Applying the Prophetic Sunna to the Modern World – Interview with Sayyid Naquib Al-Attas –

Interview with Al-Attas: Applying Sunnah to The Modern World –

-Can we adapt to the modern world without destroying our tradition? How can we protect the authentic Islamic traditions today? How can the sunnah be applied today?
Is the sunnah (practices of the Prophet) not applied today? In other words, it is not possible to say that the sunnah is not applied today. It is applied. But I think we have to go back to learn about these people; we must go back to study the past, return to their books, and so on. Otherwise, how can people understand such things?

It is necessary that there be proper teachers, as the schools now do not give much information. Having proper teachers means having qualified people who know about the sunnah and who are close to the early traditions; even in the modern world we can dress like a modern man, but our mind must not be like this.

The important thing is to teach people, that is all. That is the only way to return to the tradition. Otherwise today, modern Muslims, particularly western-educated Muslims do not know, and they demand proof. They think that they are being rational, although they are not really being rational at all. Therefore, we have to counter all this by teaching all these things again.

We must teach them what is real, because they do not know. They do not know anything about Islam. I mean, here they are following the West. They think that Islam started in the 13th century and it is just a simple religion of merchants, and therefore rather out of date, rather ancient. But we should teach them the real history, bring it out and teach it. And by example we must also know that we have to be well acquainted with the West as well as Islam.

Look at how we get education now. We learn their thoughts, their philosophies, and we make critical analysis, we accept that some of what they say is the truth. Yes, and most of our scholars are uttering the truth; even if it was first said by an infidel, it is still the truth.

In Turkey you are doing the same thing. I think this is important. I think there is no other way. We have to teach slowly; this is what people did before. They came to the Hindus and Buddhists. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, even the rulers, became Muslim. Then after this, we cannot keep track of their numbers. But remember that because of what these people did, there are more than 200 million of people Muslim here. This is due to their work.

-Is an Islamization of knowledge possible?

Of course. But what do we mean by this? The Quran Islamized knowledge and the Arabs Islamized their knowledge through the language. In other words, the importance of language in Islamization is very important. That is why I think, although I am not sure, Ali Caksu’s paper raises such an important question; I read only the abstract but he asks if there is such a thing as the Islamic language it seems that he thinks that although there is no Islamic language, there is a Muslim language. Well, I do not agree with this.

What we mean by an Islamic language is the Muslim languages. But within the Muslim languages there are certain basic vocabulary items, key terms, that belong to the Quran and this is what is important. So, in this way Muslim languages become the Islamic language, even though they are different languages. The Turkish language is different from Persian, from Arabic, and from Malay languages. But within this there are certain words which are important links uniting them. This is what I call the Islamic language, this basic vocabulary. These words come from the revelation but they can be given different meanings, which is the cause of the confusion that exists today. And then they do not correlate with one another anymore. Thus, conflict arises.

-What kind of education policy should be followed?

The policy I think is to be acquainted with the West and Islam in addition to our own national, what is called ethical and cultural tradition. We must be familiar with the West, because without this knowledge it the unknown can only become a problem. That is why the modern day ulama cannot do anything; they do not understand the West. They may be acquainted with the law in Islam, but this is also not very profound.

Therefore the education system must be balanced with knowledge of Islam. Going back to the past, we cannot just stop at the former politicians. At least, the mind of people have begun to open, they have become new people. They are pleased that we opened things that they have not seen before.

As far as Islam and its interpretation are concerned, sometimes people might bring up certain questions that may cause problems. It might be better if we did not bother with these questions, or even the hadiths. To the modern mind it is not very beneficial to introduce our hadith, as from the point of view of the modern mind they are irrational or unacceptable. But, this is what they are doing now. We should put a stop to this.

What about hadiths that deal with science and with ethics? The hadiths of the Prophet are like the Quran. The hadith have been classified. But nobody does this today. Maybe one day someone will classify the hadith. There are hadiths of the Prophet concerned with science and which deal with metaphysics and profound philosophy. There is a hadith which says “O Allah, show me the things that really exist.” The Prophet is asking about metaphysical and philosophical ideas here. This kind of hadith cannot be classified. Thus, there are spiritual hadiths, legal hadiths, and historical hadiths. We must study them in this way.

-What kind of educational policies can the Islamic world develop in this new century? How can we attain a certain quality of education?

The only way is if the people who are teaching are really good scholars and the qualities they have are passed on to their students. So, in other words, they must be equipped with a knowledge of languages, apart from, of course, Arabic – the language of the Quran. That is, they must understand the Quran and the hadiths that were written in the past as well as their own language and European languages, depending on their fields. So, in other words, those who are studying medieval philosophy must know something about the medieval scholars who wrote in Latin, and the Greeks. Then they will be able to apply many of the things that they learn and analyze them. This is a quality education; anything else is no different from a factory.

-How should we introduce Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to our age?

That is a very important question. How should we introduce the Prophet to our time? Many talk about him when the subject is concerned with ethics. And yet those hadiths that are concerned with ethics are not mentioned. Even the Prophet himself is not mentioned. Even here, they talk about Allah, but not about Muhammad.

We must ensure that the knowledge of hadiths does not turn people against the Prophet. For example, if you are talking to women only, and you say that the Prophet said: “Women are crooked”, you should stress that this has to do with their rib bones. But if such a hadith were to spread among the people they would only blame the Prophet. Or they would say the hadith is false. That is why I think we should stop talking about such hadith. If somebody brings it up, we should not answer. Only by ignoring them can we stop such a problem. But bringing out hadiths that deal more with what we know to be our problems today is more important.

The emblem of my institute is the name of Prophet Muhammad.

The Islamic university uses the Quran. But the Quran cannot be used as an emblem. It is the word of God, and thus to fulfill the importance would be very difficult. In fact, it is a form of arrogance to think that one can do this. Thus, Prophet Muhammad should be the symbol of Islamic education and thought, because he is like us, a human being. There are some people who do not understand this and say that such universities are Islamic, and the Quran becomes nothing more than a simple sort of word.

The Quran itself talks about many things, about history, about science, about knowledge, about man, yet these people are not concerned with such things. They are only concerned with what politics to follow, even now they are mainly dealing with problems that are political; of course, one must encounter such problems. But how can we confront such problems if we do not know our own tradition and if we are not acquainted with the West or able to discuss such things in a dialogue.

I also realized that nobody has defined what they mean by the West. When I talk about the West I understand not so much the people and the place but rather the world view. This world view has evolved from the Greco, Roman, Judea, and Christian traditions and they have been fused together; in addition the pagan traditions of the European peoples has been added – the Celts, the Visigoths, Teutonic, and Germanic people. So, gradually this has produced a certain world view. This world view is constantly involved in a dynamic dialectic of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Then this synthesis has begun to turn again to thesis, and continues like this.
To sum up, this is what I mean by problematic. That is, we are saying that they have reached a synthesis and that there are no more theses to create an antithesis. Then they talk about secularization. The eternity of the world is a matter that is discussed; Einstein talked about whether God is still relevant today because he was an Aristotelian. He thought that God was only relevant at the beginning and that after that, the world was just left to evolve, so Einstein asked what God’s role today is. And his conclusion was that God had no more role. But our God is always active. It is not possible for Him not to have a role.