practical, are nonetheless important to us? 

Is not the concept of God, which is the pivotal concept in the worldview of Islam, the most conceptual and abstract of all notions?  

Yet, isn’t this concept the one that gives direction, meaning and value to any sort of action worth undertaking? And by comparison, are there no other concepts of a similar nature? 

One cannot unqualifiedly undermine the importance of abstract concepts without in one way or another also undermining the importance of the concept of God, thereby ridiculing the very foundation of one’s Islam. 

A Muslim, therefore, must be fully aware of the fact that there are indeed abstract concepts which are indispensable in rendering a meaningful life. 

And, likewise, to the question “Must all concepts be translatable into action.” He or she should be cognisant of what the correct answer is. 


Dr Mohd Zaidi Ismail is a Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for Science and Technology at IKIM 


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