Tuesday, November 16, 2010



Born on September 5, 1931, in Bogor, Java, Syed Muhammad Naquib bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Muhsin al-Attas has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences. He is competent in diverse academic fields such as philosophy, metaphysics, Islamic Theology (Kalām ), history and literature. He has developed a goal-oriented philosophy and methodology of education, to “Islamize the mind, body and soul” of the student. He extends this focus to its effects on the personal and collective lives of Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. He has authored twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. 
Al-Attas’ family includes a long line of illustrious scholars and he received a thorough immersion in the traditional Islamic sciences. He also received a comprehensive education in Malay language, literature and culture. His formal primary education began at age five in Johor, Malaysia, but during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, he went to a madrassah, al-‘Urwatu’l-Wuthqa, in Java where he learned Arabic. After World War II, he returned to Johor in 1946 to complete his secondary education. He was exposed to Malay literature, history, religion, and western English classics, and developed a keen aesthetic sensibility in a cultured social atmosphere. He developed an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that are unique to his Malay writings and language. After finishing secondary school in 1951, he entered the Malay Regiment as a cadet officer. Thereafter he was selected to study at Eton Hall, Chester, Wales and later at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England (1952-55). Here he gained insight into the spirit and style of British society. During this time he was drawn to the metaphysics of the Sufis, especially works of Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Ahmad al-Jāmī (1414-92), commonly called the last great classical poet of Persia, the celebrated saint and mystic whose works include Salaman and Absal and Lawa’ih al-Durrah al-Fākhirah
Al-Attas traveled widely. He was 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 1957-59. While an undergraduate at University of Malaya, he wrote Rangkaian Rubāīyāt, 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 an M.A. degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy in 1962; his thesis was entitled “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, Dr. Al-Attas returned to Malaysia and became Head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1968-70. 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, Al-Attas became the University Professor of Islamic Thought and Civilization at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM). He is the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), Kuala Lumpur. Al-Attas envisioned the plan and design of every aspect of ISTAC, to the extent of incorporating Islamic artistic and architectural principles throughout the campus and grounds.
The red colour of the book signifies the strength and courage that the Malay-Indonesia people had acquired after embracing Islam as their dīn.
The rooster calligraphy was personally designed by al-Attas to signify the awakening of the Malay civilization from the slumber of ignorance that clouded their civilization in pre-Islamic period of the Malay world, analogous to the role of rooster in waking up people from sleep at the dawn to receive the glory of sunlight that brings life to all living beings. The rooster calligraphy is being moulded from the word basmalah (In the Name of Allāh) in its Islamic calligraphic form.
We can see clearly that al-Attas had really considered this work seriously, as from its outer design to its very content was done personally by him in a very meticulous manner.
On Orientalism
Professor al-Attas was one of the earliest and outstanding Islamic thinker as well as an Occidentalistin this post-colonial era. In his significant work entitled The Origin of the Malay Shā‘ir, he gave a firm criticism upon Western Orientalists whom always relied on conjecture rather than certainty of knowledge in formulating historical and sociological theories.

 “It seems to me that before one can formulate any theory – historical or otherwise – one must, on the basis of facts gathered from what one knows and on the basis of inferences and implications about the relevant past or even present, that can be deduced from those facts, make positive statements of the nature of justifiable assumptions or even postulates in order that the theory may take definite shape. But if unnecessary doubts are created to assail the mind, no theory can take shape for some of the most fundamental elements of hypothesis such as a posteriori reasoning, relevance, fruitfulness in its applications and controllability are lacking.”
In the monograph Islām dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu (ISK), al-Attas criticized Professor A.Teeuw’s work entitled The Malay Shā‘ir problems of Origin and Tradition for being non sequitur in his analysis regarding the position of H}amzah Fans}ūrī as the founder of Malay Sha‘ir.
The same mode of reasoning occurred in ISK, whereby al-Attas refuted Orientalists’ account on the historical theory regarding the role and propagation of Islām in the Malay Archipelago.
He was deeply aware on the habit of British and Netherlands’ Orientalists who always try to force their Westernized worldview into the study of Islāmization process in Malay-Indonesia historical background by emphasizing more on the existential aspect of the historical facts such as the archeological remnants rather than the essential aspect that have moulded the self-identity of Malay and Indonesian people throughout the ages, especially in terms of its languages and literary works which played significant role in the formation of Islamic weltanschauung.
On History
His framework regarding philosophy of history is much being influenced by Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah which emphasize upon the bigger picture of historical occurrences rather than minutiae details that hardly give essential meanings that affect the direction of history.
In ISK, al-Attas embarked on the same framework as Henri Pirenne’s thesis regarding the two important characteristics that fit to be used as the benchmark for the assessment on the ushering of New Age in history of civilization which are 1) the destruction of cultural unity in a particular province; and 2) the shifting of civilization’s axis of living.
Al-Attas shared the same view as Pirenne in viewing the propagation of Islām as the turning point that gave birth to New Age for civilizations situated in Europe and Malay-Indonesia Archipelago. In the case of Europe, the advancement of Islām in 9th century towards the Mediterranean region marked the beginnings of European Middle Ages, explained by the words of Pirenne:

“The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. 

The West was blockaded and forced to live on its own resources. For the first time in history the axis of life was shifted northwards from the Mediterranean. The decadence into which the Merovingian monarchy lapsed as a result of this change gave birth to a new dynasty, the Carolingian, whose original home was in the Germanic North.

With this new dynasty the Pope allied himself, breaking with the (Eastern, Byzantine) Emperor, who, engrossed in his struggle against the Musulmans, could no longer protect him. And so the Church allied itself with the new order of things. In Rome, and in the Empire which it founded, it had no rival. And its power was all the greater, inasmuch as the State, being incapable of maintaining its administation, allowed itself to be absorbed by the feudality, the inevitable sequence of the economic regression. All the consequences of this change became glaringly apparent after Charlemagne. Europe, dominated by the Church and by the feudality, assumed a new physiognomy, differing slightly in different regions. The Middle Ages – to retain the traditional term – were beginning. The transitional phase was protracted. One may say it lasted a whole century – from 650 to 750. It was during this period of anarchy that the tradition of antiquity disappeared, while the new elements came to the surface.”
The same thing happen in Malay-Indonesia Archipelago by the role of Islām had played in transforming both the soul and body of Malay-Indonesian society in the early 13th century.
Al-Attas is well recognized by Malay historians due to his contribution in formulating the general theory of Islamization in Malay-Indonesia Archipelago. The theory of Islamization process had been elaborated extensively by al-Attas in his previous works which I believe became the basis of ISK. He divided the historical and cultural process Islamization into three phases:

Phase 1: from approximately 575-805/1200-1400, jurisprudence or fiqh played the major role of interpreting the religious law (sharī‘ah ) in the conversion of the Malays. The conversion was effected by strength of faith, not necessarily accompanied by an understanding of the rational and intellectual implications such as conversion entailed. Fundamental concepts connected with the central Islamic concept of Unity of God (tawh}id) were still vague in the minds of the converts, their old concepts overlapping and clouding or confusing the new ones. This phase can well be described as the conversion of the ‘body’.

Phase 2: From approximately 803-1112/1400-1700, continuation of the process described in Phase 1, but during this phase the major role of interpreting the religious law had passed on to philosophical mysticism and metaphysics (tas}awwuf) and other rational and intellectual elements such as rational theology (kalām). During this phase, S}ūfism and S}ūfī writings primarily and the writings of the Mutakallimūn played the dominant role aimed at the conversion of the ‘spirit’. Fundamental concepts introduced to the Islamic weltanschauung, some of which were still understood in the opaque sense, influenced by the old weltanschauung, were expounded and defined so that they were understood in both the transparent and semi-transparent senses.

Phase 3: from approximately 1112/1700 onwards, continuation of Phase 1 and consummation of Phase 2 which had been largely successful. To this phase must also be assigned the cultural influences brought about by the coming of the West. What is generally known as “Westernization” is here conceived as the perpetuation of the rationalistic, individualistic, and internationalistic spirit whose philosophical foundations were laid earlier by Islam.
Al-Attas also laid out strong criticisms and no space for toleration upon the method of inquiry that the Orientalists had used in formulating the historical account of Islām and Muslim cultural and literary history in the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago where the method of doubt seems to be the order of the day in most of their historical assessment:

“In this particular field of studies, however, those scholars did not start their inquiry on the basis of what they already know, but rather on the basis of what they vaguely know, which is most cases is based on false knowledge, so that the very basis of inquiry, and the ‘knowledge’ resulting therefrom, is subject to doubt. Because the doubt entertained is not supported by reason, nor indeed by true authority, their doubt has not been productive of progress in their inquiry, which itself is succinct proof that the doubt entertained is of the irrational kind based arbitrarily on mere opinion claimed as ‘authoritative’, and on what in reality is lack of knowledge of the facts.”
We can see here that al-Attas indicated a vehement opposition towards sophistry in scholarship – especially towards historical findings that hold no ground to be considered as valid theory of history by just merely relying upon arsenal of facts and figures, which at the end, leads only to false conclusion that made by most Orientalists that he had encountered. It shows that he is such a very sharp scholar who managed to refute the false logic that being deduced by the Orientalists in concluding their findings, which most of the time based upon mere facts that relies on doubt as the basis of their research methodology.
On Malay Language and Literature
He is well known as the one who place H}amzah Fans}ūrī to his designated places as the real originator of Modern Malay literature by emphasizing rationalism and Islāmic mysticism (tas}awwuf ) as its foundation.
It is a profound exposition due to the importance role that tas}awwuf had played in Islamization process of the Malay-Indonesia Archipelago was also linked to the development of highly intellectual and rationalistic religious spirit that being projected in most Malay literary work in that new period, in contrast to the aesthetic and exclusive literary works that were not meant for profane ear of the masses in the Hindu-Buddha period. 
This two theories will compliment each other in sense of highlighting the role of tas}awwuf in Islamization of body, mind and soul of the Malay people in various medium especially through the unique style of prose and poem in Malay literature that emphasize adab in the construction of Worldview of Islam of the Malay people.
In ISK, al-Attas highlighted the role of H}amzah Fans}ūrī through his various works such as Asrār al-‘Ārifīn, Sharab al-‘Āshiqīn and al-Muntahi which have strong philosophical and sufistic message, as an example of Malay Muslim homo intellectus in that era. Al-Attas found out that H}amzah Fans}ūrī was the first man who used the Malay language in rational and systematic manner by elucidating philosophical ideas through his creative intellectual prowess in writing.
The impact of rational and systematic usage of the Malay language had influenced many scholars in various parts of Malay Archipelago. Some of those important works in Malay literature that depicts the same nature of H}amzah Fans}ūrī’s works are Tāj al-Salāt}īn by Bukhari al-Jauhari; Mir’āt al-Mu’min, Risālah, Mir’āt al-Imān, and Nūr al-Daqā’iq by Shamsu’l-Din of Pasai; Bustān al-Salāt}īn fi Dhikr al-Awwalīn wa’l Ākhirīn, Latā’if al-Asrār, and Sirāt} al-Mustaqīm by Nūru’l-Dīn al-Rānīrī; Syair Ma’rifat by Syeikh Abdul Rauf Singkel and many more.
The Malay language, according to al-Attas, was only developed from aesthetic to its scientific nature after experiencing the Islamization process in the beginning of 13th century
According to al-Attas, Al-Qur’ān had Islamized Arabic language by transforming it to be more scientific in nature and also emphasized the rational aspect of the language. The Islamized Arabic language can be seen in the Al-Qur’ān as a Book which is 1) explicit in its sign and the discourse is subtle and coherent ( Kitābun fus}s}ilat āyātuhu); 2) a Book which used Arabic language that is not complex in its order ( ghayra dhī‘iwajin). Due to these kind of characteristics which emphasize upon the orderliness, coherent and subtlety of the word structures, the Arabic language that Al-Qur’ān has depicted also can be described as an explanation (bayān), as something that already clear ( mubīn) and by its own will be explained (bayyinah).
Al-Attas shared the same view as Western linguist such as Humboldt and Cassirer that language plays a very important role in the development of worldview that will depict the ontological aspect of one’s culture and the words also play a decorative role for the concepts that constructed its ontology.
He had beautifully elucidated the role of language in the development of worldview as:

“ …the narrative of language can be depicted as a thin veil in various colours that always be place in the front view of the observer, whether the observation is about the physical or an metaphysical world. Therefore, the colour and the design, the characteristic and the shape of the world that being observed will be influenced by the thin veil of language”
Islamization of the Malay world can also be viewed from the development of new Malay words that being derived from Arabic script to suit the local’s tongue such as cha, nga, pa, ga and nya. Al-Attas elaborate his theory based on Ibn Khaldūn’s analysis upon the influence of Arabic language unto the Berber language.
The process of Islamization of the Malay language has turn out to be a great revolution upon the acceptance of the language as a medium of Islamic propagation throughout the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. In 16th century onwards, the Javanese language has been sidelined by the Malay language in various significant fields of human activities in the Archipelago.
On Islamic Mysticism
Islamic mysticism (or Sufism) is not an alien concept in Islam. More known as tas}awwuf in its Arabic word, it was one of the most important ideas that had galvanized the Islamization process in Malay Archipelago. Al-Attas defines tas}awwuf as “practice of sharīāh at the level of ihsan
The influx of philosophical and sufism treatises for the public at large had produced tremendous change in terms of Malay’s weltanschauung. The spirit of rationalism that being imbued in rational theology (kalām) treatises as well the refinement of inner aspect of men through philosophical mysticism and metaphysics ( tassawuf ) treatises had made the Malay people radically altered their aesthetic worldview inherited from the Hindu-Buddha period towards a more scientific one that uphold rationalism and intellectualism that being moulded by orthodox Islamic intellectual heritage.
One of the notable examples that best describe the influence of intellectual tas}awwuf upon the Malay-Indonesian society can be seen through monumental works such as Sayr al-Sāikīn and Hidāyat al-Sālikīn, written by Shaykh ‘Abd al-S}amad al-Palimbānī that widely being taught in the Malay –Indonesian society till today. The genealogy of intellectual tas}awwuf that had significant influence upon the Malay-Indonesian society can be traced back to the great intellectual s}ufī scholar like al-Ghazālī, which al-Palimbānī himself had used extensive resources from al-Ghazālī’s works such as Ih}yā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, Minhāj al-’Ābidīn and al-Arba’in fi Us}ūl al-Dīn in writing his two previously mentioned magnum opuses.
Concluding remarks.
In reading al-Attas’ ISK, I believe one must consider carefully on his philosophical framework that he consistently applied in elucidating important key concepts that being used throughout his writings in order to appreciate his writing in ISK better. Based on my experience in reading his other texts, I have noticed a coherent and integrated philosophical framework which he derived from the heritage of Islāmic Philosophy and Theology (kalām) and Sufism (tassawuf) mainly in tune to al-Ghazālī’s framework.
On all of his accounts that I managed to trace in ISK ranging from subject matter like Orientalism, history, Malay language and literature, and Islamic mysticism, I believe to get the most out of his work, one must never read it in simplistic manner without grasping the main ideas behind those layers of sentences.
From all of the arguments which I have highlighted above, ISK proves to be a monumental work that help to define the basis of our tawhidic Malay and Islāmic identity - a subtle identity which has been lost in the annals of history since colonial era. ISK also has a huge potential to be the beacon of hope in countering the assault of neo-colonialism that constantly attacking us in the shape of Orientalism as the vehicle that made corruption of knowledge possible, as well with the assistance from the process of secularization that has occurred intensely in our world today. 

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