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Classification of Knowledge

in Islam
by Osman Bakar
A Book Review
Building upon the precision given by Aristotle and his early successors to the
notion of definition, the Muslim philosophical and theological traditions developed a very sophisticated system for the classification of the sciences. It is hard
to overemphasize the importance placed by the scholars of Muslim civilization
on the problem of classification. For example, when Ibn Sna pointed out that
he could not understand the Metaphysica of Aristotle even after reading it
forty times, his problem was not with the intricacies of the subject matter per
se, but rather with the proper classification of the subject matter at large,
something about which Aristotle himself was quite ambiguous. Thus Ibn Sna
says he only understood the Metaphysica after reading the commentary of alFarab, which precisely clarified the proper divisions of metaphysics and its
subject matter.
Classification of Knowledge in Islam by Osman Bakar (Islamic Texts Society, 1998) quite fittingly starts with a study of al-Farabs system of classification of the sciences. In addition to the Peripatetic tradition of classification
as represented by al-Farab, Bakar also considers two other figures and traditions: that of standard Sunni theology developed by al-Ghazzal, and that of
the burgeoning neo-scholasticism that evolved in the wake of the Mongol invasions and represented here by Qut.buddn al-Shraz. Altogether, this study
constitutes a major contribution to the understanding of how the classification
of knowledge fits into the traditional cosmological scheme as well as the role
that classification played in giving coherence to the Muslim education system.
One of Bakars main arguments is that, in traditional Muslim civilization,
there are two threads which are common to both theological and philosophical
approaches to knowledge and its classification:

The hierarchy and unity of the various branches of knowledge.

These two are set by adherence to three kinds of criteria:


Ontic, viz., classification of the subject matter per se of a given

science, and determining which sciences are superior to others;


Epistemic, viz., classification of the ways to knowing the subject

matter of a given science, and determining which method of knowing is superior with respect to that science;


Ethical, viz, the teleological place of each science with respect to

Man and his destiny;

The distinction between religion and philosophy.

Bakar points out that, despite their radical differences in the relative
merits of the two, both al-Farab the Aristotelian and al-Ghazzal the
apologetic theologian recognize a sharp difference between the purely
intellectual sciences and those based on revelation. Bakars study is especially important in his detailed comparisons and contrasts between the
systems of classification of these two scholars. He explores in detail the
struggles of al-Ghazzal to adopt the Farabian structure of classification
to the needs of the emerging mainstream symbiosis of Sunni and Sufi

The overwhelming majority (over 200 pages) of the book deals with the classification systems of al-Farab and al-Ghazzal in detail. In comparison, the
section on Qut.buddn al-Shraz appears to be an afterthought and is not
well-integrated into the rest of this study. Only 11 pages are devoted to
al-Shrazs system. The development of the science of classification in the
neo-scholasticism of the post-Mongol era, with detailed comparisons and contrast with the earlier systems could have been quite interesting. Bakar does
point out al-Shrazs efforts to bridge the classificational abyss separating the
religious and rational sciences. This is a manifestation of a general trend in
Muslim neo-scholasticism and could have been explored further. On the other
hand, the detailed study of al-Farab and al-Ghazzal alone is well worth the
price of admission.
The book design and production itself is satisfactory for the most part.
The use of Times New Roman without ligatures is unfortunate (look at the

fi in Classification on the inner title pages for example). Other typographical errors include a number of widows (paragraphs ending on the first line
of a page, e.g., pages 30 and 176). On the other hand, the overall organizational structure of the book is quite clear. Useful for beginning students of
the sciences of Muslim civilization are the excellently annotated biographical
synopses of each of the three selected authors.

Dr. Idris Samawi Hamid

Department of Philosophy
Colorado State University
July 27 2002