The Loss of Adab, The Corruption of Knowledge, and The Moral Dislocation of the Muslim World (Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Posted on April 8, 2011 by


The Loss of Adab, The Corruption of Knowledge, and The Moral Dislocation of the Muslim World

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas


Welcome Address by Professor  Naquib al-Attas

Your Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom Of Jordan, Distinguished Scholars, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:


1.      It is indeed a great pleasure and honour for me on behalf of the  International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), to welcome you who have journeyed from all over the world to gather in conference with us here to celebrate the lasting legacy of this brilliant star in the firmament of Islamic thought, one who is among the greatest in the galaxy of Muslim luminaries.

2.      He was a man gifted with wisdom and adorned with authentic knowledge.  The illumination radiating from his sagacious intellect shed the light that separated and distinguished the true from the false, the real from the illusory, the genuine from the counterfeit.  His contributions in the spiritual and intellectual domains of religion, in the realms of Islamic thought and civilization as a whole, are of such magnitude as to be recognized and acknowledged by a knowing and grateful Community throughout the ages.  He lived at a time of great religious and intellectual upheaval brought about by the challenges of an alien worldview surreptitiously introduced into Muslim thought and belief by Muslim philosophers and their followers, as well as by religious deviationists of many sorts.  Ours is also a time fraught with similar challenges posed by the secular modern Western philosophy and science, its technology and ideology which seek to encroach on our values, our modes of conduct, our thought and belief, our way of life, in order to bring about radical changes congenial to the secular worldview.  Even though  our present predicament is more serious, widespread and profoundly urgent in nature than that encountered by al-GhazÂali in  his time, yet the lesson he taught and the remedy he indicated are eminently relevant.

3.      The rise of the modernist movement, whose leaders were from among the ‘ulama’ of  less authoritative worth, heralded not so much the emergence of a Muslim religious and intellectual awakening and sobriety; it marked rather the beginnings of a widespread and systematic undermining of past scholarship and its intellectual and religious authority and leadership, leaving us to inherit today a legacy of cultural, intellectual and religious confusion.  They and their imitators and followers among traditionalist ‘ulama’, and scholars and intellectuals who derive inspiration mainly from the West, are responsible for what I have called the disintegration of adab, which is the effect of the corruption of the knowledge of IslÂm and the worldview projected by it, and for the emergence in our midst  of false leaders in all fields due to the loss of the capacity and ability to recognize and acknowledge authentic authority.  Because of the intellectual anarchy that characterizes this situation,  the common people become determiners of intellectual decisions and are raised to the level of authority on matters of knowledge.  Authentic definitions become undone and in their stead we are left with vagueness and contradictions.  The inability to define; to identify and isolate problems; to provide for right solutions; the creation of pseudo-problems; the reduction of problems to mere political, socio-economic and legal factors become evident.  Pretenders abound, effecting great mischief by debasing values, imposing upon the ignorant, and encouraging the rise of mediocrity.  It is not surprising if such a situation provides a fertile breeding ground for the emergence of deviationists and extremists of many kinds who make ignorance their capital.

4.      It is with the rise of oriental studies aligned to colonial ideology that we first find al-GhazÂali being insinuated as the efficient cause of Muslim intellectual stagnancy that gradually set in over the centuries after he dealt a fatal blow to Greek philosophy.  We can understand their antipathy towards al-GhazÂali seeing that in Western cultural history every chapter, be it of logic, of science, of art, of politics and even of theology begins with the Greeks.  Greek philosophy is the very acme of all thought, the consummate personification of reason itself!  Western religious and orientalist thought, their scholarship and even their science have always laboured against the Christian background of the problem of God: the problem of the discord between revelation and reason, which is not a problem in IslÂm.  Their claim that everything philosophical in IslÂm is taken from the Greeks is far-fetched and must be rejected.  They do not see that many fundamental ideas in Greek philosophy itself were taken by their philosophers from revealed religion or revelation, or to use ibn Rushd’s words –something resembling revelation”; these ideas did not originate from their intellects or from reason alone without the aid of revelation.  This is why Muslim philosophers, theologians and metaphysicians did not reject everything Greek in their thought, for a great many things the Greek philosophers said in metaphysical, ethical and political matters they also found already expressed in the Qur’Ân.  Al-KindŒ’s remark in the book addressed to al-Mu‘ta?im that he wanted to complete what the Greek philosophers did not fully express points to the fact that the Muslim thinkers did not look upon the Greek philosophers from the position of imitators; on the contrary, even though they respected them for their rational endeavour and achievements, they at the same time saw their errors and inadequacy in arriving at knowledge about the ultimate nature of reality through the effort of reason alone.  In fact the failure of the rational endeavour of Greek philosophy to arrive at truth and certainty in knowledge about the ultimate nature of reality is proof enough for those with understanding that reason alone without the aid of revelation cannot attain to such knowledge.  It ought to be clear that al-GhazÂali’s attack on the philosophers, both the Greek and the Muslim, was not aimed at philosophy as such, that is as ?ikmah, because ?ikmah as revealed in the Qur’Ân is God’s gift; and ?ikmah is what I think ibn Rushd meant when he referred to –something resembling revelation” in his Fa?l al-MaqÂl.  The application of reason with wisdom, not only in religion but in philosophy and the sciences is commendable.  It is significant to note that in the Qur’Ân the major Prophets were not only given the Book, that is al-kitÂb, but also the Wisdom, that is al-?ikmah, which I think explains our accord between revelation and reason.  What al-GhazÂali attacked was the metaphysical and religious theories of the Greek philosophers, and their belief and the claim of the Muslim philosophers with regard to the primacy of the intellect as the sole guide to knowledge of the ultimate reality.

5.      But the modernist Muslim thinkers and their followers and those of like mind became captive to the subtle deception of orientalist scholarship and echoed their insinuations, and they blamed al-GhazÂali for the degeneration of Muslim thought and action even to this day.  They include not only Arabs, Turks and Persians, but other thinkers from the Indian subcontinent notably Iqbal who was very much influenced by Western Christian problems of religion and philosophy and confused them with those of IslÂm and the Muslims.  They set ibn Taymiyyah up as the relevant leader to emulate and reflected in their thought and action the same contentiousness and contradictions.  They failed to see that if al-Ghazali had not existed it would have been impossible for ibn Taymiyyah to engage the Greek philosophers and confront the Muslim philosophers, for a great deal of what the Hanbalite knew of logic and effective methodology was derived from the lesson taught and demonstrated by al-GhazÂali.  It was in fact ibn Taymiyyah who lashed at logic, denounced definition, stifled syllogism, attacked analogical reasoning, so that if we are looking for someone to blame for the degeneration of Muslim thought and action – although there are other causes for that – then surely ibn Taymiyyah’s influence is a major cause of our present intellectual confusion.  That is why the inability to define; to identify and isolate problems; to provide for right solutions; the creation of pseudo-problems; the reduction of problems to mere political, socio-economic and legal factors become evident today.  Ibn Taymiyyah’s influence is also evident in the reduction of knowledge and correct perception of IslÂm and the worldview projected by it to merely its ritual and legal aspects.  In this way the meaning of ‘ibÂdah has become restricted because the fundamental knowledge obligatory for all Muslims, that is the farÇ ‘ayn, has been reduced to its bare ritual and legal essentials and made static in fixity at the level of immaturity.  The intellectual and cognitive aspects of the farÇ ‘ayn, that render right balance in ‘ibÂdah which requires them in order to reach full maturity, have been neglected.  The restriction of the meaning of ‘amal or activity to its physical aspects follows and leads to the kind of activism that is productive of social, political and legal unrest and narrow-mindedness.  The modernists and their followers must see that the activism urged in the activity of ‘ibÂdah is not merely a physical one but also, in addition to that, an intellectual one.  The intellectual activism I mean is not of the modernist kind, and is not to be confused with Iqbal’s notion of the search for rational foundations in IslÂm.  The need for a rational foundation in religion was made to be felt by intellectually westernized modernists who unwittingly got themselves involved in the Western scholastic and intellectual context of problems related to their religion.  Religion according to us is not, on its doctrinal side, merely –a system of general truths” as defined by Iqbal echoing Whitehead and later adopted by Fazlur Rahman; a system of general truths whose specifics –must not remain unsettled”.  That was Whitehead’s understanding of what religion is based solely on his experience and reflection of his own religion.  There is no reason why such a ‘definition’ of religion must be applied to IslÂm.  Moreover, IslÂm does not need, on its doctrinal side, a rational foundation because a rational foundation is already built into the very foundation of the religion and the worldview it projects.

6.      Then again, encouraged by charges of inconsistency and even contradictions in al-GhazÂali by ibn Rushd followed by ibn Taymiyyah, orientalist scholars and their modernist disciples among whom was the late Fazlur Rahman have made al-GhazÂali out to be some sort of scholastic enigma.  Their failure to assign to him a definite place in their minds have made them brand him as a difficult and even deceptive thinker.  Was he really a theologian masquerading as a philosopher?, was he Ash‘arite and yet a —äfŒ at the same time? – and so they insisted on forcing their either/or attitude on one who defied such neat compartmentalization.  Yet their unfair charges of inconsistency and contradictions have never been conclusively proven nor demonstrated to be true!  Why should a man like al-GhazÂali not be philosopher, theologian, Ash‘arite and —äfŒ at the same time without being inconsistent or being involved in contradictions?  Indeed to Muslims generally al-GhazÂali is the embodiment of a synthesis of religion and philosophy, a synthesis whose great and beneficial value is acknowledged by the various intellectual levels of the Community.  But to those who preoccupy themselves with philological exercises, textual criticisms, incessant research to determine conceptual origins, they only speak to themselves among themselves in their academic circles, and are oblivious or incapable of relating GhazÂali’s ideas to the solution of modern problems.  One is reminded of the story of the elephant and the four blind pundits.  Since they could not see with their eyes they had to grope with their hands to feel and describe to their imagination the creature that stood before them. One stroked its leg and declared: –This creature is a pillar;” –No!,” said another who grasped its twisting trunk:  –It is a big snake;” the third disagreed as he groped its broad back saying:  –It is a throne;” –You are all in error,” the last one contended feeling the huge ear: –It is indeed a carpet!”. Afterwards they each wrote learned books disputing the other and affirming their own imaginary vision of the creature to be the true one.

7.      The problem of the corruption of knowledge has come about due to our own state of confusion as well as influences coming from the philosophy, science, and ideology of modern Western culture and civilization.  Intellectual confusion emerged as a result of changes and restriction in the meaning of key terms that project the worldview derived from Revelation.  The repercussions arising from this intellectual confusion manifest themselves in moral and cultural dislocation, which is symptomatic of the degeneration of religious knowledge, faith, and values.  The changes and restriction in the meaning of such key terms occur due to the spread of secularization as a philosophical programwhich holds sway over hearts and minds enmeshed in the crisis of truth and the crisis of identity.  These crises, in turn, have become actualized as a result of a secularized system of education that causes deviations, if not severance, from historical roots that have been firmly established by our wise and illustrious predecessors upon foundations vitalized by religion.  One must see that the kind of problem confronting us is of such a profound nature as to embrace all the fundamental elements of our worldview that cannot simply be resolved by groping in the labyrinths of legalism and struggling in the socio-political arena of activism which throbs in the veins of Muslim modernism.

8.      A most important and original idea of al-GhazÂali that orientalist and Muslim scholars have not given the attention it deserves, due to the fact that they have failed to discover it and to realize its novelty and its great significance for our time, is the idea of how semantic change and restriction in the Islamic key terms pertaining to knowledge in a science that is considered as praiseworthy renders the science to become blameworthy; and this will ultimately bring about confusion and corruption in knowledge.  This is because the key terms in the basic vocabulary of the Islamic language serve a conceptual network of interrelated fields of meaning which ultimately project in the Muslim mind the worldview they are meant to describe.  Al-GhazÂali pointed out in the I?yÂ’ that even in his time key terms such as fiqh, ‘ilm, taw?Œd, dhikr, and ?ikmah have been tampered with by change and restriction in their original and authentic meanings.  Similarly in the TahÂfut he demonstrated that the philosophers have changed the original and authentic meaning of the important concepts conveyed by the terms fi‘l and f‘il to suit their own ideas which contradict the teachings of IslÂm with respect to the nature of God and of creation.  We see that if even a few of Islamic key terms were changed or restricted in their meanings, or were made to convey meanings which are not authentic and authoritative – by which I mean whose intentions no longer reflect those correctly understood by the early Muslims – then this would inevitably create confusion and error in the minds of Muslims and disrupt intellectual and spiritual unity among them.  Moreover, it would render sciences once considered praiseworthy to become blameworthy.  Unity has two aspects: the outward, external unity manifested in society as communal and national solidarity; and the inward, internal unity of ideas and mind revealed in intellectual and spiritual coherence that encompasses realms beyond communal and national boundaries.  Understanding pertains to the second aspect, which is fundamental to the realization of the first. The coherence of this second aspect depends upon the soundness and integrity of concepts in language, the instrument of reason which influences its users.  If the soundness and integrity of concepts in language is confused, then this is due to a confusion in worldview caused by the corruption of knowledge.  I am not here suggesting something that may be construed as not allowing language to develop, to unfold itself according to its potential powers of tracing the rich tapestry of life as it unfolds, to evolve with ideas as they evolve, to grasp reality-truth as it manifests itself in the fleeting passage of time.  I am only suggesting, deriving from the lesson al-GhazÂali taught, that the basic vocabulary in the Islamic language can only develop from its roots, and not severed from them, nor can they develop from roots stunted in restriction.  Secular and materialistic value systems have their initial locus in minds, then they are translated into linguistic symbols, and afterwards become manifest in the external world first in urban areas whence they spread like a raging contagion to the rural masses.  The problem related to language and semantic change is not simply a matter of language as such, but a matter of worldview.  Semantic confusion as a result of misapplication of terms denoting key concepts in the Islamic basic vocabulary does adversely affect Muslim perception of the worldview of IslÂm which is projected by both al-kitÂb wa al-?ikmah.

9.      In the languages of Muslim peoples including Arabic, there is a basic vocabulary consisting of key terms which govern the interpretation of the Islamic vision of reality and truth and which project in the Muslim mind the worldview of IslÂm in correct perspective.  Because the words that comprise this basic vocabulary have their origins in the Qur’Ân and in the Prophetic Traditions, these words are naturally in Arabic and are deployed uniformly in all Muslim languages reflecting the intellectual and spiritual unity of Muslims throughout the world.  This basic vocabulary is composed of key terms denoting important concepts related to one another meaningfully and altogether determining the conceptual structure of reality and existence projected by them in conformity with the Qur’Ân.  Language reflects ontology.  Introducing key concepts foreign to a language involves not merely the translating of words, but more profoundly the translating of symbolic forms belonging to the super system of a foreign worldview not compatible with the worldview projected by the language into which such concepts are introduced.  Those responsible for introducing them and advocating their currency are the scholars, academics, journalists, critics, politicians and amateurs not firmly grounded upon knowledge of the essentials of religion and its vision of reality and truth.  One of the main causes for the emergence of intellectual confusion and anarchy is the changes and restrictions which they have effected in the meanings of key terms that project the worldview of IslÂm which is derived from Revelation.

10.  But the modernist thinkers and their immediate disciples and later followers which include some traditionalists ignored authentic and authoritative usage of Quranic Arabic and violated its etymological principles in order to introduce foreign meanings in the key terms involving changes and restrictions which run counter to their original intentions and which displace their purpose in the conceptual structure of the worldview of IslÂm.  Respecting interpretation of the Qur’Ân, from which a new form of Arabic is derived, they have consistently advocated hermeneutic methods whose character depended largely upon learned conjecture and subjective speculation and the notion of historical relativism.  They are unaware that Muslims are now being confronted by the same challenges as in the past, albeit more intensive and of greater magnitude, in having to grapple with foreign concepts and to find suitable words and terms to denote them without violating the etymological and semantic structure of Arabic words and terms and displacing their purpose in the Islamic conceptual system.  In their haste to assimilate foreign concepts without understanding that they serve a different perception of reality and of truth, and unaware of their own perception of worldview, the modernist thinkers and intellectuals have introduced into current Muslim thought and linguistic usage rampant confusion.  Their tampering of important terminologies belonging to the conceptual system which depicts the worldview of IslÂm is made widespread by being disseminated in their translations and interpretations of foreign terms and concepts in dictionaries of modern Arabic, in Arabic dictionaries of the various sciences, in modernist writings in Arabic literature, in journals and the writings of secular scholars and intellectuals and their traditionalist counterparts, and in the mass media.  The changes in meaning that result are caused by (i), restriction or reduction of the original pattern of meaning and its scope in its various meaningful contexts; (ii), introduction of new meaning that goes beyond what is demanded by etymology and contextual precision; (iii), introduction of key concepts from another worldview not compatible with that of IslÂm by means of arabization and dissemination in current usage; (iv), introduction of a new interpretation of worldview that is influenced by modern scientific developments; and (v), imitation by other Muslim languages of what is current in modernist Arabic usage and thought.  Their arabization and introduction of concepts peculiar to secularization as a philosophical program into contemporary Muslim thought, such as ‘development’, ‘change’, ‘freedom’, ‘progress’, and secularity itself and other concepts aligned to them, have tremendously contributed to the confusion in the Muslim understanding of the meaning of religion itself and of the fundamental elements that project its worldview such as the nature of God, of Revelation, of Prophecy, of man and the psychology of the human soul, of knowledge and cognition, of ethics and its goal, of purposeful conceptualization of the meaning of education.  Muslims must realize that our dialogue today is with the powerful forces of secularization as a philosophical program whose underlying philosophy and ideology have created a separation between truth and reality and between truth and values.  It is only through thorough knowledge of IslÂm and its worldview, coupled with the knowledge of Western thought and civilization and the understanding of its evolutionary history of intellectual and religious development, that we can engage ourselves in this profound dialogue with success, as al-GhazÂali, under similar circumstances and in his own milieu, had demonstrated.

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