“Rebuilding Broken Bridge: Motivations to write The Educational Philosophy and Practices of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

Summary of RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture 9th Series,

27th JULY 2019

Summarized by Hasanul Arifin, a Ph.D. Student at RZS-CASIS.

On the 27thJuly 2019 installment of the Saturday Night Lecture organized at Raja Zarith Sofia Centre for Advanced Studies in Islam, Science, and Civilisation, Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd. Nor Wan Daud shared with the audience on a subject matter that is more intimate and personal in nature – his motivations in writing The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. Citing from the Introduction section, Prof. Wan explained that, indeed, one out of two of his ambitious aims was to

“…rebuild the broken bridge in an intellectual tradition, by pointing to proper authorities to prevent wastage of thought and thereby uphold authenticity and clarity in conceptual thinking on issues that are fundamentally important to Muslims, such as education.”[1]

Clarifying this matter further, Prof. Wan expressed his disappointment in the attitudes of some politicians and policy-makers who, while having good intentions, fail to benefit from scholars who have achieved clarity in thought on educational matters, henceforth wasting precious time and resources re-inventing the educational wheel while gambling away with the future of the next generation through their estimations, conjectures, and speculations on what should be the correct direction of educational policies. To elucidate this point, Prof. Wan pointed out that many modern universities that are produced out of this trial-and-error approaches are not unified by anything other than bureaucratic and financial concerns; this fact alone betrays weak theoretical foundations. In light of the Islamic epistemological maxim of moving from that which is known to [solve] that which is unknown (min al-ma‘lūm ilā al-majhūl), wastage can be avoided if available resources on educational matters are optimally utilized, that is, by clarifying what is obscure and highlighting what has been treated casually at first, by gathering and putting in order what was originally scattered and separated, by summarizing great ideas through commentaries and proving the validity of reports concerning it, by omitting what was repeated, and by establishing the truth of some obscure matters that are difficult to comprehend at first.[2]The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas can therefore be interpreted as an attempt at summarizing and understanding Tan Sri Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas’ thoughts on education.

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Perhaps at this juncture, one may ask, why Al-Attas? Prof. Wan elucidated that, at the time of writing which took him five years to complete, no work on the educational thoughts of contemporary Muslim scholars has ever been attempted, with the most recent attempt being Professor K. G. Sayidain’s work on Iqbal’s Educational Philosophy.[3]On the contrary, the trend on educational thought among Muslims was either to go directly to the normative sources of Islam (i.e the Holy Qur’ān and the Sunnah) or to historical figures and institutions of the Islamic intellectual tradition. While this is an important preliminary step, according to Prof. Wan, the advantage of writing about ideas of living scholars like Al-Attas is that they are still alive to verify whether what is written about them best represents the ideas they have in mind thereby reducing the error of misrepresentation. Furthermore, Al-Attas’ master ideas on education already concurrently fulfills the objectives embedded in the two trends, because through his distilled ideas, one would be able to appreciate the ideas of the most authoritative scholars of the Islamic intellectual tradition on educational thought that is already based on the normative sources of Islām henceforth avoiding wastage altogether.

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The discussion on this matter subsequently dovetails nicely to the second objective as to why The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas was written, which was to

“…dispel the erroneous and destructive dualistic attitudes currently prevailing among some influential Muslim politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, and even academics and university students that intellectual efforts and contribution are not as important as political or economic ones.”[4]


The establishment of ISTAC in its physical form, for instance, is unique in the sense that it reflects the unity of theory and practice of its founder that is Al-Attas, refuting the notion of scholars as merely theoretical armchair critics. ISTAC is the product of years of contemplative thinking to solve real problems by tackling it at its very roots. According to Prof. Wan, serious thinkers like Al-Attas have realised that any kind of genuine reform must start upstream, that is, by addressing the issues of the university and institutions of higher education. This is because even politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats and the academic community are products of institutions of higher learning. This, however, does not mean that education at the lower levels like the kindergartens and primary schools are not important. From a strategic viewpoint, the teachers and the individuals involved in producing learning materials are all products of higher learning too, which is why reform at this higher level must be prioritised first. Citing the Malay proverb Kalau Hendak Melentur Buluh Biar Dari Rebungnya(if you want to shape the bamboo you have to start from the shoots first), many mistakenly think that the focus of the proverb is the shoots that symbolise the child, failing to realise that it is the act of shaping that is central to the proverb, and this act is performed by none other than teachers who are products of higher learning.

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Finally, to address concerns that his work is subjective in nature, being a subordinate of Prof. Al-Attas at ISTAC during the time of writing, Prof. Wan cautions against this subjective-objective dichotomy which leads to the belief that subjective works are less true and authentic, explaining that this framework of thinking is borne out of Western dualism. Citing the experience of the Companions with the Holy Prophet, the Companions’ account of the Prophet may be subjective but that does not make their reports less true. In fact, their accounts should be regarded as most authentic due to the fact that they possess the experiential dimension that others do not have in their reports of the Prophet. This, coupled with their intelligence and their known integrity and sincerity for the truth, would make their accounts both subjective and objective at once. Furthermore, Prof. Wan relies not only on experience but on available data as well. Sharing his personal conversation with Prof. Al-Attas, certain matters written in the book could have been stated directly because it is borne out of direct experiences, but to convince its readers Prof. Wan decided to rely on data instead, albeit appearing long-winded. He added that the act of apple-polishing of one’s superiors is not a sustainable practice especially if an author wishes to ensure that his book is to be continually read for many years to come. Additionally, Prof. Wan has remained faithful to Prof. Al-Attas and his ideas even after he is no longer his superior. Coupled with how meticulous Prof. Al-Attas is in verifying his draft, Prof. Wan reckoned that if he were to sing praises of him that were unjustified, he would make him unhappy too. In essence, how one can maintain his or her objectivity despite being intimately related with a certain subject is actually one’s sincerity for the truth, underlining the reason why sincerity is posited as fundamental and of paramount importance by many authoritative scholars of Islam in any academic pursuit.

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On concerns that his book is void of critical views of Al-Attas, Prof. Wan explained that teachers are like fathers; while fathers are responsible for nurturing a child’s physical development, teachers are responsible for a child’s spiritual development – a responsible far greater than that of fathers. Just as how a child does not share his father’s shortcomings with the public, a true student should not too. This does not mean that a father or teacher is perfect; fathers and teachers are human too, but proper adab towards them must be exercised. As children and students respectively, the proper adabis to conceal their faults and to avoid repeating them personally. This is the adab practised by true scholars of the Islamic intellectual tradition.

Prof. Wan then ends his wonderful lecture by informing the audience that he will address one longstanding question on the difference between Islamisation and Islamicisation in the next Saturday Night Lecture on the 24thof August.

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[1]See Wan Mohd Nor, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas(Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1998), 21.

[2]See also K. Honerkampf. Al-Ghazālī Kitāb al-‘Ilm(Louiseville: Fons Vitae, 2015), xliv.

[3]See Wan Mohd Nor, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas(Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1998), 23.

[4]See Wan Mohd Nor, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas(Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1998), 28.