International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science

by Osman Bakar

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

What Osman Bakar means by “Islamic science” is really a form of religious understanding. Islamic science, then, is an epistemology derived from the Quran and the fundamental articles of belief of a Muslim including the testimony of faith, La ilaha illa’Llah  (there is no god but God). This leads to a holistic epistemology in which Divine unity or tuwhid becomes both the starting point and the culmination of all knowledge-seeking.

In such a conception of both cosmic and epistemological unity, Islamic science has much in common with pre-modern systems including the Kabala, alchemy, hemeticism, Taosim, “Hindu” sciences, and so on. These systems were based on series of homologies between the microcosm and the macrocosm – a set of parallels summed up in the famous phrase “as above so below” attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Islamic science, then, shares such a world view with many Gnostic systems found in different parts of the world.

In addition, the author contends that the Islamic religion encourages both rationalism and empiricism. This is attested to by well-document and rich Islamic contributions to the creation of modern science itself. But such a harking back and emphasis on the golden past of Islam runs the risks of nostalgia and apologetics – a longing for cultural and intellectual parity with the modern West which is often characteristic of colonized peoples. Unfortunately, modern science does not generally concern itself with such cultural or political questions even if its presence or absence in different parts of the world is influenced by them.

Towards the end of the book, the author turns to the pedagogical questions of devising syllabi of Islamic science and methods of teaching it. What one discovers is a sort of value-education to supplement normal scientific or technological training. Here, Islam is seen as a source of norms of conduct, behaviour, and ethics which can help the modern scientist develop into a well-rounded human being and a useful member of society. Of course, one might argue that several secular ideologies or traditions such as humanism, Marxism, or environmentalism may also be sources of such values. In this book, however, what is advocated is an “Islamization of knowledge.” This program of the “Islamization of science” is seen as a way both to awaken Muslims from their “intellectual slumber” and also to “stem this tide of secularization” [221] of Muslim minds.

While concepts such as “science” and “knowledge” are continuously interrogated in this book, notions of “Islam” and the idea of who is a “Muslim” are treated almost as if they were trans-historical and universal essences, deriving their stability and authority from religion and belief. But it is precisely such certitudes that modern science challenges. After all, mere assumptions or reassertions of faith are insufficient to counter the demands of truth, reality, or verifiability that modern science insists upon. From the Islamic point of view, then, science is seen both as a source of knowledge and power and of negative values and distortions. How to take the former and reject the latter remains the moot point.