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Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

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. Al-Attas' philosophy and methodology of education have one goal: Islamization of the mind, body and soul and its effects on the personal and collective life on Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. 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.

Early life and education

Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas was born in Bogor, Java into a family with a history of illustrious ancestors, saints, and scholars, of Hadhrami Arab and Circassian descent. He received a thorough education in Islamic sciences, Malay language, literature and culture. His formal primary education began at age 5 in Johor, Malaya (later known as Malaysia), but during the Japanese occupation of the peninsular, he went to school in Java, in Madrasah Al-`Urwatu’l-wuthqa, studying in Arabic.

After World War II, in 1946 he returned to Johor to complete his secondary education. He was exposed to Malay literature, history, religion, and western classics in English, and in a cultured social atmosphere developed a keen aesthetic sensitivity. This nurtured in al-Attas an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that were unique to his Malay writings and language.

After al-Attas finished secondary school in 1951, he entered the Malay Regiment as cadet officer no. 6675. There he was selected to study at Eton Hall, Chester, England and later at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK (1952-1955). This gave him insight into the spirit and style of British society. During this time he was drawn to the metaphysics of the Sufis, especially works of Jami, which he found in the library of the Academy. He traveled widely, drawn especially to Spain and North Africa where Islamic heritage had a profound influence on him. Al-Attas felt the need to study, and voluntarily resigned from the King’s Commission to serve in the Royal Malay Regiment, in order to pursue studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore (1957-1959).

While an undergraduate at University of Malaya, he wrote Rangkaian Ruba`iyat, a literary work, and Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays. He was awarded the Canada Council Fellowship for three years of study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He received the M.A. degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy in 1962, with his thesis Raniri and the Wujudiyyah of 17th Century Acheh. Al-Attas went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where he worked with Professor A. J. Arberry of Cambridge and Dr. Martin Lings. His doctoral thesis (1962) was a two-volume work on the mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri.

In 1965, al-Attas returned to Malaysia and became Head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malay, Kuala Lumpur. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1968 until 1970, where he reformed the academic structure of the Faculty requiring each department to plan and organise its academic activities in consultation with each other, rather than independently, as had been the practice hitherto.

Thereafter he moved to the new National University of Malaysia, as Head of the Department of Malay Language and Literature and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He strongly advocated the use of Malay as the language of instruction at the university level and proposed an integrated method of studying Malay language, literature and culture so that the role and influence of Islam and its relationship with other languages and cultures would be studied with clarity. He founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM) at the National University of Malaysia in 1973 to carry out his vision.

In 1987, with al-Attas as founder and director, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) was established in Kuala Lumpur. This institution strives to bring an integrated Islamization into the consciousness of its students and faculty. Al-Attas envisioned the plan and design of every aspect of ISTAC, and has incorporated Islamic artistic and architectural principles throughout the campus and grounds.

Malay Literature and Sufism

He authored Rangkaian Ruba’iyyat a literary work that was among the first ever published in 1959 and the classic work, Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised Among the Malays, in 1963. His two-volume doctoral thesis on The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, which is the most important and comprehensive work to date on one of the greatest and perhaps the most controversial Sufi scholars in the Malay world earned him the Ph.D in the UK in 1965.

Al-Attas engaged in polemics on the subjects of Islamic history, philology, and Malay literary history, which have resulted in the opening of new avenues for known as the Sha’ir, and have established that Hamzah Fansuri was the originator of the Malay Sha’ir. He has also set forth his ideas on the categorization of Malay literature and periodization of its literary history. He has contributed importantly to the history and origin of the modern Malay language.

His commentaries on the ideas of Fansuri and al-Raniri are the first definitive ones on early Malay Sufis based on 16th and 17th century manuscripts. In fact he discovered and published his meticulous research on the oldest extant Malay manuscript, wherein among other important matters, he also solved the riddle of the correct arrangement of the Malay-Islamic cyclical calendar. He was also responsible for the formulation and conceptualisation of the role of the Malay language in nation building during debates with political leaders in 1968. This formulation and conceptualisation was one of the important factors that led to the consolidation of Malay as the national language of Malaysia. As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malaya, he personally initiated its implementation and mobilized the Faculty and the student organizations toward the systematic implementation of Malay as an intellectual and academic language. In fact, al-Attas's writings in Malay on Islamic subjects are unique in their poetic prose, and serve as literary models for the Islamic-oriented scholars and writers of Malaysia. This marks the first time that modern Malay is used intellectually and philosophically, thereby creating a new style of language.

Islam and Metaphysics

Al-Attas maintains that modern science sees things as mere things, and that it has reduced the study of the phenomenal world to an end in itself. Certainly this has brought material benefits, however it is accompanied by an uncontrollable and insatiable propensity to destroy nature itself. Al-Attas maintains a firm critique that to study and use nature without a higher spiritual end has brought mankind to the state of thinking that men are gods or His co-partners. "Devoid of real purpose, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a deviation from the truth, which necessarily puts into question the validity of such knowledge." [Islam and Secularism, p.36]

Al-Attas views Western civilization as constantly changing and ‘becoming’ without ever achieving 'being'. He analyzes that many institutions and nations are influenced by this spirit of the West and they continually revise and change their basic developmental goals and educational objectives to follow the trends from the West. He points to Islamic metaphysics which shows that Reality is composed of both permanence and change; the underlying permanent aspects of the external world are perpetually undergoing change [Islam and Secularism, p.82]

For al-Attas, Islamic metaphysics is a unified system that discloses the ultimate nature of Reality in positive terms, integrating reason and experience with other higher orders in the suprarational and transempirical levels of human consciousness. He sees this from the perspective of philosophical Sufism. Al-Attas also says that the Essentialist and the Existentialists schools of the Islamic tradition address the nature of reality. The first is represented by philosophers and theologians, and the latter by Sufis. The Essentialists cling to the principle of mahiyyah (quiddity), whereas the Existentialists are rooted in wujud (the fundamental reality of existence) which is direct intuitive experience, not merely based on rational analysis or discursive reasoning. This has undoubtedly led philosophical and scientific speculations to be preoccupied with things and their essences at the expense of existence itself, thereby making the study of nature an end in itself. Al-Attas maintains that in the extra-mental reality, it is wujud (Existence) that is the real "essences" of things and that what is conceptually posited as mahiyyah ("essences" or "quiddities") are in reality accidents of existence.

The process of creation or bringing into existence and annihilation or returning to non-existence, and recreation of similars is a dynamic existential movement. There is a principle of unity and a principle of diversity in creation. "The multiplicity of existents that results is not in the one reality of existence, but in the manifold aspects of the recipients of existence in the various degrees, each according to its strength or weakness, perfection or imperfection, and priority or posteriority. Thus the multiplicity of existents does not impair the unity of existence, for each existent is a mode of existence and does not have a separate ontological status". He clarifies that the Essence of God is absolutely transcendent and is unknown and unknowable, except to Himself, whereas the essence or reality of a thing consists of a mode of existence providing the permanent aspect of the thing, and its quiddity, endowing it with its changing qualities.

Al-Attas' view of Islamic Science

Al-Attas makes no attempts to accommodate modern Western scientific spirit through a reinterpretation of Islam, or to naively import Western technological skills and products while simultaneously keeping intact the traditional understanding of religion. Problems in the world, he says, are not because of illiteracy or ignorance of modern knowledge; the reasons are epistemological and metaphysical. Modern sciences must be acquired, but their philosophical foundations must be recast into the Islamic metaphysical framework.

"We do affirm that religion is in harmony with science. But this does not mean that religion is in harmony with modern scientific methodology and philosophy of science. Since there is no science that is free of value, we must intelligently investigate and study the values and judgments that are inherent in, or aligned to, the presuppositions and interpretations of modern science. We must not indifferently and uncritically accept each new scientific or philosophical theory without first understanding its implication and testing the validity of values that go along with the theory. Islam possesses within itself the source of its claim to truth, and does not need scientific or philosophical theories to justify such a claim. Moreover, it is not the concern of Islam to fear scientific discoveries that could contradict the validity of its truth."[Prolegomena, p. 38]

Islamic science must interpret the facts of existence in correspondence with the Qur’anic system of conceptual interrelations and its methods of interpretation, not the other way around, by interpreting the system in correspondence with the facts. Since the role of science is to be descriptive of facts, and facts undergo continual change by virtue of their underlying reality which is process, modern philosophy and science, in a secular way, consider change to be the ultimate nature of reality. Al-Attas maintains that reality is at once both permanence and change, not in the sense that change is permanent, but in the sense that there is something permanent whereby change occurs. Change does not occur at the level of phenomenal things, for they are ever-perishing, but at the level of their realities which contain within themselves all their future states.

Philosophy of knowledge

Al-Attas advocates that the categories of knowledge which were fundamental to the Islamic tradition are fundamental to any real modern education. In the traditional Islamic worldview, knowledge was of two kinds, the open-ended fard kifayah knowledge, which includes the natural, physical and applied sciences, and the fard `ayn, the absolute nature of the knowledge pertaining to God and the spiritual realities and moral truths. Fard `ayn knowledge is not static, but dynamic, and it increases according to the spiritual and intellectual abilities as well as social and professional responsibilities of a person. Contemporary modern knowledge needs to be delivered from its interpretations based on secular ideology. This requires:

"...a critical examination of the methods of modern science; its concepts, presuppositions, and symbols; its empirical and rational aspects, and those impinging upon values and ethics; its interpretations of origins; its theory of knowledge; its presuppositions on the existence of an external world, of the uniformity of nature and of the rationality of natural processes; its theory of the universe; its classification of the sciences; its limitations and inter-relations with one another of the sciences, and its social relations" [Prolegomena, p. 114].

Science, according to Al-Attas, is a kind of ta’wil or allegorical interpretation of the empirical things that constitute the world of nature [Islam and the Philosophy of Science, p. 116]. The natural world is a book with knowledge; but that knowledge is not evident merely from the physical phenomena; they are nothing but signs, the meaning of which can be understood by those who are equipped with proper knowledge, wisdom and spiritual discernment. Some natural phenomena are obvious as to their meaning, while other natural things are ambiguous; similarly there are clear verses (muhkamat) of the Qur’an, while other verses are ambiguous (mutashabihat). The scientifically relevant verses in the Qur’an necessarily open themselves for further interpretation, based on the cumulative knowledge of future generations. He says that the fact that the early Muslims were not cognizant of the many scientific truths embedded in the Qur’an proves that the discoveries of these truths will not contradict its universal spiritual and religious-moral teachings.

Al-Attas says that the constituent parts of the fundamental bases of Islamic metaphysics are: the primacy of the reality of existence; the dynamic nature of this reality that is continually unfolding itself in systematic gradation from the degrees of absoluteness to those of manifestation; determination, and individuation; the perpetual process of the new creation; the absence of a necessary relation between cause and effect and its explanation in the Divine causality; the third metaphysical category between existence and non-existence (the realm of the permanent entities); and the metaphysics of change and permanence pertaining to the realities. It is within the framework of this metaphysics that the philosophy of science must be formulated.

Awards and achievements

Al-Attas developed an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that uniquely characterized his Malay writings and language. In 1970, al-Attas was also one of the senior founders of the National University of Malaysia, which sought to replace the English language with the Malay language as the medium of instruction at the tertiary level of education. In 1973 he founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM) at the new University.

Al-Attas has won international recognition by orient lists and scholars of Islamic and Malay civilisations. He has chaired the panel on Islam in Southeast Asia at the 29th Congress International des Orientalistes in Paris in 1973. In 1975, he was conferred Fellow of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy for outstanding contribution in the field of comparative philosophy. He was a Principal Consultant to the World of Islam Festival held in London in 1976, and was speaker and delegate at the International Islamic Conference held concurrently at the same place. He was also a speaker and an active participant at the First World Conference on Islamic Education held at Mecca in 1977, where he chaired the Committee on Aims and Definitions of Islamic Education. From 1976-77, he was a Visiting Professor of Islamic at Temple University, Philadelphia, United States. In 1978. He chaired the UNESCO meeting of experts on Islamic history held at Aleppo, Syria, and in the following year the President of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, conferred upon him the Iqbal Centenary Commemorative Medal.

He occupies a position of intellectual eminence in his country as the first holder of the Chair of Malay Language and Literature at the National University of Malaysia (1970-84), and as the first holder of the Tun Abdul Razak Chair of Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University, U.S.A. (1980-82) and as the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), Malaysia (since 1987). He has delivered more than 400 lectures throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and the Far East and the Muslim world. And in 1993, in recognition of his many important and far-reaching contributions to contemporary Islamic thought, Anwar Ibrahim, as the Chairman of ISTAC and the President of the International Islamic University Malaysia has appointed al-Attas as the first holder of the Abu Hamid al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Thought at ISTAC. King Hussein of Jordan made him a Member of the Royal Academy of Jordan in 1994, and in June 1995 the University of Khartoum conferred upon him the Degree of Honorary Doctorate of Arts (D. Litt.).

He is also an able calligrapher, and his work was exhibited at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam in 1954. He has also published three Basmalah renditions on a living subject (kingfisher, 1970; chanticleer, 1972; fish, 1980) in some of his books. He also planned and designed the building of ISTAC (1991), the unique scroll of the al-Ghazali Chair (1993), the auditorium and the mosque of ISTAC (1994), as well as their landscaping and interior decor, imbuing them with a unique Islamic, traditional, and cosmopolitan character.

Bibliography

A list of works by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), follows.

Books and Monographs

  • (1970) The Correct Date of the Terengganu Inscription, Kuala Lumpur Museum Department.
  • (1975) Comments on the Re-Examination of Al-Raniri’s Hujjat au’l Siddiq: A Refutation, Kuala Lumpur Museum Department.
  • (1978) Islam and Secularism ISBN 983-99628-6-8
  • (1980) The Concept of Education in Islam
  • (1988) The Oldest Known Malay Manuscript: A 16th Century Malay Translation of the `Aqa’id of al-Nasafi
  • (1989) Islam and the Philosophy of Science
  • (1990) The Nature of Man and the Psychology of the Human Soul
  • (1990) On Quiddity and Essence
  • (1990) The Intuition of Existence
  • (1992) The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality
  • (1993) The Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islam (tr. into German by Christoph Marcinkowski as Die Bedeutung und das Erleben von Glückseligkeit im Islam, Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1998)
  • (1994) The Degrees of Existence
  • (1995) Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam

See also

References

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