RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture 10th Series 

with Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, 

Holder of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas Chair of Islamic Thought

25th July 2020

“Arriving at the Problem of Knowledge”

Transcribed Speech

Transcribed by Arif Munandar Riswanto (RZS-CASIS Phd Candidate)

Edited by Hajar Almahdaly


This series of lecture until December in shā’a Allāh will try to go through the chapter two of Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud’s book on Syed Muhammad Naquib al-AttasEducational Philosophy and Practice. Last series, prior to this one (i.e. lecture) we were deliberating on the introduction and the worldview of Islām from that book. This chapter, or the second chapter, deals with knowledge and knowing. It deals with the meaning of knowledge, the channels of knowledge, those who oppose knowledge, and the definition of knowledge. Tonight we will try to spend a little of time on the introductory paragraph or pages—before we go to the aspect of knowing itself.

Prof Wan began by summarising on the second chapter of his book of the Educational Philosophy and Practices of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: An Exposition of the Original Concept of Islamisation where the chapter begins with outlining that scholars of Islām, from the beginning until now, and even non-Muslim scholars, all recognises that Islām puts a great emphasis on the importance of knowledge. The chapter also put sufficient regard to Prof. al-Attas’ entire philosophical and reformed agenda that becomes central to his struggle. Prof. Wan said, if we were to ask him, “What are the basic problems facing the Muslim world? And how to solve them?” He always says, “The problem is of knowledge?”

Although all the Muslims have admitted that knowledge is always important, but whenever there are problems, in the political, military, and social systems of Islām, Muslim leaders have always been trying to go back to the problem of knowledge. However, the knowledge which they regard as fundamental and important may sometimes be contrary to the understanding of knowledge which our tradition and which people like Prof. al-Attas has been expounding.

Recurring Challenges Throughout History

When Islam’s Largest Army Came: The Siege of Vienna, 1683

Prof Wan started by saying that prior to the modern age where Muslims were facing the increasing challenges from the rising western political powers, the Ottoman, the Mughal, and even in the Malay world, tried to find answers of why they were weaker. The Ottomans, for example, when they started the siege of Vienna during the Sultan Sulaymān al-Qānūnī, in the sixteenth century, took them two weeks long, struggled to conquer Vienna and failed. More than 215 years later they went to another siege. It took more than two months, but again, they failed miserably. This later forced them to sign the treaty after the Battle of Zenta, called the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 – Karlowitz is a place in the present Serbia – which spelled the end of Ottoman domination in central Europe—the beginning of their loss of territories to European power. About twenty years later, there was a force again to sign annals treaty with the Habsburg Empire which becomes stronger, called the Treaty of Passarowitz—again in what is now Serbia. Later on about fifty years later there was a force again to sign a treaty, called the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, with Russia. The Russian empire, led by the Catherine the Great, was just becoming dominant, but yet they managed to force the great Ottoman Empire to sign a treaty recognizing the power of emperor of Russia—the Christian Orthodox even in Istanbul.

In the history of Islām, when things like these happen, when you lose great wars, some thinkers tend to wonder: what is wrong with us? Because we were supposed to be all conquering empires. Islām is supposed to be the most dominant and powerful force on earth. So political defeat sometimes forces people to interpret something wrong with no tjust the military dimension of their struggle, but even the religious dimension of their struggle. 

Battle of Plassey

Prof Wan mentioned that the battle of Plassey in 1757 India between Nawab Siraj al-Dawlah against the British East India Company. When the Ottoman went to Serbia and Russia and lost (their battles), it was far away from their capital of Istanbul. But when the Mughal Empire was lost to the British, the British only sent in that particular battle not more than 800 military personnel, whereas the Mughal military personnel were about 60,000. Although the British were far away from London, it was led by the British East India Company, not by the British government—of course supported in a minor sense by the French.

In addition to that, examples closer to home is the loss of Malacca and the Muslim powers in Java and Sumatera to the Dutch, despite the Dutch being far away from Leiden, the Portuguese were far away from Lisbon, but yet, they dominate still.

In these times, 17th and 18th centuries, there were still great Muslim thinkers around. There were people like Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi who died in 1624. There was Mulla Sadra in Iran who died in 1640. There was Kâtip Çelebi or Ḥājjī Khalīfa who wrote an important book, Kashf al-Ẓunūn. There were Ibrahim al-Kurani, al-Raniri, Rauf Sinkil, Yusuf al-Makassari, Imam Abdulah al-Haddad. There was Shah Waliyullah al-Dahlawi who lived in the beginning of the reign of Aurangzeb. There was also in India at that time, Maulana Nizamuddin Muhammad of Firangi Mahal whose curriculum, Dars-i Nizami, is still used until now in India, Pakistan, South Africa, and even Canada. There are ten million Muslims who follow Dars-i Nizami. And there are more than ten thousand madrasahs following that curriculum.

The importance of knowledge, despite the political defeat, was emphasized. But the right kind of knowledge is rarely understood. The way of some of our leaders in the past, in Egypt, in Turkey, in India, and even in the Malay World until now, when we want to reform ourselves, we emphasize on knowledge, (and it is ) correctly enough, but what type of knowledge do we emphasize upon? In the case of Turkey and Egypt, they emphasize more on the military scientific knowledge and discipline. They were defeated by the Western power because of the obvious superiority of the military weaponry of the Dutch, of the Portuguese, of the French, of the British. They are not entirely wrong, even until now when we send students to all over the world to study, the best students were sent to study, not military sciences only, but scientific commercial economic sciences to the West. That was the obvious strength of the  West.

When the British defeated the Mughal in the battle of Plassey, for the next one hundred years, the British becomes dominant in Indian subcontinent including Burma. (It was in ) 1757, just after a few decades after the death of Aurangzeb, the greatest Mughal ruler who brought the Mughal Dynasty to the apex. But less than fifty years after he died, the whole thing started to crumble. Through a thorough survey, he found out that the defeat was primarily not only because of the superior military equipment of the British supported by the French, but because of the defection of the three major leaders of the Mughal military personnel, including 35.000 of the military personnel. Although the technical knowledge and sciences played a role, but there is something else which Ibn Khaldūn noticed much earlier which he called the loss of ʿaṣabiyyah (the loss of solidarity) in the core of element of the ruling class of the population. That is what occurs in the Malay World too, when the Portuguese destroyed Malacca, they came only with several ships. However, there was already internal dissension among the leadership of the Malacca Sultanate, a period of injustice, loss of authority, and treason among some of the leading families. The same thing also occurred in Indonesia, to some extent that a small group of the Dutch military leaders could control a huge archipelago for 400 years. Until now Holland remains a small country. But how it could control the biggest Muslim country for 400 years? This reflects that it is not only with military knowledge that this victory ascends, but because of something else that was inflicting the local population.

During the time of Sultan Sulaymān al-Qānūnī, in the greatest period of Ottoman Empire, there was a middle level bureaucrat, but a top level historian and scholar, called Mustafa Ali. He wrote a book Naṣīḥah to the Sultan, in Turkish and Arabic translated into English(1). In the preface of that particular book written during the apex of Muslim dominance—he lived not only during the time of Sultan Sulaymān but also during his successor, Sultan Salim and spent seven years in Bosnia as a military personnel—he said that our nations, the Muslim nations, have been playing with injustice. And he defines justice in the classical Islamic sense—used by Prof. al-Attas, al-Ghazali, al-Hujwiri, and all Muslim scholars who talk about justice—that justice is a condition of things in their right and proper places; and injustice means, you put things in the wrong places. Mustafa Ali said that the Muslim lands were already plagued with injustice, not in the simple sense of people killing people or robbing of high taxation, but putting people in the wrong places. That was in the apex of the Ottoman Empire.

So when wrong people are put in the important position, there will be injustice. Not in the sense of robbery and stealing, but rather making wrong decisions. A wrong decision can sometimes mean to be: you do too much or too less something. Although the Ottoman Empire crumbled much latter, but the seeds of the downfall were already evident even during the time of Sultan Sulaymān.

In the case of Aurangzeb also, he was a great emperor, a supporter of the Sharīʿah. But when there was an internal struggle, he was forced to eliminate his own members of family and their supporters, therefore wrong people will be put in the wrong places. That is why when al-Attas talks about knowledge, he means knowledge in a different sense than what is understood. His understanding of the importance of knowledge in the process of islamization and reformation was not just recent. When he wrote his doctorate dissertation on the Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, in early 1960s, he was talking about the islamization of the Malay world. And he said that the Malay World when it becomes Islamic, it changes the fundamental worldview from aesthetic to scientific worldview. Because in the pre Islamic time, the Malays were more prone to the aesthetics. They loved music, dancing, art, architecture, and structure. But when they became Muslims an  inculcating the Islamic worldview, they become aware of the nature and reality of things in the proper sense guided by the Revelation. They were aware of the right use of reason and of sense experience. Of course Islam does not negate aesthetic matter, but aesthetic  on its own should not dominate our worldview. Even aesthetics must be based on the right kind of knowledge—not just emotions and imaginations.

Prof Wan returned back to his book where he refers that even though the Muslims classically (especially among the top leaders) have always been respectful of knowledge, but whenever we want to solve our Umatic problems, the solution was only on the practical-technical aspect of knowledge—which no doubt is indeed part of knowledge in Islam.

Solution to the Challenges

The next part of his chapter, he talked about the letter which al-Attas wrote to the Islamic Secretariat base in Jeddah on 15th May 1973, which later on became OIC. At least in those days Tunku Abdul Rahman al-Hajj, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, had a vision to write a letter to the top Muslim leaders all over the world to seek and discuss the question on ‘What were the biggest problems that Muslims were facing?’ One of them was al-Attas. He received the letter and wrote a reply to Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was not a long letter, about two pages of letter, type-written, single spacing. In there he wrote to Tunku that the Muslim world were facing many problems—economics, military, scientific, political, sociological. But all these are  merely superficial problems. The underlining problem behind these economic, political, scientific, engineering, and commercial problems is the problem of knowledge. But not just any problem of knowledge. Not just people are ignorant of many things, but it is the problem of confusion and error in knowledge. That is very interesting. Because of the problem of confusion and error in knowledge, therefore even though we had the Ottoman Empire and the Moghul Empire controlling this part of the world as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the solution which we have will not be able to address the problem entirely in the long run. Confusion here means you know something and you are not entirely ignorant of those things, but when they are confused, you will place what you know in the wrong context, either too much or too little; and if you are erroneous in the  understanding of that knowledge, it is equally worst. So the problem is not only the problem of ignorance, but confused about those things and erroneous in understanding them. Al-Attas was given the insight such that our biggest problem is not just ignorance but of confusion of what one already know. We know that the great scholars like Badiuzzaman Said Nursi who was also aware of this problem. He said that three of the biggest problems in the Muslim world were: poverty, division, and ignorance; but the problem of confusion and error in knowledge is more profound. Because ignorance, you can educate, establish schools, universities, madrasahs, but the biggest problem sometimes happens among those who are educated in the madrasahs and universities. To some extent, it becomes an educated person that become more malicious and envious. 

Prof. al-Attas wrote to Tunku Abdul Rahman and said that this is our biggest problem. Therefore he suggested that we must convince the top scholars to discuss about this problem. The kind of knowledge which have been disseminated in our universities now comes from a different perspective or worldview. Some of which are similar to ours, but fundamentally it is irreconcilable with our worldview, knowledge framework, and legal-ethical understanding of thing. Al-Attas wrote this in 1973, and now we are in the 21st century, things did not subside, but instead, have become worse. In 1970s, there were not  many universities, professors, let alone Islamic universities. Al-Attas was suggesting that we must establish a simple Islamic university. Not in the sense of al-Azhar, Madinah, Nizamiyyah, or Deoband. Because those studies focused on the classical Islamic sciences only. Instead, he proposed a new kind of university that study not only Islamic sciences but also modern philosophical sciences which are dominating modern development of the understanding of the Muslims themselves. We must Islamize the modern social and political sciences such that it fits the worldview of Islam. Of course later on in 1977, they convened the first world conference of Islamic education in Mecca which resulted in many series of Islamic conferences on education.

The problem which al-Attas was stating was very fundamental. He said that confusion of knowledge is our greatest challenge. And he repeated it in his royal lecture on Islam the Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality delivered in London, 1976. Up until now, he has been consistent with regard the problem of knowledge of which we are living proof that the problem is even deeper in our midst despite having thousands of universities. 

For example, the Dars-i Nizami alone, they received admission of 10 million students from all over the world—including the West. They teach high standard classical sciences of Islam. Dars-i Nizami is very useful program and has produced great scholars including Syakh Taqi Usmani. Even so, the question is whether or not this curriculum has been able to produce the student who understands the modern philosophical challenges, that is still a question to be answered properly.

Secularization and its Influence to Contemporary Knowledge

Moving on to the matters of knowledge, in al-Attas’ book on the Risalah Untuk Kaum Muslimin¸ in 1973 for the first time, he uttered the idea that knowledge is not neutral. The reason for this emphasis is that all the while before that, the Muslims have been thought to understand that knowledge is neutral. They understand it as we can learn knowledge from everywhere without worrying about the philosophical underpinning and assumption. The Marxists who are dominant in India and Africa, they are concurring that knowledge is not neutral but has been used as a dominant power to control—the economic super structure, the political structure, and the media information structure. But among the Muslims, it seems to be that at that time in the 70s, everybody seems to understand that knowledge is neutral. Although Iqbal understood something about the non-neutrality of knowledge when he said that the modern western knowledge is without soul hence it becomes the instrument of the devil. He did not, however, go into the philosophical and cultural background of how knowledge effect the Muslim world. In 1930s of course Iqbal was talking in a milieu when no single Muslim country was independent and there was no single university in the Muslim world except maybe in Istanbul and Aligarh Muslim University which Syed Muhammad Khan did establish in the 1870s. But even then in Aligarh Muslim University was following the Cambridge philosophy. Syed Muhammad Khan aspired to make the university, the Cambridge of the East.

Prof. Wan mentioned that al-Attas made a very strong and interesting observation when he said that when the West was confronting the Muslim world, they were trying to propagate Christianity. They were many missionary movements in the Arab world, in India, and the Malay World. But al-Attas said that the Christianization of the Muslim world is only a strategic distraction of the West. The West is not really interested in Christianizing for the sake of the Christianity—but only to distract the Muslim from the real reason of their mission. The real mission of the West is to inculcate the secular worldview to the Muslim which is far more dominant than the Christian worldview—because Christianity itself, has been secularized(2).

Prof Wan recalled that in the last series of RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (8th Series), he had a series delving on the crisis of authority. He gave examples on how the worldview of many religions have been secularized—the Hindus, the Christians and the Jews, this is because secularization is most dominant worldview that has been challenging all religions. The only religion which is still standing firm and fighting firmly is Islam. Because some of the Muslim scholars understood the challenge coming from the secular worldview. Although Christianity is a challenge to the Muslim, but that is only a deceptive strategy. It is not the real problem. The real problem is the secular worldview that dominates every field—even every religion including the Christianity itself.

Generally, when we want to identify the major problems experienced by the society, we talked about leadership and politics. We do not deny the importance of politics, in our ʿaqīdah, it is stated that in every event where a community exist, there must appoint a leader among them. Even the leader may not be perfect and may even be unjust, but he will remain as a leader, bearing responsibilities and rights. The Islamic worldview recognizes stability as a means to propagate peace and justice in the community—and in the religion itself, hence it is wrong to commit injustice to rectify injustice, like destroying the leader for the reason of injustice. If they were to be in instability or chaos, there will surely be more injustices of all kinds. In Tāj al-Salāṭīn, which is used in the Malay world, they quoted ḥadīth of the Prophet that 30 years of injustice is better than 3 days of chaos. Many Orientalists and Westernized Muslims will say that this ḥadīth is a weak ḥadīth because it seems to justify injustice and that this ḥadīth is used by the ulama to justify the unjust rulers. On the contrary, it does not mean that. For instance when there were to be an order, despite the ruler being unjust over the course of 30 years, there are still judges. But if there is disorder, the 3 days of disorder can cause million more injustices—not just in politics, economics, religion and other spheres of life. Look at in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya now. Of course Saddam Hussein was unjust, Bashar Assad was unjust too, so was Qadafi. But what can we see now, for the last 20 years, there were greater, never ending injustices—not just in politics and economics. That was what was meant when that particular ḥadīth was used.

When the Muslims say we need to replace leadership in order to create a more just society, we need to ask them, what is it that is corrupted about these leaders? In other words, what makes them do injustices? What makes them appoint people in the wrong places? What makes them take people’s property and life? What makes them do all of these things? The answer is, it is their knowledge, their worldview which is based on knowledge. In Prof Wan’s monograph on the intellectual climate in Andalusia(3), he asked the same question. Referring to Ibn Khaldūn observation on the loss of ʿāṣābiyyah, the Muslim empire in Andalusia was broken when they were humiliated, tortured and crucified by the Christians. It was a condition of when every leader aspiring to become the ruler. They were killing one another and cooperating with the worst enemy in order to gain power. But finally, to no avail, lost everything, especially their ʿaṣābiyyah or solidarity. Although they knew Arabic, some even memorized Qur’an and ḥadīth, but because of confusion and error in knowledge, what occured was the misplacement of priority. They appointed people wrongly. That is why Mustafa Ali was advising the Sultan of his time.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

Prof. Wan then highlights that the condition we are in is as what al-Attas have been pointing about on the perpetual repetition and returning in cycle of our problems. The confusion and error in knowledge caused the rise of unsuitable leaders in every field. Because if there were to be confusion and error in knowledge, the people will appoint unsuitable people to be muftis, ministers, qadis, professors. If we are confused, we will write books that have great footnotes quoting Qur’an and ḥadīth but put them in the wrong framework. We can write about tasawuf but we put it in the wrong framework. Therefore we are unjust to the Sufis and muhaddithun and we will then given the authority to advise the students, government, and community on wrong policies and behaviors. Sometimes we advise too much, too little, or erroneous ideas.

If there is confusion and error in knowledge, in economics we are going to appoint wrong people to be the economic advisors. So confusion and error in knowledge will automatically produce and sustain leaders in every field who are equally confused and erroneous. For example people ask: how did Donald Trump become so popular to be elected as the American president? And people say: he must be reelected in next election—despite everything he said and did. Many surveys which I read say that he must be reelected. Although there is a book written by one former chief editor of New York Times called the Death of Truth, referring mostly to Trump’s problem with fact and truth in political and scientific matters. Because a confused elector will elect people like them. Because they will easily confuse by data, pictures, Facebook reports, Instagram.

So confusion and error in knowledge will naturally produce leaders who are equally confused. But how does this confusion in knowledge come into existence? Because if the problem is the confusion and error in knowledge which produce confusion and error in every field, how does these phenomena of confusion and error in knowledge come into being? Al-Attas analyzes that it is from the loss of adab. This means that people become confused and erroneous in knowledge because the deep spread of loss of adab in ourselves and in the community. This makes our knowledge erroneous and confused which create false leadership in every field.

The vicious cycle which was identified: the loss of adab, leading to the confusion and error in knowledge, and leading to the rise of wrong leaders in every field. The point is where do we cut the vicious cycle? If the problem of knowledge is by establishing the universities and schools, but we have already established thousands of universities in all of the Muslim worlds. The problem seems to be worse and we have worse leaders in the Muslim world—despite of being independent from the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Prof Wan mentioned that this analysis is not from al-Attas only. If we were to study all the great Muslim scholars of the past, they said the same thing—although not in the same manner. But in the tradition of the haba’ib scholars like al-Ghazali, they talk about the loss of adab. In order to have proper knowledge we must inculcate in ourselves the right adab first. Some scholars in the past even said that they prefer to have adab first then only to have knowledge. Of course both adab and knowledge, they are not entirely separated, they are interconnected. To have the right adab, we must have some knowledge. To trust a teacher, a specialist, a dentist, a doctor, a mechanist, an economist, a banker, we must have some knowledge of what a good mechanist is and so on before we trust him rationally and properly. Even if we study from any places, we must know about the institution itself, who are the teachers, what are the library system etc. So we must have some knowledge in order to have a proper adab in any particular case. In fact the Sufi Scholars were to say, which Prof. al-Attas agrees quite easily, that adab is for everything and for every moment. Adab is not only in the seeking of knowledge, but for everything. The Sufis gave an example saying that there is even adab when we are rich. There is adab when we are poor. There is adab when we are healthy. There is adab when we are sick. There is adab when we are doing good deeds. There is adab when we are doing bad deeds or committing sins—the adab is to ask for forgiveness to correct ourselves. And we are doing good deeds the adab is to be thankful to Allah for giving us the knowledge and ability to perform the good things and to continue on the right course. Hence adab is for everything, every moment, every situation.

With regard to the vicious cycle of how our problem can be solved, it in al-Attas’ proposal which was written more than 40 years ago (4), but the condition have becomes worse now. In the 70s there were no internet and social media, therefore the dissemination of erroneous ideas were not so fast. But compared to now it is so fast. One wrong idea can be disseminated in one second, everywhere and globally. Prof. al-Attas said that if we are to solve our problems, we must tackle the problem of adab first. Adab is pertinent in politics, economics, education, social life, religious understanding and practice and then only we will have a proper understanding of the right knowledge in all these fields, which in turn, there will be rise of proper leaders in each of these fields. 

Prof Wan’s observation which he wrote in 1998, almost 20 years back, and now, the 2020, is still even more relevant now than before. From all of his experiences working with various universities, each and everyone of them he had the chance to speak to scholars and leaders of many universities in many parts of the world—in the West and the Muslim world. He realizes the truth of this observation and that our biggest problem is not just mere ignorant, because we have got brilliant professors in every field. Brilliant he meant here is well-trained in the best universities—in the Muslim world and non-Muslim world. But when adab is lost, then what we learn will be put in the wrong place, consequently, we will also put ourselves in the wrong place due to the fact that the one who appoints people will not know how to put us in the proper places. We are tasting the truth of that observation, and the taste is bitter. In fact it may be poisonous. Even in Africa there was a brilliant professor in Kenya, Ali Mazrui, he wrote in Harvard Educational Review about the African university being the most important agent for corrupting the African people. Where even in the 70s people are recognising that the university has become like a multi-corporal nation.

Prof Wan ended the lecture by reminding the hall that these discourses are just an introductory before he goes into the discussion on knowledge, knowing, the channels of knowledge, and the definition of knowledge.

Next session he will delve into the discussion on what knowledge is and what education should be, how we are going to study knowledge, what is our attitude to knowledge and teachers. It is the right of adab. Prof Wan reminded that first, with regard to learning, sincerity of purpose, to ourselves, to the subjects that we are studying, to our teachers is prerequisite. 

He recalled that when al-Attas was building the library of ISTAC, he said to tell the students that we are collecting from Muslims and non-Muslims sources, we are living in their best works that we can acquire in all languages. That is why when he wanted to appoint an officer for library, he appointed Prof. Dr. Muhammad Zainiy Uthman—at that time he just finished his Ph.D. The people who later took over the institution said: why are you putting a scholar in the library? Al-Attas wanted to show adab to the library, that the library must be managed by the scholar—not just by just the librarian who just got masters in library science. He must be the one who knows the scholars, the sciences in every field, and the manuscripts. Another example was when they had a scholar at ISTAC before. She knew many languages and she was not a Muslimah yet when she joined. She studied Arabic, Urdu, Persian, English, German, and French. She later on became Muslimah and translated major work from the classical Muslim discipline, and yet, she did not wear hijab but wore descent dresses. Some students wrote a letter to al-Attas questioning the higher institution for accepting a lady Professor who does not cover all  her hair. Prof Wan then said that Al-Attas asked him to call these students and he blasted them. He said: “You do not have adab. This subject which I ask this lady to teach, only she can do it. Of course I can find people who cover their faces to replace her, but they cannot teach this subject.” At ISTAC in the past, Al-Attas would have the non-Muslims teaching logic and Latin. And people ask: why do you employ somebody to teach the foreign languages which only has three students? Al-Attas said: “it is farḍ kifāyah. We want to have some students who know Greek and Latin even though there are only three or four students. And they will be thought by people who are expert in the field.” This, is adab towards knowledge. To learn something, we must show adab towards the teachers. It does not matter if they are Muslims or non-Muslims. ISTAC even had scholars from Iran teaching Persian, but they did not spread Shiism because they respected that we are Sunni. Even that people accuses al-Attas of supporting Shiism. But on the contrary, Al-Attas emphasises that we must build good relationships with all these madhāhib and even Orientalists.

Hence adab towards knowledge is to have the best people who can work with you to teach the things that you think need to be thought. Respect them. Give them the space. Prof Wan recalled the recent passing of one of the Turkish Professor, Prof. Dr. Sabri Orman who just recently passed away, who became a very prominent educational leader and a rector in one rich university, he said to him, “My best experience as a professor and a teacher was when I was with you all (in ISTAC). Because I felt respected as a scholar. Because the students love learning, the teachers love teaching, and there was no interference.” This anecdotal example which I experienced with him, of adab of learning in this modern era in this particular area.

If the adab in pursuing knowledge of every field is not in its proper place, therefore the knowledge that we have will not be truly stabilized in our soul as it tends to be confused and erroneous. Prof Wan gave another example during the time of ISTAC. There was a Ph.D student came to study with during the initial stage of ISTAC. He did not know Arabic, but he had experience in some practical work in psychology. He gave guidance to students and was a counsellor in one school. He came to study under one prominent and well-known Muslim psychologist. The Professor was already 60s and the student was 35. He came to the classes one day and spread among the students saying: “I know better than his Professor.” This is because to him, the Professor never taught in the secondary school. We told him, “Your adab is wrong. You cannot study here. It is poisonous to you. Even though you have some experience in counselling the students in high school, but this is something different. How do you know that your Professor does not counsel people? We know he counsels so many people, although not in the school. Because counselling does not have to be in the school. This is not right place for you because your attitude is wrong. You came to study under him but you are spreading among your friends that you are better than your teacher. How can you benefit from him?” And that attitude will be permanent in his mind. Therefore from the simple example, we can deduce that  respect for teachers of every field is important aspect of learning. That is why Sayidina ʿAlī r.a.w used to say that he will worship anybody who teaches him a single letter. Adab basically the discipline of the mind which commands our body to act accordingly such that it produces justice in our thought and behaviour. Adab is linked to justice but it is a discipline of the mind which makes the body discipline to act accordingly.

1.Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, “Some Basic Issues of Development in Malaysia.” In Development Experience of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: National Institute of Public Administration Malaysia (INTAN), 1993.  

2. This was claimed by the Christian scholars themselves, see Harvey Cox, The Secular City.

3. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, Iklim Kehidupan Intelektual di Andalusia: Satu Cerminan Islamisasi Dua-Dimensi (Penang: USM, 2006).

4. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, The Concept of Education in Islam