The Prophet as a Role Model to Enculture Research Ethics
Research is an important endeavour in the process of acquiring new knowledge and providing solutions to problems. This activity involves various stakeholders in a complex research ecosystem. This ecosystem includes (but not limited to) the researcher (and his team members made up of other researchers, technicians, statisticians, enumerators and research assistants), the government, the industry, the media, the funder, and the society at large.
While the actual research activity is carried out by the researcher and team members, the research itself (especially the findings) will have impacts on all other stakeholders in the research ecosystem. Therefore, there is a need to make certain that research at all its stages are carried out in an ethical manner. This is important so as to ensure that research is carried out with integrity, funds are utilised responsibly, data are managed with great care, the rights of respondents and informants are properly taken care of, and findings are communicated responsibly.
Research should never be carried out simply for the sake of research especially by ignoring the ethical requirements which are present at every level of the research activity. Ethics should not be seen as a bureaucratic encumbrance to the researcher. Instead, ethics is there to safeguard and protect the researcher while at the same time, ensuring that the research findings are reliable and trustworthy.
Essentially, research is a systematic effort to understand how the world works. In other words, it is a way to understand the truth about the world. The renowned Muslim polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) once wrote, “Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is tough.” As such, a research carried out in an ethical manner, while difficult, would lead to findings which can be trusted to better understand the truth.
In the context of Malaysia, the National Science Council has taken the initiative to publish The Malaysian Code of Responsible Conduct in Research in 2017 to complement the efforts of consolidating research in the country by committing researchers to integrity and accountability. While focusing primarily on research in science, the good research practice espoused in the document can indeed be used for other fields of knowledge including social sciences and humanities.
Good research practices in essence expects appropriate and adequate ethical behaviour at each and every stage of the research activity. In the realm of philosophy, ethics is the science of morals. Is ethics alien to Islam? The obvious answer is most certainly not. Ethics, and this definitely includes research ethics, is part and parcel of the Islamic akhlaq (morality).
In a Hadith narrated by Ibn Mas‘ud, Prophet Muhammad SAW said to the effect that, “O Allah! You have made my creation (physical appearance) perfect, so make my moral characteristics also the best.” This Hadith is one of many which stressed on the importance of having good moral character.
As Muslims, good moral character should cover all actions, and is not limited only to doing specific religious rituals. Therefore, a Muslim who is a researcher must ensure that this good moral character is also practiced in research. The ethical guidelines provided for the different fields of knowledge, such as The Malaysian Code of Responsible Conduct in Research, can help to ensure that a researcher has a good moral character in carrying out his research.
Hence, if we were to think about it, an ethical researcher would have to possess certain characteristics and values. The first is truthfulness. An ethical researcher should always be true to himself, be honest to others, be transparent, and in the context of Muslims, also be honest to God.
Secondly, an ethical researcher must also be trustworthy. Carrying out a research is a trust given to a researcher. There must exist a sense of responsibility that projects credibility and integrity within a researcher.
The third characteristic is advocacy and communication. A researcher must be able to communicate his findings well to all stakeholders including policymakers and the public. This would require good communication skills on the part of the researcher while making full use of the various means of communication that technology has to offer today.
Last but not least, a researcher must have wisdom. Wisdom is most pertinent in identifying critical problems that need to be solved and researched on. Wisdom is also an important element when dealing with challenges in carrying out research activities.
When we look at these four characteristics namely truthfulness, trustworthiness, advocacy and wisdom, they are in fact the characteristics attributed to Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet had provided many examples through his actions and deeds on the need to be truthful (siddiq), trustworthy (amanah), be an effective advocate or communicator (tabligh), and have wisdom (fathanah).
Each of the four characteristics can be further explored and expanded upon in the context of research practice. In fact, these four characteristics are involved in every stage of research beginning with the research proposal, conducting the research, managing research data and resources, as well as publishing and disseminating research findings.
As such, researchers can use the model of the Prophet’s character to be inculcated in carrying out research. This model could contribute towards the enculturation (or some would argue, acculturation) of ethical research by encouraging researchers to be wise advocates who are truthful and trustworthy.