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Critical Thinking 

 by Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, U.S.A.



"5% think, 10% think they think, 85% would rather die than think." Anonymous

"Arguments, like men, are often pretenders." — Plato


Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action (A draft statement by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. (1)

Critical thinking is the ability to engage in reasoned discourse with intellectual standards such as clarity, accuracy, precision, and logic, and to use analytic skills with a fundamental value orientation that emphasizes intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, and fair-mindedness. (2)

Critical thinking is defined as reflective skepticism. Critical thinking is a way to approach problems and make decisions



By using critical thinking one can enjoy benefits throughout one’s long life. Experience dictates that critical thinking is essential to both effective learning and productive living.

Mankind is going through the information age where ideas are plentiful. However what is lacking is the ability to evaluate ideas in a constructive manner. People with reasoning skills across a variety of situations will find jobs waiting for them. It is paramount to make the students learn how to think critically so that they can become most marketable.  Current jobs and future jobs will be displaced by new technologies. The vital requirement for future jobs will be the ability to think critically.  Fluctuations in the job market means that tomorrow's workers in order to survive should learn new skills. One should decide which skills are worth learning. Such decisions require critical thinking. Critical thinking means "involving or exercising skilled judgment or observation." Thinking is critical when it evaluates the reasoning behind a decision. Evaluation means that critical thinkers examine the outcomes of thought processes for their positive and negative attributes. But for thinking to be critical, evaluation must be carried forth in a constructive manner (3).

Thinking includes problem solving, decision-making, critical thinking, logical reasoning and creative thinking.  Thinking involves the appropriate use of knowledge, and this ability is not developed spontaneously (hastily). In America educators are emphasizing on enhancing critical thinking. Critical Thinking is an academic "buzz" word.


 Learning to think critically

Critical thinking moves beyond self-centered views of the universe to a broader, more abstract realm. This means expanding thinking beyond the egocentric values and limited life experiences.  In general, one's thinking is more likely to become critical when concrete learning experiences precede abstract thought. (4) 

Critical thinking can improve one's academic performance by developing an understanding into the arguments and views of others.  For a worker critical thinking skills can improve his/her performance in the workplaceIn daily life critical thinking helps us to avoid making foolish decisions. Critical thinking citizens make good decisions on important social, political and economic issues.  A critical thinking individual is capable of examining his/her assumptions, dogmas, and prejudices.

The purpose of critical thinking is, therefore, to achieve understanding, evaluate viewpoints, and solve problems. Critical thinking is the inquiry (the cognitive processes) we engage in when we seek to understand, evaluate, or resolve.

The terms critical thinking, reflective thinking, and inquiry were primarily used synonymously.  The concept of reflective thinking has been often interpreted as problem solving.  Reflective thinking includes only aspects of what is now called critical thinking. Critical thinking appears to be a subset of problem solving. (5)


Benefits of Critical Thinking

Continuous change and evolution are facts of life. Worldwide political events occur unpredictably and with amazing speed. Economic indicators reflect increased instability in the marketplace. Technological advances continue unabated and scientific discoveries give us new understanding about our world and ourselves. We are living in an information age and the amount of information doubles every four or five years. How do we adapt in these uncomfortable times? How can we make decisions with so much volatility and how will our decisions affect our careers, our families, and ourselves?

We are temped to find "quick-fix" solutions to life. We may want to make important decisions based on intuition or emotion rather than taking the time to gather the appropriate information or carefully weigh alternatives. The media, advertisers, and others respond with simple, direct messages that tell consumers what to do, what to think, and what to buy. The desire to have easy answers is understandable, but can also be dangerous. Excessive simplification of complex problems often leads to simple "solutions" that can make matters worse. Life's problems cannot be isolated and systematically solved through a series of action steps.

Albert Einstein once said "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Given the complexities of our world, how do we determine when we are oversimplifying an issue? Which decisions deserve our careful consideration? To what degree do we heed the advice of others and to whom do we listen? How do we go about choosing a career, the best investments, or the right doctor? (6)

It has been said, "learning to think critically is one of the most important activities of adult life."

Our Concept of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills are vital to well-educated individuals and acquiring this ability should be one of the most important goals in one's life.   A broad framework of intellectual rigor is called critical thinking. Critical thinking skills enable people to evaluate, compare, analyze, critique, and synthesize information. Those who possess critical thinking skills know that knowledge is not a collection of facts, but rather an ongoing process of examining information, evaluating that information, and adding it to their understanding of the world.  Critical thinkers also know to keep an open mind- and frequently end by changing their views based on new knowledge. (7)

"A broad-based education, inter-disciplinary study, and the ability to think beyond the textbook or class lecture is important for students.  Being able to think and write clearly, critically, and cogently is a skill that will contribute to quality of life. Critical thinking is the art of taking charge of your own mind. If we can take charge of our own minds, we can take charge of our lives; we can improve them, bringing them under our self-command and direction. This requires that we learn self-discipline and the art of self-examination. This involves becoming interested in how our minds work, how we can monitor, fine tune, and modify their operations for the better. It involves getting into the habit of reflectively examining our impulsive and accustomed ways of thinking and acting in every dimension of our lives." (8)

Our actions are based on some motivations or reasons. But we rarely examine our motivations to see if they make sense. We rarely inspect our reasons critically to see if they are rationally justified. As consumers we sometimes buy things hastily and uncritically (undecidedly), without ever thinking whether we really need what we are tending to buy or whether we can find the money for it or whether it's good for our health or whether the price is competitive. As parents we often react to our children impulsively and uncritically. We do not determine whether our actions are consistent with how we want to act as parents or whether we are contributing to their self-esteem. We do not think whether we are discouraging them from thinking or from taking responsibility for their own behavior.


People vote impulsively and uncritically, without taking the time to familiarize with the relevant issues and positions, without thinking about the long-run implications of what is being proposed, without paying attention to how politicians manipulate the public by flattery or vague and empty promises. As friends bring out the worst in us or who stimulate us to act in ways that we have been trying to change. As spouses we think only of our own desires and points of view, uncritically ignoring the needs and perspectives of our life-partners. As patients many times we allow ourselves to become passive and uncritical in our health care, not establishing good habits of eating and exercise, not questioning what our doctor says, not designing or following good plans for our own wellness. Too often as teachers, we permit ourselves to uncritically teach, as we have been taught, giving assignments that students can mindlessly do, unintentionally discouraging their initiative and independence, missing opportunities to cultivate their self-discipline and thoughtfulness.  It is quite possible to live an unexamined life, to live in a more or less automated, uncritical way. It is possible to live, without developing, or acting upon, the skills and insights we are capable of. However, if we allow ourselves to become unreflective persons, or rather, to the extent that we do, we are likely to do injury to ourselves and others, and to miss many opportunities to make our own lives, and the lives of others, fuller, happier, and more productive.

On this view, critical thinking is an eminently practical goal and value. It is focused on an ancient Greek ideal of "living an examined life". It is based on the skills, the insights, and the values essential to that end. We must become active, daily, practitioners of critical thought. We must regularly model for our students what it is to reflectively examine, critically assess, and effectively improve the way we live. (9)


The Qur'an repeatedly provokes and challenges the reader to think and contemplate the signs of Allah so that she/he can understand.  Human destiny is not to be passive like the angels but to be creative for which she/he has been given the most sublime gift of all, the mind. And creative mind is a critical mind. The religious justification for understanding the reading of the Qur'an as initially an intellectual challenge is that mere unreflective and unexamined acceptance of that which is handed down to us is frowned upon by Islam. There is a dynamic relationship that exists in Islam between faith and reflective thought.  And has not the Qur'an said, "(Here is), a Book which We have sent down unto thee, full of blessings, that they may meditate on its Signs, and that men of understanding may receive admonition." (Surah, Al-Sad, 38: 29). In fact, "verily in that are Signs for those who reflect (Surah, Al-Rum, 30: 21) is a constant theme throughout the Qur'an, which, among other things, underscores the point that meanings of the sign of Allah cannot be read just off the face of the signs but require thinking and reflection.

In Islam there is no such thing as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Knowledge has no value and virtue in and by itself. Its virtue lies in bringing human kind closer to Allah.  The view that knowledge is the path that leads to Allah highlights two things about Islam.  Firstly that knowledge in Islam is important for a Muslim's spiritual growth and development.  And, secondly, since knowledge is acquired through the active process of going beyond what one already knows, critical thinking is essential for a Muslim to grow intellectually and spiritually.  It further suggests, that intellectual growth without spiritual development is aimless wandering, and spiritual development without the intellectual component is meaningless.


In the Western societies critical thinking is required to lead a successful life based on pragmatic and utilitarian grounds. Critical thinking in its secular mode is entirely a this worldly affair, undertaken purely to bring about changes in the world for the purpose of this life. In Islam, to engage in critical thought is a moral commitment and to be judged on it's moral worth independent of its success or failures in this world.  Allah (SWT) requires us to act morally; the success or failure of such actions is entirely in His hands. (10)

Islamic Critical Thinking

In Islam "enlightened thinkers” are known as Raushanfekran.

"Afalaa utadabbaroon al-Quran? (4:82)" Do they not do tadabbur in the Quran? So says Allah in the Quran. Tadabbur means highly concentrated goal-oriented critical thinking like the way scientists do when challenged to find something new or when they embark upon solving a difficult problem.

Qur'anic view of creative reflection is called al-Basira. In Islam Ijtihad or independent thinking is used as a principle of creative and critical thinking; rationality and scientific rationality in a secular perspective.

The Quran encourages us over and over again to think, reflect, ponder, understand and analyse. However, very rarely do parents encourage children to question. Our response to difficult inquiries from our children is to say "do it because I said so." This discourages the children from developing critical thinking. They become lazy and complacent and easy prey to cult type following. To take things at face value makes us vulnerable.

Reason is the common bond of all humans, a means of connecting to the world and to others, the same reason through which Plato and Aristotle communicated their views. Reason and intellect represent the only way of understanding this world, even though this understanding is too relative to guide us to ultimate truths. Our great thinkers, while aware of the indispensability of reason, knew that reason alone could not discover all of reality. Our religious tradition claims that it is ultimately faith of the heart, not the intellect, that comprehends the whole of reality.   (11)

If we think of reason and faith as contradictory and opposed to one another, because reason achieves more instrumental impact in this world, faith will be sidelined. It is important to note that the faith I am talking about exists alongside and parallel to reason, not in opposition to it.  

Reason can merely take us to the gates of the afterlife. Even though it is aware that the world is not limited to the material, it cannot go farther than this world. It is here that faith must step in. Humans cannot do without reason in their lives as they encounter practical matters, and if they have to choose between faith and reason, they will choose the latter. Interpretations of the world based on reason are relative, a relativity that also permeates our perceptions of religion. But if our understanding of religious tradition and the Quran gets moribund (declining) and in need of transformation, this does not mean that tradition and the Quran have aged themselves. Our intellect is capable of adapting to the current world while also remaining attuned to tradition and the Quran, such that the solid essence of religion is not harmed. Our religious thinking is bound to evolve. (12)

Due to the regime of taqlid or blind imitation, imposed in the name of religion from about the 12th century until the end of the 19th century, the Muslims swallowed the teachings of the so-called `Four Great Imams', even the wholesale medieval theology and jurisprudence, in toto. There were many factors that gave rise to this blind imitation regime of that period and we cannot discuss them here. Nevertheless, it is important for us to realize that after nearly a hundred years since the reopening of the door if ijtihad or critical thinking by Muhammad Abduh's reform movement, this taqlid regime is still with us. (13)

One should  develop critical thinking ability in one's  studies first: in science, mathematics, computers, and economics, whatever subject one has chosen. If you cannot develop this ability most probably you would not understand the Quran. Also, understanding of the Quran is a long and hard and a lifelong process. And it requires lot of patience and perseverance plus it demands sacrifice. Therefore, you should first try to take few important verses of the Quran (the ones dealing with human relationships and character building) and try to integrate them in your life and studies. Of course it will be very hard and there will be lot of temptations to skirt. But try to avoid them. But keep in mind that we are human beings. We make mistakes. So, don’t feel too bad or don’t be too hard on yourself if you make mistakes. Just make sure that next time you are careful. (14)




(3)   Halpern, Diane F. Thought and knowledge in An introduction to critical thinking.   Mahwah, N.J.,  L. Erlbaum Associates , 1996. 



(6)   Why Critical Thinking?  By Craig A. Hassel, Assistant Professor and Extension Nutritionist Department of Food Science & Nutrition, the University of Minnesota. North Central Regional Extension Publication 433. Revised 1992




      (10) Yedullah Kazmi, The Role of Critical Thinking in Islam, Hamdard Islamicus, Vol. 23 (1): 27-36, Jan-March 2000.

(11)  A Message to Muslim Youth by Dr. Mansoor Alam,

(12)      Ibid

(13)      Ibid

(14)       Ibid









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