[This entry is a selected summary and reflection of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 19th December 2020.]

by Luqman Johani (PhD candidate at CASIS). Edited by Sania Sufi.

The final session of the Saturday Night Lecture delivered by Professor Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud for the year of 2020 was allocated to answer lingering questions from loyal listeners and members of the series. It has been a rather unique series of Lectures due to its medium of instruction being  conducted fully online considering the current situation of covid 19 in Malaysia. Despite that fact, Professor Wan, however, graciously adapted to the circumstances and he directly interacted  with the audiences by answering some important questions. Each question was interrelated as they dealt with matters concerning language, knowledge, culture, and Islam’s, as well as other, civilizations. The first question was concerned with the differences between Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and Ismail al-Faruqi; with regard to the Islamization of Knowledge and their different interpretations and understandings of Islamization. The second question, more specific than the first, is with regard to the need of learning or studying non-Muslim philosophers and their philosophies in the contemporary times, as reflected in the works of the Muslim philosophers and the knowledge culture in the past. The third question concerned with ways of dealing with clash of definitions, which arose due to the emergence of different worldviews. The last question intended to seek more clarification concerning the representation of Islām and the matters concerning the ‘Islamic view’ itself.

Ismail Faruqi’s seminary work on Islamization
  1. Al-Attas and al-Faruqi: Basic Similarities and Major Differences

To quote the question verbatim: “What is the key difference between al-Attas’ conception of Islamization and both Faruqi and IIIT’s approach to the Islamization of knowledge? Does our acceptance of the former imply the latter not being rooted in Islām itself/the Islamic vision of truth and reality?

In clarifying the key differences between Prof. al-Attas’ conception of Islamization and Ismail al-Faruqi and IIIT’s approach to the Islamization of knowledge, Prof. Wan firstly stressed that it is not just, for both of them, to highlight their differences without first inquiring into their basic similarities. In that manner, the major differences will be clearer. There are two basic similarities between them that need to be understood. The other similarities will be highlighted in the future lectures, as Prof. Wan explains.

  1. Basic Similarities

First, is the fact that both of them profoundly understood that knowledge which has been propagated in the modern world and spread in the universities, from the beginning of the contact between the West and the rest of the world is not neutral. They were convinced that the sciences that have been regarded as neutral, whether natural or humanistic, were basically a fiction of the western agenda. It is basically the projection of the Western worldview and civilizational and cultural perspective and experiences. 

Prof. Wan commented further, that there is always possibility in denying the conclusion and statement that ‘knowledge is not neutral’, since there exist the elements of similarities which give the appearance that knowledge seems to be neutral. However Prof. Wan argued that elements of similarities do not imply the neutrality of knowledge because they are the overlapping elements between civilizations, between worldviews. In fact, they are something which makes knowledge to be universal, rather than being interpreted as neutral. This is the reason why the Muslim can accept some of the ideas in the teachings of Aristotle and Plato and regard that as being affirmed by Islamic teachings. 

To claim that Muslim scholars like ibn Khaldūn viewed knowledge as neutral, is something illogical and is not in conformity with what was conceived and perceived by ibn Khaldūn himself. Ibn Khaldūn in his Muqaddimah, has deliberately distinguished between two types of sciences; ‘ulūm naqliyyah and ‘ulūm ‘aqliyyah (traditional and intellectual sciences). This classification of sciences by ibn Khaldūn, however, cannot be construed as mutually separated from each other, or in other words, a dualism. Similarly, this  can also be understood in the case of al-Ghazzālī which was separated with ibn Khaldūn by almost 300 years. Apart from the ‘ulūm naqliyyah and ‘aqliyyah, there was also another classification of sciences introduced: the shar‘iyyah and ghayr shar‘iyyah (religious and non religious sciences). When they classified this science as religious (shar‘iyyah), they do not mean that the sciences are mutually conflicting since they were not trapped in the dualism and were explaining it in general sense. For ibn Khaldūn, in his Muqaddimah, even when deliberating upon certain issue in the tafsīr of the mufassirūn—and the tafsīr of the Qur’ān is part of the traditional sciences (naqliyyah)—he was applying ‘aql or in other words, his reason and experience. He is not a philosopher in the Mu‘tazilī, ibn Sīnā, al-Fārābī nor in the al-Kindi sense. Therefore, his worldview was not shaped by philosophy, but rather by the traditional Islamic worldview by following Mālikī school of thought and  Ash‘arite kalām. He also showed his respect to the Ṣūfīs as well. Interpreting ibn Khaldūn and al-Ghazzālī’s classification of sciences as mutually conflicting, is misleading. As we can observe from their works and in their theory building, they were not indicating that knowledge of history, or of humanity, is value-neutral. They were, in fact, thinking and writing as Muslims. As reminded by Prof. Wan, we should not be using perspectives born out of modern ideologies; the necessity of having awareness to understand and interpret them; in addition to that, we must let them explain themselves and understand their worldview.

Prof. Wan clarified that when Prof. al-Attas and al-Faruqi discussed the idea of the non-neutrality of knowledge, they were not influenced by the Marxist thinking because they were not sociologists, political scientists, and they were more of Muslim philosophers, and Muslim metaphysicians. With regard to Prof. al-Attas, he is of a Ṣūfī of a higher order, but he still reads the writings of the sociologists and philosophers of the West.

The second basic similarity, for both al-Faruqi and Prof. al-Attas, is that they regard that Islamization must happen at the university level. That the educated people must be first developed. For al-Faruqi he established IIIT in 1976-77, and Prof. al-Attas, was even earlier, established ATMA, and IBKKM before that in 1972. In addition, even though al-Faruqi derived many of his ideas and methodologies from his discussions and interactions with Prof. al-Attas and despite the differences below, they share, however, some similarities with regards to the conception and method, although not all of it. 

This book mentioned right after
  1. Major Differences 

The first is that when al-Faruqi suggested on the steps (of ‘Islamization’) that one need, which are (i) to have mastery in traditional sciences, in the Islamic and Western heritages, (ii) to synthesize both Islamic and Western, and then (iii) publishing textbooks, he did not explain the proper mechanism as to how to master these. Al-Faruqi did not explain the proper mechanism, and what is meant by Prof. Wan here, is the attitude, the right attitude. Because to master something, we must develop a proper, right attitude; otherwise, it will not allow one to acquire the complete mastery of those sciences. For Prof. al-Attas, the attitude is very important, to master any knowledge, you must have adab towards knowledge itself. 

Secondly, al-Faruqi in his writings, did not elucidate how the process of Islamization happened in history and what type of people they have produced. Whereas Prof. al-Attas, in his discussion about Islamization, he started as early as in his doctoral thesis, when he was writing on the Mysticism of Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī. Several key chapters at the end of the book discussed how the Islamization of the Malay Archipelago took place as a case study. Therefore, here according to Prof. Wan, we can observe that Prof. al-Attas’ basic framework is historical, and it can provide insights on how the Islamization of worldviews happened and language as the important instrument in Islamization. This is also the point of distinction between Prof. al-Attas’ notion of Islamization and al-Faruqi’s position which seems to be equating Islamization to Arabization with regard to key terms and concepts.

The third one was concerning the framework, where al-Faruqi, together with IIIT, seems to be emphasizing more on law as reflected in their academic works, although they were good works but most of their major emphasis are on the legal and political parts. This is clearly different from that of Prof. al-Attas, since his framework is a traditional framework which includes not only law, but encompasses Kalām and Taṣawwuf. In the understanding of Prof. al-Attas, to bring Islamization, we must develop an understanding of Kalām (theology), and of Taṣawwuf properly. Kalām deals with intellectual understanding of Islām, and Taṣawwuf pertained to the spiritual understanding and behaviour of Islām; inner and external parts of it. To Prof. al-Attas, the legal and political aspects of Islamization, cannot be understood and put into effect without the proper intellectual, spiritual, moral development of the community, from the top leadership to the common people.

Now, “If we were to accept al-Faruqi’s conception should we reject al-Attas’ conception, and if we were to accept al-Attas’ position must we reject al-Faruqi’s conception?” 

On this matter, Prof. Wan explains, it is an injustice to them if we try to fit them into the acceptance-rejection dichotomy as such. What we should do instead is to benefit the aspects of their analysis which are useful if we have inclination towards one of them. Thus, does it entails that Prof. al-Attas and al-Faruqi’s interpretations can be synthesized? Prof. Wan’s remarks on this is that to synthesize is rather difficult since we are making them as two equal kind of entities. But, we can absorb some of al-Faruqi’s interpretation, for example on Christian ethics which he is considered as an authority of it. Therefore, it is not either or. Prof. al-Attas himself exemplified this in his writing, where he discussed on Islamic metaphysics although he is Ghazzālian in his major philosophical outlook. He took from al-Fārābī, ibn Sīnā wherever it is suitable, although ibn Sīnā and al-Ghazzālī differ on some metaphysical aspects, they shared some similarities in some psychological aspects.

In the final remarks concerning the conceptualization and interpretation of Islamization, Prof. Wan reminded us to have respect for others who have contributed earlier, learn from them, and try to move forward by recognizing their contributions as we must recognize and acknowledge each other. The criticisms received did not negate the fact that it brings about the popularization for the movement for Islamization of knowledge. However, with the over popularization, it can cause rejection since what is going to be understood by the popular mind, by the media, is the simplified version of it. The project of Islamization has been nullified, and rejected by many people because of this over popularization of the agenda; it became a political agenda and consequently, defeats the original purpose.

When Prof. al-Attas explains on the Islamization of knowledge, he never separates from the creation of the right woman and man who has this knowledge since the purpose of the attainment of knowledge is to refine the human character. Here, the role of adab is very important. The Islamization of modern-day knowledge, in reality, is to create human being who are in conformity with Islamic metaphysical, ethical, and legal ideas. It is not about knowledge per se, not about writing textbooks, but to create people who write textbooks and sometimes not necessarily writing books, it can also be about the people who create institutions; whether they are politicians, businessman, architects, or scholars. To be a politician, a properly Islamized politician you must have knowledge in your mind, or in other words, to be a good Muslim we must have knowledge in our minds, our souls, not in the books alone. The soul is where knowledge resides.

  1. Is it Necessary for the Muslims to study non-Muslim philosophers and their Philosophies?

The gist of the second question rephrased by Prof. Wan is “whether or not Muslim nowadays must study non Muslim philosophers and thinkers, in particular at the university level. Because in the past Muslim scholars have studied Plato, Aristotle. In Malaysia in particular, should we not again teach the philosophical ideas of non Muslim scholars. Should we (in Muslim countries) learn more about non-Muslim philosophers? Should their teachings (as long as they do not clash with the basics of Islām) be taught in philosophy departments in Malaysia, too?

Prof. Wan’s answer is affirmative in this sense; that we should study and learn non-Muslim philosophers, especially at the level of graduate studies. For undergraduates, they must know some basic writings of these people so they can read by themselves. However there are conditions for this since ‘learning’ and ‘studying’ will involve both teacher and student. Therefore, Prof. Wan emphasized that both the teachers and students must be well prepared, and the students must be from among the mature ones. The importance of having the right, well-prepared teachers and students lies in their understanding since when the teachers teaching the non-Muslims philosophy, understood it from different perspectives, the understanding of the students will also follow that difference unless the students are already mature people.

In this matter, Prof. Wan highlighted the point which al-Ghazzālī also raised in the past that to study a challenging subject coming from non-Muslim sources, one must be prepared for it first. Not anybody should study that just because they like it, but they must understand Islām properly so that they will not misunderstand what is given to them. Prof. Wan also clarified this matter further on how this has happened in the past and in modern times. Al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, and ibn Sīnā are the examples of the past, and they were even among those who understood Islām deeply. However, because their attitudes towards the Greek philosophers were too overpowering,  sometimes they can be dominated by the new philosophies and these new philosophies, transformed their original Islamic philosophies. 

In modern times, Prof. Wan discussed how the people who studied Islām in the West studying something new in relation to themselves and that the new knowledge transformed their original Islamic thinking. The implication is that they became westernized in their Islamic worldview. But, Prof. Wan continued, the reverse also happened to those who were brought up in the non Islamic worldviews when they studied Islām properly, the knowledge (of Islām) transformed them deeply, some became Muslims and made contributions as well.

This, at the same time, does not negate the fact that there are also reasons, the need for present day Muslims to study their philosophies, taking for example in Malaysia, since the Malaysians are confronting and interacting with other civilizations. Prof. Wan was advising that the responsibility in studying the philosophies is not for all Muslims and not all non-Muslim philosophies need to be studied, only the most important ones, especially in this times, like the Greek, Christian and Jewish philosophers of the past and what is defined as ‘Western’ now. Adding his further observation in moving ahead, Prof. Wan also encourages us to study the non-Muslim philosophers who are Eastern, such as the Indian and the Chinese; historically, culturally, and philosophically.

In summary for this question, Prof. Wan emphasized immensely on the sufficient preparation for both the teachers and students. And the rest is up to them, because for some, no matter how prepared they are, they may still be confused. In this matter, we are required to put trust on them. That is the gist answer on the importance, condition, implication and suggestion from Prof. Wan.

  1. Dealing with the Clash of Definitions and On the Matters of ‘Representing’ Islām

With the discussion becoming more concentrated, Prof. Wan further addressed the other important question which is, “With reference to Prof. al-Attas, the clash of definitions is due to the difference in worldview. What do you think is the right way, epistemically and ethically, to face this clash of definitions?

The answer and response given by Prof. Wan, in short, is to deal with it intellectually. By ‘intellectual’, Prof. Wan meant that we must  not only understand what they are saying, but we also must understand why they are saying what they are saying, and where that came from, historically and philosophically. As important as dealing with it intellectually, Prof. Wan stressed, the manner in dealing must also be put in emphasis. Therefore in the discussion, we must discuss in an intelligence, respectful manner. Respect is two-ways street, if they respect us then we must respect them, and even if they do not respect us, we must still try to show that we are civil person as far as scholarship is concerned, unless they are intolerant and among the extremists.

Continuing with the momentum, Prof. Wan continued to provide his insights in answering the following question that “Why currently we have tendency among Muslims, including certain Muslim scholars, who are preferring to view their own explanations and definitions as their own views instead as ‘the view of Islām’, and they look at people who are claiming that they represent Islamic view as arrogant?

Prof. Wan answered that such view, as in the question, contains subtle fallacies and absurdities since when one knows that he knows, he must state that, for instance on behalf of any specific issues in question, that “this is the view of Islām” and “how Islām views it”. To understand this, Prof. Wan gave an explanation that it should be based on the proper understanding of the nature of knowledge in Islām and Islamic hierarchy of knowledge. Hierarchically, there are those (i) who know that they know, and (ii) who do not know that they know. The first one, they say and write, and give proofs, textual, and rational arguments for that. That is what it is. Hence, it is not arrogant to state that “this is what Islām says”, or that “this is the view of Islām” if this refers to those who know that they know. For the second, it refers to those who are not certain, still thinking, considering, doubtful, and the proper thing to state is that “this is my opinion”. Even if they can be possibly proven wrong in some matters, that is already an ijtihād

However, to claim that no one should claim that what they write is ‘Islām’, or the Islamic position, implies that every knowledge is a matter of opinion, therefore that is sophistical (safsaṭah). That is denial of absolute knowledge and knowledge that is true. It is no longer humility since every knowledge will be regarded as opinion. Humility, on the other hand, means that we have been equipped to make proper interpretation because of the linguistic ability, intellectual understanding, research method, and have done the best. Humility is when you are proven wrong, you correct that. Arrogance is when proven to be wrong, we deny that and still want to continue. In fact, it is not humility to state that nobody should claim that this position is the view of Islām. Such statement is sophistical, and it is the position of ‘indiyyah (the Epistemological Subjectivists), which leads to the destruction of knowledge, of religion, of ethics, of everything. That is our brief summary for the answers.

Other questions posed by other participants were taken into consideration. One of them concerned the nature of languages seen from the context of Islamization. There are languages in the other parts of the world which, according to Prof. Wan, has been Islamized such as Malay, Persian, Hindi which then resulted in the enhancement to that languages, therefore worth to be called ‘new language’. There are also the languages which are difficult to Islamize like Sanskrit, Mandarin and Thai. That is one of the reasons why the Muslims and Muslim scholars, in Malay archipelago, chose the Malay to be Islamized instead of Javanese language which derived some of its words from Sanskrit, and in other part of the world, Urdu instead of Pali or Sanksrit. Besides, those languages (e.g. Sanskrit, Mandarin) were already loaded with difficult philosophical concepts from tradition other than Islām, and reflects how in the present, there is still continuous struggle of the so called Islamization by using the original key terms and concepts,  but understanding them in Islamic sense. 

Giving his summary of the session, Prof. Wan brought us to reflect that the Islamization of knowledge is a responsibility, of the Muslim intelligentsia, to try to contribute to it but not as a political slogan, and at the same time not to be trapped within the confinement of the idea of neutrality of knowledge even though there are aspects of objectivity in the field of sciences. This is because knowledge resides in the intellect, it is not out there since what is out there are objects of knowledge. Even the Holy Qur’ān as a perfect source of knowledge, for example, when it goes into the mind of unbelieving person, sometimes it can be disruptive for them and also the Ḥadīth, they may not properly interpreting it. Therefore that is what knowledge is, it needs certain preparations and requirements and it is, in truth, the food of the soul. As in the saying of Junayd al-Baghdādī: “The colour of water takes on the colour of its cup” (lawn al-mā’ lawn inā’hi).

The RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture will resume this weekend on 13th March 2021. To get the link, go to http://linktr.ee/rzs.casis