The Speech of Prof. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud Representing Prof Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas Nov 25, 2018 at Kerim Foundation, Uskuder, Istanbul. 


Assalāmu‘alaikum wa raḥmatullāhi wa barakātuh.


Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas conveys his warm salām to all of you, and he thanks you for conferring to him this Distinguished International Award.  He sincerely apologizes for not able to personally be here to receive this great honor. It means a lot to him because it comes from an important cultural institution in Turkey a nation so close to his personal history and whose many contributions to Islamic civilization in the past and in the contemporary world he recognizes and acknowledges. His paternal grandmother Ruqayyah Hannum was of Turkish origin who married his paternal grandfather, a great Sufi and scholar Syed Abdullah Muhsin al-Attas. He also regards this Award as particularly meaningful because it recognizes major contributors to the spiritual and ethical social and political development of our Community such as Shaykh Abdelqadir al-Jazairi. Muhammad Iqbal and Rene Guenon.

Prof al-Attas’ numerous and profound and original contributions in diverse fields of metaphysics, philosophy of science and education, comparative religion, literature and history, and culture are widely recognized. But he is also a very practical person not only because he was trained in the military sciences at one of the best military schools in the world and actively served in the National Armed Forces, but also and more importantly he was able to translate his ideas into a successful high level international educational institution when he founded, directed, designed, landscaped and interiorly decorated the magnificent Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) at Kuala Lumpur. There he also established a unique comparative library most unique in Southeast Asia. Of equal importance, his life-long integrity, his courage and generosity of spirit as person and scholar in dealing with various challenges is a great example for all those who have been blessed with the opportunity to know him well. At this Institute in particular and for more than a decade, although he is thoroughly comfortable with his religion and school of theology, fiqh, and tasawwuf, he had succinctly demonstrated a kind appreciation and deep respect to non-Muslims, non-Sunnis and others who do not share his views.

I am happy to note here that his great and successful ISTAC project under his visionary leadership was academically assisted by able and dedicated international scholars many of whom are from Turkey such as Prof Dr Alparsalan Acikgenc, Prof Dr Bilal Kuspinar, Prof Dr Teoman Durali, Prof Dr Mehmet Ipsirli, Prof Dr Sabri Orman, Prof Dr Murat Cizakca, Prof Dr Mehmet Bayrakdar,  Prof Dr Cenghiz Khallek. And Prof Dr. Ali Safak.

In the long history of Islam in our part of the world, this is the first time the works of one of the great scholars are being recognized and acknowledged by discerning minds as powerful and transcending their geographical and linguistic limits.

He always reminds us that we are living in 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. The challenge also comes from the secular modern Western worldview with its 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.

Since the 1970s, Prof al-Attas has written on the widespread corruption of knowledge in contemporary Muslim society, and this problem is still rampant among us and is far from being perceived from its proper perspective. His intention in clarifying our problematic situation was to warn Muslims to be intelligently prepared to weather with discernment the pestilential winds of secularization and to create with courage necessary changes in the realm of our thinking that is still floundering in the sea of bewilderment and self-doubt.

The secularizing values and events that have been predicted would happen in the Muslim World have now begun to unfold with increasing momentum and greater persistence due still to the Muslims’ lack of understanding of the true nature and implications of secularization as a philosophical program. Our assault on secularity does not necessarily have to be taken as an assault also on Muslim states and governments calling themselves or is perceived by others as “secular” – provided that such states and governments do not align themselves with secularization as a philosophical program.

He notices that there is confusion in the Muslim mind in misunderstanding the Muslim “secular” state by setting it in contrast with the theocratic state. Since Islam does not involve itself in the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, how then can it set in contrast the theocratic state with the secular state? An Islamic state is neither wholly theocratic nor wholly secular. A Muslim state calling itself or is called by others “secular” does not necessarily have to divest nature of spiritual meaning; does not necessarily have to deny religious values and virtues in politics and human affairs; does not necessarily have to oppose religious truth and religious education. But the philosophical and scientific process which he calls ‘secularization’ necessarily involves the divesting of spiritual meaning from the world of nature; the denial of religious values and virtues from politics and human affairs; and the relativization of all values in the human mind and conduct.” 

According to al-Attas, Adab is recognition and acknowledgment of the reality that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically according to their various grades and degrees of rank, and of one’s proper place in relation to that reality and to one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potentials.

Recognition is knowing again (re-cognize) one’s Primordial Covenant with the Lord and everything that follows from it. It also means that matters and things are already in their respective proper places in the various orders of being and existence, but that man, out of ignorance or arrogance, makes alterations and confuses the places of things such that injustice occurs. Acknowledgment is requisite action in conformity with what is recognized. It is ‘affirmation’ and ‘confirmation’ or ‘realization’ and ‘actualization’ in one’s self of what is recognized. Without acknowledgment, education is nothing but mere learning (ta‘allum).

The significance of the above meanings of adab as they relate to the education of a good man is further underlined when it is realized that the recognition, which involves knowledge, and acknowledgment, which involves action, of proper places are related to other key terms in the Islamic worldview, such as wisdom (hikmah) and justice (‘adl), and reality and truth (haqq). Reality and truth (haqq) is defined as both the correspondence and coherence with the right and proper place.

Several examples of how the notion of adab is manifested in the various levels of human existence can be cited. Adab towards one’s self starts when one acknowledges one’s dual nature, namely the rational and the animal. When the former subdues the latter and renders it under control, then one has put both of them in their proper places, thereby placing one’s self in the right place. Such a state is justice to one’s self; otherwise, it is injustice (zulm al-nafs). When adab is referred to human relationship, it means that ethical norms which are applied to social behaviour would follow certain requirements based on one’s standing in say, the family and society. One’s standing is not formulated by the human criteria of power, wealth, and lineage, but by the Qur’anic criteria of knowledge, intelligence and virtue. If one displays sincere humility, love, respect, care, charity, etc., to one’s parents, elders and children, neighbors and community leaders, it shows that one knows one’s proper place in relation to them.

Refering to the domain of knowledge, adab means an intellectual discipline  which recognizes and acknowledges the hierarchy of knowledge based on the criteria of degrees of perfection and priority, such that the ones that are based on revelation are recognized and acknowledged as more perfect and of a higher priority than those based on the intellect; those that are fard ‘ayn are above fard kifayah; those that provide guidance (hidayah) to life are more superior to those that are merely practically useful.

Adab towards knowledge would result in the proper and correct ways of learning and applying different sciences. In conjunction with this, respect towards scholars and teachers is one manifestation of the adab towards knowledge. The purpose of seeking knowledge and of education ultimately is such that the self will attain happiness in this world and in the hereafter. For the natural world, adab means the discipline of the practical intellect (‘aql).

In dealing with the hierarchical program that characterizes the world of nature such that a person can make a proper judgment concerning the true values of things, as God’s signs, as sources of knowledge, and things useful for the spiritual and physical development of man. In addition, adab towards nature and the natural environment means that one should put trees and stones, mountains, rivers, valleys and lakes, animals and their habitat in their proper places. And adab towards language means the recognition and response of the rightful and proper place of every word in a written or uttered sentence so as not to produce a dissonance in meaning, sound and concept. Literature is called adabiyat in Islam precisely because it is seen as the keeper of civilization, the collector of teachings and statements that educate the self and society with adab such that both are elevated to the rank of the cultured man (insan adabi) and society. For the spiritual world, adab means the recognition and acknowledgment of the degrees of perfection that characterize the world of spirits; the recognition and acknowledgment of the various spiritual stations based on acts of devotion and worship; the spiritual discipline which rightly submits the physical or animal self to the spiritual or rational self.  Jurjani’s definition of adab is equivalent to ma‘rifah (which is a special kind of knowledge) which prevents its perceptor from all kinds of error. No wonder then, adab is also the spectacle of justice (‘adl) as it is reflected by wisdom (hikmah). Therefore, by synthesising the meaning of knowledge, of meaning and of adab, the complete definition of Islamic education is given as ta‘dib, which includes the ultimate purpose, content, and method of education:

Ta’dib is the recognition and acknowledgment, progressively instilled into man, of the proper places of things in the order of creation, such that it leads to the recognition and acknowledgment of God in the order of being and existence.

 Prof al-Attas says that in our present age, the course of history seemed determined by the science and technology of superpowers, along with the values generated by their underlying philosophy and ideology. They have created a separation between truth and reality and between truth and values. New and changing values are propagated to supplant the permanent values of religion. The new values serve a worldview in conflict with the worldview of religion, and congenial to a misguided way of life attractive to the commonality who are unaware of their true predicament. Because such a way of life is emulated by the common people, the values that it upholds are claimed to be common values and further identified with universal values. But in truth, common values that can be considered universal values are those values only that are derived ultimately from religion. These are absolute and permanent, not relative and changing. What are claimed to be common values, therefore, are not necessarily universal values.

He stresses that 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 implications 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 such truth.

He also argues that: 

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 the modernist and their imitators and followers among traditionalist ‘ulama’, and scholars and intellectuals who derive inspiration mainly from the West, are responsible for what he called the disintegration of adab, which is the effect of the corruption of the knowledge of Islam 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 with political, financial and media power become determiners of intellectual decisions and are raised to the level of authority on matters of knowledge.  Authentic and clear 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.

I shall end this speech by quoting the conclusion of Prof al-Attas Acceptance Speech as The Distinguished Chair of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali at ISTAC in 1993. He said,  

We are now again at the crossroads of history, and awareness of Islamic identity is beginning to dawn in the consciousness of emergent Muslims. Only when this awareness comes to full awakening with the sun of knowledge will there emerge from among us men and women of spiritual and intellectual maturity and integrity who will be able to play their role with wisdom and justice in upholding the truth.

Such men and women will know that they must return to the early masters of the religious and intellectual tradition of Islam in order to learn from the past and be able to equip spiritually and intellectually for the future; they will realize that they must not simply appropriate and imitate what modern secular Western civilization has created, but must regain, by exerting their own creative knowledge, will, and imagination, what is lost of the Muslims’ purpose in life, their history, their values and virtues embodied in their sciences, for what is lost can never be regained by blind imitation and the raving of slogans which deafen with the din of ‘development’; they will discern that development must not involve a correspondence of Islam with the facts of contemporary events that have strayed far from the path of truth; and they will conceive and formulate their own definitions and conceptions of government and of the nature of development that will correspond with the purpose of Islam.

Their emergence is conditional not merely upon physical struggle, but more upon the achievement of true knowledge, confidence and boldness of vision that is able to create great changes in history.” 

And then he concluded his Acceptance Speech with this sentence, 

“It is we who must determine the course of our history, and not let others force their history upon us.”

Thank you very much

Wassalāmu‘alaikum warahmatullāhi wa barakātuh.