Osman Bakar (1946¾

Osman 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 Science.

The 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.

As 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,.

In 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 Asia.      

During 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.   

Osman’s 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).

It 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 nature.

The 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.           

Many 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).

In 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.

Osman’s 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. 

Selected Bibliography

 

Books

The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. 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 Islam. 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. (in Malay)

(ed.). Islam and Contemporary Scientific Thought. Islamic Academy of Science, Kuala Lumpur, 1989. (in Malay)

(ed.). Critique of Evolutionary Theory: A Collection of Essays. Islamic Academy of Science and Nurin Enterprise, Kuala Lumpur, 1987.

In encyclopedias

“Cosmology” in John L. Esposito (ed.), Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 1(1995), pp. 322-328.

“Abortion: Islamic 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, pp. 926-958.

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. 1-4.

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. 19-44.

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.

1988.  “The Influence of Islamic Science on Medieval Christian Conceptions of Nature,” MAAS Journal of Islamic Science, 4:1 (Jan-June 1988), pp. 25-43.

1986. “Islam and Bioethics,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 3:2 (1986), pp. 157-179.

1986.  “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