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What do ontology, epistemology and metaphysics mean?

In this article, Steve Rawling offers explanations for the following terms: ontology, epistemology and metaphysics.
© Steve Rawling

In this article, Steve Rawling offers explanations for the following terms: ontology, epistemology and metaphysics.

You may find it helpful to revisit this step when you come across them again in the videos that follow.

Steve Rawling is a communications expert who specialises in breaking down complex concepts to make them accessible to a wide audience. We asked him to produce accessible definitions for some of the more complex terms that you will come across.

Over the following activities and steps this week, Dr Yusuf and our guest contributors draw out the differences between Islamic and Western (or secular) frameworks of mental health. Through these steps, you will come to understand how mental health is understood in Islam and why Muslims understand and experience mental health in certain ways. The educators use concepts from the scientific study of psychology, psychiatry and theology to help us understand how mental health is understood in Islam.

So, what do ontology, epistemology and metaphysics mean when we’re talking about Muslims and mental health?

Ontology means the study of reality. It’s when we ask, “what’s going on here?”

Epistemology means the study of knowledge, in other words, “how do we know?”

Metaphysics takes a step back, and asks “what kind of knowledge are we talking about here?”

Let’s break this down with an example. Imagine you’ve gone into hospital with a severe pain in your knee.

Ontology: what’s going on here? A doctor and a physiotherapist take turns to examine you. You go for an X-ray. Everyone’s trying to work out what might be causing the pain.

Epistemology: how do we know? This isn’t guesswork: radiologists need to understand how X-rays work, physiotherapists need to understand anatomy, and so on. These medical professionals will recommend the best treatment, based on their scientific knowledge.

Metaphysics: what kind of knowledge? As the patient, you have one kind of knowledge about your painful knee – sometimes called “lived experience”. How is this different from the doctor’s scientific knowledge? What about alternative remedies like homoeopathy, acupuncture or faith-based healing? What kind of knowledge will help us understand the problem and do the right thing?

On this course, we’re talking about much more complex problems than a painful knee. Imagine the situation of a young Muslim man who’s become addicted to online gambling.

Ontology: what’s going on? This man’s gambling is out of control, he’s building up debt and damaging relationships with his family and friends. You will hear a first-hand account of what this feels like in one of our lived experience videos on this course.

Epistemology: how do we know? A psychologist might understand gambling addiction in terms of mental and physical health issues and social factors affecting the patient. An imam might understand it in spiritual terms.

Metaphysics: what kind of knowledge? The psychologist and the imam have different kinds of knowledge about the problem and its potential solutions. The psychologist might suggest cognitive-behavioural therapy. The imam might offer advice based on scripture.

This course brings together different kinds of knowledge about Muslims and mental health. It is designed to help those who support mental health support providers who are all trying to work out: ‘What’s going on here? ‘How do we know?’ And, ‘what kind of knowledge will help us do the right thing?’

Over to you

Think about your own practice, perhaps the person you most recently provided support to, and answer the following questions, don’t forget to share your responses below.

  • How do you know someone is experiencing a mental health problem? (ontology)
  • What sorts of knowledge do you draw upon to form that opinion? (epistemology)
  • How might your understanding of the mental health problem be different to that of another practitioner or the patient themselves? For example, does your view of faith shape the way you see the problem? (metaphysics)
© Steve Rawling
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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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