When trying to comprehend one’s worldview or the ‘lenses’ by which one perceives reality, we can do so by breaking it down into eight main components. It is important to keep in mind that these eight components have been categorized to facilitate ease in understanding worldview and are by no means absolute or immutable. In other words, one could further break down the categories into ten or twelve or summarize them into three or four categories. Our purpose is not to be bogged down with taxonomical commitments but rather to acquire a cognitive toolbox to be used in dealing with doubts.1
The follow diagram outlines our eight components:
Ontology: Ontology is the study of being and relates to the essence of things. Hence, it has to do with what exists and what does not exist. When we ask questions like, “does the tree outside my window exist?” or “ does this book exist?”, we are asking questions that are ontological. Foundational ontological questions would be questions such as, “Do I exist?” or “Does God exist?” and such questions will have ramifications on how we interpret ethics, law, politics, sources of knowledge, etc.
Theology: If the answer to the question, “Does God exist?” is “yes”, we then can speak about theology. Theology is the study of God. Theological topics are related to the nature of God and God’s relationship to mankind. How a person understands God will have an effect on how they deal with trauma, how they would navigate deeper aspects of meaning within their lives and other questions of spirituality.
Epistemology: “How do you know that?” is a question your interlocutor might pose in the midst of a debate. This question is an epistemological one since epistemology is the study of what constitutes knowledge. To state it simply, epistemology is asking the question, “how do you know what you know?” Epistemological questions would deal with things like sources of knowledge, paths to knowledge and roots / foundations of knowledge. The word ‘epistemology’ is from an Ionic Greek term, ‘epi’-, meaning over or near, and a Proto-Indo-European term, ‘sta-’, meaning to stand, make or be firm.2 Thus, in a sense, it is to ‘overstand’ as compared to ‘understand’. We ‘understand’ that the earth is round. How do we know the earth is round? Well, it is because we have read about it in books or seen pictures and videos i.e. we ‘overstand’ these sources of knowledge and deem them to be legitimate.
Anthropology: Generally, when we read the term, ‘anthropology’ our mind is taken to the academic field found in universities and colleges which deals with the broad topic of humanity and its’ cultures, societies, linguistics, etc. However, for our purposes, as a component of a worldview, we are referring to anthropology as the study of the composition of the human being. This particular definition is closer to the linguistic roots of the word.3
Anthropological questions deal with what or who is man. Does man have a soul or is man just a composition of material elements? How do we understand consciousness? How does language play a part in what it means to be ‘human’?
Teleology: The Encyclopedia Britannica states that teleology is an “explanation by reference to some purpose, end, goal or function.”4 When we speak about teleology therefore, we are speaking about purpose. A question like, “what is the purpose of the kidneys in the human body?” is a teleological question. However, from a worldview perspective, we are referring to deeper questions about man, life and the universe. Questions like, “Does the universe have a purpose?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, etc.
Morality / Ethics: You may have noticed in the diagram above that the components of a worldview seem to have a lighter shade as one moves down the list. Thus, ontology and epistemology are the darkest in their shading while aesthetics is the lightest. This is not a misprint. In addition to the hierarchy (theology being at top and aesthetics being at the bottom), this shading was done on purpose to signify the relative potency of each component of a worldview.
Morality/Ethics has to do with questions about right and wrong or good behavior and bad behavior. Is it wrong to marry a 9 year old girl? Is abortion good? Is euthanisia right? These types of inquiries are questions of morality or ethics. What is important to notice is where on the hierarchy of the components of a worldview do ethics and morality fall. Preceding questions of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ about abortion, same sex marriage, appropriate marriage age, etc., are our ideas concerning ontology, epistemology, anthropology and teleology. Our opinion about say, abortion, is informed by what we think about the existence of God, sources of knowledge, the human soul, and the overall purpose of life.
Law / Politics: Questions about what we consider just and unjust form the basis for law and politics. There is no doubt that these questions are informed by our moral and ethical stances which in turn are informed by our ontological, epistemological, anthropological and teleological positions.
Aesthetics: Aesthetics concerns what we find beautiful and how we perceive beauty. It may seem surprising to find aesthetics as a component of a worldview. However, what one considers beautiful is indicative of a person’s underlying worldview commitments.
With this introduction to the components of a worldview fleshed out, there is one underlying question that may come to mind: How do I know Islam is the correct worldview?
1 This categorization was adopted from Carl Sharif El-Tobgui. See DarusSalam, Masjid. “The Modern Worldview.” Video. YouTube, December 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FsJ4SiGqug&list=WL&index=37&t=3816s.
For an alternate categorization of the components of a worldview, see Malkawi, Fathi Hasan. Epistemological Integration: Essentials of an Islamic Methodology. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2014. Pg. 71-76
2 See Etymology, origin and meaning of epistemology by etymonline. “Definition and Etymology of Epistemology.” Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.etymonline.com/word/epistemology#etymonline_v_8792.
3 “from Greek anthrōpos “man; human being” (including women), as opposed to the gods” See Meaning of prefix anthropo- by etymonline. “Definition and Etymology of Anthropo-.” Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.etymonline.com/word/anthropo-.
4 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Teleology.” Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/teleology.