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The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science


The essays presented inThe History and Philosophy of Islamic Science discuss the principles behind the different sciences cultivated in the Islamic world from the third century of the Islamic era onwards and the place of science in relation to other branches of Islamic learning. In defining what Islamic science
 means, Professor Osman Bakar shows how these sciences are organically related to the fundamental teachings of Islam. Covering all the natural and mathematical sciences,The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science illustrates what Islamic science shares with modern science. Professor Osman Bakar also highlights where the Islamic approach to science differs from the secular, modern approach.

Professor Dato’ Dr Osman Bakar is Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic Affairs) of the University of Malaya, Malaysia and an authority on Islamic science. He is the author ofClassification of Knowledge in Islam published by The Islamic Texts Society.

" [Osman Bakar’s book] marks a most valuable contribution both to the effort of revealing the Islamic intellectual and spiritual approach to science, and to the concomitant endeavour to highlight the deeper causes of the contemporary crisis in western science and technology...it opens up, with clarity and simplicity, the philosophy of Islamic science.’"Islamic Quarterly

Classification of Knowledge in Islam

A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science

Foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The classification of knowledge is a recurring theme in Islamic scholarship. Successive generations of Muslim scholars, from al-Kindi in the ninth century to Shah Waliallah of Delhi in the eighteenth century, have devoted considerable efforts to the exposition of this theme. The lives and the ideas of the three thinkers discussed inClassification of Knowledge in Islam - al-Farabi (870-950AD), al-Ghazzali (1058-1111AD) and Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (1236-1311AD) - cover the pivotal period of Islamic history from the first flourishing of the philosophical sciences to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols. In addition, each of these three thinkers was either a founder or an eminent representative of a major intellectual school in Islam. Al-Farabi was the founder and one of the most prominent representatives of themashsha’i (Peripatetic) school of philosopher-scientists. Al-Ghazzali is still recognised as the most famous theologian/sufi of Islam. Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi represents theishraqi (Illuminationists) school of philosophy. Prof. Osman Bakar’sClassification of Knowledge in Islam is the first work of its kind in the English language and is based on extensive scholarships and reference to the original texts.

Professor Dato’ Dr Osman Bakar is Vice Chancellor (Academic) of the University of Malaya, Malaysia and an authority on Islamic science. He has published several books both in English and in Malay.

‘This book must be considered as an important contribution to a better understanding of certain significant aspects of classical Islamic thought. The work is also an important contribution to the Islamic philosophy of science...’
From the Foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Book Extract:
Al-Farabi’s Psychology In Its Relation To The Hierarchy Of The Sciences

2.1-The idea of the Unity and Hierarchy of the Sciences
No proper, in-depth philosophical study of al-Farabi’s classification of the sciences, indeed of any worthy classification, is possible without a prior investigation into certain aspects of epistemology. This investigation must provide the philosophical basis of classification. It is only in the light of such an epistemological paradigm that we can unveil the true significance of why, for example, al-Farabi chose the scheme of classifying the sciences that he did, why a number of sciences in his day, such as alchemy and the interpretation of dreams, were excluded from his enumeration (although he wrote treatises on them), and why the religious sciences of jurisprudence (ilm al-fiqh) andkalam (dialectical theology) do not seem to occupy a central position in his classification. N. Rescher, in fact, treated theIhya al-ulum, the treatise in which the above classification is given, as one of al-Farabi’s important works on epistemology.
The most fundamental idea related to traditional epistemology to which al-Farabi fully subscribed is that of the unity and the hierarchy of the sciences. The profound relationship between this idea and traditional epistemology may be expressed by saying that in one sense the idea is the fruit of traditional inquiry into epistemology, while in another sense it is a basis of that inquiry. The former is true, use this idea results from the application of the doctrine ofTawhid(Unity of the divine principle) to the whole domain of human intelligence and its activities of thinking and knowing. In inquiring into the problem of how a person knows—that is, the methodology ofknowledge (al-ilm) in its most comprehensive sense one cannot but be confronted by the hierarchic nature and reality of the subjective and objective poles of knowledge. We are, in other words, confronted with the hierarchy of the faculties and powers of knowing within the human knowing subject and the world of beings that are knowable and known.
This hierarchy in both the microcosmic and macrocosmic orders of reality represents many manifestations of the divine principle. The idea of the hierarchy of the sciences, al-Farabi would say, is rooted in the nature of things. The sciences constitute a unity because, as will be explained in chapter three, their ultimate source is one, namely the divine intellect. This is true regardless of the intermediary agencies through which people may have acquired these sciences.
The idea of the unity and hierarchy of the sciences may also be regarded as a basis for traditional epistemology. This is true in a human society closely bound to revelation, like the society in which al-Farabi lived and thought. There, the idea of a hierarchy of reality is very much alive. Thanks to the teaching of revelation, that idea is accepted as an axiomatic philosophical truth. It is evident that the idea of hierarchy is rooted in Islamic revelation from the following teachings of the Qur’an andhadiths.First, the Qur’anic verses themselves are of various grades in respect of value although all of them are believed to be of divine origin This is because they deal with different levels of reality.
The celebrated Verse of the Throne (ayat al-kursi)was described by the Prophet as the chief (sayyidah)of the Qur’anic verses. As explained by al-Ghazzali, the reason for this is that the verse is exclusively “concerned with the divine essence, attributes and works” and that “it contains nothing other than these.” Moreover, according to another prophetichadith,the greatest divine name (al-ism al-a’zam)lies in the Verse of he Throne. The Prophet also said that the Chapter of Sincerity or Purity (Surat al-ikhlas),which is made up of four short verses, equals one third of the Qur’an. The high position occupied by this chapter is due to the fact that it concerns knowledge of theHaqiqahor the divine reality, which is the most excellent of the three fundamental forms or levels of knowledge contained in the Qur’an. The other two divisions of the Qur’anic verses deal respectively with theTariqahand theShari’ah, both which reflect theHaqiqahat their own levels. TheTaflqah, the esoteric spiritual path to God, is the qualitative and vertical extension of theShari’ah,the divine law which is the general path to God.
The scriptural evidence cited above indicates that the hierarchic structure of the Qur’an reflects the structure of objective reality. There are, however, numerous verses which refer directly to the hierarchy of creation. These speak of the tripartite division of the verse into the heavens, the earth, and the intermediate world. There is also the lower heaven and the higher angelic world which is nearer to God. Angels, according to both the Qur’an andhadiths,have been created by God with different ranks. Revelation also teaches that both Paradise and Hell are characterized by degrees.
One finds numerous references in the Qur’an andhadithsto the idea of degrees of intellectual and spiritual realization or the subjective experience of reality. We have, for example, a hierarchy of believers and knowers, as testified by the following verse: “God raises in degrees those of you who believe and those to whom knowledge is given. According to Ibn ‘Abbas (d.68/687-688), a companion of Prophet, the learned rank seven hundred grades above ordinary believers. There is, further, the hierarchy of witnesses of divine unity. Says the Qur’an: “God bears witness that there is no god but Him, and so do His angels and those endowed with knowledge standing firm on justice.” We may also mention here the three main categories or divisions of mankind after the Day of Judgment. In Qur’anic terminology, these are (1) those nearest to God (al­muqarrabun),(2)the Companions of the Right Hand (ashab al­maimanah),that is the righteous generally, and (3) the Companions of the Left Hand (ashab al-mashamah),those who will be placed in the abode of misery because they have rejected God and His Message or have led a wicked and sinful life.
The above references to the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions, although by no means exhaustive, are sufficient in our view for the purpose we have in mind, namely to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy is rooted in the Islamic revelation. Since the hierarchic structure of reality extends to all domains of cosmic manifestation, including the realm of human intelligence and cognition, its corollaries in these domains (one of which is the hierarchy of the sciences) are operative in most people’s minds when they deal with the ace of things in the cosmic order. Thus, in the second sense referred to earlier and in the way of looking at the genesis of philosophical and scientific concepts, al-Farabi’s inquiry into psychology represents no more than an attempt to give a rational dress to the metaphysical idea of the hierarchy of beings and of knowledge. Al-Farabi certainly did not discover the above metaphysical idea through the process of rational inquiry. Rather, this idea acts as one of the principal guides to that inquiry, while at the same time being confirmed by it.

Although the idea of hierarchy was generally accepted medieval Muslim thinkers, it was by no means conceptualized and understood in only one way. We may speak of the distinctly Farabian exposition of this idea. Accordingly, in the next three chapters, I deal with what I consider to be al-Farabi’s treatment a understanding of the specific idea of the unity and the hierarchy of sciences.

Guardians of the Sun Door
Late Iconographic Essays

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Including numerous illustrations in Coomaraswamy’s own hand

Fons Vitae Forthcoming Fall 2003

Coomaraswamy’s final un-published essays including:  The Iconography of Sagittarius, Philo’s Doctrine of the Cherubim, Concerning Sphinxes, and The Concept of Ether in Greek and Indian Cosmology.

Fons Vitae is honored to have been given the rights for the incomparable body of works by A.K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), “a cardinal figure in Twentieth-century art history and in the cultural confrontation between East and West,” (Princeton University Press Bollingen Series LXXXIX Vol. I, Coomaraswamy: Traditional Art and Symbolism, Vol. II,Coomaraswamy: Metaphysics, Vol. III,Coomaraswamy: His Life and Work). He was described by Heinrich Zimmer as “that noble scholar upon whose shoulder we are still standing.”

Born in Ceylon, educated in his mother’s homeland England, he became one of the world’s greatest art historians and scholars of traditional iconography. He served as curator in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts until his death, having been the first Oriental to make the meaning of oriental art understood in the West. He played an important role in the collection of Persian Art for the Freer in Washington, D.C. and the Boston Museum of Fine Art as well.
What made him one of the most qualified and gifted interpreters of traditional symbolism to have ever lived was his extensive knowledge, love, and understanding of our world’s diverse cultures, sacred scriptures, and languages. Coomaraswamy knew thirty-six languages, which meant for him that he had no need of a dictionary and knew that culture’s literature, poetry, and music. He once admitted, “I actually think in both Eastern and Christian terms—Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, and to some extent Persian and Chinese.” For this reason, he had access to the deepest levels of meaning to be found in language which made it possible for him to truly be able to interpret symbols and mythologies within the context of the literature and where they are found.

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