Man’s Indebtedness to Allah (exalted be He) – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Man’s Indebtedness to Allah (exalted be He)

by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

The following excerpt is from “Prolegemona to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam” by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas. In it, he challenges the modern portrayal of man as a rational agent with independent creative capabilities and powers. al-Attas uses several ayahs of the Qur’an to remind us that all human beings are created in a state of absolute neediness to Allah (exalted be He)- the one who is absolutely free from all needs.

The mere fact of existence places man in a state of debt the moment he is created. As Allah (exalted be He) is the Master, Creator, and Sustainer of the universe – man cannot utilize material things to repay this debt as he is not their proper owner. The only way man can ever repay his momentous debt to his Creator is by engaging in khidmah (service) to others and humbly submitting his very self to His pronouncements.


“How can the concept of being indebted be explained in the religious and spiritual context? – one may ask; what is the nature of the debt?, and to whom is the debt owed?

We answer that man is indebted to God, his Creator and provider, for bringing him into existence and maintaining him in existence. Man was once nothing and did not exist, and now he is.

‘Man We did create from a quintessence of clay;

Then We placed him as a drop of sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed;

Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood; then of that clot We made a lump; then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; than We developed out of it another creature. So blessed be God, the Best to create!’ [Qur’an 23:12-14]

The man who ponders seriously his origin will realize that a few decades ago he did not exist, and the whole of mankind now existing neither existed nor knew of their possible present existence. The same truth applies to all ages of man from the beginning of his existence in time.

So naturally he who ponders thus sincerely knows intuitively that his sense of being indebted for his creation and existence cannot really be directed to his parents, for he knows equally well that his parents too are subject to the same process by the same Creator and Provider.

Man does not himself cause his own growth and development from the state of a clot of congealed blood to the one that now stands mature and perfect. He knows that even in his mature and perfect state he is not able to create for himself his sense of sight or hearing or other – and let alone move himself in conscious growth and development in his helpless embryonic stage. Then again:

‘When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves (saying): “Am I not your Lord?” – they said: “Yea! We do testify!” [Qur’an 7:172]

The rightly guided man realizes that his very self, his soul, has already acknowledged God as his Lord, even before his existence as a man, so that such a man recognizes his Creator and Cherisher and Sustainer.

The nature of the debt of creation and existence is so tremendously total that man, the moment he is created and given existence, is already in a state of utter loss, for he possesses really nothing himself, seeing that everything about him and in him and from him is what the Creator owns Who owns everything. And this is the purpose of the words in the Holy Qur’an:

‘Verily man is in loss (khusr)…[Qur’an 103:14]

Seeing that he owns absolutely nothing to ‘repay’ his debt, except his own consciousness of the fact that he is himself the very substance of the debt, so must he ‘repay’ with himself, so must he ‘return’ himself to Him Who owns him absolutely. He is himself the debt to be returned to the Owner, and ‘returning the debt’ means to give himself up in service, or khidmah, to his Lord and Master; to abase himself before Him and so the rightly guided man sincerely and consciously enslaves himself for the sake of God in order to fulfill His commands and prohibitions and ordinances, and thus to live out the dictates of His law.”

[p 47 of “Prolegemona to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam” by Sayyid Muhammad Naquib al-Attas]


Sayyid Muhammad al-Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. (Source)

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