Whenever I'm asked to name the best book I've read, the first book that comes to my mind is Islam and Secularism, the magnum opus of one of Malaysia's finest contemporary scholars, the eminent and most respected Professor Syed Muhammad Naguib Al-Attas. First published in 1978, the book provides the most eloquent explanation on the concept of religion in Islam, an excellent morphological analysis of the Quranic term ad-Din, and a comprehensive outline of the Islamization of knowledge philosophy. Certainly, I am just one out of many who were deeply inspired by this book especially those who like me were reading and studying books on philosophy and social sciences written by scholars in the West. To comprehend and accept those ideas while remaining faithful to our religious standing and belief was not easy. Islam and Secularism gave us the answer, and the confidence and faith to carry on without doubt and fear.
Professor Al-Attas was the Founder-Director of the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC). This 'Beacon on Top of The Hill' was a hugely respected institution attracting students from many parts of the Muslim world. It won't be an understatement to say that most of them came for the sole purpose of studying under this giant intellectual figure. Some even came upon giving up their professional careers. They all share the same burning desire that is to learn at the feet of this most learned scholar, a scholar deemed to be without peers; a scholar who deserves the loftiest of praises and reverence.
I too shared the same dream. ISTAC was the place for intellectuals, and I certainly wanted to be one. By the time I was in my final year of my undergraduate studies at IIUM, I had read all the books (published by ISTAC) plus many other scholarly papers written by Professor Al-Attas. I also became a regular visitor to ISTAC attending almost all his public lectures and talks. Unfortunately, instead of increasing my desire to study at ISTAC, these regular visits left me disenchanted and disillusioned.
What turned me off was the unmistaken air of arrogance emanating from the honourable professor/master and his students/disciples. On one occasion, a young member of the audience posed a mild critical comment on Al-Attas' views on Islamization. He was simply brushed aside with the reply, "tell me, what do you know about Islamization?" On another occasion, after delivering a talk on leadership in Islam, the professor was asked a simple and harmless question: "are leaders born or made?" The answer given was swift and demeaning: "of course they are born... you should read more books". And as these words were said by the master/professor, his disciples/students were laughing and smiling proudly in agreement.
Furthermore, being a student of the social sciences, I wasn't quite amused by the good professor's habitual condemnation of sociology and psychology. "These sociologists... according to them, religions are all rituals!" I've heard this exact statement coming from him quite a number of times. True, they are a number of sociologists who said so, but not all. After all, sociology is not Durkheim and Durkheim was not the only sociologists in history. And in Malaysia, the late Syed Hussein Alatas (as far as know) never said anything as sweeping as that. As for psychology, the eminent professor once exclaimed that other than to treat psychological disorders, psychology is practically useless. In this case, the good professor and his enlightened students probably thought psychology is nothing more than Freud's ambiguous psychoanalytic theory and Skinner's mechanistic behaviourist perspective.
Let there be no doubt that I do believe that Professor Al-Attas is a truly remarkable scholar whose scholarly achievements deserve great respect and acknowledgment. Having said that, I certainly do not see the need to constantly reiterate (especially not in front of him) lofty praises such as "he is a genius..., the most outstanding scholar..., his book (Islam and Secularism) is one the most important books written by a Muslim in the last century..." etc. Professor Al-Attas is a great scholar, but so was his elder brother Professor Syed Hussein Alatas and his 'intellectual-nemesis' Professor Ismail al-Faruqi.
As-far-as the Islamization of knowledge (IOK) is concern, I am truly of the opinion that Al-Attas' perspective is most profound and outstanding. His argument that Islamization begins with the mind vis-à-vis the individual and the emphasis on language and metaphysics was brilliantly explained in Islam and Secularism. But IOK is not exclusively his. Scholars from South Asia would vouch for the work of Sayyid Abu 'Ala Mawdudi as ideas that are more practical and comprehensive and written about much earlier. On the other hand, Muslim students in the United States back in the early 1980’s would fondly recall the IOK masterplan outlined by Ismail al-Faruqi in his book published by IIIT (International Institute of Islamic Thought). Great minds think alike. Thus, as my former teacher and current Dean of ISTAC, Professor Ibrahim Muhamad Zein once said, these are different perspectives of IOK. Professor Zein predictably was duly rebuked by an Al-Attas' disciple who reaffirmed the argument that there is one and only one true and original concept of IOK, and that belongs to Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas.
All-in-all, throughout my journey as a student, I am firmly guided by the Malay proverb "ikut resmi padi, makin tunduk makin berisi" i.e. the more knowledge one have, the more humble one should be. This is sadly what I fail to see in Professor Al-Attas and his many students/disciples. What I've seen instead is an intellectual arrogance which abhors differences of opinions even those coming from other eminent scholars. While I was genuinely elated to see Professor Al-Attas presenting his talk on 'Reviving the Worldview of Islam' earlier this month (the first time I've seen him lecture in more than five years), I wasn't quite happy to hear that he is still bitter about what happened to ISTAC, and his continuous insistence that others "don’t know (and) don't understand" as if those who do not agree totally with his views are of substandard levels of intelligence. And because of that, although I will always be a fan of his books and lectures, I can never be one of his disciples. Allahu'alam.
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