“The Importance of the Individual as a Matter of Principle and Practice”

[This entry is a selected summary and reflection of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 29th May 2021.Read this in PDF

by Dzemal Plojovic  (RZS-CASIS PhD Student from Serbia)

[Unless otherwise indicated, this report is closely based on the actual words and expressions used by Prof. Dr. Wan Moh Nor Wan Daud]

At the outset of Prof. Wan Mohd Nor’s talk, he stressed that with regard to the purpose of education, there are two main orientations: society-centric education and individual-centric education. All educational systems and worldviews based on the world’s major religions, have developed individual-centric institutions of education, including the worldview of Islam. Thus, Islam does not look at the individual as an entity opposed to society; Rather, the focus on the individual underscores the notion that society is based on the individual— in other words, the individual is seen as the foundation of society. Bearing this in mind, Prof. Wan highlighted that the main method for the Islamic worldview and civilization to achieve individual and societal reform is through the method of tawhid (1) – the method that recognizes and uses the findings arrived at by other methods and unifies these into the body of knowledge pointing to a single reality. Throughout his works, Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has emphasized that the main method of Islamic analysis is the tawhid method of knowledge, an overarching unifying  understanding that recognizes the existence of and unifies layers of existence used for varying subjects of study. Thus, in reference to the society vs. individual theme, these two are not seen as opposing entities, but rather as one being the foundation for the other. 

The individual in relation to the collective with regards to religious obligation

Similarly, the aspect of fardu ‘ain and fardu kifayah are not mutually exclusive but two integrated and complementary aspects. The successful fulfillment of societal religious obligation (farḍu kifāyah) must depend on the implementation of the personal religious obligation (farḍu ain); yet, farḍu ‘ain alone is insufficient without farḍu kifāyah. In fact, what is considered to be farḍu ‘ain at a certain time may be categorized as farḍu kifāyah at another time. As an illustration, the practice of reading the Qur’ān is one which every Muslim is required to learn to a certain degree, yet the mastery of the sciences governing its advanced aspects such as particular pronunciation rules (tajwīd), exegesis (tafsīr) and various recitation styles (qiraāt) is considered to be obligatory for a select few. Hence, in the context of Islamic education, the success of particular sciences deemed as farḍu kifāyah sciences, such as mathematics, engineering, medicine, and political science depends on the prior successful acquisition of farḍu ‘ain disciplines, such as the understanding of the nature of God, the Hereafter, what is right and wrong, permissible (halal) and impermissible (harām), and the pillars of Islām and imān. In line with this, the intellectual sciences (‘ilm al-‘aqliyyah) and the traditional sciences (‘ilm al-naqliyyah) are by no means opposing sciences, but two interrelated disciplines complementing each other. Contrary to this, the modern secular understanding treats these two elements as separate or dichotomous entities due to the precepts of their worldview.

Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and Secularism, pg 157-158

Regarding Islam’s emphasis on the individual, we must bear in mind that this approach is not dualistic. Obviously, the Islamic view of the individual is different from Descartes’, who maintained (through his famous maxim cogito, ergo sum) that the individual interprets everything since the thoughts and decisions of the individual being the ultimate parameter of reality; thus giving rise to individualism, relativism and subjectivism in Western thought. Following the Cartesian line of reasoning, Jean Jacques Rousseau in his influential novel titled Emile laid the key principle of the modern philosophy of education, strongly affirming the right of the individual to develop in his own right regardless of what society prescribes. These two views have ever since set the foundation for the individualistic worldview and served as the chief characteristics of Western thought to the present day.

On the other hand, when the worldview of Islam and al-Attas emphasize the importance of individuals, it is not done in this dichotomous, exclusive sense. In Islam and Secularism, al-Attas affirms that:

“The purpose of seeking knowledge is to inculcate goodness or justice in man as man and individual self, and not merely in man as citizen or integral part of society: it is man’s value as real man, as the dweller in his self’s city, as citizen in his own microcosmic kingdom, as spirit, that is stressed, rather than his value as a physical entity measured in terms of the pragmatic or utilitarian sense of his usefulness to state and society and the world.” (Cited in Educational Philosophy and practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, p. 131.)

 Clearly, in Islamic education, the inculcation of the fundamental elements of Islamic ethics and justice in individuals preponderates over the practical demands of the society. In other words, an individual who acquires, recognizes and acknowledges the Islamic teachings of morality and justice will also prove to be  useful members of society. The contrary may not be a guaranteed outcome if the focus of education shifts to producing individuals who are required to fulfill the utilitarian demands of the society— a good worker, a conscientious clerk or even a manager putting their utmost efforts to satisfy the requirements of a dehumanized apparatus and society will likely be driven far away from the universal principles and practice of goodness and justice espoused by the worldview of Islam. Ideally though, if the society is composed of a sufficient number of enlightened individuals who occupy key posts and are thus able to steer the individuals and the society in the right direction, in such a context a good citizen may be synonymous with the good individual; yet, the reality of present-day societies cautions us that the hope to get good and just individuals in educational institutions where utility to the society and market demands are set as the main goal will be dashed.

The individual as the locus of educational reform 

Professor al-Attas has consistently emphasized the importance of individual-centred education and society from the early days of his academic career to the present. In his letter to the then Minister of Internal Affairs of Malaysia, Ghazali Shafie, al-Attas succinctly argued for the need to focus on wholesome individuals, not merely obedient and useful citizens. He reiterated the same view in his later work, Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education where he stressed that our focus on the individual in educational institutions and society in general is not only a principle but a fundamental element of strategy calling for urgent implementation. To clarify his position, al-Attas refers to a number of concepts and elements whose knowledge is essential if we expect our educational institutions to give rise to enlightened individuals. These elements include intelligence, virtue, and the spirit along with understanding of man’s purpose and ultimate destiny, thus explaining in no ambiguous terms how the metaphysical realities and components of man have direct bearing on the practical needs of the society. On the other hand, if the society and its educational system chart out as their main goal the emergence of a good citizen, this will open the door to secularism and secular ideologies, and further lead to a host of negative effects.

The unitary framework and method, which emphasizes the individual, does not preclude the importance of society, since the society itself is based on the individual. In the Qur’an, a careful analysis of the term ummah refers to the collective entity of Muslims, and it may even include non-Muslims if they opt to follow the framework of the Muslims as established by the first Muslim community in Medina. The Holy Qur’an at times refers to a single man as an ummah. For instance, in surah al-Naḥl (16:120), Ibrahim (A.S.) is mentioned as an ummah. In our prayers, we pray to Allāh (S.W.T.) to grant the Prophet the blessings given to Ibrahim (A.S.) because of his great contribution to mankind. Thus, one man, a single individual can be the basis of an ummah. Similarly, in surah al-Maidah (5:32), the importance of one individual is attested to in reference to the killing of one person, whereby unjustified killing of an individual is equated with killing of an entire community; conversely, saving the life of a single person is equivalent to saving the whole community. Therefore, based on the worldview of Islam and its legal orientation, a single individual can be regarded as a community and has the ability to create an ummah that can last for a long time; killing of an individual is seen as killing of an entire society and saving the life of a person is tantamount to saving the whole society. Hence, the worldview of the Qur’an places great emphasis on the individual and his standing as the basis of humanity.

The importance the individual in manifesting social reform and development

According to the worldview of Islam, although societies are judged as groups or nations, the one who suffers is the individual. Nowadays, for example, if we look at the victims of COVID-19, the suffering is inflicted on individuals, be they rulers, ministers, patients in hospitals or those who treat them, those who have developed vaccines and those who administer and receive them. Consequently, placing an emphasis on the individual is not only a matter of principle, but also the correct strategy. This is particularly valid in our time due to an overemphasis on society, on institutions, policymakers who often forget the fundamental and prior importance of the individual.

Because of the process of secularization, the modern world purposefully de-emphasizes the importance of the individual as a matter of principle, despite the fact that in terms of practice, they focus on the individual. To illustrate this, individual presidents are elected to fulfill particular programs or to rectify the mistakes of their predecessors, who in their stead are also individuals. Also, in the US, individual representatives are elected into the Senate or Congress to represent particular constituencies or states. In other democracies worldwide, prime ministers and cabinet members are elected and replaced as individuals. For this reason, in the Hereafter, Allah (S.W.T) will question only individuals who will be rewarded or punished. Moreover, happiness is an individual experience. Hence, if many individuals are happy, the society as a whole will be regarded as happy. 

The importance of the individual was most profoundly understood by the Prophet (S.A.W.S). He raised great individuals among men, women and children who brought about a profound transformation in the society. When the Prophet sent Muādh ibn Jabbal as a very young man to do da’wah among the Yemeni people, his mission was very successful such that in a short time period a large portion of the Yemeni population embraced Islam. Similarly, Musā’b bin ‘Umayr was sent to Medina, and within a year, he convinced leaders of the major tribes to accept Islam. We can deduce from the aforesaid examples that individuals are the foundation of society, so if we are to educate and transform our society, we must start with the proper education of individuals.

History of nations is essentially history of individuals, good or bad, famous or notorious ones. If you remove those individuals, the history of the nation is removed. For example, in the history of religion in China, if one removed the names of Kung Fu Tze, Lao Tze and their disciples, there would be no major religion in China. Similarly, if Gautama Buddha, the founders of Jainism, the writers of Mahabharata and the Upanishads were removed, there would be no Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism in India. In the context of Christianity, the longest living institution is the papacy, and those who rise to the rank of the pope are individuals, too. The character of the papacy in each time reflects the character of the individual pope.

The role of the individual in organizational leadership

Nowadays, many Muslims from various parties and institutions are swayed by the influence of modernization and secularization and therefore emphasize the role of the state and ummah, thus forgetting who makes up the elements of these organizations. In such a time, al-Attas’s call to establish individual-based institutions of learning is ever more relevant. If we were to examine our own Islamic civilization and history while excluding major figures, for instance, 60 of the sahaba including the four khulafā al-rashidun and the four imams of fiqh after whom the major madhahib are named, the features and character of our civilization would be significantly different. The most striking illustration of this is in that the foundation of our religion came from one individual: the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.S.), whose companions and the subsequent generations of scholars further developed. Furthermore, the creation of centers and institutions of Islamic knowledge revolves around individuals. A contemporary example of this is the creation of The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC)

Front entrance of ISTAC Building, Jalan Damansara

which elevated to the rank of one of the foremost institutions of higher Islamic learning globally. It was founded by Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas himself: with the assistance of a few individuals, he designed the building, the curriculum, bought books (three quarters of the books were collected personally by him) and established the best library in the region. Thus, if this individual and those who assisted him were to be removed, the character of the institution would be different. Similarly, The Raja Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science, and Civilisation (RZS-CASIS) was also established by individuals, and if those individuals were removed, the name could be preserved, but the spirit, the ethos would certainly be different.

Although Western secular philosophy talks about society and institutions, yet again the focus is on individual contributors. Hence, there seems to be a dichotomy since they cannot practice the philosophy of society-centeredness, which in this view resembles an empty slogan. In practice, they still must emphasize the individual. The testimony to this comes from various business ventures that are founded and successfully led by famous individuals, the likes of Microsoft (Bill Gates), Apple (Steve Jobs), Alibaba (Jack Ma). Even in team sports, the success of the whole team is tied to the contribution of individuals who excel in the required skills and lead the team members to victories in major sporting competitions. Despite these obvious examples of the fundamental role of individuals, contemporary Muslims are somehow trapped into dualistic conceptions, talking so much about the ummah, so when it comes to reform, the paramount role of the individual is all too easily overlooked. Due to this confusion, al-Attas has been emphasizing the role of the individual and the constituent elements of virtues, soul, spirit, intelligence and how these elements can be properly developed to result in individual reform and further lead to positive changes in society. 

Historical underpinnings related to modern challenges of human affairs 

Since the modern world is largely influenced by secular understanding, the very reference to the soul is very difficult because it is denied that the man has soul. The existence of the body and emotions is eagerly affirmed whereas the soul is firmly rejected. This one-sided view of the human being has become the dominant position due to the rejection of the understanding of human nature by major religions, particularly that of Islam as the final revealed religion. Accordingly, when modern secular worldview talks about the individual, especially in light of the latest development called Dataism, a new understanding of the reality of person has been proposed by the author of a book titled Homo Deus, Y. N. Harari, whereby consciousness is seen as an entity determined by data. The data, in its turn, is the product of interactions between biochemical algorithms and computer algorithms, thus, the essential feature of the individual is no longer viewed as the soul, but rather it is the data. Yet, the data can be manufactured whereas the soul cannot, the position that has come about due to the inability to understand what the soul is, what are its main attributes, how to make it grow and how to purify and educate it. As a result of this failure to grasp the reality of the soul, the contemporary proponents of the modern secular worldview have turned away from the soul and placed more emphasis on society and its measurable features. Unfortunately, many Muslims have fallen into this trap and adopted the erroneous view vis-à-vis individual vs society issue.


Depiction of the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shahnameh

Prof. Wan added to the discussion on another example where many Muslims today seem to forget that the history of Islam, for instance, during the time of sayyidina Abu Bakr (R.A.), the Muslim community faced the challenge in the form of the War of Apostasy, where one of the main apostates was Musaylamah the Liar who falsely claimed to be a prophet. Abu Bakr (R.A.) sent Khalid ibn Walid to defeat Musaylamah and his army, a mission he successfully carried out, killing Musaylamah and subduing his followers. The Caliph then asked Khalid ibn Walid to proceed to Iraq and face the Persian Empire, the most powerful state of the time after the Byzantine Empire. Since some of the soldiers from the ranks of the Muslim army had to return home, Khalid ibn Walid had to ask the Caliph for reinforcements, to which the Caliph responded by sending a single man called al-Qa’qa’ ibn Amr al-Tamimi. Upon seeing a single fighter arrive as reinforcement, the shocked commander of the Muslim army, Khalid ibn Walid asked the Caliph how could one individual be sufficient as reinforcement in the impending campaign against the numerous army of the Persian Empire. The reply by the Caliph was that no army which has in its ranks a man like al-Qa’qa’ will ever be defeated. The Caliph was proven right, as the Muslim army claimed victory against the Persians and several other battles after it. Clearly, this is the striking example of the importance of the individual and how the refined character of a single person can be sufficient to reinforce the ranks of a large organization.

In view of the numerous examples from the history of Islam, from the lives of early generations of Muslims, there is a strong case to emphasize the importance of the individual. Thus, in our educational institutions we have tried and we continue to focus on educating individuals who strive to understand their role in society. This is how we understand the tawhid method revealed by Allah (S.W.T.) through His prophets to serve humankind as guidance. The prophets, too, were sent as individuals, sometimes a pair of them, such as Musa and Harun (A.S.) or Sulayman and Dawud (A.S.); there were no teams or groups of prophets at the same time. There are more similar examples from the later periods of Islamic history. In a book titled The Foundation of the Ottoman Empire: a History of the Osmanlis up to the Death of Bayezid I (1300-1403) by Herbert Adams Gibbons, the author highlights the reasons why the whole community of Muslims was named after its founder, Osman or Osman Ghazi. The writer cites the example of Genghis Khan whose empire was twenty times larger than the state founded by Osman during his life, yet neither the empire led by Genghis Khan nor his race were named after him despite the fact that he was very successful as a commander and profoundly influential as a leader of conquered territories. Napoleon Bonaparte also managed to conquer large swathes of territory and dominated European and global affairs at the time, neither his name, however, was used to call the race he hailed from. As opposed to Genghis Khan and Napoleon, the Osmanli race was named after its founder because of his proper method and strategy, due to his tactful and fair governance, and owing to his proper treatment of conquered peoples, primarily Christians. Therefore, in human affairs the achievements of an individual with refined moral principles and just governance will get more lasting impact and recognition than the feats of individuals whose conquests are measured in larger figures, but whose guiding principles relied on brute force, personal fame or other mundane aspects repulsive to the nations and civilizations of their time and subsequent periods.


(1)  Note from Editor: By method of tawhid here does not mean the structural methodology as how it is largely and pragmatically understood nowadays. It is more precisely seen as a way of perceiving reality, it is rephrased as “the tawhid method of knowledge”. This is a statement made by Al-Attas in his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam (Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC: 1995), 3 as “They combined in their investigations, and at the same time in their persons, the empirical and the rational, the deductive and the inductive methods and affirmed no dichotomy between the subjective and the objective, so that they all affected what I would call the tawhid method of knowledge”. For further elaborations on theTawhid Method, refer to Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud’s Educational Philosophy and Practices of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1998), 268 – 271. The tawhid method, says Prof Wan, “…disolves the false dichotomy, for example, between the objective and subjective aspects of knowledge.”

Next CSNL will be on the 19th June 2021 or via Zoom, click here to register. To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series:

Below are the summary for the 11th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series

  1. March 2021“Knowing Knowledge Through its Classifications”
  2. April 2021 “The Meaning and Purpose of Education” 
  3. May 2021″The Importances of the Individual as a Matter of Principle and Practice”