Osman Bakar (1946¾)
Bakar was born in a small village near the town of Temerloh in the east coast
state of Pahang in Peninsular Malaysia (1946). He received his high school
education at the prestigious boarding school, Malay College Kuala Kangsar,
dubbed since British rule as “Eaton of the East.” Even at that early stage,
Osman had a special interest in science and mathematics. After completing high
school, he worked as a temporary teacher in Kuantan. In September 1967 he left
Malaysia with a scholarship to study mathematics at Woolwich Polytechnic, London
University. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in June 1970. He then
returned to Malaysia to become a tutor at Department of Mathematics in the newly
founded National University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. After a few months, Osman
returned to London in September on a study leave under the University’s
lecturer training scheme to pursue postgraduate studies in Algebra at Bedford
College, London University. The following year, he obtained his Master of
same year, Osman started his doctoral study at the same College, specializing on
algebraic group theory. He became intensely interested in religion and
philosophy. He began to read more books on Islamic thought and both Western and
Islamic philosophy, than on algebra. He was particularly attracted to the
writings of two great Muslim thinkers, the contemporary Iranian scholar Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, and the medieval Iranian scholar al-Ghazzali.
He admits that the writings of both thinkers exerted a profound influence
on his intellectual outlook and development. Al-Ghazzali’s Deliverance From
Error contributed greatly to
his Islamic perspectives on religion and science. Three of Nasr’s
works, Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, The Encounter of Man
and Nature, and Science and Civilization in Islam, according to Osman,
had the greatest impact on his philosophical thought. It was clear that
he had already embraced many of Nasr’s intellectual perspectives on religion,
philosophy and science. As a result of his new intellectual interests and
several pressing circumstances, Osman terminated his doctoral study in
mathematics to return home to National University of Malaysia in October 1973 to
become a lecturer at the Department of Mathematics.
a mathematics lecturer, Osman taught calculus and algebra. But because of his
deep interest in religion and science, he was able to persuade the
University’s academic administrators to allow him to teach two courses related
to the subject. One was an undergraduate course on science in Islamic
civilization, the other on religion and philosophy of science. Both courses,
which he helped to design and teach since 1974, were integral components of a
group of courses on general studies that were made compulsory for all
undergraduate students of the University. It was the first time that courses on
religion, philosophy and science had ever been taught at Malaysia’s
institutions of higher learning. When the neighboring University of Malaya
introduced courses on history and philosophy of science within its
“complementary science program” at the Faculty of Science in 1975, Osman was
invited to be a guest lecturer. Convinced of better prospects there he moved
permanently to University of Malaya in 1977 to become the first full-time
teaching staff of the complementary science program. For many years he became
the coordinator of the program. Apart from teaching the histories of Greek,
Indian, Chinese, Islamic and medieval Western sciences, Osman also introduced
various courses in philosophy of science such as religion and science,.
October 1981, Osman went to Temple University, Philadelphia to pursue his
doctoral studies in Islamic philosophy of science under the supervision of Nasr.
He wrote a thesis entitled Classification of the Sciences in Islamic
Intellectual History: A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science that has
been published under the title Classification of Knowledge in Islam. The
Malaysian edition was first published in 1992, and the United Kingdom edition in
1997. The book has been translated into Indonesian language and Persian. After
obtaining his PhD, Osman was promoted to Associate Professor in 1989 and
Professor in 1992 as Chair of Philosophy of Science, a post that he still holds.
From July until December 1992, he was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Department
of History of Science, Harvard University where he undertook research on
Mathematics in Muslim Culture. In 1995, he was appointed the University of
Malaya’s Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of academic and human resource
matters. He resigned from the post in June 2000 to take up a new appointment at
Georgetown University, Washington DC as Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast
the last 25 years, Osman has made a major contribution to the popularization of
Islamic science and intellectual discourses on religion and science, and to the
advancement of cross-cultural studies of history and philosophy of science. His
intellectual contribution has had an impact, not only in his
own country, Malaysia, but also in various parts of the Muslim world. He is the main
founder of Malaysian Islamic Academy of Science established in 1977.
He was its first Secretary-General (1977-1981) and later President
(1987-1992). Among the objectives of the Academy is to promote studies and
research in religion and science, particularly from the Islamic point of view.
In 1991, he founded the Academy’s bilingual biannual journal Kesturi, a
publication dedicated to the pursuit of the unity of knowledge. He was the
journal’s first Chief Editor.
first academic paper was The Problem of Malay-Muslim Progress in Science,
written in 1974 but presented in 1975 at the First Islamic World Conference
in Science and Technology held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The paper dealt with
certain issues in religion and science, and proposed that the problem of
Malay-Muslim backwardness in science education should be resolved within the
Islamic intellectual and cultural framework. It was published in the Proceedings
of the Conference. In the subsequent period until his departure for his doctoral
study in the United States, all of Osman’s works were written in Malay. The
majority of these works deal with the subject of Islam and science, covering
such issues as the meaning and significance of Islamic science (1976), Islamic
conceptions of science (1978), the relationship between science and spiritual
values (1979), and the fundamental differences between traditional Islamic
science and modern science (1978). One significant work belonging to this period
was written as a discussant of the paper Islam’s Contributions to World
Culture (in Malay) presented by the famous Indonesian philosopher, Sutan Ali
Takdir Alisjahbana, at an International Seminar on Islam and Malay Culture, held
at the National University’s temporary campus in Kuala Lumpur. All seminar
papers, including Osman’s critique of Alisjahbana were published as a book by
the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (1977).
was Osman’s Conception of Science in Islam (in Malay) that had a
considerable impact on Muslims in Malaysia, especially among students. It was
presented in 1978 as the main paper in the first national seminar (organized by
Islamic Academy of Science) ever to be held on Islam and science. The work was
published soon afterwards in Risalah (1978), a newsletter of the
influential Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM). It was widely distributed
and read by Malay students, including those studying abroad. The Australian
Federation of Malaysian Students’ Association published it in its Majalah
AFMSA (1978). In this work, Osman proposed that science as conceived and
cultivated in Islamic civilization exhibits characteristics that differ
significantly from those of modern science. One major difference between Islamic
science and modern science is in their methodological approaches to the study of
next phase of Osman’s academic life, beginning with his PhD studies at Temple
University, saw a tremendous increase in his intellectual output. A total of ten
books, six in English and four in Malay were published. More than seventy
papers, mostly in English, appeared in journals and magazines, including papers
that he had written when he was a PhD student. These books and articles dealt
with a wide range of subjects in religion, philosophy and science. His discourse
on Islam and science covered such topics as metaphysical and cosmological
foundations of science, methodology, evolution, bioethics, philosophy of
medicine, natural theology, and cognitive psychology. Osman claims that the
philosophical perspectives on Islam and science that he acquired during his
mathematics postgraduate studies in London have not undergone any fundamental
development or change, but have basically remained the same until now. His claim
seems to be confirmed by the similarity and the continuity of thought in the
philosophical contents of his pre-doctoral and post-doctoral studies.
of Osman’s works on Islam and science are widely read in various parts of the
Muslim world, especially in Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent. His most
popular book is Tawhid and Science (1991), which has been translated into
Indonesian Language and Albanian. Chapters of the book have been translated into
the major languages of the Muslim world, including Arabic, Persian, Turkish and
Urdu. It enjoys the distinction of being the most reviewed of all his books. In
a sense, Tawhid and Science depicts the depth and breadth of Osman’s
intellectual concerns with issues in Islam and science. What it calls ‘Islamic
science’ is none other than that science which embraces the totality of the
mathematical and natural sciences, including psychology and cognitive science,
which have been cultivated in Islamic culture and civilization for more than a
millennium, beginning in the third century of the Islamic era (the ninth century
of the Christian era). Those sciences can very appropriately be called Islamic
science, because, conceptually speaking, they are organically related to the
fundamental teachings of Islam, the most important of which is the principle of tawhid.
The science of tawhid is theology in the real sense of the word. Another of his
popular books, an edited work, is Critique of Evolutionary Theory (1987).
Tawhid and Science and several other writings, Osman maintains that
Islamic science shares with modern science the rational nature of its language,
the adoption of scientific and experimental methods of inquiry, and the
international character of its scientific practices, organizations and
institutions. This is understandable since historically speaking, modern science
is the immediate successor of Islamic science. In many of its disciplinary
characteristics, modern science owes a lot to Islamic science. But in many other
characteristics, it marks a clear departure from its predecessor. There are many
important differences in the philosophical principles on which the two sciences
are founded. The metaphysical and cosmological foundations of Islamic science
have either been rejected or neglected by modern science. Even at the level of
epistemological, ethical and moral principles, major differences are discernible
between the two sciences. Consequently, these sciences have come to adopt
theoretical and practical goals and methodological principles that are different
in several respects.
interest in religion and science is not confined to Islamic viewpoints. It
covers the viewpoints of the world’s major religions. As a postgraduate
student at Temple University’s Department of Religion, then probably the
world’s best department of its kind, Osman was well exposed to the study of
world religions under distinguished professors of religion. At the University of
Malaya, he has taught third-year science students courses on religion and
science from the perspectives of the world’s major religions, which happen to
exist also in Malaysia. He is particularly interested in exploring the encounter
of religion and science on such issues as cosmic design, meaning of intelligence
both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, cognitive psychology, evolution, quantum
physics and consciousness, bioethics, and genetics. This year (2001), he has
been appointed a member of the Religion Working Group on Genetically Modified
Food at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics .
The History and Philosophy of
Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge (UK) 1999; 1991 edition published by
Secretariat for Islamic Philosophy and Science, Science University of Penang and
Nurin Enterprise, Kuala Lumpur under the title Tawhid and Science.
Classification of Knowledge in
Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge (UK) 1998; 1992 edition published by Institute
for Policy Studies, Kuala Lumpur.
(ed.). Science, Technology, and
Art in Human Civilizations. University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1992.
(ed.). Islam and Contemporary
Scientific Thought. Islamic Academy of Science, Kuala Lumpur, 1989. (in
(ed.). Critique of Evolutionary
Theory: A Collection of Essays. Islamic Academy of Science and Nurin
Enterprise, Kuala Lumpur, 1987.
“Cosmology” in John L. Esposito
(ed.), Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1(1995), pp.
Perspectives” in Warren Thomas Reich (ed.), Encyclopedia of Bioethics,
rev. edition, vol. 1(1995), pp. 38-42.
Chapters of books (selected)
1997. “The Importance of
Cosmology in the Cultivation of the Arts,” in Wan Abdul Kadir & Hashim
Awang (eds.), Art and Cosmology: Islamic Cosmology and Malay Art, Academy
of Malay Studies, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 1-6.
1996. “Science (as a Branch of
Philosophy)” in S.H. Nasr & O. Leaman (eds.), History of Islamic
Philosophy, Routledge History of World Philosophies, vol. II, chapter 53,
1994. “Knowledge of Divine Unity (tawhid) on the Basis of
Scientific Knowledge,” Ismail Ibrahim & Mohd Sahri Abdul Rahman (eds.), Knowledge
and Excellence in Islamic Perspective, Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM),
Kuala Lumpur, pp. 1-9.
1993. “Science in Islamic
Perspective,” in Azizan Baharuddin (ed.), Malay Students and Science
Education, Academy of Malay Studies Monograph (Cendekia), University of
Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, no. 2, pp. 8-24. (in Malay)
1991. “The Unity of Science and
Spiritual Knowledge: The Islamic Experience,” in R. Ravindra (ed.), Science
and Spirit, International Cultural Foundation, New York, pp. 87-101.
1991. “Spiritual Traditions and
Science and Technology,” in ALIRAN, The Human Being: Perspectives from
Different Spiritual Traditions, ALIRAN, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 140-155.
1984. “The Question of
Methodology in Islamic Science,” in Rais Ahmad & S. Naseem Ahmad (eds.), Quest
for New Science: Selected Papers of a Seminar, Center for Studies on
Science, Aligarh (India), pp. 91-109.
1979. “The Role of Science
Education in the Spiritual Development of Man,” in PKPIM Collection:
Symposium on Islamic Education, National Union of Muslim Students of
Malaysia (PKPIM), Kuala Lumpur, pp. 119-135.
In journals (selected)
1996. “Truth and Wisdom in a
Holistic Concept of Knowledge,” Pemikir, no. 3, Jan-March 1996, pp.
100-112. (in Malay)
1994. “The Common Philosophical
Foundation of Traditional Medicines,” Sophia, Winter 1994, no. 6, pp.
1993. “Symbol and Archetype: A
Study of the Meaning of Existence: A Review Article,” Studies in Tradition,
2:1(Jan-March 1993), pp. 62-78.
1991. “Atomistic Conception of
Nature in Ash’arite Theology,” Iqbal Review, 32:3 (October 1991), pp.
1990. “The Philosophy of Islamic
Medicine and Its Relevance to the Modern World,” MAAS Journal of Islamic
Science, 6:1 (Jan-June 1990), pp. 39-58.
1990. “Designing a Sound Syllabus
for Courses on Philosophy of Applied and Engineering Sciences in a 21st
Century Islamic University,” Muslim Education Quarterly, 7:3 (Spring
1990), pp. 19-25.
“The Influence of Islamic Science on Medieval Christian Conceptions of
Nature,” MAAS Journal of Islamic Science, 4:1 (Jan-June 1988), pp.
1986. “Islam and Bioethics,” Greek
Orthodox Theological Review, 3:2 (1986), pp. 157-179.
“The Meaning and Significance of Doubt in al-Ghazzali’s
Philosophy,” The Islamic Quarterly, 30:1 (1986), pp. 20-31.
1985. “Umar Khayyam’s Criticism
of Euclid’s Theory of Parallels,” MAAS Journal of Islamic Science,
1:2 (July 1985), pp. 9-18.
1984. “The Question of Methodology in Islamic Science,” Muslim Education Quarterly, 2:1 (Autumn 1984), pp. 16-30.
1984. “Ibn Sina’s Methodological Approach Toward the Study of Nature in His Oriental Philosophy,” Hamdard Islamicus, vol. VII, no. 2 (Summer 1984), pp. 33-49.
back to top
back to the list of entries (b)
back to Resources on Islam and Science
back to home