How do We Know? Summary of Lecture by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

(20th April 2013)Summary of Saturday Night Lecture (5th Session)



Being a summary of the CASIS Saturday Night Lecture by

Tan Sri Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

on Saturday, 20th April 2013

Corruptio optimi pessima.”

– Latin proverb

Knowledge is the light by which everything else is made manifest and ready for the correct and proper understanding by man. Therefore, true knowledge is most precious possession that can be entrusted to somebody else and its corruption gave rise to all sorts of evil that brings about misery, injustice and suffering upon the individual and ultimately to the rest of the society.

Professor Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas began his deliberations by drawing attention to the fact that the description of the methods and channels by which man obtains and secures knowledge – the five external senses, sound reason and true reports – has been incorporated as part of the creed of Islām (aqīda), therefore emphasizing the central role of true knowledge that grounds proper understanding and practice of the religion of Islām.

This is exemplified in such works such as the ‘Aqā’id of al-Nasafī, which was written by the Sunnī and Ḥanafī jurisconsult and theologian belonging to the school of al-Māturīdī, Abū Hafs ‘Umar Najm al-Dīn al-Nasafī (d. 1142 A.C.), and which is later commentated upon by the likes of Sa‘d al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī[1] (d. 1387/8 A.C.); the Malay translation of this work represents the oldest known Malay manuscript text now extant and contains the fundamental beliefs and faith of the Muslims based upon the essentials of the religion of Islām[2]. He explained that of the motivations behind such a work is to dispel errors and misinterpretations regarding the essentials of the religion, and to fortify the Muslims against erroneous matters that contradict the correct understanding and practice of Islām.

Professor al-Attas set forth the idea that knowledge can be corrupted as well as lost, and then proceeded to describe in a succinct fashion the three groups of people that corrupt knowledge[3]:

The first group consists of those who are ignorant, and this may come about simply due to the different levels of perception and understanding between two people regarding the same object of knowledge. This simple ignorance may be remedied through continual and patient instruction and clarification. However, the second kind of ignorance, what is known as compounded ignorance, is less amenable to rectification or illumination because the one who suffers from such ignorance are ignorant of being in such a state or condition. In other words, those who languish in a state of compounded ignorance are unaware that he is engulfed in ignorance; therefore any attempt by others to remove himself from such a state will be met with psychological opposition and intellectual inertia from that same person. It is evident that this second kind of ignorance is more harmful to correct understanding and true knowledge as compared with the first kind because the latter can serve as a conduit for misinformation and misinterpretation that can give rise to widespread confusion and error.

The second group consists of the extremists or those who are excessive in thought, utterance or action or those who exceed the proper and just limits in a particular situation, whether going far beyond or falling short of what is required of them. Professor al-Attas made the point that extremism vis-a-vis religion can manifest itself either first, through what is commonly called ‘religious fundamentalism’[4], a term which he disapproves when carelessly applied to the Muslims because as far as Islām is concerned, the fundamental implies that which has already been established, clearly and firmly, therefore requires no further ‘development’ or ‘improvement’ in order to attain completeness, maturity and perfection; or second, through a strident anti-religious attitude as exemplified and promoted by the secularists who seek to confine religion to the realm of the private and the personal. Both groups are extremists insofar as they militate against just order and limits, specifically in matters pertaining to the purpose, role and value of religion at the individual and societal levels. He also added that the popular and present usage of the term ‘fundamentalist’ is much colored by the assumptions based on the Western historical experience with Christianity, whose long history saw moral conflicts within the Church, cycles of violence and wars between the various sects in Christianity, rivalry between the Church and secular powers whether for political supremacy or intellectual authority, and the battle waged by the Church against residual pre-Christian pagan influences, heresies and superstitions.

According to Professor al-Attas, Muslim extremists in the history of Islām, such as the Kharijites[5], always tried to differentiate themselves with the rest of the Community in terms of their outward appearance, for instance by wearing distinctive clothing or by performing religious rites in an excessive way, be it in terms of quantity or intensity. Ironically, their unthinking inflexibility in their interpretation of Islām has placed unbearable strain upon capacity of the majority of Muslims to fulfill their religious duties. Such extreme attitudes, Professor al-Attas gravely adds, are Satanic in nature because these people have unknowingly make the religion unnecessarily difficult for the majority of the Muslims, which subsequently repels people from faithfully completing such duties. Concerning the secularists, he describes their attitude as constituting a response against the excesses on the part of those who practice Taṣawwuf. The true saints (awliyā’) are to be properly respected and venerated because of their knowledge of Realities and not exclusively because of their claims to supernatural powers or abilities, which he does not deny that some do possess and display. Indeed, it is their knowledge of Realities that determines their ranks amongst themselves and with respect to other groups of scholars or men of discernment in Islām. Professor al-Attas gave the example of Imām al-Ghazālī who occupies a higher rank compared to the ranks of other saints, scholars and men of discernment because firstly, both Muslims and non-Muslims benefited from his numerous works, and secondly, his works are still being read, referred to and commented upon until today.

The third group that corrupts knowledge consists of the plagiarists, or those who steal ideas from other people without giving due acknowledgement to its original proponent. A plain and obvious example of this particular tribe are those who hijacked the idea of the Islamization of Knowledge originally conceived by Professor al-Attas[6] and who later discovers that they have neither the competence nor the courage to develop the idea according to its original purpose and along its logical course, substituted the word ‘Islamization’ with ‘Islamicization’ as if to signify a new and improved ‘version’ of the idea of Islamization. Professor al-Attas denounced this vulgar mutilation of terms by pointing out that the word ‘Islamicization’ denotes an action that is more passive and primarily concerned with transforming the external aspects of the object of knowledge, as opposed to the word ‘Islamization’ which carries a more active and dynamic connotation, being focused upon changing the internal aspects of the object of knowledge so that it wholly conforms with the just order established and projected by the worldview of Islam. The crimes committed by the plagiarists are not just merely ethical or moral in nature, but has intellectual and social ramifications as well because the plagiarist who fails to correctly develop the idea further as intended by its original proponent, inevitably corrupts it by turning what is originally praiseworthy into something blameworthy, or worse into a falsehood, thus depriving the Muslim Community of true guidance and timely advice that can alert and equip them with the necessary knowledge and the correct strategies to face contemporary challenges. The original proponent, in contradistinction with the plagiarists, will not only be able to clearly define and state their ideas in the most suitable manner depending on the level of understanding of the audience being addressed, but more importantly, he will be able to prescribe the most appropriate course of action that ought to be taken according to the priorities and needs of the Muslim Community, and finally achieves it. In the hands of the plagiarists, these same will be reduced from being succinct statements of great profundity to slogans littered with ill-defined, vague and hollow words and phrases. The original proponents are like skilled divers who are capable of plumbing the depths of the ocean to seek and return the most precious pearls, whilst the plagiarists are content with watching the waves lazily lapping on the shore and quietly lie in wait to steal the recovered pearls from the possession of the divers.

Professor al-Attas continues with a brief exposition of adab by drawing upon the analogy of the Holy Qur’ān as a banquet of Allah S.W.T. on Earth[7]. A banquet, he reminds us, consists of guests seated at different places around the table according to their respective merits and ranks, and enjoying the prepared meal and the pleasant company of each other. This then implies that each guest have a different rank in the eyes of the host, who extends the invitation to them in recognition of their respective merits. It also implies that guests who partake in the banquet must observe a certain decorum that befits their respective stations and the expectation of the host. Therefore, knowledge of the correct and proper places is presupposed for both the host and the guest, and more importantly, this knowledge of right place must be manifested in right action. This act of putting oneself in the proper place in conformity with the requirements of the knowledge of the correct and proper places of things is adab, from which the condition of justice (‘adl) manifests. In short, adab is right action that is illuminated by the lantern of right knowledge and that results in a condition of justice. In this way, the connection between adab, knowledge, wisdom and justice has been established.

For instance, adab towards knowledge implies certain suitableness between the nature of the object of knowledge with the knowledge and ability of the knower. Professor al-Attas demonstrated an interesting application of this principle by stating that what can be painted by an artist is limited in the sense that not every idea that was inspired to him can be adequately represented in paintings for certain ideas require to be revealed clearly without ambiguity through the medium of language as opposed to through the medium of art. Therefore, an artist cannot claim that he wants to paint ma‘rifah (illuminative knowledge) as the representation of such a concept cannot be sufficiently captured on canvas; in fact it might even potentially mislead those who saw such a representation from the true and correct understanding of ma‘rifah. Therefore, adab in this instance demands that medium through which the representation of an object of knowledge is conveyed be made to ‘fit’ the nature of the object of knowledge, which presupposes in the artist a correct understanding of the nature of the represented subject as revealed by sound reason.

Adab towards nature implies a recognition and acknowledgement that God had originally created and bestowed everything in the natural world their due measure. The orderliness, uniformity and rationality in nature – what the Greeks called the cosmos[8] – bespeak of the Divine Intelligence that creates and orders everything into their proper places, and do not result from the manipulation or ‘improvement’ of nature by man the through technological means abetted by modern science. Indeed, it is not man that produces a cosmos out of a pre-existing chaos, but man, out of his ignorance, spreads chaos throughout the pre-established cosmos[9]. The natural law that governs natural phenomena are to be understood as God’s customary way of acting, which though is infinitely creative, at the same time displays a certain regularity and uniformity so as to make the natural world susceptible to systematic investigation and thus may be understood by the human mind[10].

Sensible data regarding the natural world that flows through the channel of the five external senses are subsequently passed on to the five internal senses, which Professor al-Attas carefully described and explained as consisting of the common sense, the representation, the estimation, the recollection-retentive and finally the imagination[11]:

The first of the internal senses is the common sense (al-ḥiss al-mushtarak) that is responsible for gathering, combining and separating the individual sensibilia that it receives from the five external senses. However, the common sense is unable to retain the data it receives – Professor al-Attas quoted an analogy employed by Ibn Sīnā by drawing a comparison of the action of the common sense with the in-ability of a seal to leave an impression upon water – and the function of recording of the sensible data received by the common sense is performed by the second internal sense called the representative faculty (al-khayāliyyah). This faculty holds and re-creates the form of the perceived object when it is no longer present to the external senses, and is divided into the sensitive imagination (al-mutakhayyal) and the cognitive or rational imagination (al-mufakkirah). The former deals with sensible experiences and is able to combine the sensibilia in such a way as to give pleasure to the senses and is productive of technical and artistic skills, for instance, responsible for the construction of mythologies and legends; the latter deals with non-sensible objects that has been abstracted or idealized so as to aid the intelligence in discovering the natural world, for instance in the conception of mathematical objects, such as a perfect triangle or an infinitely long line, or of theoretical entities in physics, such as a point electrical charge or a frictionless surface[12]. The third internal sense is the estimative faculty (al-wahmiyyah) that apprehends ideas and, without reasoning, makes the individual soul form right judgment. According to al-Ghazālī, the estimative faculty is the source of errors for the philosophers concerning their judgments over questions or antinomies such as the infinity of space and the eternity of time, both of which have been contradicted by recent discoveries in modern astronomical and cosmological researches. The function of the fourth internal sense, the retentive and recollective faculty (al-ḥafiẓah and al-dhākirah), with respect to the estimative faculty is analogous to that of the representative faculty with respect to the common sense i.e. just as the representative faculty preserves the form of the sensible data for the purpose of subsequent action by the common sense, the retentive and recollective faculty retains the individual and collective meanings attributed to the sensible data for the estimative faculty, thus permitting comparison of the newly perceived data with prior ideas and past experiences. Finally, the fifth internal sense is the imaginative faculty (al-mutakhayyilah) that is responsible for the process of perfect abstraction by removing all concomitant qualities from an idea, and thus apprehends its meaning as a universal idea.

Professor al-Attas continues his discussion on the channels of knowledge by next focusing on reason and intuition, and by stating that there exist two kinds of intuition: in the sense of sagacity (al-ḥads), and in the sense of illuminative experience (al-wijdān)[13]. The former pertains to the kinds of intuition that great men of science and learning attain in the moments of their decisive discoveries of laws and principles that govern the natural world and is manifested at the normal level of human consciousness in terms of discernment, quick understanding and profundity. The latter kind of intuition refers to the direct and immediate apprehension of religious truths and which culminates in the intuition of existence itself. Professor al-Attas adds that the lowest level of intuition is closer to instinct, therefore not a reliable source of knowledge for the majority of people. However, intuition can be a source of knowledge for one who has assiduously prepared himself in terms of knowledge, training and experience, as can be gleaned from historical accounts of inspirational discoveries made by the great men of science and learning, for instance that of the German chemist, Friedrich Kekule (d. 1896) who discovered the hexagonal structure of the benzene molecule after dreaming of six snakes seizing each other’s tail to form a six-sided structure[14]. With regards to the relationship between knowledge and the brain, Professor al-Attas asserts that knowledge does not originate from the physical brain because the brain is just an instrument of the soul and though various functions of the human brain deteriorates as a person increases in age, the sum knowledge acquired by the person throughout his entire life does not decrease with the same proportion.

The third channel through which knowledge is acquired, the true reports (khabar al-ṣādiq), are of two kinds according to whether the authority behind it is absolute or may be questioned by the methods of reason and experience[15]. The first refers to true reports brought by the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace!) whilst the second refers to true reports established by those whom reason cannot conceive that they would conspire on a falsehood. Professor al-Attas made a penetrating point by highlighting the fact that though both criteria of sanad (the sequence, number and continuity of the transmitters) and of mutawatir (the sequence, number and continuity of transmitters is unspecified, but the transmitted narration is significant in and of itself) are important in the assessing the truth and veracity of ḥadīth, the latter criterion carries a higher degree of authority compared to the former because it sets a stricter intellectual requirement in evaluating the credibility of the narrators or transmitters. Furthermore, he adds that the criterion of sanad is appropriate for ḥadīth pertaining to legal matters, which is employed as a basis for legal judgments in the socio-political sense, but is not necessarily suitable and applicable to other types of ḥadīth, such as those pertaining to philosophy, ethics and metaphysics, which is more personal in its scope and implication[16].

Having described the three channels through which knowledge is acquired and secured, and the three groups of people who corrupt knowledge, Professor al-Attas addressed the process by which corruption of knowledge is effected. He maintains that the corruption of knowledge occurs through the medium of language, specifically due to the restriction of key terms and concepts[17]. The corruption of religious scriptures by the Jews and Christians through their religious history and as recorded in the Holy Qur’ān is a clear example of how the deliberate manipulation of terms can cause the meanings projected by these terms to become opaque and distorted, thus impairing its ability to convey knowledge correctly and without ambiguity, hence productive of confusion and error. It follows therefore that translation is not simply a process of substituting one letter or word for another, but more importantly, a process of transferring meaning as scientifically as possible; what is aimed for is not a superficial integrity in terms of form or utterance, but the faithful and correct rendering of the meaning of the word or phrase[18]. Professor al-Attas highlighted the impeccable translation of the word ‘ilm by the Malay-Muslim scholars in the past who, through their translation, distinguished between what may be called ‘knowledge by description’ (‘ilmu pengetahuan) and ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ or illuminative knowledge (‘ilmu pengenalan), the former corresponding to the general meaning of the word ‘ilm or knowledge, whilst the latter is more closely associated in meaning with the word ma‘rifah or illuminative knowledge[19]. Such a careful translation successfully captures and preserves the meaningful distinction between the terms ‘ilm and ma‘rifah in the Arabic language, therefore secures it against potential confusion and deliberate misinterpretation.

Towards the end of the lecture, Professor al-Attas deftly introduces the subject of secularization by pointing out that secularization arises in Western Europe due to the profound disappointment of Western society with Christianity in the early modern period, which is punctuated by a series of revolts against the political, intellectual and moral authority of the Church[20]. The increasingly ‘rational’ mind of the Western man rebels strongly against certain key Christian concepts such as the Trinity, which its proponents tried to defend for instance by drawing an analogy between the three aspects in the Trinity with the relationship between a rose and its various attributes, its smell, its color, its texture etc. Professor al-Attas cleverly unmasked the error in this analogy in the following manner: Supposing that we have a rose free of all its attributes i.e. it has no color, no scent, no texture. Do we still then consider a rose free of its concomitant qualities a rose? If we reply in the negative, then it implies that rose is dependent upon its attributes. If this is equally true for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it follows that God is dependent upon the other aspects of the Trinity, therefore compromising His Absolute Oneness and His Absolute Majesty and Power. In short, it is difficult to square the doctrine of the Trinity with the monotheistic conception of God, and any attempt to force this equivalence is liable to be objected by sound reason[21].

A member of the audience raised the question “Can moral and political wisdom be taught?” after the lecture has ended. Professor al-Attas replied the fact that there is a science of ethics implies the existence of a body of knowledge concerning right conduct with principles and methods that can be approached, learnt and developed in a systematic fashion. He also adds that ethics as far as Islām is concerned is not merely a matter for philosophical speculation but is something normative and to be practiced by those who follow and advocate it. This normative conception of ethics, Professor al-Attas adds, is evident in the logical order of Aristotle’s works in ethical and political philosophies, in that the Nichomedean Ethics precedes the Politics, thus indicating the priority of the theoretical understanding of the former for the practical application of the latter. In addition, the term ‘adl (justice) being one of the names of Allah S.W.T.[22] establishes in a self-evident way the intimate connection between ethics and religion in Islām. However, the fact that ethics in Islām is part of the religious sciences does not mean that Muslims cannot justifiably profit and must reject what has been discussed by the ancient philosophers regarding moral and political philosophy, especially since some of the philosophic virtues are consonant with the virtues enjoined by the religion of Islām.

In light of what has been summarized above and given the political dissensions convulsing the nation, it is befitting to emphasize that true knowledge must be deployed to guide political decisions, primarily to re-state that the ultimate problem of politics is to devise a method to select and prepare the best to rule for the common good and permanent happiness, therefore re-establishing the primacy of the individual over the collective, which fortifies the certainty of a single individual towards the truth over and above the blind faith of the many. Ultimately, true and meaningful empowerment must be founded upon knowledge that is certain and true, out of which the change for the better can be made permanent, not just for our time but for the many generations to follow.

Prepared by:

Wan Mohd Aimran Wan Mohd Kamil PhD student at CASIS

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[1] Refer to Earl Edgar Elder, trans., A Commentary on the Creed of Islam Sad al-Din al-Taftaz Sa‘d al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī on the Creed of Najm al-Dīn al-Nasafī (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950).

[2] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Oldest Known Malay Manuscript: A 16th Century Translation of the ‘Aqā’id of al-Nasafī (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya, 1988).

[3] This classification is based on a hadith of the Holy Prophet (upon him be peace!) wherein he identified three groups of people that will corrupt knowledge and disrupt its proper transmission from one generation to the next as (i) those who exceed just and proper limits, (ii) those who make false claims upon knowledge, and (iii) those whose ignorance induces them to make erroneous interpretations. Refer to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 1939) vol. 1, pages 163-164.

[4] Refer to Henry Munson, ‘Fundamentalism, Ancient & Modern,’ in Daedalus, Summer 2003, pages 31-41, where he described fundamentalist movements as those which:

“…demand strict conformity to sacred scriptures and to a moral code ostensibly based on these scriptures. They are usually politically assertive, although they sometimes oscillate between periods of militancy and quiescence. They are fueled in large part by moral outrage at what their supporters see as violations of the laws of God. At the same time, such moral outrage is often meshed with nationalistic and social grievances.”

The problematic nature of the term ‘fundamentalism’ when applied to religious movements outside of its original Protestant meaning was also alluded to in this essay.

[5] Refer to Kate Chambers Seelye, trans., Al-Fark Bain al-Firak by Abu Mansur ‘Abdul Kahir ibn Tahir al-Baghdadi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1920), pages 74-115.

[6] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Concept of Education in Islam (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1980) for the original exposition of the concept of Islamization and its meaning and implications for a truly Islamic education. For further elaboration, refer to Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: An Exposition of the Concept of Islamization (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1998).

[7] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Concept of Education in Islam (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization), pages 23-25.

[8] Refer to Frederick Copplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pages 76-80.

[9] Ar-Rum (30): 41; Al-Baqarah (2): 11-12; al-A’raf (7): 56, 85.

[10] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and the Philosophy of Science (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1989), pages 20-21.

[11] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Nature of Man and The Psychology of the Human Soul (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1990), pages 9-16.

[12] Refer to Richard Blackwell, Discovery in the Physical Sciences (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), pages 21-22, for a brief discussion on both theoretical and practical importance of idealization in the proper formulation of a scientific hypothesis. He wrote:

“The overwhelming complexity of the universe requires such a process of simplification. Hence, in formulating a new hypothesis the scientist does not hesitate to idealize. Such hesitancy would result in paralysis.”

Compare this statement with Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization), pages 137-138, and Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Origin of the Malay Sha’ir (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa Pustaka, 1968), page 6, all of which disproves the oft-repeated allegation that the setting of limits necessarily restricts and retards intellectual inquiry.

[13] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and the Philosophy of Science (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization), pages 10-12, 16.

[14] Refer to P. B. Medawar, Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1969). I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Dr. Muhammad Zainiy Uthman for drawing my attention to this particular work.

[15] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and the Philosophy of Science (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization), pages 12-13.

[16] This point was also made by Professor Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud during one of his lectures for the subject ‘Worldview and Epistemic Frameworks’ at the Center for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization (CASIS) UTM in the 2012 winter term.

[17] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Concept of Education in Islam (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization), pages 33-38.

[18] Refer to Muhammad Zainiy Uthman, Pemikiran dan Pembinaan Tamadun: Transformasi Modal Insan ke Arah Negara Maju (Putrajaya: Jabatan Perdana Menteri, 2012), pages 45-52.

[19] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Risalah untuk Kaum Muslimin (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 2001), pages 52-56.

[20] Refer to Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1993), pages 15-48. The American historian and philosopher, Will Durant (d. 1981) summarized the conditions and achievements of the Medieval Church as follows:

“All in all, the picture we form of the medieval Latin Church is that of a complex organization doing its best, despite the human frailties of its adherents and leaders, to establish moral and social order, and to spread an uplifting and consoling faith, amid the wreckage of an old civilization and the passions of an adolescent society.”

Refer to Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4: The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), page 818.

[21] Refer for instance to Gabriel Said Reynolds & Samir Khalil Samir, trans., Critique of Christian Origins by ‘Abd al-Jabbar (Brigham Young University Press, 2010).