Februari 20, 2010

The Concept of Religion by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

The Concept of Religion

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Syed Muhammad al Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is one of the few contemporary scholars who is thoroughly rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences and who is equally competent in theology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, and literature. He is considered to be the pioneer in proposing the idea of Islamization of knowledge. Al-Attas’ philosophy and methodology of education have one goal: Islamization of the mind, body and soul and its effects on the personal and collective life on Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. (Wikipedia)


“The concept couched in the term din, which is generally understood to mean religion, is not the same as the concept religion as interpreted and understood throughout Western religious history. When we speak of Islam and refer to it in English as a ‘religion’, we mean and understand by it the din40, in which all the basic connotations inherent in the term din are conceived as gathered into a single unity of coherent meaning as reflected in the Holy Qur’an and in the Arabic language to which it belongs.


The word din derived from the Arabic root DYN has many primary significations which although seemingly contrary to one another are yet all conceptually interconnected, so that the ultimate meaning derived from them all presents itself as a clarified unity of the whole. By ‘the whole’ I mean that which is described as the Religion of Islam, which contains within itself all the relevant possibilities of meaning inherent in the concept of din. Since we are dealing with an Islamic concept which is translated into a living reality intimately and profoundly lived in human experience, the apparent contrariness in its basic meanings is indeed not due to vagueness; it is, rather, due to the contrariness inherent in human nature itself, which they faithfully reflect. And their power to reflect human nature faithfully is itself clear demonstration of their lucidity and veracity and authenticity in conveying truth.


The primary signification of the term din can be reduced to four: (1) indebtedness; (2)submissiveness; (3) judicious power; (4) natural inclination or tendency. In what presently follows, I shall attempt to explain them briefly and place them in their relevant contexts, drawing forth the coherent ultimate meaning intended, which denotes the faith, beliefs and practices and teachings adhered to by the Muslims individually and collectively as a Community and manifesting itself altogether as an objective whole as the Religion called Islam.


The verb dana which derives from din conveys the meaning of being indebted, including various other meanings connected with debts, some of them contraries. In the state in which one finds oneself being in debt – that is to say, a da’in – it follows that one subjects oneself, in the sense of yielding and obeying, to law and ordinances governing debts, and also, in a way, to the creditor, who is likewise designated as a da’in41. There is also conveyed in the situation described the fact that one in debt is under obligation, or dayn. Being in debt and under obligation naturally involves judgement: daynunah, and conviction: idanah, as the case may be. All the above significations including their contraries inherent in dana are practicable possibilities only in organized societies involved in commercial life in towns and cities, denoted by mudun or mada’in. A town or city, a madinah, has a judge, ruler, or governor – a dayyan. Thus already here, in the various applications of the verb dana alone, we see rising before our mind’s eye a picture of civilized life; of societal life of law and order and justice and authority42. It is, conceptually at least, connected intimately with another verb maddana43 which means: to build or to found cities: to civilize, to refine and to humanize; from which is derived another term: tamaddun, meaning civilization and refinement in social culture. Thus we derive from the primary signification of being in a state of debt other correlated significations, such as: to abase oneself, to serve (a master), to become enslaved; and from another such signification of judge, ruler, and governor is derived meanings which denote the becoming mighty, powerful and strong; a master, oneelevated in rank, and glorious; and yet further, the meanings: judgement, requital orreckoning (at some appointed time). Now the very notion of law and order and justice and authority and social cultural refinement inherent in all these significations derived from the concept din must surely presuppose the existence of a mode ormanner of acting consistent with what is reflected in the law, the order, the justice, the authority and social cultural refinement – a mode or manner of acting, or a state of being considered as normal in relation to them; so that this state of being is a state that is customary or habitual. From here, then, we can see the logic behind the derivation of the other primary signification of the concept din as custom, habit, disposition, ornatural tendency. At this juncture it becomes increasingly clear that the concept of dinin its most basic form indeed reflects in true testimony the natural tendency of man to form societies and obey laws and seek just government. The idea of a kingdom, acosmopolis, inherent in the concept din that rises before our vision is most important in helping us attain a more profound understanding of it, and needs to be reiterated here, for we shall have recourse to it again when we deal with the religious and spiritual aspects of man’s existential experience.


40 In this chapter my interpretation of the basic connotations inherent in the term din is based on Ibn Manzur’s standard classic, the Lisan al-’Arab (Beyrouth, 1968, 15V.), hereafter cited as LA. For what is stated in this page and the next, see vol. 13:166, col. 2-171, col.2.

41 Da’in refers both to debtor as well as creditor, and this apparent contrariness in meaning can indeed be resolved if we transpose both these meanings to refer to the two natures of man, that is, the rational soul and the animal or carnal soul. See below pp. 63-66.

42 It is I think extremely important to discern both the intimate and profoundly significant connection between the concept of din and that of madinah which derives from it, and the role of the Believers individually in relation to the former and collectively in relation to the latter. Considerable relevance must be seen in the significance of the change of the name of the town once known as Yathrib to al-Madinah: the City – or more precisely, Madinatu’l -Nabiy: the City of the Prophet – which occurred soon after the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!) made his historic Flight (hijrah) and settled there. The first Community of Believers was formed there at the time, and it was that Flight that marked the New Era in the history of mankind. We must see the fact that al- Madinah was so called and named because it was there that true dinbecame realized for mankind. There the Believers enslaved themselves under the authority and jurisdiction of the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!), itsdayyan; there the realization of the debt to God took definite form, and the approved manner and method of its repayment began to unfold. The City of the Prophet signified the Place where true din was enacted under his authority and jurisdiction. We may further see that the City became, for the Community, the epitome of the socio-political order of Islam; and for the individual Believer it became, by analogy, the symbol of the Believer’s body and physical being in which the rational soul, in emulation of him who may God bless and give Peace!, exercises authority and just government. For further relevant interpretations, see below, pp. 50-59; 60-66; 67-74; 79-80; 81-87; 89-90.

Justice and Its Relationship to Knowledge - Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas


The modern era has witnessed three significant developments that have created unprecedented challenges to the Muslim community: (1) public education, mass media, and mass literacy, (2) the disintegration of Islamic polities, and (3) the formation of learning institutes based on Western concepts, values, and processes. The first development has resulted in the masses acquiring access to classical Islamic texts without possessing the tools and skills to understand them properly. The second development has resulted in the loss of state patronage of Islamic institutions of learning. The third development has resulted in the intelligentsia of Muslim societies adopting Western and secular models.

The result of these three developments is a dissonance in Muslim spiritual development and intellectual unity. In this excerpt from “Islam and Secularism”, Sayyid Naquib al-Attas explains how the rise of injustice and oppression in Muslim societies is a result of a loss of wisdom which he traces to the loss of knowledge. In his work, the remedy he proposes to this problem is the Islamization of knowledge.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. (Source)

[Justice in Islam is Primarily a State of Being within Man Himself]

“In Islam – because for it religion encompasses life in its entirety – all virtue is religious; it has to do with the freedom of the rational soul, which freedom means the power to do justice to itself; and this in turn refers to exercise of its rule and supremacy and guidance and maintenance over the animal soul and body. The power to do justice to itself alludes to its constant affirmation and fulfillment of the Covenant it has sealed with God. Justice in Islam is not a concept referring to a state of affairs which can operate only within a two-person-relation or dual-party-relation situation, such as: between one man and another; or between the society and the state; or between the ruler and the ruled; or between the king and his subjects.

To the question: “Can one be unjust to one’s self?” other religions or philosophies have not given a consistently clear-cut answer. Indeed in Western civilization, for example, though it is true that a man who commits suicide may be considered as committing an unjust act; but this is considered as such insofar only because his suicide deprives the state of the services of a useful citizen, so that his injustice is not to himself, but to the state and society. We have several times alluded to the concept that justice means a harmonious condition or state of affairs whereby every thing is in its right and proper place – such as the cosmos; or similarly, a state of equilibrium, whether it refers to things or living beings.

With respect to man, we say that justice means basically a condition and situation whereby he is in his right and proper place. ‘Place’ here refers not only to his total situation in relation to others, but also to his condition in relation to his self. So the concept of justice in Islam does not only refer to relational situations of harmony and equilibrium existing between one person and another, or between the society and state, or between the ruler and the ruled, or between the king and his subjects, but far more profoundly and fundamentally so it refers in a primary way to the harmonious and rightly-balanced relationship existing between the man and his self, and in a secondary way only to such as exists between him and another or others, between him and his fellow men and ruler and king and state and society.

[Can Man be Unjust to Himself?]

Thus to the question: “Can one be unjust to one’s self?” we answer in the affirmative, and add further that justice and injustice indeed begins and ends with the self. The Holy Qur’an repeatedly stresses the point that man, when he does wrong, is being unjust (zalim) to himself, and that injustice (zulm) is a condition wrought by man upon his self.

To understand this we have to refer once again to the soul’s Covenant with God and to the belief that man has a dual nature in respect of his two souls and body. The real man can only in fact be his rational soul. If in his existence as a human being he allows his animal or carnal soul to get the better of him and consequently commits acts prohibited by God and displeasing to Him, or if he denies belief in God altogether then he has thereby repudiated his own of God’s Lordship which he as rational soul has covenanted with God. He does violence to his own Covenant, his individual contract with God.

So just as in the case of one who violates his own contract brings calamity upon himself, in the same way he who does wrong or evil who disobeys or denies God, violates the contract his soul soul has made with God, thereby being unjust to his soul. He has also thereby ‘lied’ – kadhaba, another apt Quranic expression – against his own self (soul). It is important in the light of this brief explanation to understand why the belief in the resurrection of bodies is fundamental in Islam, for the soul reconstituted with its former body will not be able to deny what its body had done, for its very eyes, tongues, hands and feet or limbs – the organs of ethical and moral conduct – will testify against its acts of injustice to itself. (FN 82)

Though in Islam injustice ostensibly applies between man and God, and between man and man and between man and his self, in reality, however, injustice is ultimately applicable – even in the two former cases – to man’s self alone; in the Islamic world view and spiritual vision, whether a man disbelieves or disobeys God, or whether he does wrong to another, it is really to his own self that he does wrong. Injustice, being the opposite of justice, is the putting of a thing in a place not its own; it is to misplace a thing; it is to misuse or to wrong; it is to exceed or fall short of the mean or limit; it is to suffer loss; it is deviation from the right course; it is disbelief of what is true, or lying about what is true knowing it to be true.

Thus when a man does an act of injustice it means that he has wronged his own soul, for he has put his soul in a place not its own; he has misused it; he has made it to exceed or fall short of its real nature; he has caused to deviate from what is right and to repudiate the truth and to suffer loss. All that he has thus done – in one way or another – entails a violation of his Covenant with God.

[Justice Implies Knowledge of the Right and Proper Place for a Thing or a Being to Be]

It is clear from what we say about injustice that justice implies knowledge of the right and proper place for a thing or a being to be; of right as against wrong; of the mean or limit; of spiritual gain as against loss; of truth as against falsehood. This is why knowledge (al-’ilm; ma’arifah: ‘ilm) occupies a most important position in Islam, where in the Holy Qur’an alone we find more than eight hundred references to knowledge.

And even in the case of knowledge, man has to do justice to it, that is, to know its limit of usefulness and not to exceed or fall short of it; to know its various orders of priority in relation to its usefulness to one’s self; to know where to stop and to know what can be gained what cannot, what is true knowledge and what is learned guess and theory – in sum, to put every datum of knowledge in its right place in relation to the knowing one in such ways that what is known produces harmony in the one who knows. To know how to put what knowledge in which place is wisdom (hikmah). Otherwise, knowledge without order and seeking it without discipline does lead to confusion and hence to injustice to one’s self.

(FN 82: Analogically, the legal concept of habeas corpus (you must have the body) as a fundamental procedure of justice is perhaps only a mere imperfect reflection of the awesome and irrefutable Procedure to come. That the soul is capable of denial of acts of injustice is implied in al-A’raf (7):172-173; and in these Verses must be seen clear evidence of the soul’s capacity (wus’) to exercise a power (quwwah) of inclination towards right or wrong resulting in its acquisition or earning (kasaba, iktasaba) of good or evil. In the Islamic concept of justice and injustice outline above, the fact that the witness to a man’s actions, good or bad, is his own self is of greater significance. See also al-Nur (24):24.

(p 72 to 74 “Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future” by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas)