“The Past and Present Attitudes Towards Possibilities of Knowledge”

by Muhammad Nur Aizuddin Norafandi (RZS-CASIS PhD Candidate)

[This entry is a selected summary of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 12th September 2020.]

“The Muslims who studied the translated works of the Greek philosophers from various sources realise that in the written tradition, the Greek philosophers were among the earlier philosophers who question the possibility of knowledge” -Prof. Wan, 3rd SNL10 

Posted by R Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam,Science & Civilisation on Khamis, 8 Oktober 2020

In this month’s instalment, Prof Wan continues the discussion from the previous month, where this session gives more emphasis on the centrality of knowledge in Islam, as well as the shaping of the knowledge culture in the West, particularly by Sophistic ideas and tendencies. In the previous session, Prof. Wan had expounded the discussion on knowledge and its centrality in Islam, and gave a brief overview of the previous lectures before starting this 3rd instalment of the 10th CSNL series. Most of the discussions that can be found during this lecture are based on his writings in the first and second chapter of his book, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.

Knowledge is a central component within the worldview of Islam. It is clearly stated within our creed. One of which within the statement in the Aqā’id an-Nasafī: Ḥaqā’īqul-ashyā’ al-thabitah. Wa ‘ilmu bihā mutahaqqiqūn. Khilāfan li Sūfasṭā’iyyah. The reality of things are established in their existence, and the knowledge of them is certain in contradiction to the Sophists (Semua ḥaqīqat segala perkara itu thābit adanya pengetahuan akan dia sebenaranya, bersalahan dengan qawm Sūfasṭā’iyyah) (1).

“Ranīrī, one of the greatest reformer in this part of the world, stated in his Durr al-Fara’id bi Sharh al-‘Aqa’id (2) that anybody who was invited to study knowledge of that he doesnt know, but he refused, is kufur” – Prof Wan, 3rd SNL 10

This shows that knowledge is central to the religion of Islam, in comparison to other religious philosophies, which do not explicitly state their views on knowledge within their basic religious philosophies. Also within the statement from the Aqā’id an-Nasafī, the conception of knowledge in Islam opposes those who oppose knowledge, in this the Sophists (the Sūfasṭā’iyyah). It is a term derived from the Greek σοφιστής (sophistes), to mean “a master of one’s craft”, or “a wise man”, which has its root in the Greek word σοφός (Sophos: a wise man), and the Greek noun σοφία (Sophia), which means wisdom. However, the term Sophists nowadays connotes the meaning of a captious or fallacious reasoner, one who deals in Sophistry (reasoning that seems plausible on a superficial level but is actually unsound, or reasoning that is used to deceive). In the quote from the Aqā’id, Prof Wan also points to us that Islam rejects the sophists and their behaviour towards knowledge.

Posted by R Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam,Science & Civilisation on Khamis, 8 Oktober 2020

“In the ‘Aqīdah (principle beliefs) of the Muslims, when they posing the importance of knowledge, they (also) clearly posited the importance of the recognising, identifying and opposing all those sophistical framework” -Prof. Wan, 3rd SNL10

The earliest existence of Sophistic practices can actually be traced to time of the creation of Prophet Adam a.s., with Iblīs being the first personification of Sophistry. This act of Sophistry was manifested when Iblīs refused to bow to Prophet Adam a.s. when Allah had commanded him to. This defiance of Allah’s command is an example of Iblīs one of the ‘Inadiyyah, the Sufa’ah as mentioned in the Qur’an, one who is hard-headed, stubborn, or in Malay terms: keras kepala. Prof Wan elucidates the different kinds of sophisms brilliantly also in the second chapter of the book. He also pointed to us that this problem of sophism has only recently been pointed by Tan Sri Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, in identifying one of the causes of the problem of knowledge. Further below, we shall see the explanations of the kinds sophisms as discussed by Prof Wan in this lecture.

Posted by R Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam,Science & Civilisation on Khamis, 8 Oktober 2020

The ‘Inadiyyah also encompass the Sophists who are called the Lā adriyyah, and the ‘Indiyyah. The former (literally: I don’t know) are the Agnostics, who deny that they know anything, and who doubt the existence of anything, even doubting what they doubt. The Lā adriyyah also deny the possibility of knowledge. The latter, the ‘Indiyyah, are those who imply that knowledge is always subjective, that anything that is objective in nature is deniable. They are also known as the Subjectivists, where knowledge is only according to them, themselves, and their own views. They deny any kind of authority in knowledge, and reject objective truths. Prof Wan gave an example from a recent article (3) on a Breakthrough award given to a mathematician pertaining to his discovery of the regularity structure in things, to show that even in the rational, mathematical sciences, they still have to belief in absolute knowledge, not relative. 

“Therefore the ‘Indiyyah, does begins with something acceptable, but then they make the wrong conclusion” – Prof Wan 3rd SNL10

As mentioned above, Iblīs is a creature that personifies Sophistry, and is an example for one that is part of the ‘Inadiyyah. Iblīs doubted the command of Allah to bow to Prophet Adam a.s., and also thought that bowing to Prophet Adam was a form shirk. This was reported by Junayd al-Baghdādī, reported by Ḥujwīrī in his Kashf al-Maḥjūb, where Imam Junayd al-Baghdādī had asked from Allah to meet Iblīs, and Allah granted this to al-Baghdādī via a dream. In that dream, al-Baghdādī asked Iblīs why he did not bow to Prophet Adam a.s.. Iblīs then answered that he did not want to commit shirk. Prof Wan points to us that this action of the Iblīs shows that he used his ‘indī, and we can also see that his stubbornness persists to the end of time, when Iblīs proclaims that he will misguide all the children of Adam to the end of time. This relation of the kinds of sophists was made to ensure that we are aware of the dangers of sophism and sophistry, and how sophism is one of the causes to the rise of false knowledge that we experience now.

Posted by R Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam,Science & Civilisation on Khamis, 8 Oktober 2020

At the end of the lecture, Prof Wan reminded us that Islamic conception of knowledge relies on what is true and real. What is true will remain as true, regardless from where it comes from. Prof Wan gave an example of how leaders in the Muslim world would take lessons from other rulers from their non-Muslim counterparts, because these non-Muslim leaders were just leaders. He also pointed to us that we should look into the personalities of those leaders, scholars, and other people of knowledge and power, to see how they treat others, whether they were just, and whether they lead a righteous personal life. In our worldview, the characters and behaviour of the Prophet (s.a.w), the Sahabah, the ‘ulamā’, the umara’, and the scholars that follow the right worldview are important. This is because it enables us to have a proper historical connection to the brilliant characters of these prominent figures in Islam, and from there also establish our connection to the universal religion of Islam. 

Posted by R Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam,Science & Civilisation on Khamis, 8 Oktober 2020

(1) Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, The Oldest Known Malay Manuscript: A 16th Century Malay Translation of the ʼAqāʼid of Al-Nasasfī (Department of Publications, University of Malaya, 1988), 65. For the Arabic and Jawi, see page 101 of the same book.

(2) The speaker himself has wrote an article on the commentary of this text by Raniri on the Precious Pearls on the Commentary of the ‘Aqaid Nasafi (Durr al-Fara’id bi Sharh al-‘Aqa’id), Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud & Khalif Muammar A. Harris,  “Kerangka Komprehensif Pemikiran Melayu Abad ke-17 Masihi Berdasarkan Manuskrip Durr al-Fara’id Karangan Sheikh Nurudin al-Raniri”, SARI: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, 27 (2), 119 – 146. Available here http://journalarticle.ukm.my/1184/1/SARI27%5B2%5D2009_%5B06%5D.pdf 

(3) https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/203853/imperial-mathematician-scoops-3m-breakthrough-prize/