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

for the pdf version click here

for registration, click here

[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).

Preserving the Semantic Structure of Islamic Key Terms: al-Isfahani, Izutsu and al-Attas by Syamsuddin Arif

Study Questions for Understanding Works of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas – Adi Setia

Study Questions for Understanding Works of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas – Adi Setia

The following questions are taken from a midterm examination of an ethics course taught by Professor Adi Setia at the International Islamic University, Malaysia. They provide a useful companion to the books of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and have been cr0ss-posted here for those who wish to explore a deeper study of the ideas of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.

Part 1: Textual Understanding

This part tests your comprehension of selected sentences/passages from Professor al-Attas’s text, “Islam: The Concept of Religion and the Foundations of Ethics and Morality.” Give concise answers with one or two concrete, real-life examples to illustrate your point, and support your point by relevant quotations from Professor al-Attas’s text.

1. What is the nature of man’s indebtedness to God and how it is related to gratitude?

2. How does Professor al-Attas understand the verse “Verily man is in loss (khusr)…”?

3. What is the meaning of “real submission” and how is it related to ibadah, ikhtiyar and sense of purpose in life?

4. Explain the meaning of the statement: “The trust (amanah) refers to responsibility and freedom of the self to do justice to itself.”

5. How do man attain to freedom, and what is the difference between real freedom and pseudo-freedom?

6. What do change, development and progress refer to according to the Islamic viewpoint, and constrast it with the western secular viewpoint?

7. What is the physical and spiritual significance of trade (bartering, buying and selling)?

8. Why is the external structure or pattern of Muslim society not divided by the gap of generations such as we find prevalent in Western society?

9. How do individuals in Islamic society establish their identity and establish their ultimate destiny, and thus ariive at a correct understanding and experience of true happiness?

10. “Knowledge is not neutral, and can indeed be infused with a nature and content which masquerades as knowledge.” Elaborate on this statement.

Part 2: Intellectual Quiz

This part tests your creative, critical and analytical understanding certain key ethical ideas and concepts discussed so far in class. Again, give concise answers with at least one personal real-life examples.

1. Can an educated person be “ignorant”?

2. How do you differentiate between “normal” and “abnormal” conduct?

3. Clarify the statement: “Progress has meaning only when the goal is clear.”

4. What do you mean when you say, “I trust you”?

5. What is “responsibility”?

Part 3: Research Assignment

This part is to encourage to research into ethical issues so that you can clarify them and articulate your own stand in regard thereof. Choose only one research topic, preferably the one most related to your academic major. Write up your findings in essay form in not more than two or three pages.

1. Write a short critical, ethical analysis of the mainstream, western definition of economics as “the science that studies the allocation of scarce resources to meet unlimited human wants.”

2. Write a short critical essay to explore to what extent the University’s slogan “Garden of Knowledge and Virtue” is an accurate or inaccurate description of the reality of campus life.

3. The purpose of law is to serve justice. Write a short critical essay to highlight aspects of the Malaysian legal system and/or administration that fail to serve justice. Provide at least three real-life cases in point, and if possible provide solutions.

4. Write a short ethical critique of the concept of “economic growth,” from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

5. Write a short ethical critique of the notion of “knowledge economy,” from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

6. Write a short ethical critique of the proposition that the Government should be “pro business,” from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

7. Write a short ethical critique of the use of children in commercial advertisements, from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

8. Write a short ethical critique of western style “sex education,” from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

9. Write a short ethical critique of long distance learning by means of information and computer technology, from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

10. Write a short ethical critique of mobile phone companies’ advertisements that promote a lifestyle of endless chatter (“bual tanpa had”), from both the Islamic and Western perspectives.

11. Do a library and/or internet research on the concept and practice of “green architecture” and evaluate it from both the Islamic and western ethical viewpoints.

12. Do a library and/or internet research on the concept and practice of “green engineering” and “green chemistry” evaluate them from both the Islamic and western ethical viewpoints.

13. Do a library and/or internet research on the concept and practice of “organic agriculture” and evaluate it from both the Islamic and western ethical viewpoints.

14. Write a short essay exploring the extent to which “change, development and progress” in Malaysia or China or Dubai conforms or not conform to the Islamic understanding of “change, development and progress” as outlined by Professor al-Attas.

15. Malaysian law does not generally grants legal recognition for the customary land rights of the Orang Asli and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Explore this issue from both the Islamic and secular ethico-legal perspectives.

16. Among the five fundamental objectives of the Shari‘ah (Maqasid al-Shari‘ah), the objective of preservation of wealth (hifz al-mal) is placed last in fifth place. Why is that?

17. Do a library and/or internet research on the theme of “Islam & Ecology” or “Islam & the Environment” or “Animals in Islam,” and then write a short summary of the Islamic ethical attitude towards nature, and thereby determine to what extent this attitude is or is not reflected at IIUM campus.

18. Do a ethical analysis of the meaning of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) from both the Islamic and secular perspectives, and evaluate to what extent Malaysian do or do not realise in practce the principle of CSR.

19. Analyze and explore the concept of “intellectual integrity” from both the Islamic and secular perspectives, and evaluate to what extent this concept is or is not realized in practice at IIUM.

20. Do a library and/or internet research to determine to what extent Confucian ethics is or is not compatible with Islamic ethics.

21. Do a library and/or internet research to determine to what extent utilitarian ethics is or is not compatible with Islamic ethics.

Revisiting “Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islām”

Revisiting “Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islām”

Prof Syed Naquib Al-Attas (seated) and Cikgu Abdullah of Dar al-Andalus of Singapore.

by Wan Ahmad Fayhsal

On the 18th of February 2012, Assembly of Intellectual Muslim (HAKIM) have sent six of their members to a lecture organized by Dar al-Andalus, Suffah Study Circle of Singapore at Orchard Parade Hotel. The lecture entitled “The Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islām” was delivered none other than Malaysian-based scholar, the honourable Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas.

Right from the start, Prof. Al-Attas had confined his lecture upon two questions raised with regard to the topic of meaning of happiness in Islām as he brilliantly wrote in a monograph and included as the second chapter of his magnum opus – Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam. He mentioned before this topic cannot be elaborated succinctly in 2 hours as it took him one whole semester at ISTAC before to lecture on this in detail and at length. He intended on that day to touch basic matters pertaining to the topic.

The first question touched upon whether is it necessary for the Muslim to understand the Western conception of tragedy before we could understand the meaning of happiness in Islām.

Prof. Al-Attas stressed that though it is not necessary to understand the Western conception of tragedy that flourished in their great works since the Iliad of Homer,Poetics of Aristotle, it is pertinent for the Muslims of today to understand the exact opposite of saʿādah as alluded in Qurʾān – which is shaqawāh rendered into English approximately equivalent of ‘great misfortune’, ‘misery’, ‘straitness of circumstance’, ‘distress’, ‘disquietude’, ‘despair’, ‘adversity’, ‘suffering’.

As explained by Prof. Al-Attas, the concept of shaqawāh is a genera (al-jins) to all other concepts that act as its differentiae (al-fuṣūl, sing. faṣl) such as:

  1. khawf – fear, of the unknown, of utter solitude and incommunicability, of death and what lies beyond, a forebonding of municabililty, of death and what lies beyond, a forebonding of dread, angst.
  2. ḥuzn – grief, sorrow, sadness, roughness of soul
  3. ḍank – narrowness, straitened, misery in the soul and in the intellect rendered incapable of fathoming something causing agitation of doubt in the heart.
  4. ḥasrat – profound grief and regret for something gone and never to be experienced again, such as when referring to the hereafter the exceedingly keen grief and regret of the man who turns away from God and spends his life in self-waste when discovers after death how he has lost his soul and bitterly laments the impossibility of a return to worldly life to make amends.
  5. ḍīq – straintened, of heart and mind, constrained
  6. hamm – disquietude, anxiety, distress of heart and mind due to fear of impending calamity or harm.
  7. ghamm – same as hamm, only that the harm that is feared would come has come, so that it becomes anguish.
  8. ʿusr – hard, difficult and unpleasant of circumstances

It is by understanding what Qurʿān rendered as shaqawāh can we deduce the similarities that exist in Western conception as tragedy as Prof. Al-Attas said, even they themselves – the Greek of Antiquity, formulated such concepts from their interfacing with religion, especially with Judaism where they existed in small number in the city states of Athens.

The opposite of happiness in English that closely resembles shaqawāh as its genera is ‘misery’ – covering the whole dimension of human secular-life. Always in state of flux, changing. As understood in general by the Western people, especially the philosophers, this happiness is all the time like a psychological feeling or emotion that has beginning and ending. These early thinkers thought that this happiness couldn’t be found and attain. It could be only momentary – sometimes it feels sad, sometimes it feels happy. They think that happiness refers to this world and by doing so they found this in constant state of changing. That sort of happiness is the animal-type of happiness – of al-nafs al-ḥāyawāniyyah.

Because of that these philosophers, thinkers thought that they the Western people can never attain the permanent-type of happiness. Contrary to Islām, as projected in Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth, there is another level of happiness in which if we attain to that it become permanent. Happiness or its Qurʾānic equivalent of saʿādah refers to spiritual realm not just in secular realm.

Prof. Al-Attas pointed out to a very important verse in surah Al-ʾAṣr where the word khusrmeans ‘utter loss’ or in Bahasa Melayu means ‘rugi yang habis-habisan’. This of course will be an exception to those who who have īmān and do righteous deeds, enjoin one another to the Truth and to patience (103:2) as they will not be in state of utter loss.

Muslim in the world today, said Prof. Al-Attas, are using this term ‘tragedy’ and think that it is a play of theatrical sense. The play according to Prof. Al-Attas is imitating something real that is happening within the humankind. Though the idea of tragedy is not unique to Western civilization only, it is they – the Westerners – that through their philosophers and thinkers systematized the concept of tragedy in their writings and gradually being disseminated through their literature, arts until today in the form of pop-culture.

The tragic play is viewed in 3 Acts:

  • Act 1: The hero in the state of ‘utter of happiness’ – in the garden of Eden.
  • Act 2: The hero has an enemy, plotting against him because of lack of insight he made a mistake because being tempted, he felt from that part to the state of conflict, disagreement.
  • Act 3: Discovery of something terrible – in state of confusion on what is the truth, what is right and what is wrong. In case of tragedy the truth is something terrible.

The Westerners, according to Prof. Al-Attas derived the very definition of tragedy from Aristotle. Though we might not totally agree with Aristotle, our concern as Muslim is to probe where did Aristotle get this idea from – to make this definition of tragedy. Prof. Al-Attas proven that – as elucidated earlier – Aristotle got this idea from tanzīl, from what was revealed from Prophet Moses (pbuh) because the Jews were already found living in Athens in those days. The Jews who were the one talking about the One God in which Aristotle – although a pagan himself – writing intellectually about the One God. The definition of tragedy must also be known form the Jews through the Biblical story of the descent of Prophet Adam (pbuh), the father of Mankind.

In the Biblical version, the descent is rather interpreted as a ‘fall’ but in Islam, the understanding of this story as revealed in Qurʾān is totally opposite to the former. Prophet Adam (pbuh) knew the very fact of his descent on Earth is not laden with extreme guilt and hopelessness and rendered it as a punishment (in which from the former version where the Christians took this as an idea of “Original Sin”) but in contrary as stated in Qurʾān Prophet Adam and his consort Siti Hawa admitted their sin and were already forgiven by God after the descent. God even promised them and his progeny guidance that would come from Him and whomever follows His guidance will not go astray nor fall into misery as expressed in Qurʾānic verses of (7: 19-25), (20: 117-124), (7: 72).

The Second Act projected the archetype of ‘The Fall’ in which the tragic hero along with his progeny is succumb and condemn to life full of conflict and misery in this terrestrial realm. Modern psychologist evoked many examples from Greek literature and mythology to describe the condition of man as projected at this stage such as the myth of Sisyphus that took a new rendering in the 20th century in the work of Albert Camus, the French Absurdist.

Prof Al-Attas then continued explaining the method of katharsis – the purging of sin and of guilt from the soul or self. This idea of purging as stated in the Poetics of Aristotle is being done by the play itself. They will watch this kind of play that exhibited in the theatre with the view that by watching it as audiences will render their existential suffering as something ‘external’ to their personal experience – as something that they are not involved with. They will need to watch such play recurrently as the effect is always in temporal manner. According to Prof. Al-Attas, the West is incomparable to any other civilizations in developing such play. They have expanded such play into other forms of expression such as literature, music, and theatre – in which were imbued with tragic stories of philosophical kind.

Today we have confused ourselves by equating happiness with pleasure and amusement whereas in actual fact as explained by Prof. Al-Attas, the very meaning of happiness vis-à-vis misery occurred in the realm of our inner-self. The misery that imprinted upon our inner-self such as ‘doubt’ – ‘satu kesangsian yang tiada dapat mencapai suatu yang menetap, kekal, benar, mu’tamad, dan yang tiada dapat dinafikan lagi’ – is the real source of misery.

When they arrived at the Third Act, the Qurʾān stated that “for them is the terrible homecoming” (13:35). It is a homecoming because all of mankind come from the realm of the spirit and will be returning to that realm again. Islām taught us to overcome this misery by attaining tranquility of the soul – the stable and peaceful calmness of heart (ṭumaʾnīnah) in which this condition also refers to the tranquil soul (al-nafs al-muṭmaʾinnah).

Prof. Al-Attas explained that the verse “there is no fear, nor shall they grieve” (lā khawfun ʿalaihim wa lā hum yaḥzanūn -10:62) – the word khawf in that verse refers to the fear of the unknown, aloneness – incommunicable with anything in which Prof. Al-Attas elucidated further that even by just thinking about it alone will conjure the meaning of fear within us. True believers – Muslim and Muʾmin – can never be in that state of fear as there is always Allah SWT as commanded upon true believers to always remember Him in dhikr. The fear of aloneness will be dispelled through the act of remembrance upon Allah SWT as it is also a form of communication that bring peace and tranquility upon the true believers.

This communication through act of dhikr also connects true believers to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Dhikr as explained by Prof. Al-Attas is not mere remembrance but a consciousness that pre-supposes knowledge (maʾrifah) of the object to be remembered. Some people misconstrue this idea of remembrance when they refer to the verse of the Day of Covenant – mīthāq (7:172) as something that they have never remembered. Qurʾān reminded us with verse such as “thou shall not forget” (falā tansā – 87: 6) in which this should be understood – as clarified by Prof. Al-Attas – with respect to the mīthāq that brought about us into existence by Allah SWT in which we have recognized Him as our Lord. Only here – our existence in terrestrial realm that has exposed us to the forgetfulness and heedlessness that made us forget (on the Covenant).

The question of how to attain happiness will lead us upon the question of the need to possess faith (īmān) in order achieve that ṭumaʾnīnah (13: 28). According to Prof. Al-Attas, the very act of us affirmation in the Day of Covenant itself is an amānāh from God of His Lordship upon us – as His bondsmen. The word amānāh as alluded from this verse related as well to the infinitive noun of aminaamnu which means security freedom from fear. Even in the Bahasa Melayu we derived the concept of peace as aman from the same root as the Arabic amnu. Prof. Al-Attas further explained that by the fact of us havingīmān means the fulfillment of amānāh – with respect to the Day of the Covenant – that will lead the true believers about peace. This thing called īmān must not be understood in simplistic way as mere “we believe” but as something that God confides into us about Himself in which this ‘confiding into us’ as a secret thing that comes from Allah SWT. The Day of the Covenant stated that the children of Adam knew about His Lordship.

There are of course people who rejected īmān and be misguided that will lead them to the state of ‘utter loss’ – shaqawāh. In his tadabbur of Qurʾān, Prof. Al-Attas explained that there are many conjugated words related to shaqawāh such as shaqāyashqātashqā,ashqāal-ashqāshaqiyy, and shiqwah which denotes to the rejection of guidance from God – not the word ʿusr or iṣr. The word iṣr happen to all – both the believers and non-believers but shaqawāh only refers to the unbelievers – here and in the hereafter. The Prophets also suffered but they know themselves, the meaning and purpose of life and where are they heading so their suffering is not a kind of shaqawāh because they knew their stations (maqāmat).

Prof. Al-Attas stressed that attaining happiness is not an end in itself as the purpose of that is directed to God – love of God that directed to hereafter, related to self both body and soul that is not in the state of doubt. It is not necessary to understand the concept of tragedy as the one that must be understood by Muslim is the concept of shaqawāh. Only that the concept of tragedy that permeates in our contemporary life today through the dissemination of cultural influence from the West can be traced and understood from the Quranic concept of shaqawāh. Prof Al-Attas also criticized our intellectuals that harping upon the ideas of happiness that is not permanent. As if today you are happy and tomorrow you are not happy.

The second question is on the ways to study Prof. Al-Attas writings about happiness. In this he explained that we must know the language properly and not reading it like reading a newspaper. Prof. Al-Attas emphasized that when he wrote something he wrote them in extremely thoughtful and careful manner, in the selection of the words, in putting his thoughts into the paper. It cannot be read in a rush.

Prof. Al-Attas again warned us not to view the concept of akhlāq in simplistic way in which some of our ʿulamāʾ have became confused by reducing akhlāq into ‘social etiquette’. Nowadays, people no longer used the word ‘virtue’ (faḍilah) in English instead they used ‘values’. This according to Prof. Al-Attas happen due to the influence exerted by the economist, social scientist that displaced the concept of virtue from ethics and morality. Values are something we give, ascribed ourselves upon them but virtue is from Allah SWT, not a principle created by human.

Prof. Al-Attas alluded to this shift of semantics happening due to us – the Muslims – are flowing in the same stream that ‘another civilization’ has created, swimming in the fast current of change. This ‘another civilization’ that is dominating in the world today is none other than Western civilization that made freedom as a ‘belief’ in itself. The human rights itself is the result of deification of Man – where man himself is the measure of all things. Even in Bahasa Melayu already can be read people using the phrase ‘tanpa sempadan’ which is conceptually acting against the principle of knowledge that is bound by limits – the limits of truth on every object of knowledge. Without limits we cannot know. Even Allah SWT made us know him in limited way. Without limit everything will be doubtful. The very word ‘definition’ means ‘de – fine’ – to make fine until you cannot make it final.

Before ending his lecture, Prof. Al-Attas gave his humble tafsīr of the verses (2:17-20) where the subject of man in the verse is a metaphor to Modern civilization – always changing, not wanting to listen to the Truth. Entangling themselves with their concept of unlimited freedom and choices bringing only anxiety and doubt, which lead to misery in the sense of shaqawāh.

Before Departure at Changi Airport: HAKIM delegation with Suffah Study Circle of Singapore

In conjunction of the visit, HAKIM would like to extend utmost gratitude to our hosts – Dar al-Andalus and Suffah Study Circle of Singapore for the warmth treatment that we have received throughout our very short-stint there. We hope more fruitful cooperation can be extended from both sides in near future in supporting the mutual course of strengthening the authentic Islamic knowledge tradition especially among the youth.

Discovering the treasure that is Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

Discovering the treasure that is Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

Written by Sister Shagufta Pasta

In one of our sessions with Shaykh Faraz at the University of Toronto studying Imam Haddad’s Poem of Counsel, we were recommended to read Syed Muhammad al-Attas’s book “Islam and Secularism.” The pdf I had was a little difficult to read, but during the break my brother showed me how easy it is to read on the iPad, and alhamidullah, that has helped me start the text. And subhanAllah, it’s a gorgeous read! Yesterday I was reading a section of the book where the author speaks about the different meanings of the word deen, and though the section needs to be read in its entirety, there are a few passages I wanted to keep handy that I’ve included below. (Note: the capitalization and italics are from the original text).

On the connection between deen and madinah.

“It is I think extremely important to discern both the intimate and profoundly significant connection between the concept of din and that of madinah which derives from it, and the role of the Believers individually in relation to the former, and collectively in relation to the latter.

Considerable relevance must be seen in the significance of the change of name of the town once known as Yathrib to al-Madinah: the City – or more precisely Madinatu’l-Nabiy: the City of the Prophet – which occurred soon after the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!) made his historic Flight (hijrah) and settled there. The first Community of Believers was formed there at the time, and it was that Flight that marked the New Era in the history of mankind. We must see the fact that al-Madinah was so called and named because it was there that true din became realized for mankind. There the Believers enslaved themselves under the authority and jurisdiction of the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!), its dayyan*, there the realization of the debt to God took definite form and the approved manner and method of its repayment began to unfold. The City of the Prophet became the Place where true din was enacted under his authority and jurisdiction. We may further see that the City became, for the Community, the epitome of the socio-political order of Islam; and for the individual Believer it became by analogy, the symbol of the Believer’s body and physical being in which the rational soul, in emulation of him who may God bless and grant Peace!, exercises authority and just government.

*dayyan: judge, ruler, governor

~Syed Muhammed al-Attas, Islam and Secularism, p.53, footnote 42

On the meaning of being in a state of debt

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, seeking that everything about him and in him and from him is what the Creator owns Who owns everything. And this is the purport of the words in the Holy Quran:

Verily, man is in loss (khusrin). (103:2)

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 khidmahto 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. The concept of ‘return’ alluded to above is also evident in the conceptual structure of din, for it can and does mean, as I will elaborate in due course, a ‘return to man’s inherent nature’, the concept ‘nature’ referring to the spiritual and not altogether the physical aspect of man’s being. It must also be pointed out that in the words of the Holy Qu’ran:

‘By the heaven that hath rain’ (86:2)

the word interpreted as ‘rain’ is raj which means literally ‘return’. It is interpreted as rain because God returns it time and again, and it refers to good return in the sense of benefit, profit and gain. Raj is therefore used synonymously in this sense with rabah, meaning gain, which is the opposite of khusr, loss to which reference has already been made above. Now it is appropriate to mention here that one of the basic meanings ofdin which has not been explained above is recurrent rain, rain that returns again and again; and hence we perceive that din here, like such a rain, alludes to benefit and gain (rabah). When we say that in order to ‘repay’ his debt man must ‘return’ himself to God, his Owner, his ‘returning himself’ is like the returning rain, a gain onto him. And this is the meaning of the saying:

He who enslaves himself gains (rabiha whose infinitive noun is: rabah)

The expression ‘enslaves himself’ (dana nafsahu) means ‘gives himself up’ (in service) and hence also ‘returns himself’ (to his Owner) as explained. The same meaning is expressed in the words of the Holy Prophet may God bless him and grant him Peace!:

“The intelligent one is he who enslaves himself (dana nafsahu) and works for that which will be after death.

p.56-59, Islam and Secularism.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Interviews Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf with Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf interviews Professor Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas.

From the MBC program: Rihla with Hamza Yusuf.

Syed Muhammad al Naquib bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Muhsin al Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is one of the few contemporary scholars who is thoroughly rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences and who is equally competent in theology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, and literature. He is considered to be the pioneer in proposing the idea of Islamization of knowledge.

See also:

The Concept of Religion by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

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

Who is Muhammad (God bless him and grant him peace)? – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

The Forgetfulness of Man – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas – Allahcentric Blog

The Loss of Adab, The Corruption of Knowledge, and The Moral Dislocation of the Muslim World (Sayyid Naquib al-Attas) – Allahcentric Blog

The Loss of Adab, The Corruption of Knowledge, and The Moral Dislocation of the Muslim World (Sayyid Naquib al-Attas) – Allahcentric Blog

Thanks to Khurram Zaman for sharing this. Reblogged from Allahcentric Blog.

The Loss of Adab, The Corruption of Knowledge, and The Moral Dislocation of the Muslim World

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Welcome Address by Professor  Naquib al-Attas

Your Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom Of Jordan, Distinguished Scholars, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

1.      It is indeed a great pleasure and honour for me on behalf of the  International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), to welcome you who have journeyed from all over the world to gather in conference with us here to celebrate the lasting legacy of this brilliant star in the firmament of Islamic thought, one who is among the greatest in the galaxy of Muslim luminaries.

2.      He was a man gifted with wisdom and adorned with authentic knowledge.  The illumination radiating from his sagacious intellect shed the light that separated and distinguished the true from the false, the real from the illusory, the genuine from the counterfeit.  His contributions in the spiritual and intellectual domains of religion, in the realms of Islamic thought and civilization as a whole, are of such magnitude as to be recognized and acknowledged by a knowing and grateful Community throughout the ages.  He lived at a time of great religious and intellectual upheaval brought about by the challenges of an alien worldview surreptitiously introduced into Muslim thought and belief by Muslim philosophers and their followers, as well as by religious deviationists of many sorts.  Ours is also a time fraught with similar challenges posed by the secular modern Western philosophy and science, its technology and ideology which seek to encroach on our values, our modes of conduct, our thought and belief, our way of life, in order to bring about radical changes congenial to the secular worldview.  Even though  our present predicament is more serious, widespread and profoundly urgent in nature than that encountered by al-GhazÂali in  his time, yet the lesson he taught and the remedy he indicated are eminently relevant.

3.      The rise of the modernist movement, whose leaders were from among the ‘ulama’ of  less authoritative worth, heralded not so much the emergence of a Muslim religious and intellectual awakening and sobriety; it marked rather the beginnings of a widespread and systematic undermining of past scholarship and its intellectual and religious authority and leadership, leaving us to inherit today a legacy of cultural, intellectual and religious confusion.  They and their imitators and followers among traditionalist ‘ulama’, and scholars and intellectuals who derive inspiration mainly from the West, are responsible for what I have called the disintegration of adab, which is the effect of the corruption of the knowledge of IslÂm and the worldview projected by it, and for the emergence in our midst  of false leaders in all fields due to the loss of the capacity and ability to recognize and acknowledge authentic authority.  Because of the intellectual anarchy that characterizes this situation,  the common people become determiners of intellectual decisions and are raised to the level of authority on matters of knowledge.  Authentic definitions become undone and in their stead we are left with vagueness and contradictions.  The inability to define; to identify and isolate problems; to provide for right solutions; the creation of pseudo-problems; the reduction of problems to mere political, socio-economic and legal factors become evident.  Pretenders abound, effecting great mischief by debasing values, imposing upon the ignorant, and encouraging the rise of mediocrity.  It is not surprising if such a situation provides a fertile breeding ground for the emergence of deviationists and extremists of many kinds who make ignorance their capital.

4.      It is with the rise of oriental studies aligned to colonial ideology that we first find al-GhazÂali being insinuated as the efficient cause of Muslim intellectual stagnancy that gradually set in over the centuries after he dealt a fatal blow to Greek philosophy.  We can understand their antipathy towards al-GhazÂali seeing that in Western cultural history every chapter, be it of logic, of science, of art, of politics and even of theology begins with the Greeks.  Greek philosophy is the very acme of all thought, the consummate personification of reason itself!  Western religious and orientalist thought, their scholarship and even their science have always laboured against the Christian background of the problem of God: the problem of the discord between revelation and reason, which is not a problem in IslÂm.  Their claim that everything philosophical in IslÂm is taken from the Greeks is far-fetched and must be rejected.  They do not see that many fundamental ideas in Greek philosophy itself were taken by their philosophers from revealed religion or revelation, or to use ibn Rushd’s words –something resembling revelation”; these ideas did not originate from their intellects or from reason alone without the aid of revelation.  This is why Muslim philosophers, theologians and metaphysicians did not reject everything Greek in their thought, for a great many things the Greek philosophers said in metaphysical, ethical and political matters they also found already expressed in the Qur’Ân.  Al-KindŒ’s remark in the book addressed to al-Mu‘ta?im that he wanted to complete what the Greek philosophers did not fully express points to the fact that the Muslim thinkers did not look upon the Greek philosophers from the position of imitators; on the contrary, even though they respected them for their rational endeavour and achievements, they at the same time saw their errors and inadequacy in arriving at knowledge about the ultimate nature of reality through the effort of reason alone.  In fact the failure of the rational endeavour of Greek philosophy to arrive at truth and certainty in knowledge about the ultimate nature of reality is proof enough for those with understanding that reason alone without the aid of revelation cannot attain to such knowledge.  It ought to be clear that al-GhazÂali’s attack on the philosophers, both the Greek and the Muslim, was not aimed at philosophy as such, that is as ?ikmah, because ?ikmah as revealed in the Qur’Ân is God’s gift; and ?ikmah is what I think ibn Rushd meant when he referred to –something resembling revelation” in his Fa?l al-MaqÂl.  The application of reason with wisdom, not only in religion but in philosophy and the sciences is commendable.  It is significant to note that in the Qur’Ân the major Prophets were not only given the Book, that is al-kitÂb, but also the Wisdom, that is al-?ikmah, which I think explains our accord between revelation and reason.  What al-GhazÂali attacked was the metaphysical and religious theories of the Greek philosophers, and their belief and the claim of the Muslim philosophers with regard to the primacy of the intellect as the sole guide to knowledge of the ultimate reality.

5.      But the modernist Muslim thinkers and their followers and those of like mind became captive to the subtle deception of orientalist scholarship and echoed their insinuations, and they blamed al-GhazÂali for the degeneration of Muslim thought and action even to this day.  They include not only Arabs, Turks and Persians, but other thinkers from the Indian subcontinent notably Iqbal who was very much influenced by Western Christian problems of religion and philosophy and confused them with those of IslÂm and the Muslims.  They set ibn Taymiyyah up as the relevant leader to emulate and reflected in their thought and action the same contentiousness and contradictions.  They failed to see that if al-Ghazali had not existed it would have been impossible for ibn Taymiyyah to engage the Greek philosophers and confront the Muslim philosophers, for a great deal of what the Hanbalite knew of logic and effective methodology was derived from the lesson taught and demonstrated by al-GhazÂali.  It was in fact ibn Taymiyyah who lashed at logic, denounced definition, stifled syllogism, attacked analogical reasoning, so that if we are looking for someone to blame for the degeneration of Muslim thought and action – although there are other causes for that – then surely ibn Taymiyyah’s influence is a major cause of our present intellectual confusion.  That is why the inability to define; to identify and isolate problems; to provide for right solutions; the creation of pseudo-problems; the reduction of problems to mere political, socio-economic and legal factors become evident today.  Ibn Taymiyyah’s influence is also evident in the reduction of knowledge and correct perception of IslÂm and the worldview projected by it to merely its ritual and legal aspects.  In this way the meaning of ‘ibÂdah has become restricted because the fundamental knowledge obligatory for all Muslims, that is the farÇ ‘ayn, has been reduced to its bare ritual and legal essentials and made static in fixity at the level of immaturity.  The intellectual and cognitive aspects of the farÇ ‘ayn, that render right balance in ‘ibÂdah which requires them in order to reach full maturity, have been neglected.  The restriction of the meaning of ‘amal or activity to its physical aspects follows and leads to the kind of activism that is productive of social, political and legal unrest and narrow-mindedness.  The modernists and their followers must see that the activism urged in the activity of ‘ibÂdah is not merely a physical one but also, in addition to that, an intellectual one.  The intellectual activism I mean is not of the modernist kind, and is not to be confused with Iqbal’s notion of the search for rational foundations in IslÂm.  The need for a rational foundation in religion was made to be felt by intellectually westernized modernists who unwittingly got themselves involved in the Western scholastic and intellectual context of problems related to their religion.  Religion according to us is not, on its doctrinal side, merely –a system of general truths” as defined by Iqbal echoing Whitehead and later adopted by Fazlur Rahman; a system of general truths whose specifics –must not remain unsettled”.  That was Whitehead’s understanding of what religion is based solely on his experience and reflection of his own religion.  There is no reason why such a ‘definition’ of religion must be applied to IslÂm.  Moreover, IslÂm does not need, on its doctrinal side, a rational foundation because a rational foundation is already built into the very foundation of the religion and the worldview it projects.

6.      Then again, encouraged by charges of inconsistency and even contradictions in al-GhazÂali by ibn Rushd followed by ibn Taymiyyah, orientalist scholars and their modernist disciples among whom was the late Fazlur Rahman have made al-GhazÂali out to be some sort of scholastic enigma.  Their failure to assign to him a definite place in their minds have made them brand him as a difficult and even deceptive thinker.  Was he really a theologian masquerading as a philosopher?, was he Ash‘arite and yet a —äfŒ at the same time? – and so they insisted on forcing their either/or attitude on one who defied such neat compartmentalization.  Yet their unfair charges of inconsistency and contradictions have never been conclusively proven nor demonstrated to be true!  Why should a man like al-GhazÂali not be philosopher, theologian, Ash‘arite and —äfŒ at the same time without being inconsistent or being involved in contradictions?  Indeed to Muslims generally al-GhazÂali is the embodiment of a synthesis of religion and philosophy, a synthesis whose great and beneficial value is acknowledged by the various intellectual levels of the Community.  But to those who preoccupy themselves with philological exercises, textual criticisms, incessant research to determine conceptual origins, they only speak to themselves among themselves in their academic circles, and are oblivious or incapable of relating GhazÂali’s ideas to the solution of modern problems.  One is reminded of the story of the elephant and the four blind pundits.  Since they could not see with their eyes they had to grope with their hands to feel and describe to their imagination the creature that stood before them. One stroked its leg and declared: –This creature is a pillar;” –No!,” said another who grasped its twisting trunk:  –It is a big snake;” the third disagreed as he groped its broad back saying:  –It is a throne;” –You are all in error,” the last one contended feeling the huge ear: –It is indeed a carpet!”. Afterwards they each wrote learned books disputing the other and affirming their own imaginary vision of the creature to be the true one.

7.      The problem of the corruption of knowledge has come about due to our own state of confusion as well as influences coming from the philosophy, science, and ideology of modern Western culture and civilization.  Intellectual confusion emerged as a result of changes and restriction in the meaning of key terms that project the worldview derived from Revelation.  The repercussions arising from this intellectual confusion manifest themselves in moral and cultural dislocation, which is symptomatic of the degeneration of religious knowledge, faith, and values.  The changes and restriction in the meaning of such key terms occur due to the spread of secularization as a philosophical programwhich holds sway over hearts and minds enmeshed in the crisis of truth and the crisis of identity.  These crises, in turn, have become actualized as a result of a secularized system of education that causes deviations, if not severance, from historical roots that have been firmly established by our wise and illustrious predecessors upon foundations vitalized by religion.  One must see that the kind of problem confronting us is of such a profound nature as to embrace all the fundamental elements of our worldview that cannot simply be resolved by groping in the labyrinths of legalism and struggling in the socio-political arena of activism which throbs in the veins of Muslim modernism.

8.      A most important and original idea of al-GhazÂali that orientalist and Muslim scholars have not given the attention it deserves, due to the fact that they have failed to discover it and to realize its novelty and its great significance for our time, is the idea of how semantic change and restriction in the Islamic key terms pertaining to knowledge in a science that is considered as praiseworthy renders the science to become blameworthy; and this will ultimately bring about confusion and corruption in knowledge.  This is because the key terms in the basic vocabulary of the Islamic language serve a conceptual network of interrelated fields of meaning which ultimately project in the Muslim mind the worldview they are meant to describe.  Al-GhazÂali pointed out in the I?yÂ’ that even in his time key terms such as fiqh, ‘ilm, taw?Œd, dhikr, and ?ikmah have been tampered with by change and restriction in their original and authentic meanings.  Similarly in the TahÂfut he demonstrated that the philosophers have changed the original and authentic meaning of the important concepts conveyed by the terms fi‘l and f‘il to suit their own ideas which contradict the teachings of IslÂm with respect to the nature of God and of creation.  We see that if even a few of Islamic key terms were changed or restricted in their meanings, or were made to convey meanings which are not authentic and authoritative – by which I mean whose intentions no longer reflect those correctly understood by the early Muslims – then this would inevitably create confusion and error in the minds of Muslims and disrupt intellectual and spiritual unity among them.  Moreover, it would render sciences once considered praiseworthy to become blameworthy.  Unity has two aspects: the outward, external unity manifested in society as communal and national solidarity; and the inward, internal unity of ideas and mind revealed in intellectual and spiritual coherence that encompasses realms beyond communal and national boundaries.  Understanding pertains to the second aspect, which is fundamental to the realization of the first. The coherence of this second aspect depends upon the soundness and integrity of concepts in language, the instrument of reason which influences its users.  If the soundness and integrity of concepts in language is confused, then this is due to a confusion in worldview caused by the corruption of knowledge.  I am not here suggesting something that may be construed as not allowing language to develop, to unfold itself according to its potential powers of tracing the rich tapestry of life as it unfolds, to evolve with ideas as they evolve, to grasp reality-truth as it manifests itself in the fleeting passage of time.  I am only suggesting, deriving from the lesson al-GhazÂali taught, that the basic vocabulary in the Islamic language can only develop from its roots, and not severed from them, nor can they develop from roots stunted in restriction.  Secular and materialistic value systems have their initial locus in minds, then they are translated into linguistic symbols, and afterwards become manifest in the external world first in urban areas whence they spread like a raging contagion to the rural masses.  The problem related to language and semantic change is not simply a matter of language as such, but a matter of worldview.  Semantic confusion as a result of misapplication of terms denoting key concepts in the Islamic basic vocabulary does adversely affect Muslim perception of the worldview of IslÂm which is projected by both al-kitÂb wa al-?ikmah.

9.      In the languages of Muslim peoples including Arabic, there is a basic vocabulary consisting of key terms which govern the interpretation of the Islamic vision of reality and truth and which project in the Muslim mind the worldview of IslÂm in correct perspective.  Because the words that comprise this basic vocabulary have their origins in the Qur’Ân and in the Prophetic Traditions, these words are naturally in Arabic and are deployed uniformly in all Muslim languages reflecting the intellectual and spiritual unity of Muslims throughout the world.  This basic vocabulary is composed of key terms denoting important concepts related to one another meaningfully and altogether determining the conceptual structure of reality and existence projected by them in conformity with the Qur’Ân.  Language reflects ontology.  Introducing key concepts foreign to a language involves not merely the translating of words, but more profoundly the translating of symbolic forms belonging to the super system of a foreign worldview not compatible with the worldview projected by the language into which such concepts are introduced.  Those responsible for introducing them and advocating their currency are the scholars, academics, journalists, critics, politicians and amateurs not firmly grounded upon knowledge of the essentials of religion and its vision of reality and truth.  One of the main causes for the emergence of intellectual confusion and anarchy is the changes and restrictions which they have effected in the meanings of key terms that project the worldview of IslÂm which is derived from Revelation.

10.  But the modernist thinkers and their immediate disciples and later followers which include some traditionalists ignored authentic and authoritative usage of Quranic Arabic and violated its etymological principles in order to introduce foreign meanings in the key terms involving changes and restrictions which run counter to their original intentions and which displace their purpose in the conceptual structure of the worldview of IslÂm.  Respecting interpretation of the Qur’Ân, from which a new form of Arabic is derived, they have consistently advocated hermeneutic methods whose character depended largely upon learned conjecture and subjective speculation and the notion of historical relativism.  They are unaware that Muslims are now being confronted by the same challenges as in the past, albeit more intensive and of greater magnitude, in having to grapple with foreign concepts and to find suitable words and terms to denote them without violating the etymological and semantic structure of Arabic words and terms and displacing their purpose in the Islamic conceptual system.  In their haste to assimilate foreign concepts without understanding that they serve a different perception of reality and of truth, and unaware of their own perception of worldview, the modernist thinkers and intellectuals have introduced into current Muslim thought and linguistic usage rampant confusion.  Their tampering of important terminologies belonging to the conceptual system which depicts the worldview of IslÂm is made widespread by being disseminated in their translations and interpretations of foreign terms and concepts in dictionaries of modern Arabic, in Arabic dictionaries of the various sciences, in modernist writings in Arabic literature, in journals and the writings of secular scholars and intellectuals and their traditionalist counterparts, and in the mass media.  The changes in meaning that result are caused by (i), restriction or reduction of the original pattern of meaning and its scope in its various meaningful contexts; (ii), introduction of new meaning that goes beyond what is demanded by etymology and contextual precision; (iii), introduction of key concepts from another worldview not compatible with that of IslÂm by means of arabization and dissemination in current usage; (iv), introduction of a new interpretation of worldview that is influenced by modern scientific developments; and (v), imitation by other Muslim languages of what is current in modernist Arabic usage and thought.  Their arabization and introduction of concepts peculiar to secularization as a philosophical program into contemporary Muslim thought, such as ‘development’, ‘change’, ‘freedom’, ‘progress’, and secularity itself and other concepts aligned to them, have tremendously contributed to the confusion in the Muslim understanding of the meaning of religion itself and of the fundamental elements that project its worldview such as the nature of God, of Revelation, of Prophecy, of man and the psychology of the human soul, of knowledge and cognition, of ethics and its goal, of purposeful conceptualization of the meaning of education.  Muslims must realize that our dialogue today is with the powerful forces of secularization as a philosophical program whose underlying philosophy and ideology have created a separation between truth and reality and between truth and values.  It is only through thorough knowledge of IslÂm and its worldview, coupled with the knowledge of Western thought and civilization and the understanding of its evolutionary history of intellectual and religious development, that we can engage ourselves in this profound dialogue with success, as al-GhazÂali, under similar circumstances and in his own milieu, had demonstrated.

The Forgetfulness of Man – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas – Allahcentric Blog

It is ironic that we live in an era that has been coined “The Information Age” where human beings have attained, rather than knowledge, epic proportions of ignorance. Citizens of the most powerful nations of the earth often fail to identify important regions – and on occasion their own homeland – on a map. If man’s knowledge of the material world is deficient, what about the knowledge of the Unseen? The following post is an excerpt from “Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam” by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas and serves as a strong reminder about the nature of the human being, his purpose in this life, and his ultimate state in the hereafter.

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)

The Forgetfulness of Man

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

“The seat of knowledge in man is a spiritual substance which is variously referred to in the Holy Qur’an sometimes as his heart (al-qalb), or his soul or self (al-nafs), or his spirit (al-ruh), or his intellect (al-’aql). In virtue of the truth that man knows God in His absolute unity as his Lord, such knowledge, and the reality of the situation that necessarily follows from it, has bound man in a covenant (al-mithaq; al-’ahd) determining his purpose and attitude and action with respect to his self in his relation to God.

This binding and determining of man to a covenant with God and to a precise nature in regard to his purpose, attitude, and action, is the binding and determining in religion (al-din) which entails true submission (al-islam). Thus knowledge and religion are natural correlates in the nature of man, that is, the original nature in which God has created him (al-fitrah). Man’s purpose is therefore to know and to serve God (‘ibadah) and his duty is obedience (ta’ah) to God, which conforms with his essential nature created for him by God.

But man is also “composed of forgetfulness (nisyan)” – as a Prophetic tradition says, and he is called insan basically precisely because, having testified to himself the truth of the covenant he sealed with God, which entails obedience of His commands and prohibitions, he forgot (nasiya) to fulfill his duty and purpose. Hence according to ibn ‘Abbas with reference to a passage in the Holy Qur’an, the term insan is derived from nasiya when he said that man is called insan because, having covenanted with God, he forgot (nasiya).

Forgetfulness is the cause of man’s disobedience, and this blameworthy nature inclines him towards injustice (zulm) and ignorance (jahl). But God has equipped him with the powers and faculties of right vision and apprehension, of real savouring of truth, of right speech and communication; and He has indicated to him the right and the wrong with respect to the course of action he should take so that he might strive to attain his bright destiny. The choice for the better (ikhtiyar) is left to him.

Moreover, God has equipped him with intelligence to know and distinguish reality from non-reality, truth from falsehood, and rectitude from error; and even though his intelligence – or rather his imaginative and estimative faculties – might confuse him, and provided he is sincere and true to his noble nature, God, out of His bounty, mercy, and grace, will aid and guide him to attain to truth and right conduct. The supreme example of this is the case of the Prophet Ibrahim, upon him be peace.

Man thus equipped and fortified is meant to be the vicegerent (khalifah) of God on earth, and as such the weighty burden of trust (amanah) is placed upon him – the trust and responsibility to rule according to God’s will and purpose and His pleasure. The trust implies responsibility to rule with justice, and the ‘rule’ means not simply ruling in the socio-political sense, nor in the controlling of nature in the scientific sense, but more fundamentally in its encompassing of the meaning of nature (al-tabi’ah), it means the ruling, governing, controlling, and maintaining of man by his self or his rational soul.”

(p 143-145 of “Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam” by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas)

Further Reading:

The Tragedy of Humanism – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

On Good Character

The Loss of Adab and the Fall of the Muslim World – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Al-Attas’ Concept of Ta‘dib as True and Comprehensive Education in Islam – Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud

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

The Concept of Religion by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Who is Muhammad (God bless him and grant him peace)? – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Who is Muhammad (God bless him and grant him peace)?

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 explains precisely who the noble Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is and why he is relevant to our times.


“The Holy Prophet, upon whom be God’s blessing and Peace!, is the Seal of the Prophets, the universal and final Messenger of God to mankind, whom he leads from darkness to light; who is himself the Lamp spreading light; he is God’s Mercy to all creatures, and His favour to those who believe in him and in what he brought and he is God’s favour even to the People of the Book, who may yet come to believe in him.

He is man whom God has created with a character exalted as the standard for mankind; he is the Perfect Man and Exemplar par excellence. He it is who even God and His Angels honour and bless as the greatest of men, and all true believers, in compliance with God’s command, and in emulation of His Angels, do likewise, and have done and will do so in the Hereafter to him will God vouchsafe the Lauded Station.

Muhammad, the Messenger of God, is he whose very is a miracle of fulfillment, for he alone among all mankind is constantly praised in every age and generation after him without end, so that even taking into account the ages and generation before him he still would be the only man to whom such praise is due.

We praise him out of sincere love and respect and gratitude for having led us out of darkness into light, and he is loved above all other human beings including our selves. Our love and respect for him is such that neither time nor memory could dull, for he is in our selves in every age and generations – nay, he is closer than ourselves, and we emulate his words (qawl) and model actions (fi’l) and silent confirmation (taqrir) of usages known to him, so that next to the Holy Qur’an he is our most excellent and perfect guide and exemplar in life.

He is the perfect model for every Muslim male and female; adolescent, middle-aged and old, in such ways that Muslims do not suffer from the crises of identity. Because of him the external structure or pattern of Muslim society is not divided by the gap of generations such as we find prevalent in Western society.”

(p 79 to 81 of “Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam” by Sayyid 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)

Previous Posts:

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

Justice and Its Relationship to Knowledge  – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Al-Attas’ Concept of Ta‘dib as True and Comprehensive Education in Islam – Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud

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

The Concept of Religion by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

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.

Read more