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August 14, 2004

Simpson’s Paradox

No, this post has nothing to do with the greatest animated series of all time. Instead, this post is a result of my many conversations with Muslims lately who seem to be joining the ever-so-cool cult of hating on other Muslims.

Let me explain.

Now as much as I rag on Muslims for doing stupid things like not knowing how to put their shoes on shoe racks and calling them Moslems, I still have love for my people. (side note: I call them “Moslems” cause they’re doing zulm to themselves and the people around them by not doing “Muslim” things) However, there’s a growing trend amongst many sectors of our community, particularly in the working/professional type wherein people seem to have this disgust with the insanities and problems of Muslims and choose to impose a self-exile on themselves.  Specifically, they don’t want to attend Muslim gatherings, come to the masjid, etc. because they claim they’re sick and tired of Muslim problems, arguments, and inadequacies. They firmly believe that by being away from the community, they’re helping themselves to be closer to God by not having to deal with your local friendly Muslim madnesses. Some have even likened their withdrawal from the community as Ghazali-like, since they’ve left society for the greater good… but forgive me if I’m wrong, didn’t Ghazali go for ten years on journeys to sanctified cities and spent his time in meditation, remembrance, and worship of God? I’m pretty sure he didn’t “leave” his community to wallow in the rut of going to your job/school and then back home everyday…

This is the problem when one looks only at certain sectors of the community that one does not agree with–whether they be the elders, the conservatives, the liberals, the salafis, the sufis, etc. If one were to only look at one sector, then certainly one can write dissertations and exposes on all the problems that are present there. And these problems are enough to make one want to wave the proverbial white flag in disgust, relegating one’s self to not wanting to have anything to do with the community anymore.

This is where Simpson’s paradox comes in. Defined, it states: “Simpson’s paradox refers to the reversal of direction of a comparison or association when data from several groups are combined to form a single group.” In other words, if you only analyze data from one slice of the pie, you’re going to get different results when compared to the results you would get if you took the entire pie into consideration.

An example might make more sense:

Say a company tests two treatments for an illness. In trial No. 1, treatment A cures 20% of its cases (40 out of 200) and treatment B cures 15% of its cases (30 out of 200). In trial No. 2, treatment A cures 85% of its cases (85 out of 100) and treatment B cures 75% of its cases (300 out of 400)….

So, in two trials, treatment A scored 20% and 85%. Also in two trials, treatment B scored only 15% and 75%. No matter how many people were in those trials, treatment A (at 20% and 85%) is surely better than treatment B (at 15% and 75%), right?

Wrong! Treatment B performed better. It cured 330 (300+30) out of the 600 cases.

(200+400) in which it was tried–a success rate of 55%…By contrast, treatment A cured 125 (40+85) out of the 300 cases (200+100) in which it was tried, a success rate of only about 42%.

This is exactly what is happening when one chooses to focus on one group, organization, masjid, or whatever and point out its problems, and because of these problems, one makes the erroneous decision to stay away from the community. Furthermore, Simpson’s paradox isn’t really anything new. The Qur’an alludes to this error in Surat al-Ma’idah (5:100): Say: “Not equal are things that are bad and things that are good, even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle thee; so fear Allah, O ye that understand; that (so) ye may prosper.” In other words, this can be understand as telling us not to be so “amazed” and caught up in the problems and ridiculosities of the community because the good of them outweighs any such perceived evil.

The Messenger of Allah never turned away from his community, even when there were sectors of the community that were not only problematic in and of themselves, bur were creating problems in the community, as seen in the famous “Ifk” incident (aka the false accusation against his wife, Ayesha). These people were literally insulting the Prophet and yet he doesn’t turn away from them; when the matter is cleared up, he forgives all of them (though they are punished for their crimes) and they are once again welcomed into society. The great Prophet of God, Nuh, was told by those who rejected him (26:111-115), “Shall we believe in you when only the meanest/lowliest of people follow you?” He responds, “And what do I know of what they do? Their reckoning is the concern of my Lord, if only ye but knew! And I am not one to repulse/drive away the believers. I am only a plain warner.” In other words, Nuh said he would not drive away those who believed because of their perceived faults that others found in them. He chose to remain with the community because this was the Prophetic way of all the Prophets.

Another verse that further elucidates this message is from Surat al-Tawbah (9:61), the salient part highlighted: “Among them are men who molest the Prophet and say, ‘He is (all) ear.'[i.e., that he believes everything that he hears] Say, “He listens to what is best for you: he believes in Allah, has faith in the Believers, and is a Mercy to those of you who believe.” But those who molest the Messenger will have a grievous penalty.” In other words, if the Prophet has faith in the believers, who are we then not to have faith in them? Who are we to wallow in our perceived faults of others and thus exile them–or ourselves–from the community for the sake of “the greater good”. I agree, and I’m the first to agree, that this community of Muslims in America has a thousand and one faults and inconsistencies.  And yes, sometimes people’s attitudes and stubbornness is enough to make you want to leave the community. But if one has the insight to step back and examine the entire data set, to examine the entire community, one will find that the good outweighs the evil; as the ayah said, even if the evil is much, the good is more because of its very essence of being good. We need to stop dwelling on problems such as disagreements with other groups over fiqhi issues, the widespread problems amongst Muslim youth, the idiosyncracies of the elders, and such… sure these are problems and they need to be remedied. But when one looks at the bigger picture–the larger data set–one will find that this community has come a long way from where we were even 10 years ago. Think about how many masjids have opened in that time, how many people have accepted/re-discovered Islam, how many huffaz have emerged, how many scholars have emerged, etc, etc… one will realize that while we still face huge challenges, I firmly believe that the good of what this community has achieved outweighs that and the future, God-willing, holds the promise of brighter things to come.

I will end this with a closing comment. On the Day of Judgement, after the Reckoning and Weighing of everyone has been completed, and those who will enter Paradise are assembled before its gates, Allah will tell the Prophet to enter as the first person to enter Paradise. He will then declare that he will not enter Paradise until every single last member of his Nation has entered Paradise. This is my point: no matter how wretched this ummah becomes, remember that this is still his ummah and we are blessed to be part of it. And if he has that much love for this Nation, who are we not to have at least a fraction of love towards that same nation? We have our share of problems, but to fall into Simpson’s paradox and make those problems the reason that one turns away from the community is a bigger problem. Nothing can be more antithetical to the Prophetic spirit.  


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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Wow! what an entry.  HAHAHAHA CHAPPAL SLAPS. nICE.  Assalam Alaikum.

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