Prepared by: Hamzah bin Masleh (Master Student)

Edited by: Nik Mohd. Ayman Haniff bin Raja Azlan (CASIS Audit Student)


Four sessions have passed thus far, since Prof. Wan Mohd. Nor Wan Daud began the current series of CASIS Saturday Night Lecture. He opens the lecture by reminding the present audience of its purpose. Being an elaboration of his book ‘The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas: An Exposition of Original Concept of Islamization’, the previous lectures had focused on aspects of Prof. Syed Naquib al-Attas’s background, which serves as the book’s backdrop. In this current instalment, Prof. Wan discussed the first chapter of the book, where he elaborated on al-Attas’s metaphysical worldview.

Prof. Wan began the lecture by underlining the importance of worldview in viewing concepts such as God, the Prophet, and the Qur’an. It is necessary to have the right metaphysics—rooted in the way Islam clarifies the nature of the physical world, the intangible, and our existence—define one’s worldview, such that if the aforementioned concepts were seen from within other worldviews, they attain altogether different meanings.

The grandfather of Prof. Syed Naquib al-Attas, Habib Abdullah Muhsin al-Attas (1858 – 1933)[1], made an important observation regarding this by highlighting how the Prophet was seen by Abu Bakr as-Siddiq and Abu Jahl during the Makkan period. As he pointed out, both figures looked at the same man, yet their respective worldviews could not be more diametrically opposed. For 13 years, Abu Jahl could not view the Prophet as anything but a poor man, an orphan, and the nephew of Abu Talib. Undoubtedly, this led Abu Jahl to regard him as an enemy. Whereas Abu Bakr, in his worldview, saw Muhammad s.a.w. as the Prophet of God, the last person to whom God had directly Spoken. Within such a perspective, it was impossible for Abu Bakr to see the Prophet as other than the most perfect of Creation. Hence, Habib Muhsin’s observation reiterates the earlier point made by Prof. Wan: everything we do is contingent upon our worldview being grounded in the right metaphysics.

                  Worldviews establish one’s outlook on  the world; hence, there is not one person—even the people of the past—that lacks it. Prof. Wan illustrates this by mentioning the 1974 discovery of the Terracotta Army—all 8,000 of the generals, soldiers, horses and foodstuffs, buried together with Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. In the emperor’s worldview, the afterlife is yet another field of battle; not knowing what he’d face, he had devoted immense time and resources into preparing for his departure, as represented by the numerous terracotta figures. This discovery, along with its context, complements the conclusions made in 1960 by the priest S.G.F. Brandon. In his book “The Idea of Life after Death in Major Religions”, Brandon embarked on a study of graves from ancient civilizations. He found that within these graves, the skeletal remains were buried with assorted items such as forks, spoons, coins and food items. According to these discoveries, he concluded that the people in these ancient civilizations were aware of another life beyond their immediate world, thereby alluding to a worldview being present.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”11″ display=”basic_thumbnail” thumbnail_crop=”0″]                  Within the past and present, even the most practical man, Prof. Wan stresses, could not escape referring to a particular worldview, no matter how theoretical it might seem. Though they may not be aware of it, a worldview influences the way they look at, think about, and subsequently act in all areas of life. Yet, there are some who regard engaging with a worldview, in its epistemological nature, as something impractical. To this, he refers to G.K. Chesterton, who in 1936 was quoted as saying that “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” This is reminiscent of Christianity and the Catholics’ own need of developing a worldview that reflects their beliefs. To them, a Catholic worldview represents a way of understanding reality in light of the total truth of God, Man and the world. Therefore, it is important for them to have the one correct worldview that is true to the way things are. From there, they would be able to differentiate right and wrong, and determine the proper ways of behaving.

                  Prof. Wan contrasts this by elaborating on the failure of the brilliant minds, spanning from ancient Greece until now, in understanding the true nature of Reality as such, despite possessing vast knowledge about the world. He cites the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking as one such example. Being a great thinker, he understood more than anyone else about the physical nature of the universe, but remained utterly clueless when it comes to comprehending the nature of existence and God in and of themselves. Hawking strongly believed that, through science, humankind would be able to understand the reason behind the universe’s existence; gaining that answer, in his estimation, “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God”. Hence, in Hawking’s worldview, one can attain to the knowledge of God through pure human endeavour. This example demonstrates Prof. Wan’s point of the need for Prophetic knowledge in guiding our human affairs: the absence of it would lead to matters of an ontological nature—God, death, and the afterlife—becoming a massive grey area for humankind at large.

                  In explaining the influence of secularism on one’s worldview, Prof. Wan mentioned the rise of atheism among the Jews. In a 2013 Pew study[2], American Jews are quoted as saying that it is no longer necessary to define the core of their Jewishness by their belief in God. Instead, Jewishness, to them, is more related to their ancestry and culture. From this perspective, American Jews place more value in remembrance of key religious events, such as the belief in both Abraham and Moses’s meetings with God, and the Holocaust in particular as the markers of their Jewish identity. In essence, the impact of secularism has led them to reduce their Jewishness to temporal cornerstones as opposed to the Transcendental.

                  Explaining the importance of the worldview of Islam amidst this context, Prof. Wan refers to Prof. al-Attas’s definition of it being the Islamic vision ofReality and Truth. The worldview of Islam is inseparable from a Muslim’s engagement with the world due to its nature teaching Muslims to differentiate between right and wrong within what exists. Naturally, adherence to the worldview entails one to act in conformity with it. However, the worldview is also accommodating of the Muslim’s fallibility. Provided that the worldview is correct, authentic and understood in the proper way, a Muslim would recognize the sins he committed as falling short of what he’s been commanded to do, thereby allowing the possibility for atonement, regardless of how long it would take for him to improve. If the worldview is misunderstood or corrupt, he would instead seek to justify his sins and find more moments to repeat the act in pride. This comparison, therefore, serves to illustrate the importance of the right knowledge in understanding the worldview.

                  When the worldview of Islam is understood properly, it enables thorough transformative change within a person, the kind that allows him to overcome serious challenges. Two powerful instances of this kind occurred during the Makkan period, where the very foundation of the Islamic worldview—the nature of God, yawm-ul akhirah, and so on—was being formulated. Despite being in its infancy, the profound impact it has had on the Muslims of the time can already be seen. When Bilal ibn Rabah, for instance, was severely tortured by his slave master, he did not compromise his beliefs and uttered ‘Ahad’ throughout. Scholars have commented on Bilal’s utterance of ‘Ahad’ as proof of his understanding the nature of Oneness beyond many people; according to them, the ahadiyyahlevel of unity is far greater than wahadiyyah. Bilal’s utterance demonstrated a profound level of tawhid, expressed in the face of intense adversity.

                  The second instance happened to Ja’far ibn Abi Talib during the migration to Abyssinia. When the Negus inquired the Muslims regarding the nature of their beliefs, he specifically asked Ja’far the kinds of things Prophet Muhammad had taught them. As recorded by historians from Ibn Ishaq onwards, what followed was a clear articulation of the proper understanding of the Islamic worldview. Responding to the Negus, Ja’far expressed the profound change the Prophet had affected upon them all. By virtue of his truthfulness, trustworthiness and integrity, the Muslims were liberated from utter jahiliyyah—a state of depravity marked by immorality, ignorance, exploitation and abuse—to then bear witness to Allah’s Oneness, renouncing the false idols of the ego in pursuit of elevating humankind. As pointed out by Prof. Wan, the ethical dimension of Islam, as told by Ja’far, was clearly rooted in the proper understanding and inculcation of the Islamic worldview.

                  Following from this, Prof. Wan went over a few examples of past Muslims who were regarded as being practical in their worldly affairs while observing the worldview with due respect. One such figure was Malik al-Ashtar, the governor of Egypt during the reign of Mu’awiyah. His proper inculcation of the Islamic worldview can be seen in his conduct towards both his Muslims and non-Muslim constituents. In studying his example, one can observe the basic underlying features of the worldview—belief in Allah, resolute awareness of His Presence, and having due concern for one’s final judgement in yawm-ul qiyamah—manifested throughout the development of al-Ashtar’s ethical leadership. The same inculcation can be seen in the chief Umayyad secretary, Abdul Hamid ibn Yahya. In his letter to all the Umayyad officials, ibn Yahya implored them to improve their knowledge; uphold wisdom in advising the ruler; be kind, just, humble, and never be arrogant. After narrating further examples from several more of these figures, Prof. Wan pointed out that none of them ever denied the importance of worldview upon one’s mind and soul. Rather, the right observance of the worldview is expressed in the Muslim’s demeanor towards everything.

                  In conclusion, Prof. Wan reemphasizes the fact that everyone has a worldview. The intelligible nature of the worldview should not deter anyone from acknowledging its constructive effects on one’s engagement with Reality and Truth. When borne in upon one’s mind, heart, and soul, the Islamic worldview would compel the Muslim to strive in emulating the example of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., out of a sincere love for God. This is only possible when said worldview contains the right knowledge complementing the reality of existence.

[1]”Syed Abdullah al-Attas ..became well-known under the name of Habib Abdullah bin Muhsin bin Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Attas or Habib Keramat Bogor. He is regarded as waliullah and ahli kasaf, he is an ‘ulama Murobi’ and Sufi Murshid, well-known in Indonesia.
He was born in 1275H/1858 A.C. in Huraydah (Hadramaut). He obtained his first religious education from his father Muhsin and Mualim Syeikh Umar bin Faraj bin Sabah. Habib Abdullah wrote many books on usuluddin, tasawwuf and the philosophy of Islam. He devoted his entire life to the mission of the Islamization of the Malay world and the strengthening of Islam there. He passed away on the 29th of Zulhijjah 1351H/24th of April 1933.. Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas is the grandson of this Habib Abdullah bin Muhsin bin Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Attas or Habib Keramat Bogor. In my interview, the professor emphasized again that the Islamization of the Malay world was a great and deliberate mission of the chief ulamas from the Hadramaut and not by any means merely a casual consequence of commercial activity by Arab traders. The information derived from the Tuhfat al-Nafis and some other historical sources is most valuable in proving the correctness of this conclusion. The entire life of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and his great enlightening work are truly another demonstration of this fact. Both the man and his works should by right be regarded as the national treasure of Malaysia and as the national pride of the Malaysian people.”
Prof Tatiana Denisova, ‘Concerning One Name Mentioned in the Tuhfat al-Nafis: Two Interesting Revelations’, in Knowledge, Language, Thought and the Civilization of Islam – Essays in Honor of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas(Johor: UTM Press, 2010)