“Significance of Defining Key Terms in Islam”

by Nik Syazwan Nik Ab. Wahab (RZS-CASIS PhD Candidate)

[This entry is a selected summary and reflection of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 17th October 2020.]

Continuing from previous lecture, Prof. Wan began the 4th Instalment of the Saturday Night Lecture 10th Series by referring to an introduction of the sub-chapter entitled Definitions of Knowledge from Chapter Two of his book; The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, as follows;

“ To define (taḥdid) something or an object of knowledge is to be involved in a precise intellectual effort which is greatly appreciated in Islam by all schools of thought with very rare exceptions among individual scholars. Even in these exceptional cases, the opposition has been not on the importance of defining terms and concepts as such, but more on the over-emphasis of logic as the only discipline for such purpose.[1] Al-Attas has pointed out that one of the key indications of the bankrupt state of modernist Muslim intellectualism, due to their blatant undermining of the great intellectual and spiritual works of the past, is the lost of science of proper definition, which was a major characteristic and achievement of the Islamic intellectual tradition.”[2]

In overview, refering to the above introduction, there are several important key-terms according to worldview of Islām and its’ definitions, as per expounded by Prof al-Attas, were discussed in the this particular lecture by Prof. Wan, namely human (insān), development (islāh), happiness (sa’adah), religion (Dīn al-Islām), God (Allah) and knowledge (‘ilm).

In the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Wan reminded the audience that of Muslims have always denounced the attitude reflected upon a group of people that denies the possibility of arriving at true and certainty of knowledge; and this group were known as the Sophists (Sūfasṭā’iyyah), which he lucidly elucidated in the previous lecture. Some of these ideas were unequivocally echoed of the Muslim modernists today. This influential Muslim modernist movement, which is largely influenced by a secular worldview developed by the West, ultimately de-emphasizing the importance of true meaning and definitions of key-terms that were heralded by the Muslim scientific tradition for thousands of years, thus resulting a detrimental impact to the Muslim society today; we no longer acquired the ability to define key-terms and concepts according to our own worldview, which ultimately leads to confusion and error in knowledge. Also agreed by Prof al-Attas, Edward Said has argued Samuel Huntington’s idea in his well-known book entitled Clash of Civilization by proposing his own idea of Clash of Definitions instead. The actual conflict between civilization, according to Said, lies within the definition that reflects truth and reality which considered as the fundamental element in a civilization. Later in the lecture, Prof. Wan also quoted Yuval Noah Harari whom wrote about Data-ism as form of new religion in one of his bestselling popular science book Homo Deus; A Brief History of Tomorrow, which he speculated of how big data combining both biological and algorithmic data able to determine truth in the near future. According to Prof. al-Attas, the ability to give a precise definition of a term also means to establish the truth (ḥaqq) and limit (ḥādd) to itself. To define (taḥdid) as practiced by Prof. al-Attas is beyond intellectual and academic life, but also physical, spiritual, ethical and civilizational.

Example of the Birth of Islamic Language (Jawi)

Prof. Wan further illustrated an example of ‘man’ today is defined in narrow and understate definition such as homo-politicus or homo-economicus, thus unfortunately causing men to dedicate and enslave his life to only in both or even worse; either or. On the other hand, to merely overstate ‘man’ as children of God can also cause great confusion and error in the relationship between man and God. Therefore, Prof. al-Attas deliberately defined ‘man’ (insān) as rational-animal (al-ḥayawān al-nātīq), which he later refined the term animal (ḥayawān) in his later book On Justice and Nature of Man as not just a beastly creature but animated, living creature that possesses ability to articulate ideas rationally, especially the articulation of the message of Allah Himself, as is epitomized by the Prophet s.a.w. 

“…the term ‘animal’ can be taken to refer to an organized being infused with a vital spirit, yet it is generally understood to refer to ‘beast’. In order to distinguish man from beast, we prefer to translate the term ḥayawān in our definition of man not as ‘animal’, but as ‘living being’…Thus our definition of man as al-ḥayawān al-nātīq , the living  being that speaks.” [3]

Prof. Wan further dismissed the idea of neither Homo-sapiens nor Homo-erectus are accepted as Banī Adam in Islām.  Both are separate and different species altogether. Banī Adam is both khalifah and servant of Allah at the same time and to misunderstand this is unjust and led to corruption of meaning.

Unappreciative of the intellectual tradition of the past, the modernist Muslim tend to belittle the terminology developed in the past for instance the term ‘development’ or  in Malay, ’pembangunan’ which is loosely defined and associated ‘to build buildings’ or ‘membangunkan bangunan’; and thus concluded that by not building or construct buildings and monuments, we are not considered a fully developed civilization. Few other definitions highlighted by Prof. Wan that are loosely associated and poorly defined as development is ‘progress’ or moving forward (taqaddum), as if we neither cannot look back into the past nor remain seated to contemplate; ‘change’ (tashayyun/taghyīr), as if we have to change all aspects of life including religion; ‘growth’ (tanmīyyah), as if we must always have physical and economical growth to be fully develop as a nation. In his book Pembangunan di Malaysia; Ke Arah Satu Kefahaman yang Lebih Sempurna, Prof. Wan suggested that the term īslah should be the core foundation of physical development of the Muslim world. Any good, wholesome and beneficial actions (‘amāl sālih) that bring justice and balance to physical, spiritual, ecological and ethical aspects of livelihood. Without the correct understanding of the term and conception of development completely according the worldview of Islām, any so called ‘development’ will only lead to injustice, imbalance and corruption (fasād), leaving the sole progressing purpose of development is to arrive at a restricted ‘good life’ or happiness in the material sense. 

Happiness according to the West, cannot be essentially defined, thus reduced to only measurable and empirical characteristics such as GDP growth per capita, public health, public education etc. Void of any spiritual content, these narrow measurable and empirical outcomes have since uncritically adopted by most modernist Muslim today. On contrary, Prof. al-Attas in his book The Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islam, and later became a chapter in his magnum opus Prolegomena to The Metaphysic of Islam, has made it very clear that happiness (sa’ādah) is essentially and fundamentally spiritual and ethical, as follows; 

“Happiness according to the perspective of Islām as expressed by the term sa’ādah, and it relates to two dimensions of existence; to the hereafter (ukhrawiyyah) and to the present world (dunyawiyyah). The contrary of sa’ādah is shaqāwah, which conveys the meaning of great misfortune and misery in general. With respect to the hereafter sa’ādah refers to the ultimate happiness, which everlasting felicity and bliss, the highest being the Vision of God, promised to those who in worldly life have lived in willing submission and conscious and knowing obedience of God’s commands and prohibitions.” [4]

Prof. Wan further illustrated that the prophets of God, especially Muhammad PBUH are the prime examples of attaining sa’ādah in both dimensions of existence.

Prof. Wan explained that the essence of Islam as a religion have both of practical (Arkānul Imān) and theoretical (Arkānul Islam) principles as inseparable aspects. The polemic of the usage of the name Allah [5], that can be avoided if we really understand the true definition and correct application of God’s proper name and know how He describes Himself in the Qur’ān. Allah’s attributes can never be the same with other religion’s conception of God. Due to the nature of the modern pluralistic reality of today, confusion of meaning of language and its key-terms can be more detrimental to the Muslim in comparative to the Muslim in the past. 

Due to its’ limitless nature as explained by Prof. al-Attas, ‘knowledge’ is not possible to be defined by limit (ḥadd) but by characteristic (rasm) guided and derived from the Qur’ān. Epistemologically, there are two aspects of knowledge; the arrival (ḥuṣūl) of meaning (ma’nā) of a thing or an object of knowledge in the soul of the subject; and simultaneously, from the fact that the subject or the seeker of knowledge is an active agent, knowledge is the soul’s arrival (wuṣūl)  of soul at the meaning of that thing or the object of knowledge.

Kashshāf Istīlah al-Funūn by al-Tahānawī

Thus, our great Muslim luminaries in the past understood the importance in preserving the meanings of key terms in the Qur’ān due to the finality of the Prophetic mission. The critical nature of this reality has led to the compilation or creation of great dictionaries of key terminologies. For instances the compilation of Compendium of Definitions (Kitāb al-Ta’rifah) by one of the greatest theologian (mutakallimūn) Abdul al-Qahir al-Jurjani in the 10th  century; the voluminous Tongue of Arab (Lisān al-‘Arab) by Ibn Manẓūr in the 13th century; and Kashshāf Istīlah al-Funūn by al-Tahānawī the later 18th century.

Prof. Wan concluded his lecture by reminding us again that among of Prof. Al-Attas’ objectives of the establishment of ISTAC (1987 – 2002) was to clarify the key concepts in Islam and at the same time to also understand key concepts developed by the West;[6] ultimately to avoid error and confusion thus fall into fundamental fallacies, just like some of the modernist Muslims did in our time.[7] Confusion and error in defining key-terms can also led us to make non-essential matters become essential, thus steer the ummah into the abyss of petty squabbles.

[1] Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant, p. 46. For a good preliminary discussion on the position of definition among some prominent Muslim scholars such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Farid and Ibn Taymiyyah, see Zainal Abidin, The Problem of Definition in Islamic Logic: A Study of Abu al-Naja al-Farid’s Kasr al-Mantiq in Comparison with Ibn Taymiyyah’s Kitab al-Radd ‘ala al-Mantiqiyyin. (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC Master Theses Series Vol.1, 1997). 

[2] Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, The Educational Philosophy of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC,1998), 97. Citing Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’ Concept of Education in Islam, 1 -13.

[3] Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, On Justice and the Nature of Man, (Kuala Lumpur: IBFIM, 2016), 31.

[4] Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam (Johor: UTM Press, 2014 reprinted from 1995), 91. 

[5] A controversy that occurred in Malaysia back in 2007 on the usage of the name Allah in Christian communities translated in the Malay Bibles to refer to their God. Refer to this book for a clearer view of the issue, Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad (ed.) Controversy Over the Term “Allah” in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, IKIM Press, 2013). Or, individual articles are also available, see  “Heresy Arises From Words Wrongly Used” by Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas and Mohd Sani Badron published on 20th February 2008; Mohd Zaidi bin Ismail “Understanding the “Allah” Controversy” on 9th January 2010 ; Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad “The Allah Controversy Rearticulated” published on 19th February 2013.

[6] Refer to Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud. The Beacon on the Crest of the HillA Brief History and Philosophy of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1991). 

[7] An example of petty squabbles: They conjectured that Djīnn as micro-organism species and Malāikat as some kind of natural forces by extracting the framework of Muhammad Abduh; Ahmad N. Amir, Abdi O. Shuriye and  Ahmad F. Ismail in “Muhammad Abduh’s Scientific Views in the Qur’an” International Journal of Asian Social Science 2(11):2034-2044.

Next CSNL will be on the 21st November 2020 via Zoom, click here to register. To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series: