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Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-

By:
Khalif Muammar
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Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-

Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931)

is one of the most celebrated Muslim thinkers in the contemporary Malay world. His works encompass various fields of study such as theology, philosophy, metaphysics, education, history, literature; because of his original and great intellectual contributions, he became one of the most quoted authorities in the field of Islamic education, Islam in Malay history, and Islamic philosophy.

Syed Muhammad Naquib bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Muhsin al-Attas was born on 5 September 1931 in Bogor, West Java. His genealogical tree can be authentically traced over a thousand years through the BaʾAlawi sayyids of Hadramaut and all the way back to Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). At the age of five, his parents sent him to Johore for formal primary education where he stayed with his uncle Ahmad and Aunt Azizah, the children of Ruqayyah Hanum and Datoʾ Jaafar bin Haji Muhammad, (d. 1919) the first Chief Minister of modern Johore. During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, al-Attas returned to West Java to continue his education at Madrasah al- ʿUrwatuʾl-Wuthqa (1941–1945). After World War II in 1946, he returned to Johore to resume his education, first at the Bukit Zahrah school and then at English College (1946–1951). During this period he lived with one of his uncles, Ungku Abdul Aziz bin Ungku Abdul Majid, a cousin of the Sultan, who was then the sixth Chief Minister of Johore. Ungku Abdul Aziz kept a good library of Malay manuscripts, primarily on Malay literary and historical subjects. Al-Attas spent much of his youth reading and pondering over these manuscripts on history, literature, and religion as well as the Western classics in English that were available in the collections of other family members. It is partly due to this cultured social atmosphere, and mostly these reading materials, that al-Attas developed an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that uniquely characterized his Malay writings and language. After the retirement of Ungku Abdul Aziz from the position of Chief Minister, al-Attas stayed with another uncle, Datoʾ Onn bin Datoʾ Jaafar, the seventh Chief Minister. Datoʾ Onn, the leading nationalist figure and the first president of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), who noticed al-Attas’s artistic ability and requested him to create UMNO’s flag, which should contain symbols of power, Malay royalty, and the Islamic religion. The flag that he designed was then accepted and agreed as the party’s official flag (Wan Daud, 1998).

Upon completion of his secondary education in 1951, al-Attas entered the Malay Regiment as a cadet officer. He was then selected for military education first at Eton Hall, Chester, Wales, then at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England (1952–1955). There he developed a keener understanding of the spirit and style of an influential segment of the British society. After graduation from Sandhurst, al-Attas received the King’s Commission to serve as an officer in the Royal Malay Regiment, Federation of Malaya, where he saw active duty against the Communist terrorists in the Malayan jungles. Yet his strong desire for learning and scholarly involvement necessitated his voluntarily resigning from his commission to study at the University of Malaya in Singapore from 1957 to 1959. While still an undergraduate at the University of Malaya, he wrote two books. The first is Rangkaian Rubaʿiyyat (1959), published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. The second is Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays. Largely because of the merit of this latter book, the Canadian Government awarded him the coveted Canada Council Fellowship (1959) for an unprecedented three consecutive years to study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. There he became acquainted with several notable scholars such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, Fazlur Rahman, Toshihiko Izutsu, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Based on his thesis entitled “Raniri and the Wujudiyyah of 17th Century Acheh,” he was awarded the MA degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy (taṣawwūf) in 1962. Al-Attas then continued his study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His two-volume doctoral thesis on the mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri earned him a PhD degree with distinction in 1965.

On his return to Malaysia in 1965, al-Attas was appointed head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. From 1968 to 1970, he was dean of the Faculty of Arts at that university. He was the leading voice directly responsible for the implementation of Malay as the language of instructionat the university. In 1970, Attas was also one of the senior founders of the National University of Malaysia (UKM) who sought to replace the English language with the Malay language as the medium of instruction at the tertiary level of education. He was also responsible for the conceptualization of the original philosophical basis of the university as well as the establishment of the Faculties of Science and Islamic Studies. As head of the Department of Malay Language and Literature, he proposed a new concept and method of studying the Malay language, literature, and culture, so that the role and influence of Islam and its true relationship with other indigenous regional and international languages and cultures would be studied properly. To carry out his plans, in 1973 he founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM), now ATMA (Institute of the Malay World and Civilization). From 1987 to 2002 he was entrusted as the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC). Al-Attas is also blessed with artistic talents. He is an able calligrapher, and he also planned and designed the building of the institute, its auditorium, and the mosque, as well as its landscaping, furniture, and interior decoration.

Al-Attas is the author of more than thirty books and monographs in English and Malay. Many of which have been translated into various languages. One of his most influential books entitled Islām and Secularism (published by ABIM in 1978, with the second edition published by ISTAC, 1993; also published by Mansell, London, as Islām, Secularism, and the Philosophy of the Future in 1985). Another monumental work is Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islām: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam (ISTAC, 1995). Al-Attas has written commentaries on two great Malay scholars, Hamzah Fansuri and Nuruddin al-Raniri: The Mysticism of Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī (Kuala Lampur: University of Malaysia Press, 1970) and A Commentary on the Ḥujjat al-ṣiddīq of Nūr al-Dīn al-Ranīrī (Kuala Lampur: Ministry of Culture, Malaysia, 1986). In Malay History and Culture, he wrote the Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago (Kuala Lampur, Malaysia: DBP, 1969); Islam dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu (Islam in Malay History and Culture) published by UKM (National University of Malaysia) Press in 1972; and Historical Fact and Fiction, recently published by UTM Press in 2011.

According to Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, al-Attas is a reformer (mujaddid) who rediscovered a master idea that was long forgotten and ignored—or misunderstood—and therefore transformed Muslims’ understanding of reality and ability to solve long-standing problems. In his seminal influential work and widely translated work, Islām and Secularism (1978), al-Attas provides a profound analysis of the basic internal and external causes for the most fundamental problems confronting the Muslims and suggests the most strategic and effective panacea for their solution. Briefly, the most fundamental root of the problem is a vicious cycle consisting of three interrelated internal conditions: confusion and error in knowledge, leading to the loss of adāb within the community, both of which lead to the rise of false leaders in every field who then perpetuate the former two conditions to safeguard their interests. In this book he also argued that the present-day knowledge is not neutral; it projects the vision of truth and reality of Western culture and civilization and therefore undergoes a process of secularization. To respond to this secularization of contemporary knowledge, Muslim intellectuals need to carry out a process of Islamization. This concept of Islamization of knowledge is regarded as a great and powerful idea (Webb, 2002). The basic and most strategic solution for al-Attas is the higher educational level, especially the Islamic university, that seeks to carry out profoundly the twin process of Islamization of contemporary knowledge (Wan Daud, 2010). It is with this mission in mind that al-Attas founded the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC).

Al-Attas’s influences can be seen in many intellectual and social organizations such as the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), the Muslim Writers Association of Malaysia (GAPIM), the Academy of Islamic Science (ASASI), and several other institutions at home and abroad. Al-Attas received national and international recognition for his intellectual contributions. He was appointed as the first holder of the Chair of Malay Language and Literature at the National University of Malaysia (1970–1984), and as the first holder of the Tun Abdul Razak Chair of Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University, United States (1980–1982). He is the first holder of the Abu Hamid al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Thought at ISTAC (1993–2002). King Hussein of Jordan made him a Member of the Royal Academy of Jordan in 1994, and in June 1995 the University of Khartoum conferred upon him the degree of Honorary Doctorate of Arts (DLitt). In 2000, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) on behalf of the Islamic world and through its subsidiary, the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), conferred upon him the IRCICA Award for excellent contributions to the various fields of Islamic Civilization. Similar recognitions were conferred by the Russian Academy of Science (2001) and the Iranian government (2002) (Wan Daud, 2010).

Bibliography:

  • Sharifah Shifa al-Attas, ISTAC Illuminated: A Pictorial Tour of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: ISTAC, 1998.
  • Wan Daud, Wan Mohd Nor, Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: An Exposition of the Original Concept of Islamization. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: ISTAC, 1998.
  • Wan Daud, Wan Mohd Nor, and Muhammad Zainiy Uthman (eds.), Knowledge, Language, Thought and the Civilization of Islam: Essays in Honor of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Johor Bahru, Malaysia: UTM Press, 2010.
  • Webb, Jennifer M. (ed.), Powerful Ideas: Perspectives on the Good Society. 2 vols. North Armadale, Australia: The Cranlana Programme, 2002.
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