Knowledge and Adab

Syed Muhammad al-Naquib al-Attas

Posted: 26 Jamad-ul-Awwal 1433, 18 April 2012

The aim of education in Islam is to produce a good man.' What is meant by good in our concept of `good man'? The fundamental element inherent in the concept of education in Islam is the inculcation of adab (ta`dib), for it is adab in the all-inclusive sense I mean, as encompassing the spiritual and material life of a man that instills the quality of goodness that is sought after. Education is what the Prophet, Peace be upon him, meant by adab when he said:

“My Lord, educated (addaba) me and made my education (ta`dib) most excellent.”

There is a general tendency among Muslims who are aware of the dilemma that is now pressing upon the Community to see its causes as external, as coming from the outside, originating from influences exerted by Western culture and civilization. That its causes are attributed to external elements is of course based upon correct observation, but it is also only partly true. It is true that the Muslim mind is now undergoing profound infiltration of cultural and intellectual elements alien to Islam; but to say that the causes are derived from external sources is only partly true. How has it been possible in the first place for Muslims to succumb to such infiltration to the extent that their predicament has now assumed the proportions of a dilemma? We will at once realize that the external causes referred to are not the only ones responsible for throwing us into a state of general crisis, and we must see that the full truth of our answer to the question lies undeniably in the prevalence of a certain anomaly within our Community; an anomaly that has with increasing persistence plagued our world and our intellectual history, and that has been left uncorrected and unchecked, now to spread like a raging contagion in our midst. Only by our consciousness and recognition and acknowledgement that serious internal causes have in. fact contributed considerably to our general disarray will we be able to discern the full truth that lies at the core of the dilemma we suffer today.
We can never resolve this dilemma unless we know why we have allowed ourselves to be so weakened as to be susceptible of straying away from the right path. One of the definitions of knowledge is to know the cause of the existence of a thing, for knowledge of the cause or causes is itself a partial solution to the problem. And this brief discussion on external and internal causes is meant to create the awareness that the internal causes are prior to the external and as such the former have primacy over the latter, so that their clarification demands our urgent attention. This introduction will attempt to clarify the problem.

Basic Problem: Loss of Adab

As to the internal causes of the dilemma in which we find ourselves, the basic problems can - it seems to me - be reduced to a single evident crisis which I would simply call the loss of adab. I am here referring to the loss of discipline — the discipline of body, mind, and soul, the discipline that assures the recognition and acknowledgement of one's proper place in relation to one's self, society and Community; the recognition and acknowledgement of one's proper place in relation to one's physical, intellectual, and spiritual capacities and potentials; the recognition and acknowledgement of the fact that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically. Since adab refers to recognition and acknowledgement of the right and proper place, station, and condition in life and to self-discipline in positive and willing participation in enacting one's role in accordance with that recognition and acknowledgement, its occurrence in one and in society as a whole reflects the condition of justice. Loss of adab implies loss of justice, which in turn betrays confusion in knowledge.

In respect of the society and community, the confusion in knowledge of Islam and the Islamic world-view creates the condition which enables false leaders to emerge and to thrive, causing the condition of injustice. They perpetuate this condition since it ensures the continued emergence of leaders like them to replace them after they are gone, perpetuating their domination over the affairs of the Community.

Thus to put it briefly in their proper order, our present general dilemma is caused by:

1. Confusion and error in knowledge, creating the condition for:
2. The loss of adab within the Community. The condition arising out of (1) and (2) is:
3. The rise of leaders who are not qualified for valid leadership of the Muslim community, who do not possess the high moral, intellectual and spiritual standards required for Islamic leadership, who perpetuate the condition in (1) above and ensure the continued control of the affairs of the Community by leaders like them who dominate in all fields.

All the above roots of our general dilemma are interdependent and operate in a vicious circle. But the chief cause is confusion and error in knowledge, and in order to break this vicious circle and remedy this grave problem, we must first come to grips with the problem of loss of adab, since no true knowledge can be instilled without the precondition of adab in the one who seeks it and to whom it is imparted. Thus, for sublime example, God Himself commands that the Holy Quran, the Fountain of all true knowledge, cannot even be touched in approach save through the prescribed adab or ritual purity. Knowledge must be approached reverently and in humility, and it cannot be possessed simply as if it were there available to everyone irrespective of intention and purpose and capacity. Where knowledge of Islam and the Islamic world-view is concerned, it is based on authority. Since Islam is already established in perfection from the very beginning, requiring no further developmental change nor evolution towards perfection, we say again that adequate knowledge about Islam is always possible for all Muslims. There can be no relativism in the historical interpretation of Islam, so that knowledge about it is either right or wrong, or true or false, where wrong and false means contradiction with the already established and clear truth, and right and true means conformity with it. Confusion about such truth means simply ignorance of it, and this is due not to any inherent vagueness or ambiguity on the part of that truth. The interpretation and clarification of knowledge about Islam and the Islamic world-view is accomplished by authority, and legitimate authority recognizes and acknowledges a hierarchy of authorities culminating in the Holy Prophet, upon whom be Peace.

It is incumbent upon us to have proper attitude towards legitimate authority, and that is reverence, love, respect, humility and intelligent trust in the veracity of the knowledge interpreted and clarified by such authority. Reverence, love, respect, humility and intelligent trust can be realized in one only when one recognizes and acknowledges the fact that there is a hierarchy in the human order and in authority within that hierarchy in the matter of intelligence, spiritual knowledge and virtue.

In respect of the human order in society, we do not in the least mean by `hierarchy' that semblance of it wherein oppression and exploitation and domination are legitimized as if they were an established principle ordained by God. The fact that hierarchical disorders have prevailed in human society does not mean that hierarchy in the human order is not valid, for there is, in point of fact, legitimate hierarchy in the order of creation, and this is the Divine Order pervading all Creation and manifesting the occurrence of justice.

God is the Just, and He fashions and deploys all Creation in justice. In order that mankind generally might recognize and acknowledge the just order, He has bestowed upon His Prophets, Messengers and men of piety and spiritual discernment, the wisdom and knowledge of it so that they in turn might convey it to mankind who ought to conform with it as individuals and as a society. And this conformity with that order is the occurrence of adab; the resulting condition of that conformity is justice.

Process of Leveling

The chief characteristic symptom of loss of adab within the Community is the process of leveling that is cultivated from time to time in the Muslim mind and practiced in his society. By `leveling' I mean the leveling of everyone, in mind and attitude, to the same level as the leveler. This mental and attitudinal process, which impinges upon action, is perpetrated through the encouragement of false leaders who wish to demolish legitimate authority and valid hierarchy so that they and their like might thrive, and who demonstrate by example by leveling the great to the level of less great, and then to that of the still less great. This Jahili streak of individualism, of immanent arrogance and obstinacy and the tendency to challenge and belittle legitimate authority seems to have perpetrated itself— albeit only among `ulama of less authoritative worth — in all periods of Muslim history. When Muslims become confused in their knowledge of Islam and its world-view, these `ulama tend to spread among them and influence their thinking and infiltrate into positions of religious leadership; then their leadership in all spheres of life tends to exhibit this dangerous streak and to encourage its practice among Muslims as if it were in conformity with the teachings of Islam. They who encourage this attitude pretend that what is encouraged is no other than the egalitarian principle of Islam, whereas in fact it is far from it in that what they propagate leads to the destruction, or at least the undermining, of legitimate authority and hierarchy in the human order — it is the leveling of all to their level; it is injustice.
No doubt it is possible to concede that the critics of the great and learned were in the past at least themselves great and learned in their own way, but it is a mistake to put them together on the same level — the more so to place the lesser above the greater in rank, as happens in the estimation of our age of greater confusion. In our own times those who know cannot fail to notice that critics of the great and learned and virtuous among Muslims, critics who include groups of both modernist and traditionalist `reformers', and a third group consisting of secular scholars and intellectuals, who all emulate the example of their teachers in the habit of censuring their own true leaders, are men invariably of much less authoritative worth than the lesser of the past; men whose intellectual and spiritual perception of Islam and its world-view cannot even be compared with any of those of their teachers — let alone with those of the great they disparage, from whom their teachers derived knowledge and guidance without due acknowledgement.

They and their followers thrive where there is confusion and ignorance, where they can escape the relentless scrutiny and censure of knowledge. It is because Muslims in our age have become confused, ignorant and desperate that they see in them men who have, as if for the first time, opened their minds to Islam; they do not see that these men are poor imitations of the great of the past. They do not bring anything new that the illustrious Muslims of the past have not already brought; nor do they clarify Islam better to the clouded vision than the immensely superior clarification accomplished by the masters of the past. Yet, it is such as they who have been most vociferous and vehement in disparaging and denouncing the past, its, great and learned scholars, thinkers and jurists and men of spiritual discernment.

All the three groups mentioned are prone to leveling everyone to the same level of equality, notwithstanding the fact that even in God's Sight we are not all the same and equal. Indeed, we are all the same in that we are creatures of God, human beings, cast in flesh and blood. But our spirits, our souls, though derived from that One Spirit, and though essentially the same are, in point of power and magnitude, not the same, not equal. We are like so many candles of varying lengths and shapes and hues and sizes; the tallow they are made from is essentially the same and the light they burn is essentially the same, but the greatness of the flame, the light each sheds, is not the same in power and magnitude. And we judge the value of the candle by the light it sheds just as we judge a man by those qualities by which he is not the same, but excels another, such as by his intelligence, virtue, and spiritual discernment. So it is neither correct nor true to regard such a man as merely a man of flesh and blood like any other, for he is not like any other in that his intelligence, virtue, and spiritual discernment transcend the limitations of his flesh and blood, and his greatness of spirit manifests his excellence over others. Adab is the recognition and acknowledgement of such lights in man; and acknowledgement entails an attitude expressing true reverence, love, respect, humility — it entails knowing one's proper place in relation to him who sheds such light.

The basic problem, therefore, is that of education — the lack of proper and adequate Islamic education — for such education, rightly systematized, would assuredly prevent the occurrence of general confusion leading to aberrations and excesses in belief and in practice.

How Education is Leading to De-Islamization of the Muslim Mind

The secular scholars and intellectuals among the Muslims derive their inspiration mainly from the West. Ideologically they belong to the same line of descent as the modernist `reformers' and their followers; and some of them cleave to the views of the traditionalist `reformers' and their followers. The majority of them do not possess the intellectual, spiritual, and linguistic prerequisites of Islamic knowledge and epistemology so that they are severed from the cognitive and methodological approaches to the original sources of Islam and Islamic learning. In this way their knowledge of Islam is at the barest minimal level. Because they occupy a strategic position in the midst of the community and unless they drastically change their ways of thinking and believing, they pose a grave danger to the Islamic welfare of the Community. They have no adab, for they do not recognize and acknowledge the legitimate authorities in the true hierarchical order, and they demonstrate by example and teach and advocate confusion and error.

This is in fact the main reason why, as demonstrated in the course of Western intellectual history throughout the ages and the rise of secular philosophy and science in Western civilization, the Western conception of knowledge based upon its experience and consciousness must invariably lead to secularization. There can be no doubt, therefore, that if the secular Muslim scholars and intellectuals allow themselves, or are allowed to confuse the Muslim youth in knowledge, the delslamization of the Muslim mind will continue to take effect with greater persistence and intensity, and will follow the same kind of secularizing course in future generations. Large numbers among them do not fully understand the nature of Western culture and civilization whence they draw their inspiration and before which they stand agape in reverential awe and servile humility portraying the attitude of the inferior. They do not even completely grasp the contents and implications of the teachings of their alien masters, being content only to repeat them in vulgarized versions and so cheat the Muslim audience of their true worth.

In deIslamizing the Muslims, and in situations where Western colonialism or domination have held sway, the Western administrators and colonial theorists have first severed the pedagogical connection between the Holy Quran and the local language by establishing a system of secular education where race and traditional culture are emphasized. At the higher levels, linguistics and anthropology are introduced as the methodological tools for the study of language and culture, and Western values and models and orientalist scholarship and philology for the study of literature and history. Then, still being brought to bear upon the study of language and literature (which are the identifying and consolidating cultural elements of Islamization) and of history and traditional culture, sociology and educational theory and psychology are significantly introduced. These, misplaced at the purely rational disposal of scholars and intellectuals inadequately equipped with knowledge of Islam and its world-view, tend to reduce Islam to the level of other religions as if it were the proper `subject' of the philosophy and the sociology of religion, and as if it were an evolved and developed expression of primitive religion. And all these and other fields of knowledge in the human sciences, including those philosophical elements in the theoretical aspects of the natural physical and biological sciences, instilled into the marginal minds of secular Muslim scholars and intellectuals, are such that their knowledge so conceived is productive not only of potential and theoretical confusion, but also of actual and practical error as well. Through the unbalanced assimilation and imparting of such knowledge without any Islamizing science and judgment being brought to bear upon its every proposition, and the active participation in its formulation and dissemination by secular scholars and intellectuals, the rapid propagation of loss of adab is assured and indeed becomes a widespread reality.

These false leaders among Muslims are responsible for causing the Romanization of the originally Arabic script of the language and thus facilitating gradual severance from its formal, lexical and conceptual connections with the Sources of Islam, with their own Islamic sources and with the languages of the other Muslim peoples; for causing the deArabization, Westernization and confusion of the language and its semantic and general vocabulary so that many important concepts pertaining to Islam and the Islamic world-view have lost their transparency and have become opaque; for causing the emergence of the journal and the newspaper — so significantly un-Islamic in concept and purpose — and of mediocre journalists and writers of rustic quality who all contribute to the mutilation of the standards of literary values and expression established by Islam; for causing the widespread emergence of the marginal Muslim and the marginal society stranger to the Ummah, and hence for causing the disintegration of consciousness in the ummatic solidarity; for causing the severance of the Muslim past from the consciousness of the present; for causing the establishment in our midst of an educational system designed, from the lowest to the highest levels, to perpetuate secular ideology; for causing the rise of various forms of chauvinism and socialism; for reviving the Jahili spirit of advocating a return to pre-Islamic values — and cultural tradition — and many more which for obvious reasons it is not necessary to detail here. And the same is true, in varying degrees of the absence of adab in respect of their character traits, their lack of quality, their contagious contribution to error and confusion in knowledge of Islam and its world view, and their propagation of false knowledge, of other such scholars and intellectuals among the Muslims, wherever they may be in the Muslim world, whether in the Arabic speaking regions or not. They have all become conscious or unconscious agents of Western culture and civilization, and in this capacity they represent what we have earlier identified as the external sources and causes of our dilemma. But their existence amongst us as part of the Community creates for us the situation whereby what was once regarded as `external' has now moved in methodically and systematically to become internal. In their present condition, they pose as the external menace which has become a grave internal problem, for intellectually, as it were, the dar al-harb has advanced into the dar al-islam; they have become the enemy within, and — unlike the kinds known to the Muslims of the past — they are not hidden nor any longer lurking underground, but have surfaced in multitudes into the full light of awareness, advertising themselves openly and conspicuously and exhibiting their learned confusion and arrogant individualism so publicly that it is no longer possible to ignore them. The epistemological weapons they use to bring about the de-Islamization of the Muslim mind are invariably the same, and these are —apart from the underlying principles of secular philosophy and science that produced and nurtured them — anthropology, sociology, linguistics, psychology and the principles and methods of education. If the underlying principles and methods of these sciences are not made subject to some kind of Islamizing formula whereby they are rendered harmless, then, as they are, they would continue to be harmful to the Islamic welfare of the Community.

Iblis: Seeing the Clay Only

Loss of adab, then, not only implies loss of knowledge; it means also loss  of the capacity and ability to recognize and acknowledge true leaders. If all are brought down to the level of the masses, the awam, how can true leaders stand out above the rest? If true leaders are denied their rightful place above those they lead, how can they be recognized and acknowledged by the led? And true leaders must not be confused with the false, for how can nightingales, put in the same cage as crows, sing? To put true leaders in lofty stations in our estimation and to put ourselves below them and to revere, to love, to respect, to affirm their veracity and confirm in our actions their wise counsels and learned teachings in humility is not to worship them, as the narrow-minded among the modernist and traditionalist `reformers' erroneously think. Were the Angels worshipping Adam, upon whom be Peace, when they prostrated themselves before him? Indeed, they were obeying God, Glorious and Exalted, and recognizing and acknowledging the superior knowledge bestowed upon the first men by his Creator — they not only 'saw the clay he is made from, but they recognized and acknowledged even more so the spirit that God breathed into him. It was Iblis who saw only the clay and refused to recognize and acknowledge Adam's superior nature, and disdained to prostrate before him in spite of the Divine Command. Recognition and acknowledgement of excellence in another does not mean regarding the other as a rabb and assuming an attitude of the `abd towards that other; it is none other than recognizing and acknowledging God's knowledge and Will and Power and Just Purpose, His Bounty, Charity and Love in bestowing excellence in one over the other, so that that one may share it with others. But only those others who recognize and acknowledge derive benefit from it, not those who do not.

New Lamps for the Old?

We must see that the three main groups that perpetuate loss of adab in our times, and that not only perpetuate, but also consolidate its paralyzing influence and intensify its odious spread among the generations of contemporary Muslims, are not in reality our true leaders. Without knowing any of them, and without being in any way guided by them, we can still know about Islam and its world view from the great 'ulama of the past who are the real interpreters of the sources of such knowledge. Conversely, without knowing the true teachers of the past and without being guided by them, it is almost impossible to arrive at the correct understanding and knowledge of Islam and its world view. It is as if the false leaders of our times have been fashioned in the mould of the crafty Master Magician in the guise of new lamps meant to be traded for the old. They indeed claim to be the new lamps; and we must not fall into the error of the ignorant wife of Aladdin, trading the old for the new, unaware of the priceless value and wonderful quality of the old far surpassing all of the new put together.

The thinking, methods and example adopted by these false leaders and their followers, (compounded of a mixture of truth and falsehood and right and wrong which are the ingredients of confusion, propagated and advocated at a time when Muslims are already confused and desperate and in no balanced state of mind and spirit to absorb more confusion), have effected among the generality who are influenced by them, a warped understanding of Islam and a clouded vision of its interpretation of the world and of reality and truth. The effect of their teachings among this generality of Muslims, particularly the younger generation who are experiencing the effects of Westernization, is the tendency towards a relentless and erroneous attitude of leveling by which they judge all things. Their words and actions betray their mental and attitudinal condition of leveling in which they imply and even understand the Holy Quran to be on the same level as other books; Islam to be on the same level as other religions; the Holy Prophet, upon whom be Peace, to be on the same level as other Prophets, Peace be upon them all, who are all regarded as being on the same level as ordinary men; the knowledge to be on the same level as other sciences; true leaders to be on the same level as false ones, and the greater to be on the same level as the lesser; the life of the world to be on the same level of importance as that of the hereafter. It is this leveling of everything instilled into the understanding of the masses, without due consideration being given to the quality of that understanding, and without due elaboration as to the distinctions that naturally exist in the hierarchical order of creation, especially in the human order, that is productive of the socialization' of Islam.
The despiritualization of man, starting from the Holy Prophet himself—the despiritualization that must necessarily take place as a precondition to the leveling process — tends to involve Islam absurdly in a kind of secularization. These groups of false leaders, who are not even sure what they are supposed to do, and are equally groping for solutions to the general problems we encounter today — solutions hastily conceived in piecemeal fashion, of tentative validity and dubious soundness - have indeed misrepresented the achievements of the truly great `ulama of the past: the mujtahidun, the men of piety and virtue and of intellectual and spiritual excellence, in connection with their interpretation of Islam and its world view. Inclined as they are to see only small matters and not great ones in their estimation of superiors, they have not understood those men completely and have misrepresented them in caricature before us.

Torches and Candles

Our task ahead is to represent the true leaders of the past in truer light, to exercise justice in our estimation of them from whom our predecessors derived guidance and knowledge. We must reexamine the misrepresentations, referring every detail to the original sources they allegedly claim to represent; we must scrutinize their premises, their deductions and conclusions, and retrace the paths of their logic to see how far they have been correct or have been led astray by their own process of inadequate thinking; we must ourselves know the originals and understand them in their correct perspectives. It is our duty to study diligently the thoughts of the true leaders of the past, who were all recognized and acknowledged by a grateful Community; who all served Islam and the Muslims with signal merit, recognized and acknowledged by a knowing Community of contemporaries without their true characters and qualities having to be fabricated and `built up' long after they were gone, as so often happens in our age of falsehood and confusion. We must learn from the great of the past their knowledge and wisdom. This does not mean that we ourselves cannot contribute any further knowledge that can be contributed, but it does mean that we must first draw our strength and inspiration from their wisdom and knowledge, and that when we do begin to contribute ours, we must recognize and acknowledge them as our teachers, and not disparage and denounce, for ijtihad can be exercised without having to undermine legitimate authority. They are like torches that light the way along difficult paths; when we have such torches to light our way, of what use are mere candles?

(Abridged from Introduction to Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, 1978).