This article being the summary and reflection of Prof. Dr Muhammad Zainiy Uthman’s Lecture on “Action, Thinking Framework, and the Human Soul” in conjunction with the HIKMA Forum 2020 | 26th December 2020 

Summary and Reflection by M. Ikhwan Azlan (Dr., RZS-CASIS Phd Alumni)

Professor Zainiy begins his talk by recollecting his role with Professor Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud as the editors of the Festschrift in celebration of the scholarship of Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, from whom he derived most of his understanding on what he was about to present in the session. He reminded us that scholarship runs in a tradition, that many of these ideas find their roots in luminaries of the past, thus affirming the intellectual and spiritual lineage of Prof. al-Attas that goes back to Imam al-Ghazali r.h. 

The topic for this session was an excerpt from the speaker’s article published as part of his editorial series on Thinking Framework (RZS-CASIS, Kuala Lumpur, 2020) to put forth the connection between action, thinking framework and the human soul. One’s framework of thinking is inseparable from oneʼs action, for thinking does not happen in a vacuum. Action (‘amal), as informed in a well-known hadith of the Prophet s.a.w., is based on intention whose seat is in the heart (qalb). Right thinking leads to right action (‘amal ṣāliḥ) which in turn engender benefit for the common good (maṣlaḥah) while minimising negative implications (mafsadah). Professor Zainiy repeatedly stresses the formulaic expression extracted from al-Attas’ writings; that right action is an act in conformity with knowledge of the ontological real and the logical truth both at once. Therefore, any action, for it to be considered right action, must serve a certain purpose (maqṣad). It must be deliberate and purposeful, and must be based on wisdom in the form of conclusions or judgements based on verified knowledge (taḥqīq). The result of this state of affairs is the good life. The good life or happiness therefore is not merely about satisfying material wants, but right actions that results from a clear thinking framework stemming from the certitude of the heart. This is especially clear when we consider the opposite of happiness. As we analyse deeper and deeper into what misery is, we shall realise that real misery is not about lack of material wealth but more intellectual and spiritual in nature, the constricted life of thought and the intellect (ma‘īshat ḍank). True happiness is when the mind is active and free to move about; and fly through various vistas of meaning, while being grounded by certitude of established truths so that it does not get lost or confused. This so-called “groundingʼʼ is the thinking framework. According to Professor al-Attas, this framework comes from the internalisation of the worldview of Islam.

Thinking can only take place in a framework of ideas, a network of meanings. At this point of Prof. Zainiyʼs lecture I was reminded of a particular interview of the late Richard Feynman. The interviewer was asking, “Why do magnets attract or repel each other?ʼʼ and Feynman asked back, “What do you mean why?ʼʼ The interviewer was taken aback, “I think itʼs a fair question,ʼʼ and Feynman retorted, “Of course itʼs a fair question, in fact itʼs a good question. But when you ask why, you must be in a certain framework where the explanation would be meaningful to you. I could explain the theory if youʼre a graduate student of physics. Otherwise I could not do a good job explaining it to you except pointing out the fact that magnets attract or repel each other.ʼʼ Modern science, despite itʼs history of anti-Aristotelianism, is still enmeshed with fundamental ideas that go back to Aristotle. According to Aristotle, imagination and judgement are separate matters. Judgement is the process of establishing the truth, which is a “scientificʼʼ process, while imagination seems to only lead to opinion. In the process of “saving the phenomenaʼʼ, the mind abstracts and simplifies what it experiences through the five senses in the form of a “scientific theoryʼʼ, which is a mathematical account of our experience of external reality. Imagination plays a role in the “constructionʼʼ of such theories, but its veracity is determined by judgements (logical deductions) and the senses (empirical verifications). Hence, imagination is, at best, held suspect by Aristotle. But according to Professor al-Attas, thinking is “the soulʼs movement towards meaning, and this needs imagination.ʼʼ It is the movement of the soul from meaning to meaning. Thus, imagination does not only brings about opinion, but also meaning, which leads to knowledge. Now, what is meaning? Meaning is “the proper place of “somethingʼʼ in relation to other “thingsʼʼ.ʼʼ The idea of “relationsʼʼ brings us back to the “frameworkʼʼ we mentioned earlier. The framework is a network of fundamental and key meanings from which all other meanings are derived from. 

When it comes to the idea of ‘‘Islamisation of knowledgeʼʼ, we must realise that knowledge is not out there, knowledge resides in the soul. Therefore, Islamisation of knowledge is Islamisation of the man himself. In the introduction to the Prolegomena, Professor al-Attas pointed out the nine key elements of the worldview of Islam, namely the nature of God, of man, of creation, of knowledge, of religion, of revelation and prophecy, of freedom, of happiness, and of vice and virtue. These key elements of the worldview of Islam form the basis from which the thinking framework is derived. We should not see these simply as a priori principles that form an axiomatic framework in the logical and mathematical sense, but as a reality experienced by the individual.

For instance, the relation between the meaning of “fatherʼʼ and “sonʼʼ is not merely conceptual, as in one begets the other, but involves also the rights of the father over the son and the rights of the son over the father, the right action and proprieties that are required and proper in their relationship and behaviour towards one another, and so on and so forth. All these are directly involved in the meaning of “fatherʼʼ and “sonʼʼ, and this meaning is ontologically established in reality, not merely a matter of social construct or whimsical imagination. For example, modern psychology is now reduced to behavioural studies or the neural networks of the brain. Islamisation of modern psychology is not simply giving religious or Qur’anic justifications of such modern theories at the same time bypassing the works of al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and others. On the contrary, Islamisation here involves going back to the roots of the meaning of the soul, which scientific discussions and elaborations on it have been done by these luminaries of the past. At the root of it all, it goes all the way back to the question, what does it mean to be human, and what constitutes the perfection of man?

Professor Zainiy made an important observation regarding the major differences between Aristotelian idea of perfect man with of Islam’s as how Professor al-Attas has put it. To Aristotle and the Greek philosophers in general, the soul is the perfection of human body and it has no activity independent of the body. Among the faculties of the soul is the intellect, which exercises its powers through the activity of thinking. The powers of the intellect innate to every human being is of different capacities (wus‘) for each individual, and could be trained to achieve its full-potential, i.e. from potentiality to actuality. Since thinking is main activity of the intellect, which is the main faculty of rational animal, i.e. human being, the degrees of perfection of man corresponds to the degrees of oneʼs intellectual capacity and him exercising it to its full-potential. However, contrary to Aristotle, Professor al-Attas affirms that the faculty of imagination plays the role of the soulʼs quest for meaning and knowledge. Imagination not only reaches opinion, but reality! One indicator of this fact is that as the intellect undergoes transformation from potential to actual, the imagination is ready and active from the very beginning. Aristotleʼs notion of “thinkingʼʼ is only one of the various modes of the faculty of imagination. In fact, the already perfect imaginative faculty is the reason why thinking is possible in the first place. There are other modes of being where the soul exercises its power of vitality, nutrition, growth, reproduction, motion, perception, and rational-cognitive. Perfection of the human soul therefore is the just balance of all these aspects. Being just here also means to put these various modes in the right order, in which the cognitive-imagination is the highest mode of the soul. The process of judging, clarifying, discrimination and distinguishing the intelligibles to arrive at meaning also involves all of these modes at once, by which one is able to know the limits of truth in every object of knowledge, thus leading to the fulfillment of its purpose that is to know the reality of things, i.e. mahiyyah or ḥaqīqah, and to know them with certainty, and here lies the tranquility of the soul (sakīnah) which is a subset of happiness (sa‘ādah).

Now, the opposite of the aforementioned condition is the state of doubt. Doubts and conjectures are not methods to arrive at knowledge. They are but a condition of the soul not achieving its just balance. This condition is aggravated by our modern tendencies to be reductionistic in our understanding of the comprehensiveness of the soul. For example, the “limit of truthʼʼ is reduced to only the logical, i.e. determining the limit of what is and what is not in formulation of definitions of objects concrete and abstract, and cognitive imagination is reduced to only rational imagination where the intellect constructs and formulates definitions and propositions in linguistic or symbolic formulations, whereas in reality logic is only one of the many operations of intellection. Truth is thus reduced to a matter of judgment of constructed propositions based relatively on a particular choice of an axiomatic system or a mathematical model. Depending on the choice of a model, judgment is then ascent to based on ever more refined quantified empirical data. Truth is rendered relative, ultimately a matter of conjecture at best. Itʼs robustness is maintained by criticisms confused as doubt and set as a methodology. Certitude becomes elusive and unattainable. The “rational animalʼʼ- in the sense that the rational takes over the animal part – loses its meaning, and hence requires perpetual reformulations, perhaps homo economicus or homo deus? The modern man has to live with this fate, to accept and embrace it in full defiance the tragic life of social individual conflicts, biological defects, frustration in the bewilderment of the mystery of the universe, the absurdity of life, etc, and ease the anxiety of not knowing with the balm of “change, development, and progressʼʼ. It is a tragic life that thrives on sophistry camouflaged as sophisticated sciences.

It the heart (qalb) where certainty resides, it is not merely emotional and a matter of opinion. The heart is the organ of spiritual cognition or perception. It is the seat of intuition and higher order of knowledge. Itʼs perception is not done through formulations or constructions of any sort, but direct perception of reality akin to a mirror truthfully reflecting what is presented before it with an image that is at once identical with the source of reflection but yet it remains an image, not the source itself. Truthfulness and clarity of this image requires that the mirror is not dented or covered with impurities that may distort or hinder direct perception. Man must therefore recognise this within himself and polish this mirror before his tragic anxiety of the unknown (hamm) pass into a point of no return, the ultimate remorse when the tragedy is a reality (ghamm).


The article presented by Professor Muhammad Zainiy Uthman which was published under the book entitled Thinking Framework is available for purchase at CASIS Bookstore