by Dr. M. Ikhwan Azlan (RZS-CASIS PhD Graduate)

[This entry is a selected summary and reflection of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL ) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 13th March 2021.]

Professor Wan Mohd Nor began the 11th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture series by summarizing Chapter 2 of his book The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, which was the theme for last season. In discussing this chapter entitled “On Knowledge and Knowing,” he began by reminding us of the fact that God is Infinite, meaning His Attribute is Infinite. On the contrary, human beings are finite in nature. We are limited in our capacity for knowledge and knowing. Hence, we need to categorize knowledge accordingly.

The Greeks classified knowledge into three broad categories: 

1) Theoria; 2) Praxis; and 3) Poetics. 

Islam, on the other hand, generally regards knowledge to be of two categories:

1) Revealed; and 2) developed based on the Revealed. 

From a universal standpoint, we could classify human knowledge to be of two kinds: 1) necessary (badīhī or ḍarūrī); and 2) that which requires demonstration (iktisābī or istidlālī).

Throughout history, the civilization of Islam has been encountering and engaging other civilizations including the Greek civilization. This can be seen in the classifications of knowledge developed by philosophers such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, and Ibn Sīnā. Their categorizations bare strong resemblances with that of Aristotleʼs, implying implicitly, whether or not intentionally, that Religious Knowledge is not important. The philosophical-spiritual fraternity Ikhwān al-Ṣafā, perhaps noticing this deficiency, explicitly mentioned Religious Sciences in their categorization. 

While the Greco-Roman civilization is now long gone, Islāmʼs continuous engagement with the dominant civilizations of the time continues— in our present case: the Modern West. With regards to the classification and categorization of knowledge, Professor al-Attas follows the general arguments of 1) the philosophers; 2) the theologians; and 3) the Ṣūfīs. Acknowledging the limitations of the first two aforementioned traditions, he affirmed that spiritual experience is to be taken into account as well, as gained by the tradition of the Ṣūfīs. 

In this sense, knowledge is of two kinds: 1) Ilmu Pengenalan; and 2) Ilmu Pengetahuan. The first kind is given directly from God. It is referred to as “Illuminative Knowledgeʼʼ or “Gnosisʼʼ. It is called ma‘rifah. The second kind consists of what is often referred to as the sciences, i.e. the natural sciences, etc. When referring to ma‘rifah, we recognize that this kind of knowledge is only possible through some kind of “communicationʼʼ between two living entities. God is attributed with the Attribute of Life; so are human beings, albeit in a limited way. Hence, human beings can have ma‘rifah of God. 

At this point, Professor Wan reminded the audience of the analogy of the neighbour often given by Professor al-Attas when explaining the nature of ma‘rifah. Essentially, no matter how much “informationʼʼ you gather about your neighbour through rigorous observation, certain conclusions about the “realityʼʼ of this neighbour would remain elusive unless you approach the neighbour, befriend him, gain his trust, and perchance some knowledge about who he is will be disclosed to you. This kind of knowledge is completely unattainable through deductions or inductions from observed data, yet it is very real. After all, it is God Himself who declares that He has not created the jinn and mankind except that they may worship Him (liya‘budūn), and this word liya‘budūn (to worship) ultimately means, according to Ibn ‘Abbās r.a., liya‘rifūn (to know God), i.e. to have ma‘rifah of Allāh s.w.t. This is the true meaning and utter importance of worship and its relation to knowledge— whether performed publicly or more importantly, privately. 

Understanding the ultimate purpose of worship and seeking knowledge should reorient ourselves and our attitudes towards it in such a way that our actions are based on something that is real and meaningful. Such reorientation would require wisdom or ḥikmah, which could be understood partly as the knowledge of the limits (of usefulness) of things, even in knowledge itself and its sciences. Some knowledge, especially that which pertains to the world of sense and sensibles, natural phenomena, and causes and effects, could be accumulated through generational efforts of scientific  traditions, yet some knowledge of the realities of things must be attainable without the necessity of inter-generational efforts, but within the limits of the capacity of an individual. One such knowledge is to affirm, as explained by Imam al-Ghazali, that the real cause in cause-effect relations is God. Al-Hujwiri is noted to have said that he who solely relies on sabab (causes) is close to kufur (disbelief). On this, Ibn Ṭufayl argued through his famous story of Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān argued that it is possible for a person to arrive at such knowledge via his intellect alone, i.e. human beings could naturally come to know the true religion or the proper understanding of God. However, Professor al-Attas criticizes this. According to Professor al-Attas, it is possible for Ibn Ṭufayl to make such a claim precisely because he is already thinking within the Islamic framework. The same could not be said to apply to most people in todayʼs world. After all, it was al-Shahrastani who mentioned that Iblis rationalized disbelief, in contrast to the angels. According to Hujwiri again, Iblisʼs knowledge is ‘ilmī (formal) but not ḥālī (actual-experiential). Believing in God wrongly is not really believing in God, for Iblis also “believesʼʼ in God. We should not be too presumptuous on these matters as they belong to “revealed knowledge,ʼʼ at the heart of which lies ma‘rifah of Allah s.w.t. Modern Muslims must revive the categorization of knowledge which acknowledges this, i.e. 1) Revealed (Ilmu Pengenalan); and 2) Developed based on the revealed (Ilmu Pengetahuan).

Following on from this, Ibn Ḥazmʼs classification of knowledge, the Marātib al-‘Ulūm sought to “placeʼʼ religion within its classification. As reflected by the term marātib, Ibn Ḥazmʼs classification is hierarchical in terms of priority and posteriority in the order of seeking knowledge. Language and logic are placed at the very beginning of Ibn Ḥazmʼs scheme, while religion is placed at its very end. In other words, Ibn Ḥazm regards religion as the culmination of all sciences. This schema is very much different from the ones put forth by Ibn Sīnā, al-Fārābī and others, and is more suitable for non-Muslim environments, where the Islamic framework has to be negotiated with frameworks stemming from other worldviews. Professor al-Attas, however, follows al-Ghazālīʼs way, which addresses the Muslims specifically and therefore provides more clarity. This illustrates that Islamization is bilateral and can happen in both ways. 

The Religion of Islam is never a religion that abandons the intellect and the sciences. Quite the contrary, the intellect is of utmost importance in being human. Like the story of Nabī Ibrāhīm a.s. in Sūrah al-An‘ām, verse 77, where Nabī Ibrāhīm was seeking the Truth by using his intellect— and remember, he was living in a civilization that gave birth to many of the rational sciences we know today, and yet he acknowledged that once Truth arrives, had not God been the One who Guides, he a.s. would surely be amongst those who are lost. 

Now, there are claims today that we teach too much religion in this country; so much religion that our people neglect the sciences. This is not true. The problem is not that we teach “too much religion,ʼʼ rather the extremism in the teaching of religion, such that it’s presented too narrowly. We neglect the crucial fact that this religion is also a civilization built upon a sound intellectual and spiritual tradition based on the  culture of knowledge, but this is another topic altogether. 

In the last part of Chapter 2, there is a discussion on the channels of knowledge. This is from the famous 12th century work on Islamic creed, ‘Aqāʼid al-Nasafī, where the three channels of knowledge are enumerated, namely 1) sound senses; 2) true reports; and 3) intellect. Professor al-Attas explains why even sense-perception is an important channel for the acquisition of religious knowledge since God manifests His Attributes in this world, and we come to know this world through our sense-perception. Similarly, our knowledge of this world is not simply the result of gathering data from sense-perception. There is also the role of reason in organizing and systematizing all the acquired data and then interpreting them to form scientific theories. A reduction of any one of these channels of knowledge leads to extremism and injustice, resulting in a skewed and hence false understanding of religion. Therefore, there is always the real need for wisdom, ḥikmah, for it is this wisdom that informs us of the limits of things, going beyond or falling short of which would lead to false knowledge. Ḥikmah is the product of ma‘rifah.

Next CSNL will be on the 10th April 2021 or via Zoom, click here to register. To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series: