“On The Importance of Definition: Greek Struggles and Islam’s Emphasis on the Proper Places of Things”

by Akhrun bin Musa (RZS-CASIS Alumni)

[This entry is a selected summary of the 5th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof.Dr. Wan Mohd Nor on 21 November 2020]

In the previous session, Prof. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud has elaborated at length on the definition of knowledge and its sources, its relationship with contemporary challenges and how our understanding of knowledge can help us to solve our contemporary problems as well as our personal and society issues at large. In order to preserve knowledge, the significance of defining the key terms in the worldview of Islam is of important precondition.

Al-Attas throughout his life emphasized on the important and the problem of definition by clarifying the key concepts pertaining to the Muslim world and the west, which at once reflect the important of truth, wisdom, and right knowledge in Islam.

Prof. Wan began with the chapter on ‘definition’ from the 10 volume work on Encyclopedia of Philosophy (EOP). According to the author, the first person in the history of western philosophy which seem to be emphasizing the important of defining key terms and concepts was attributed to Socrates. 

Unfortunately, even Socrates himself was not explained about criteria of his definition. Prof Wan Said;

” What is the meaning of virtue or piety for example? Socrates as reported by Plato answered by saying that the kind of answer, he expected to his question was on the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. But according to those who study Platonic Dialogue pertaining to Socrates say that Socrates never gave the criteria of the standard that he meant to reflect a pious idea and practice. He asked questions and demands standards but he himself doesn’t explain what standard does he meant or expects?”

In the history of Philosophy according to the author, from the beginning until now, there are three general trends regarding definition.(1)

One is the essentialist theory, which mean that something should be defined based on its essence. It is a descriptive definition that convey knowledge through knowledge of that thing. However, some have questioned on how do we know the truth about something? Who are we to say this is the true knowledge about something?

Therefore, there is another group attributed to people like Socrates, Plato, Aristotles, the Christian, the Jews, the Muslim, and people of religion in general who post linguistic definition of definition. They understand definition to be mere utility, on how we use a particular language to explain what we mean. Its usage depends on the term selected from a particular language and that there is no essence to anything, constantly relative to how one plays and use that language. 

But there is another group who opposes the previous two groups, whom deny the importance of language called the prescriptivist. Their prescription theory of definition is about how we prescribe something to it. For them, definition does not give any knowledge and is purely arbitrary.

After criticising all these three major theories of definition by showing its advantages as well as its disadvantages, the author brings out another theory of definition which seems to answer the question posed by the three earlier schools of thought pertaining to the theory of definition. For them, definition should not merely be based on language nor essence, instead, it is based on what we want to achieve by it, its context presented, and the action we want for the people is accepted.

Then the author brings Aristotle’s rule for evaluating definitions by referring to his book Topica as follows;

 (1) A definition should give the essence or nature of the thing defined, rather than its accidental properties. – this is what Muslim scholar as well as Prof al-Attas would agree on.

(2) A definition should give the genus and differentia of the thing defined. – which also we would agree on.

(3) One should not define by synonyms. 

(4) A definition should be concise. – also, generally true and we would agree on this despite some definition might require extra explanation. But how concise the conciseness might still need for clarifications.

 (5) One should not define by metaphors. – In Islam however metaphor is sometimes useful to give general reflections pertaining to truth of something 

(6) One should not define something by negative terms or by correlative terms (thus, one should not define north as the opposite of south, or parent as a person with one or more children). – this one might also be opposed by some scholar. Prof al-Attas himself when tried to define Happiness used its contrast, which is tragedy. 

Throughout history, people tend to use these six criterias as the general guidelines to define an object of knowledge. 

The Mediterranean Basin in 218 B.C.

Conflict of Definitions in Greek and Christian Tradition

St. Augustine said that whatever the Greek philosopher whom very influential and brilliant  like Socrates, Plato and Aristotles were doing, as al-Attas also said, reflects some truth coming from religion revealed. Perhaps the religion that came to the Jewish prophet thousands of years before have reached the Mediterranean Basin, but because they did not follow a particular revealed religion, therefore they missed many major things.(2)

Augustine mentioned, for example the question of the nature of reality. In the history of philosophy, they talk about Thales, the first Greek thinker to define what this world consists of. Later on, his  student and their subsequent students (the likes of Anaximander, Anaxagoras and Diogenes) continued with the attempt and discovery of the nature of reality which ended up differing from one other.

Thales for example who lived in 600 years B.C. said that the fundamental principle of reality is one, and that particular ‘one’ which consists everything in nature, is water. His student Anaximander however takes the opposites line denying the fact that there is one single reality which consists of everything. He said that there is multiplicity of realities, infinite in number and not singular as proposed by his teacher.

The student of Anaximander, Anaximenes however go back to the opinion of Thales saying that reality is one but instead of water, he proposed rather the air.

“Anaximander left as his successor his disciple Anaximenes, who attributed all the causes of things to an infinite air. He neither denied nor ignored the existence of gods, but so far from believing that the air was made by them, he held, on the contrary, that they sprang from the air” 

Then there is another important student of Anaximenes by the name of Anaxagoras, again differed with his teacher. He said that there are many principles of reality again, not one, but different from the teacher Anaximander by saying that this multiplicity in reality is controlled by one divine mind, which is God. He now brought God as the main ‘architect’ in producing multiple realities of the universe. 

But his colleague which is also a student of Anaximenes, Diogenes also posited a divine mind in the construction of reality but rather than having infinite reality he returns to one single reality again that is ‘air’.

The purpose of St. Augustine bringing these dialogues up according to Prof. Wan is to show that no matter how brilliant the Greek thinkers, they tend to differ even those in their line of student-teacher-student relationship. St. Augustine who is a Christian has profoundly showed the differences between all these Greek thinkers due to their lack of capability to come to an agreement on the definition of somethings.

After the Greek, then comes the Romans who throughout history has created Great Civilizations. One of the greatest and the most prolific Roman thinker, philosopher, and writers among them was Marcus Varro who lived 100 years BC and died around 27-year B.C. Augustine quoting him on the nature of happiness  and on the nature of good and evil which lead man to either happiness or misery. According to Varro, if we want to think of the meaning of all these any many other things, there is a possibility of more than 288 sect represent different interpretations which may disagree to one another.

“That Varro has made out that two hundred and eighty-eight different sects of philosophy might be formed by the various opinions regarding the supreme good”

Augustine were writing this thing to show the superiority of Christian Worldview although he admitted, despite Christian worldview for him, is based on revelation, yet there are contradictions between the Hebrew Bible with what they called the Septuagint Bible, the translation of Hebrew Bible by 70 writers into Greek which became the language of the new testament. However Augustine quite ‘cleverly’ explained the contradictions in terms of some facts and ideas between the original, the Hebrew Bible which was compiled few hundred years BC and translated few hundred years later into Greek – He said that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were inspired by God and so were the writers and the translators of the Bible into Greek, they were also inspired by God. Therefore, although there seems to be contradictions between these two Bibles, they are considered by Augustine as equally correct. Meaning that Christians should not use reason to try to explain the contradictions, but are to accept them as they are.

Greek Thinkers and The Prophetic Teaching

Prof. al-Attas in his book Prolegomena (3), particularly on the Chapter on Happiness elaborated on the Aristotelian concept of tragedy, happiness and ethics and how these Greek thinkers were benefitting from the revelation (to the prophet) floating in the ancient world.

In the 5th century when Augustine wrote The City of God, he did mentioned clearly how Plato, for example despite learning from the best teacher of his time, was not satisfied and brought him to later proposed a different theory which differed from his teacher, Socrates. During his time in Egypt, he later was reported to have discussed with the followers of Prophet Jeremiah – which was regarded by the Jews as their prophet. Jeremiah lived many centuries after Prophet Musa (Moses), Prophet Daud (David)  and and Prophet Sulaiman (Soloman). 

According to Augustine also, Plato were discussing with the Egyptians who know Greek due to his ignorance of their language therefore, he couldn’t read their book. Furthermore at that time, Hebrew Bible were not yet translated into Greek. Its translation was done only in the middle third century B.C. which was around 200 to 300 hundred years after Plato. It means when he was in Egypt there was no translation yet from Hebrew into Greek of the old testament yet the ideas were already discussed in Greek language by Egyptian (scholars) since Greek language is one of the prominent languages in Egypt and Syria as well.

From Egypt, according to St. Augustine, Plato went to Syria and studied under many teachers there as well. It proofs that the early Christian as early as Augustine showing evidences that Greek Thinkers were benefited from the ideas of the Hebrew Prophet. And for us, despite no accepting Jeremiah as a Prophet not named in the Qur’ān but we knew that Prophet Daud, Ibrahim, Sulaiman , Musa were all existing in that same region, in Egypt and Syria.

The idea of prophetic teaching in the thought of Greek thinkers may also be found in Ṭabaqāt al-ʼUmam (Books of The Categories of Nations) by Saʿid al-Andalusi(4) where he elaborated on the knowledge culture in various nations such as Egypt, Persia, India, the Babylonians, the Romans, and the Greeks.(5)

On the Chapter of Science in Greece, he talks about how Empedocles, among the prominent Greek philosophers who died around 430 B.C. was said to have studied philosophy with Luqmān al-Ḥākim in Shams.

According to Saʿid al-Andalusi, also there is another prominent Greek philosopher, Pythagoras who came long after Empedocles and has studied philosophy in Egypt under the disciples of Prophet Sulaiman. According to Saʿid, these disciples of Prophet Sulaiman left Palestine to live in Egypt where there they taught scholars including Pythagoras. 

Prof. Wan said that the point Saʿid al-Andalusi want to raise here is the fact that for humanity, we are supposed to have knowledge of the right and wrong, knowledge of what will make us happy in this world and the hereafter, therefor we must be able to know things in its definitive state. That is what Prof al-Attas has done also in all his works where he always clearly defines all they key terms and concepts used in his works. In fact, it was the first objective of the educational institute that he built 40 years ago, that is to clarify key terms and concepts. Without the right definition and meaning of things, whatever things we do will not be properly explained, evaluated, judged, and estimated. 

Knowledge and meaning

Prof. al-Attas define knowledge epistemologically by emphasizing the process of receiving it, which is “the arrival of meaning into the soul as well as the arrival of the soul towards meaning.” But ontologically speaking, knowledge are units of meanings that arrives in the soul. 

But the next question then is, what is meaning?

Prof. Wan explained that meaning is the recognition of the proper places in the system in relation with other key terms and concepts in that system. In the Islamic sense the right meaning is that we know the proper places of things in the system definitively such that we will acknowledge and recognize Allah in the order of being and existence.

The meaning of something in Islam might be differ from the non-Islamic meaning because some meanings are considered such only when there is no God involved in the conceptual scheme. What is Islamic is when something that is meaningful must finally be connected to God, recognizing the proper place of Allah as the Lord of the Worlds. This is why Professor al-Attas impressed upon us on the importance of “true knowledge” – although by definition, knowledge in itself should be true to be considered as one. False knowledge masquerading   as knowledge are due to the construction of meaning by man’s reason unverified by revelation of its truth.

What then does he meant by place? 

He identifies six level of place in the the Muslim mind. 

1. Objective place– refers to something external to ourselves, exist in the external world, in the ḥaqīqī existence or the real existence outside our mind.

2. Sensible Existence – which internal to our mind; includes dream, vision, and illusion 

3. Imiginary Place (khayālī) – which is the existence of objects of sensible existence in the imagination when they are absent from human perception. 

4. Intellectual (ʿaqli) existence – which consists abstract concept in the human mind

5. Analogous (shibhī) existence – which is constituted by things which do not exist in any of the levels above but which do exist as something else resembling the things in a certain respect, or analogous to them.

6.There is another level that the rational truth called a supra-rational or transcendental level of existence experience by prophet and Saint of God and men of discernment who are deeply rooted in knowledge.

Unfortunately, in modern understanding when people talk about place, it is only confined to the external world and perhaps in the intellectual world but not in the transcendental world of existence. They may include imaginary or the analogous world but they deny entirely the existence of another place, the transcendental world of existence.

Definition in Islam

Prof. Wan then justified why Islam put so much emphasis on the importance of definition. He said that it is due to fulfilment of our purpose in this world, to acquire knowledge. This was the same reason to why our scholars in the past studied the Greeks, its relevance are reflected in the Quran and Hadith that it exemplified the need to understand what is around you clearly.

Though not all definition is essential, some of them are linguistic and that was why Prof. al-Attas was very concerned with semantic terms. In Islam, definition is also contextual because when we define something, we impel people to act or to think in a particular manner. Hence, it is not just a matter of words or languages but also about transforming people’s spiritual and ethical dimension to its natural state (fitrah).

For example, when we define the word Islām. We do not just simply define its linguistic meaning but by referring to the five pillars (ʼarkān) of ʼIslām. Therefore, when we define the word Islam it impels people to profess their faith (shahādah), to perform prayer, to pay Alms, fasting during Ramaḍān and to perform the Pilgrimage. The same thing when we define the word Imān, ʼIḥsān, Nifāq and so on.

Prof. Wan insisted that this is the proof that Muslims are not merely theorizing about definition, it was done so that we can live morally and spiritually based on the right and proper definition, with certainty. And this was also why Augustine, for example, in his writings about the Greek philosophers said, even though Socrates, Plato, Aristotle as well as Epodacle and Pythagoras all understood the idea of one God, but when it comes to worshipping, they made a mistake by worshipping the God of Multiplicity. 

Despite intellectually they have come to the understanding of a single Supreme Good as God (for Plato) or the Prime Mover is God (for Aristotle), and yet they failed to understand how to worship these God(s). That is why Augustine claimed rather very satisfyingly as he believes Christianity is higher than the Greeks. He was convinced that the Greek’s failure was due to not receiving revelation. 

The way of approaching an object of knowledge in Islam is through the affirmation of Divine Unity (Tawhid) in reality, the Tawḥidic Method. We do not isolate the types of definition such as linguistic, essential or prescriptivist, but the entirety of it, depending on the object we are trying to define and what we want people to do with it. All of which its proper places in reality is based on very clear revealed text of the Qur’ān and Ḥadīth; forming the basis of our worldview.

As he was concluding the lecture, Prof. Wan reminded us that definition of meaning as a recognition of the proper place of a thing in a system; and how this ‘thing’ is related to other ‘thing’ in that system. From here you can deduce that the place is not just external and spatial, but also internal and essential. Then he defines for example ‘Justice’ as a condition where things are in its proper places and ‘wisdom’ is the knowledge of the proper places of things. Meanwhile Adab is the right action based on knowledge. Therefore, we can see here the connection of knowledge-meaning-wisdom and justice, are all connected with each other within a system.

Therefore when we talk about Adab as what education (Ta’dib) is in Islam, it is a recognition and acknowledgement of the right and proper places of things in the system such that it leads us to recognizes and acknowledge Allah in the order of being and existence.

(1) Raziel Abelson , “Definition” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Donald M. Borchert, 2nd Edition ed., vol. 2 (MacMillan Reference USA, 2006), 664 – 677.

(2) Saint Augustine, The City of God (New York The Modern Library, 2000).

(3) Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Prolegomena To The Metaphisics Of Islam – An Exposition Of The Fhttps://www.dropbox.com/s/16vv7hgzwuw16cd/Prolegomena-to-the-Metaphysics-of-Islam.pdf?dl=0undamental Elements Of The Worldview Of Islam (Kuala Lumpur ISTAC, 2001).

(4) Saʿid al-Andalusi, Ṭabaqāt al-ʼUmam (Books of The Categories of Nations) trans. Semaʿan I. Salem and Alok Kumar ( United States of America: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991).

(5) For more discussion on Greek Intellectual Tradition, read Adi Setia “The Genesis of Greek Intellectuality in Islam and Western Historiographies of Science: A Comparative Overview”, Journal AFKĀR, 2009 bil. 10 (61-82).

Final CSNL will be on the 19th December 2020 via Zoom, click here to register. To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series: