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The Poverty of Knowledge Synthesis in the Modern Muslim University Implications for the Future Muslim Mind

By Osman Bakar PhD

Twentieth-century modern thought was largely shaped by the analytical philosophical tradition. This tradition still thrives in the present century. The analysis approach to knowledge reigns supreme in the modern mind as if the human intellect is only capable of thinking analytically and as if things and their realities are only knowable by progressively analysing them into their ever smaller constituent parts. The issue with analysis is that, if it were to be the exclusive concern of human thought, which in fact it is, then obsession with quantification and reductionism in methodological approaches in our knowledge activity, or the craze for the quantitative and the “lowest common denominator” perspective, would be among its most impactful logical consequences.

Admittedly, as the traditional art of logical thinking would tell us, analysis has a legitimate and even important role and function to play in personal rational-intellectual advancement and in the production and development of knowledge, particularly in scientific or empirical methodological pursuits. However, as any integral epistemology and any complete cognitive psychology such as that of Islam would tell us, analysis pertains to only one of several dimensions in the structure of human thought. Another dimension of it also deserving our serious attention is the synthesis approach or the synthetic way of thinking. This dimension has proved in the past to be no less important and impactful to the realization of a wholesome or holistic reason-intellect and the advancement of human knowledge. But somehow this once highly prized dimension has become neglected or marginalised in the contemporary institutions of learning at all levels.

In a supposedly healthy art of thinking, analysis and synthesis are called upon to develop together and interact with each other in a complementary and harmonious fashion. With respect to knowledge and information data that the intellect-reason is treating for the purpose of knowledge production, we find that, function-wise, analysis atomises, divides and details them whereas synthesis unites, integrates, and generalises. Further, we find that analysis functions in such a way that it reduces the semantic field signified by the data in question. In this way analysis narrows or reduces the perspective or context in which the data have meaning and even validity so as to result in another that is focused on specifics. The problem with the human mind is that if it is habitually concerned with reductionism in perspectives through progressive analysis without sufficient nourishment for its synthetic component, then it tends to be further and further removed from the original broader perspective that has earlier served as its starting point for its epistemological investigation, study, and research.

In contrast, function-wise, synthesis broadens the semantic field signified by the data in question when viewed in their totality. The unique power of synthesis precisely lies in its ability and capacity to integrate all the data in view, both quantitative and qualitative, into a broader perspective that has the potential to generate wider meanings and significance of things such as when we are engrossed in the construction or formulation of theories. We thus see in the power of synthesis a tremendous potentiality for creativity. Synthesis also helps nurture contemplative minds. The flourishing of contemplative minds in any culture presupposes its rich synthesis tradition. Of course, synthesis could hardly be achieved without the aid of principles that are to function as synthesizers. Synthetic thinking absolutely needs synthesizers. But where can we find these synthesizers? In the history of human thought, more than any other branch of philosophy, it is the discipline of epistemology that is in a better position to provide us with the necessary synthesizers or principles of synthesis of ideas. Unfortunately, however, epistemology happens to be the very science in which Muslims at the moment find themselves the weakest and the most confused. It is to be noted though that for the Muslim universities it is not modern Western epistemology that should come to their rescue. Rather, it is to the traditional Islamic epistemology, which I have termed and explained elsewhere in my writings as Tawhidic or integral epistemology that they should turn for help. From the point of view of Muslim needs for knowledge synthesis, modern Western epistemology is hardly in a position to deliver them due to its inherent systemic weaknesses.

I am arguing here for a new flourishing of Tawhidic or integral epistemology in the Muslim universities, particularly in its role as a key promoter of knowledge synthesis culture. Those who are familiar with this epistemology know too well that it is its principle of tawhid or unity of knowledge that has traditionally served as the core principle of synthesis of ideas in all fields of knowledge. This principle is both hierarchical and universal in nature. As such, it allows for multiple levels and scopes of synthesis to be performed in knowledge production, organisation, management, and applications. Moreover, the principle is applicable to both inter and intra-disciplinary synthesis. So comprehensive is its meanings and applications and so efficacious was its epistemological role in traditional Islamic knowledge culture when it was at its brilliance that it properly deserves to be considered as God’s greatest gift to Islam in the realm of knowledge. It is therefore a compelling argument for contemporary Muslims to revive the proper understanding of this Tawhidic epistemological principle and restore its applications in the various branches of knowledge and areas of human thought.

Modern knowledge culture as best typified by the modern West is proud of its own overarching principle of integration and synthesis. The principle in question is the evolutionary theory that has its origin in the Darwinian idea of biological evolution around the middle of the nineteenth century but which now finds application in practically every branch of knowledge. The evolutionary principle is relatively new, just over one hundred and fifty years old whereas the Tawhidic principle has been around in the world of scholarship for a much longer period. Nonetheless, the comparative epistemological worth and significance of the tawhidic and the evolutionary principles need to be thoroughly studied as well in the Muslim universities. By virtue of its universal nature, the Tawhidic principle is known to find acceptance in the thoughts of many non-Muslim thinkers. In modern times, Albert Einstein’s embrace of the idea of cosmic unity is a very good case in point.   

I have presented what I believe to be the essential contrast between analysis and synthesis. Their respective importance to the knowledge enterprise has also been pointed out and emphasized. However, now that synthetic thinking and its attendant knowledge synthesis are in eclipse, we may speak of the idea of the spirit of complementarity between analysis and synthesis in their epistemological roles only as an ideal that remains to be re-realized in our times. Such is also the case with the idea of balance and equilibrium between analysis and synthesis that is very much emphasized in Tawhidic epistemology by virtue of its importance to the realisation of a healthy knowledge culture. For both ideas to be practically relevant to our times we have to first revive synthetic thinking and knowledge synthesis in theory and practice, especially in our institutions of higher learning.

It was in the light of the loss of these two traditional ideas of complementarity and balance and equilibrium between analysis and synthesis that I decided to title this short essay “The Poverty of Knowledge Synthesis in the Modern Muslim University.” The contemporary predominantly Muslim-run universities are generally characterised by an impoverishment of synthetic thinking and knowledge synthesis programmes notwithstanding the introduction of the so-called creative thinking curriculum in recent years. Reversing the impoverishment process in favour of a process of enrichment of synthesis culture would certainly not be easy, but it has to be done, that is, if we still believe in the idea of synthetic thinking as a major dimension of creative thinking, in its perennial relevance for the human mind as long as we recognise the uniquely human nature of our reason-intellect, and in the possibility of its revival or renewal through the implementation of well-designed learning and research programmes. However, given the widespread unfamiliarity of the rank and file of the university community with synthetic thinking and its programmatic demands as a consequence of long years of indifference to the issue of its importance, it would be necessary to first create an intellectual environment that is conducive to the appreciation and acceptance of this particular kind of knowledge enterprise.

It would greatly help facilitate the creation of such an intellectual environment if efforts are made to impress upon everyone concerned that many of the costly problems, structural weaknesses, and shortcomings currently plaguing the knowledge enterprise in universities, particularly their knowledge organisation and management, are just symptoms of a deeper and more consequential malaise. The malaise to which I am referring is epistemological in nature. In other words, as the term ‘epistemological’ itself implies, it pertains to issues of vision of knowledge, both theoretical and applied, and the wholesomeness of thinking processes. The central issue in this intellectual malaise concerns the limitation of the vision of knowledge that is being contemplated and entertained by the university’s collective mind, especially when seen in the light of Islam’s vision of Reality and its intellectual tradition. It also concerns inadequacies in the spectrum of thinking methods that are used to be promoted in academic life and that are in currency in the university’s teaching and research programmes, since notable dimensions are found missing from the spectrum. These missing dimensions include the synthetic, the symbolic, and the linguistic methods. The neglect of the synthetic thinking method in particular has proved perhaps to be the most consequential on the quality of the thinking and knowledge culture in contemporary Muslim universities.  

Symptoms of the malaise are many. These include the prevalence of knowledge specialisation of the unhealthy type, the lack of inter and cross-disciplinary studies and research, the lack of universal and global perspectives in approaching knowledge and societal issues, and the poverty of philosophical and other intellectual discourses that are traditionally regarded in almost all cultures and civilisations as necessary to the cultivation of the synthetic mind. To avoid being misunderstood let me make it perfectly clear that the specialisation of knowledge that I am criticising here as unhealthy is of the kind in which detailed knowledge is pursued at the expense of other forms of knowledge deemed necessary to the development of a healthy and creative mind. What are sorely needed in contemporary Muslim universities are knowledge specialisations that are epistemologically balanced. By this I mean that the specialisations being pursued are of such a nature and endowed with such  conceptual traits that they are the most likely to succeed in maintaining a semblance of unity and harmony between knowledge for holistic personal advancement and knowledge for a just societal development. After all, this is what Muslim universities are supposed to achieve.

In Islamic tradition, the idea of the necessity of these two kinds of knowledge with their rather defined complementary roles and functions in society is embodied in the twin concepts of fard ‘ayn and fard kifayah. The fard ‘ayn category of knowledge is supposed to be obligatory for everyone given the fact that it is meant for personal human development that is desired for and expected of every well educated person. The fard kifayah category, on the other hand, is dictated by societal needs that are viewed as legitimate from the perspectives of Islamic ethics of knowledge and social justice. Designing and implementing a good and effective curriculum for tertiary education that would succeed in harmonising these two categories of knowledge remains a formidable challenge to academic leaders in Muslim universities. Although at the popular level these twin concepts of knowledge are widely talked about in Muslim societies their significance and also the challenge they pose for the design of integrated university curricula are little grasped until now.

In the light of the foregoing discussion it may be forcefully argued that the future quality of the Muslim mind would depend to a large extent on how well the Muslim universities succeed in addressing the poverty of knowledge synthesis they are now experiencing and other closely related issues such as the need for an integrated fard ‘ayn and fard kifayah knowledge curriculum for all disciplines. Wa bi’Llah al-tawfik wa’l-hidayah wa bihi nasta’in.

Osman Bakar PhD is Distinguished Professor of Islamic Civilisation and Modern Thought at Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies (SOASCIS), Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Malaya and its former Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Research).