Towards a Postmodern Synthesis of Islamic Science and Modern Science, the Epistemological Groundwork

by Professor Osman Bakar

Terminological Clarification

The main purpose of this article is to provide an introductory discussion of one of several knowledge synthesis projects with which I have been engaged in the past one decade.[1] I call this particular project “Postmodern Synthesis of Islamic Science and Modern Science.” For clarity about the whole purpose of this project, an explanation of the terms in the title seems necessary. Let me first explain the meaning of the term ‘Islamic science’ in the sense I am using it here. A clarification of the term would help us to focus on the real issues that are raised by the title of this essay, since in current usage the term is found to connote several different meanings, and hence the possibility of confusion. Some people are using the term Islamic science as an English rendering in singular of the Arabic al-‘ulum al-Islamiyyah that primarily refers to the so-called religious sciences, especially the sciences of the Quran and Prophetic hadiths, science of principles of religion (‘ilm usul al-din), and sciences of Islamic jurisprudence (‘ilm al-fiqh) and principles of jurisprudence (‘ilm usul al-fiqh). From the point of view of Islamic epistemology, the term al-‘ulum al-Islamiyyah as understood by a large segment of the ‘ulama’ is found to be inherently problematic.

To ascribe Islamicity to some sciences only as what this group has been doing, no matter how important these sciences may be to religion, but not to other sciences, would be contrary to the concept and philosophy of knowledge in Islam. Such a line of reasoning smacks of epistemic sectarianism that goes against the principle of unity of knowledge that is so much emphasised in Islamic epistemology. Moreover, this epistemic sectarianism is known to have the negative effect of discouraging many Muslims from studying the so-called “secular sciences” that are viewed by Muslim epistemologists as no less important to societal health than the religious sciences. In the history of Islamic civilisation the most widely accepted division of the sciences was the division into transmitted (al-‘ulum al-naqliyyah) and rational sciences (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyyah), which for centuries shaped Muslim educational system until modern times. This division was conceived within the unitary epistemological perspective in which both categories of sciences were viewed as Islamic in the sense that they conformed to the most universal epistemological criteria of Islamicity. Such a division had spared mainstream classical Islamic thought of epistemic dichotomy between the humanities and the natural and the social sciences that was to characterise and indeed haunt modern Western thought.

Some others are using the term Islamic science to mean knowledge of the natural world that they claim is contained in many verses of the Quran and also in the Prophetic hadiths. They believe in modern science but with the claim that many discoveries in this science have been anticipated in the Quran. Their interpretation of those Quranic verses that they consider as laden with scientific ideas tends to be generally influenced by latest discoveries in modern science. This particular approach to a scientific interpretation of Quranic verses that relies on modern scientific discoveries has been criticised by many well-known Muslim scholars.

There is yet another usage of the term Islamic science. In this third sense, Islamic science refers to the entire body of scientific knowledge that was produced and cultivated in Islamic civilization since its beginning in the seventh century CE. Notwithstanding the fact that it was partly contributed by non-Muslim scientists and scholars who lived under the civilizational umbrella of Islam and partly inspired by pre-Islamic sciences, this body of knowledge is considered by proponents of this third understanding of Islamic science to be Islamic in nature, since it conforms at the level of concepts and theories to the unitary epistemological perspective embodied in the Principle of Divine Unity (al-tawhid) and at the level of applications to the principles of the Sharia. This group of Islamic science proponents also believes that the principles of this science are relevant and applicable at all times by virtue of their universal and perennial worth. One implication of this belief is that it is possible through an intellectual renewal (al-tajdid al-‘aqli) to resurrect the traditional spirit and philosophy of Islamic science but in new forms that meet the contemporary human needs. I am using the term Islamic science in this third sense. It is this meaning of Islamic science that makes it meaningful to speak of its synthesis with modern science.

The term modern science itself needs clarification. By modern science I mean the science that originated in the West in the early seventeenth century CE and that is based on Newtonian mechanistic philosophy of nature and epistemological principles of rationalism and empiricism. In the main it was the Newtonian universe that constituted the core dimension of the worldview of modern science. Since the mid-twentieth century many Western intellectuals and scientists have been telling the world that the age of modern science has come to an end. This view on the fate of modern science is widely accepted so much so that it became one of the significant strands of thought constituting the philosophical movement known as postmodernism. The single most important factor that ended the epistemological place and role of Newtonian physics as the main shaper of modern Western scientific worldview was quantum physics. The new physics was welcome by postmodernists, because it strengthened their philosophical position in their counter-movement against many of the tenets of modernism. The lifespan of the modern scientific worldview was thus relatively short, only about three hundred and fifty years (from early seventeenth century CE to mid-twentieth century CE) as compared, for example, to that of Islamic science that lasted nearly a millennium (eighth century CE till seventeenth century CE).

Islamic Science, Modern Science, and Postmodern Science: Why the Need for Synthesis

From the perspective of Islamic epistemology there are several reasons why there is an urgent need to pursue a veritable synthesis between Islamic science, modern science, and postmodern science. The reasons are theological, philosophical, and scientific. First, the theological reason. There is a need to reaffirm the idea of knowledge synthesis as the raison d’etre of Islam. No less than the Quran itself that advances the all-important claim that it has been revealed by God to remind humankind of its special scriptural status as the synthesis of all the previous divinely revealed scriptures, since no other revealed book would appear after it. The core theological content of the religion of Islam is the principle of divine unity (al-tawhid). This principle, which serves an epistemological function at various levels and within various domains of knowledge in accordance with the nature of Islam as a religion of knowledge par excellence, is both inclusive and synthetic in nature.

For the purposes of both general and specific knowledge syntheses, the principle of al-tawhid may be called upon to play its needed synthesising role once its domain of applications has been identified and clarified. Historically, in the domain of science Islamic civilisation has witnessed the synthesising role of this principle both at the level of its philosophy and theory-construction. By virtue of the synthesising spirit of Islam the religion, Islamic science that was based on its teachings too became synthetic in nature. Historically, Islamic science was created out of the scientific heritage of the world’s civilisations, big and small, that came into Muslim hands. The heritage was indeed diverse. It was the principle of al-tawhid that served as the epistemological thread linking these diverse elements to one another and weaving them intricately yet beautifully into a harmonious whole. The general lesson to be learnt from this historical experience is that Muslims could not remain indifferent to epistemological claims from modern and postmodern sciences, which are indeed many. In the light of the synthesising mission of Islamic civilisation and the synthetic nature of Islamic science, knowledge synthesis would be a natural Muslim epistemological response to modern science and postmodern thought. Moreover, knowledge synthesis promises to be a more effective answer to the philosophical challenges posed by modern and postmodern sciences than the decades-old Islamisation of knowledge project that has proved to be a divisive social issue, especially in pluralistic societies where Muslims have to live together and discourse with non-Muslims.

Second, the philosophical reason. Quite clearly, the philosophical outlooks of Islamic science and modern science are different. The philosophical gap between the worldviews of the two sciences is immense. The philosophical outlooks in question pertain mainly to ontological, cosmological, and epistemological views and doctrines. On a number of fundamental issues, the philosophies of the two sciences are known to diverge and even contradict each other. Ontologically, Islamic science accepts the idea of a universal hierarchy of beings (maratib al-mawjudat) that stretches from God at its highest to the physical things on earth at its lowest. Mainstream modern science is found to have professed changing ontological beliefs in its short history that displayed a tendency to reduce reality to a single level, namely the lowest in the traditional hierarchy of beings that was accepted in Islamic science. During the first phase of its existence, modern science maintains an ontological belief in a two-level reality comprising God and the universe. Although God continues to be involved in His creation, as in fact believed by Isaac Newton (1643 CE—1727 CE), one of its major founders, the universe of modern science has been emptied of its angelic content. Later, during the European Enlightenment period (late seventeenth century CE till early nineteenth century CE) under the influence of Deism (flourished between 1690 CE and 1740 CE), the theological belief that affirmed God’s existence but negated His interactions in the universe, modern science adopted the idea of an autonomous physical world that is completely cut off from God. This belief made the idea of God redundant to science, thus paving the way for the final reduction of physical reality to what is only established through the empirical methods.

Cosmologically, Islamic science accepts the idea of a universe that is populated by spiritual, subtle, and physical creatures that are hierarchically ordered. Islamic science affirms the idea taught by the Quran that the multi-layered universe is continuously subjected to divine governance with the angels and the jinn playing their cosmic roles as His secondary agents in the running of the physical world. In contrast, the universe believed by modern science was no longer alive following the extinction of the angelic species in its new cosmic order. It became a lifeless entity. The Newtonian universe was turned into a vast machine that runs according to physical laws that can be discovered by the human mind. It was the main task of science to discover these laws, some of which had in fact been discovered by its founders. It was only to be expected that a shrinking of objective reality in the macrocosm has to happen in parallel to a shrinking of subjective reality in the microcosm, since the one-to-one correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm, being itself a cosmic law, had to prevail. Thus, the multi-dimensional and complete man that is constituted of body, mind and spirit, as affirmed by Islamic science, has been reduced to the Cartesian body-mind entity, a major foundational pillar of modern science. The human body came to be treated as a machine, a view with numerous implications for human health and medical science and practices.

Along with the mechanisation of the human body, the Cartesian mind eventually became reduced to a cerebral intelligence rooted in the human brain that is fully explainable through an empirical neuroscience. Thus, emerged the image of modern man as the thinking machine. The cerebral intelligence thus perceived and understood has the potential to be mechanised. The artificial intelligence agenda in the postmodern era is nothing more than an attempt to bring the process of mechanisation of the human mind to its logical conclusion. In both theory and practice, the mechanisation of human intelligence that is pursued to its furthest limits poses tremendous challenges to Islam and its civilizational ideals. The progressive mechanisation of human intelligence is expected to be accompanied by a corresponding progressive dehumanisation of man, a future scenario that the Quran describes as the moment when the human condition will be such that God will bring man down “to the lowest of the low.”[2]

Given the wide gulf that separates between the philosophical perspectives of Islamic science and modern science, it is not surprising that there are people who dismiss the epistemological synthesis out of hand or simply scoff at the idea. However, intellectually a knowledge synthesis project of the kind and scope that I am proposing here is necessary not only for the sake of the Muslim ummah but rather for the whole of humanity. Hence the project needs to be pursued. May be, so as not to be too pessimistic about the feasibility of the project, an explanation is needed on what we expect to achieve in the proposed synthesis. Muslim historical experiences in knowledge synthesis enterprise could be of great help to contemporary academics and scholars who are interested in pursuing the same kind of enterprise. For example, we may refer to the classical Muslim attempt to create an Islamic philosophy and science by incorporating ancient Greek knowledge in the field into their scheme of synthesis. Muslim thinkers who initiated the synthesis enterprise made their deliberate choice. They ignored or rejected Democritus’ theory of atoms, because he gave qualities such as indestructability and eternity to these atoms that Islamic theology and metaphysics consider as unique to God. But generally speaking, they accepted for example the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, Pythagoras, Euclid, Galen and Hippocrates. They made their choice on the basis of intellectual discernment the criteria of which are made available by the revealed teachings of Islam. Thus, they were sifting through the Greek intellectual heritage to identify ideas that were acceptable for their knowledge synthesis.

 Likewise, with respect to knowledge synthesis between Islamic science and modern science it is not necessary from the perspective of the former that all elements of the latter—its foundational assumptions, concepts and theories, methodological principles and tools, schemes of data interpretation, objectives, and many others—be accepted for synthesis. What is needed to be done is to sift the unacceptable out from the acceptable or the false out from the true. A similar sifting through the Islamic science heritage needs to be done. In fact, this sifting is the first step that needs to be taken in a synthesis. This sifting, which is basically an intellectual activity, requires discernment of the data in question to enable synthesisers to determine their epistemic status. Synthesisers need to have a lot of knowledge in the area of studies in which the synthesis is to be undertaken. The task of sifting through ideas that we have in mind becomes especially tedious when the synthesis to be done involves the whole of modern science and Islamic science and not merely one or two branches of science. Necessarily the knowledge synthesis project has to be pursued as a collective enterprise.

Looking at the whole process of knowledge synthesis in question, beginning with sifting through the heritage in both sciences and going through the phase of reinterpretation of the selected ideas right to the phase of integration of these reinterpreted ideas into the tawhidic epistemological framework until the synthesis is completed, the phase of sifting seems to be the most taxing. Once the sifting is done, the rest of the work appears to be less time consuming. However, the phase of integration is in need of ingenuity and wisdom from the synthesisers. The point I wish to reiterate here is that a knowledge synthesis between Islamic science and modern science is possible. The successful precedents in knowledge synthesis in Islamic civilisation may serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary synthesisers.

Third, the scientific reason. Modern science has accumulated an impressive wealth of scientific data about the natural world, including human beings. Intensive specialisations in various branches of modern science have been a major contributing factor to this success. However, overspecialisation generates its own problem. Specialisation implies a greater focus and reliance on analysis. I have argued in my previous article published in The Muslim 500[3] that whatever success specialisation has achieved in contributing to the growth of knowledge has been at the expense of synthesis. The lack of knowledge synthesis and interdisciplinary studies has meant that many academics and scholars have been largely shaped in their intellectual visions by the specialised knowledge they have accumulated in their respective disciplines. As a result, intellectual segregation has prevailed in our institutions of higher learning. I am arguing here that a knowledge synthesis between Islamic science and modern science could help address the issues arising from overspecialisation in the latter science, since the former science possesses the necessary epistemological means to achieve integration of detailed and specialised knowledge into a broader vision of knowledge.

Prioritising Knowledge Synthesis Projects

The theological, philosophical, and scientific justifications for the knowledge synthesis between Islamic science and modern science need to be further developed. Simultaneously, specific knowledge syntheses may be undertaken such as what we have already initiated in several areas of study. I consider as highly significant the project on the synthesis between traditional Islamic and modern biomedicine that I am pursuing as part of a collaborative project on Religion and Medicine with my colleagues at Chicago University and Oxford University. However, given the fact that the domain of knowledge synthesis that we have in mind is so broad, it is necessary that we come up with priorities in our knowledge synthesis projects. Wa bi’Llah al-tawfik wa’l-hidayah wa bihi nasta’in.


Dr Osman Bakar has published 22 books and over 300 articles on Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Islamic philosophy and science. He also writes on contemporary Islam and inter-religious and inter-civilizational dialogue. Please see bio on page 121.


[1]    Knowledge synthesis projects on which I have embarked and on which I have published include a project on re-examination of the foundational assumptions of modern science with the view of providing them with more solid ones; a project on the synthesis between traditional Islamic and modern biomedicines; and a project on integral ecology aimed at providing a synthesis of biophysical, built and cultural environments.

[2]    The Quran, Surah 95, Verse 5.

[3]    Osman Bakar, ‘The poverty of knowledge synthesis in the modern Muslim university: implications for the future Muslim mind,’ The Muslim 500 (Amman: The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre), pp. 112—114.