Prominent Thinker Al-Attas on Applying Sunna to the Modern World

ImageProf. Mehmet Ipsirli talked to Naquib Al-Attas,  a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia, about the Asian journey of the Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet) starting from the early periods of Islam, and the applicabillity of Sunnah (practices of the Prophet) in today's world. Himself a Sayyid, Al-Attas is recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary representatives of Islamic thought.

His Life

Sayyid 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 Turkish 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 Hamzan Fansuri.

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.

He is also an able calligrapher, and his work was exhibited at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam in 1954

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
  • (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

Interview Part I: Asia Islamized via the Sayyids

-What are the places of Sayyids and Sharifs in the Islamic tradition?

Nowadays, I feel that these two concepts have become separated in such a way that the Sharif are Hasanese (i.e. following Hasan), and the Sayyid are Husseinese (i.e. following Hussein). I think that this was probably the same in earlier times. Sayyids were called Sharif, and Sharifs were called Sayyid. Of course it is true that the Hasanese gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca and the post of Sharif was established by the Abbasids. I noticed that when I was reading Tabari, he mentioned that Al-Ma'mun appointed one of the sons of Ali as the Sharif of Mecca. The main aim of Al Ma'mun here was to neutralize the followers of Ali in a diplomatic way, as at first they were opposed to the Umayyads and later to the Abbasid's as well. Thus, he was trying to be friendly with them and to show his favor by appointing such people. Now, Al Ma'mun lived around the year 800; another man al-Dimashki, who was a geographer, wrote in 1200 that the first missionaries to be sent to Asia were in the time of Uthman's caliphate; therefore, he said, the missionaries were here because they were running away from Al-Hajjaj, from his persecution, in the time of the Umayyads. They first fled and then they came to that part of Indo-China known at that time as Shampa, and now called Sand in Cambodia. And they then came to Southeastern Asia. Al-Dimashki referred to them as Alaviyyun (followers of Ali). This was in the time of Uthman. Therefore in the time of Al-Ma'mun and at later dates there were many envoys who were sent to China; it is said that there were at least 32 envoys sent between the time of the Umayyad and Abbasids until around the year 500 (Hijrah).

-Was there any policy to send envoys that had been particularly chosen from the Prophet's descendants?

Yes, I think that the Chinese emperor respected them more because they were from the Prophet's descendants. I suppose the reason why the Tang dynasty sent a Chinese ambassador to the court of Medina at the time of Umayyads was because the political center was still in Medina at that time, not in Mecca. There was a Sharif in Mecca, but the seat of caliph was in Medina. The purpose of this ambassador was to report to the emperor about this new power in the world. Who was this new power? It was reported back to China that they were worshipping heaven. They had no idols and they did not eat pork. The source that mentions this ambassador also records that an Arab general accompanied the ambassador back to China. We are not sure who this general it was. Some say that he was Sad b. Abi Vaqqas; the Chinese believe that he is buried in the north of the country. This was at the time of the Companions.

-Was there a difference between the Sayyids and the Sharifs in this sense?

The role of the Sharifs, I think, was more administrative. They gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca. That is, they acted like governors and gradually became the rulers. But the Sayyids were the ones who continued to struggle, as the Umayyads were more opposed to the Husseinese rather than the Hasanese.  Many of them were located in southern Arabia. What is now known as Oman at that time was called Hadramout - Hadramout is even mentioned in the Bible, and this was at the time of Moses - and this was a very important area.  

Many of the Husseinese were located in this area. They were a seafaring people, who traveled by sea. It is for this reason that Ibn Khurdabbe talks about the sea routes, and he mentions how the Sayyids got to China and how they went on to India and so on. They were people who spread Islam following the hadith (sayings of the Prophet). You know the Dutch scholars and Western scholars talk about merchants and traders. Merchants and traders would not be able to be close with ruling powers. The ruling powers would only have respected people who were descendants of the Prophet. For that reason, the locals intermarried a great deal with the Sayyids, just like in Sumatra.

 I think one of the characteristics of the Sayyids is that wherever they went, they were not very nationalistic or racist. I think it was Seyyid Ali who was the first one to marry with a non-Arab, the daughter of the Persian emperor, Yezdecarb. In other words, the Sayyids married non-Arabs, but other Arabs did not act like this. When the Sayyids went to Africa, they gradually became like the Africans with this intermarriage, and the same can be stated for China.

But what is important here is that the role of these people, this mission, was prepared in advance. It did not happen accidentally. In other words, they were selected as pious people who knew Islam, and were brave enough to go on these dangerous routes. They were not only traders and merchants either. The western people knew that traders and merchants would not able to spread the religion. They claim that in Islam everybody is a missionary. Of course, theoretically this is true, but in reality, a missionary must be acquainted with many things, because ultimately he has to speak with the king. They have to be able to be close to the kings. Much of the missionary work consists of this high-level diplomacy. That is what is most important in my opinion.

-In your opinion, what is the social responsibility of descending from the family of the Prophet?

These descendents of the Prophet spread knowledge. Even Western orientalists say that the descendants of the Prophet are the ones who spread the knowledge. They mentioned the Fatimids and the Al-Azhar. These people established universities and places of education, and much more.

Of course, not everybody was doing all of these things. Some of them, the simple people, may have been doing nothing.  It was a question of spreading knowledge and the religion.

And they were careful not to add to the heresy. They were more traditional, and being traditional entailed going back to the ways of the Prophet. This was because, particularly in the southern part of Hadramout, they were insolated. The early Sayyids who came here learned the hadiths, and then they read the works of the ulama. The books that we can see they were using were ones like Kutb al-Kulub, al-Maki, al-Kuseyri's Resala and several others, as well as Ghazali, of course, and then Juniab.

As for Hadramout, the first man who brought Sufism (tasawwuf) was a man called Fakih al-Mukaddaam, and this must have been sometime in the 15th century.

-We see that these journeys started very early from the time of the Prophet. As soon as they learned about Islam they left their country and went to a different part of the world. The Prophet also encouraged the Companions to make these journeys.

Yes, as we have said already, before the advent of Islam, it has been acknowledged that there were already Arabs in Europe, even at the time of Christ in that area, and they were involved in trade at the time of the Romans.

But I think the role of the Sayyids was to spread Islam. This was the most important. The second factor was that they were trying to teach people the proper forms of Islam from such books. They did not add any thing. Of course, they studied the hadith, so they had more information about what was legitimate. They also read other works. But they did not seek publicity. They also did not care if people acknowledged them or not. They just completed their tasks.

-How were the Sayyid roots of the first people arriving into Asia influential in the Islamization of the region?

It is true that the Sayyids came first. These Sayyids were already in the north of Sumatra. They came first to Sumatra, then to the Malay peninsula and then to Joho. Malaca, of course is Joho, and from there they went to Brunei and from there to Sulu and then finally Jaba. I think the reason why they arrived last in Jaba is because Jaba was very powerful at that time and the kingdom was very large. There were also Arab writers there in ancient times; it is said that the maharaja was not called a maharaja, but rather known by the Japanese title batara. It is said that he had a hundred thousand troops and weapons ships. In other words, this was a very strong kingdom with a tradition of Hinduism or Hindu -Buddhist.

So, the plan was probably to first Islamize the Malay side and when that was done then to go on to Jaba. It would not have been possible to go to Jaba first, because they were so powerful. Gradually, of course, by coming to them in the 1470s, the Japanese kingdom fell into the hands of Islam. However, some Arabs navigators writing in the 1430s said they Muslim kingdoms were already present in Jaba. The problem is that I am not sure if this date is correct.

The simpler meaning of Sayyid is those people who went to the villages. They taught people Islam, and the question of adab (manners). This is still going on. If you go to Indonesia you can find many of such people in the villages. They demonstrate a certain exemplary behavior, and they are very pious people. You can the see Hasanese in Singapore; they are very popular in Singapore, even among the non-Muslims, because they are simpler and more open-handed as well.

Interview Part II: "We have to be well acquainted with the West as well as Islam"

-Can we adapt to the modern world without destroying our tradition? How can we protect the authentic Islamic traditions today? How can the sunnah be applied today?

Is the sunnah (practices of the Prophet) not applied today? In other words, it is not possible to say that the sunnah is not applied today. It is applied. But I think we have to go back to learn about these people; we must go back to study the past, return to their books, and so on. Otherwise, how can people understand such things? It is necessary that there be proper teachers, as the schools now do not give much information. Having proper teachers means having qualified people who know about the sunnah and who are close to the early traditions; even in the modern world we can dress like a modern man, but our mind must not be like this. The important thing is to teach people, that is all. That is the only way to return to the tradition. Otherwise today, modern Muslims, particularly western-educated Muslims do not know, and they demand proof. They think that they are being rational, although they are not really being rational at all. Therefore, we have to counter all this by teaching all these things again. We must teach them what is real, because they do not know. They do not know anything about Islam. I mean, here they are following the West. They think that Islam started in the 13th century and it is just a simple religion of merchants, and therefore rather out of date, rather ancient. But we should teach them the real history, bring it out and teach it. And by example we must also know that we have to be well acquainted with the West as well as Islam.

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

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

-Is an Islamization of knowledge possible?

Of course. But what do we mean by this? The Quran Islamized knowledge and the Arabs Islamized their knowledge through the language. In other words, the importance of language in Islamization is very important. That is why I think, although I am not sure, Ali Caksu's paper raises such an important question; I read only the abstract but he asks if there is such a thing as the Islamic language it seems that he thinks that although there is no Islamic language, there is a Muslim language. Well, I do not agree with this. What we mean by an Islamic language is the Muslim languages. But within the Muslim languages there are certain basic vocabulary items, key terms, that belong to the Quran and this is what is important. So, in this way Muslim languages become the Islamic language, even though they are different languages. The Turkish language is different from Persian, from Arabic, and from Malay languages. But within this there are certain words which are important links uniting them. This is what I call the Islamic language, this basic vocabulary. These words come from the revelation but they can be given different meanings, which is the cause of the confusion that exists today. And then they do not correlate with one another anymore. Thus, conflict arises.

-What kind of education policy should be followed?

The policy I think is to be acquainted with the West and Islam in addition to our own national, what is called ethical and cultural tradition. We must be familiar with the West, because without this knowledge it the unknown can only become a problem. That is why the modern day ulama cannot do anything; they do not understand the West. They may be acquainted with the law in Islam, but this is also not very profound. Therefore the education system must be balanced with knowledge of Islam. Going back to the past, we cannot just stop at the former politicians. At least, the mind of people have begun to open, they have become new people. They are pleased that we opened things that they have not seen before. As far as Islam and its interpretation are concerned, sometimes people might bring up certain questions that may cause problems. It might be better if we did not bother with these questions, or even the hadiths. To the modern mind it is not very beneficial to introduce our hadith, as from the point of view of the modern mind they are irrational or unacceptable. But, this is what they are doing now. We should put a stop to this. What about hadiths that deal with science and with ethics? The hadiths of the Prophet are like the Quran. The hadith have been classified. But nobody does this today. Maybe one day someone will classify the hadith. There are hadiths of the Prophet concerned with science and which deal with metaphysics and profound philosophy. There is a hadith which says "O Allah, show me the things that really exist." The Prophet is asking about metaphysical and philosophical ideas here. This kind of hadith cannot be classified. Thus, there are spiritual hadiths, legal hadiths, and historical hadiths. We must study them in this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also realized that nobody has defined what they mean by the West. When I talk about the West I understand not so much the people and the place but rather the world view. This world view has evolved from the Greco, Roman, Judea, and Christian traditions and they have been fused together; in addition the pagan traditions of the European peoples has been added - the Celts, the Visigoths, Teutonic, and Germanic people. So, gradually this has produced a certain world view. This world view is constantly involved in a dynamic dialectic of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Then this synthesis has begun to turn again to thesis, and continues like this.

To sum up, this is what I mean by problematic. That is, we are saying that they have reached a synthesis and that there are no more theses to create an antithesis. Then they talk about secularization. The eternity of the world is a matter that is discussed; Einstein talked about whether God is still relevant today because he was an Aristotelian. He thought that God was only relevant at the beginning and that after that, the world was just left to evolve, so Einstein asked what God's role today is. And his conclusion was that God had no more role. But our God is always active. It is not possible for Him not to have a role.




Musa Emre
Musa Emre05.12.2011

Prohphet Muhammad, Ethics & Adab:

can be found explained here very nicely in this work by Shaykh Osman Nuri Topbas: