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Interview with Al-Attas: Applying Sunnah to The Modern World

Interview with Al-Attas: Applying Sunnah to The Modern World

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by Prof. Mehmet Ipsirli
by Prof. Mehmet Ipsirli

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Published by: "Worldview of Islam Series" on May 10, 2011
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04/04/2013

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Interview with Al-Attas: Applying Sunnah to The Modern World
Prof. Mehmet Ipsirli talked to Naquib Al-Attas in Malaysia about the Asian journey of theSayyids (descendants of the Prophet) starting the early periods of Islam and the applicabillity of Sunnah (practices of the Prophet) in today's world. Himself a Sayyid, Al-Attas is recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary representatives of the Islamic thought.
Sayyid Muhammad Naquib al-Attas was born in Bogor, Java into afamily with a history of illustrious ancestors, saints, and scholars, of Hadhrami Arab and Turkishdescent. He received a thorough education in Islamic sciences, Malay language, literature and culture.His formal primary education began at age 5 in Johor, Malaya (later known as Malaysia), but duringthe Japanese occupation of the peninsular, he went to school in Java, in Madrasah Al-
`Urwatu’l
- wuthqa, studying in Arabic. After World War II, in 1946 he returned to Johor to complete hissecondary education. He was exposed to Malay literature, history, religion, and western classics inEnglish, and in a cultured social atmosphere developed a keen aesthetic sensitivity. This nurtured inal-Attas an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that were unique to his Malay writings andlanguage.
 
 After al-Attas finished secondary school in 1951, he entered the Malay Regiment as cadetofficer no. 6675. There he was selected to study at Eton Hall, Chester, England and later at the RoyalMilitary Academy, Sandhurst, UK (1952-1955). This gave him insight into the spirit and style of British society. During this time he was drawn to the metaphysics of the Sufis, especially works of Jami, which he found in the library of the Academy. He traveled widely, drawn especially to Spain andNorth Africa where Islamic heritage had a profound influence on him. Al-Attas felt the need to study,and voluntarily resigned the King's Commission to serve in the Royal Malay Regiment, in order topursue studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore (1957-1959). While an undergraduate at University of Malaya, he wrote
 Rangkaian Ruba`iyat 
, a literary  work, and
 Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays
. He was awardedthe Canada Council Fellowship for three years of study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGillUniversity in Montreal. He received the M.A. degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy in 1962, with his thesis
 Raniri and the Wujudiyyah of 17th Century Acheh
. Al-Attas went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where he worked with Professor A. J. Arberry of Cambridge and Dr. Martin Lings. His doctoral thesis (1962) was a two-volume work on the mysticismof Hamzan Fansuri.In 1987, with al-Attas as founder and director, the International Institute of Islamic Thoughtand Civilization (ISTAC) was established in Kuala Lumpur. This institution strives to bring anintegrated Islamization into the consciousness of its students and faculty. Al-Attas envisioned the planand design of every aspect of ISTAC, and has incorporated Islamic artistic and architectural principlesthroughout the campus and grounds.
 
He is also an able calligrapher, and his work was exhibited at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam in 1954
Books and Monographs
 
(1970)
The Correct Date of the Terengganu Inscription
, Kuala Lumpur Museum Department.
 
(1975)
Comments on the Re-Examination of Al-Raniri's Hujjat au'l Siddiq: A Refutation
,Kuala Lumpur Museum Department.
 
(1978)
 Islam and Secularism
 
 
(1980)
The Concept of Education in Islam
 
 
(1988)
The Oldest Known Malay Manuscript: A 16th Century Malay Translation of the`Aqa'id of al-Nasafi 
 
 
(1989)
 Islam and the Philosophy of Science
 
 
(1990)
The Nature of Man and the Psychology of the Human Soul 
 
 
(1990)
On Quiddity and Essence
 
 
(1990)
The Intuition of Existence
 
 
(1992)
The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality
 
 
(1993)
The Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islam
(tr. into German by ChristophMarcinkowski as
 Die Bedeutung und das Erleben von Glückseligkeit im Islam
, KualaLumpur: ISTAC, 1998)
 
(1994)
The Degrees of Existence
 
 
(1995)
 Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental  Elements of the Worldview of Islam
 
-What are the places of Sayyids and Sharifs in the Islamictradition?
 
Nowadays, I feel that these two concepts have become separated in such a way that the Sharif are Hasanese (i.e. following Hasan), and the Sayyid are Husseinese (i.e. following Hussein). I think that this was probably the same in earlier times. Sayyids were called Sharif, and Sharifs were calledSayyid. Of course it is true that the Hasanese gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca and the post of Sharif was established by the Abbasids. I noticed that when I was reading Tabari, he mentioned that Al-Ma'mun appointed one of the sons of Ali as the Sharif of Mecca. The main aim of Al Ma'mun here was to neutralize the followers of Ali in a diplomatic way, as at first they were opposed to theUmayyads and later to the Abbasid's as well. Thus, he was trying to be friendly with them and to show his favor by appointing such people. Now, Al Ma'mun lived around the year 800; another man al-Dimashki, who was a geographer, wrote in 1200 that the first missionaries to be sent to Asia were inthe time of Uthman's caliphate; therefore, he said, the missionaries were here because they wererunning away Al-Hajjaj, his persecution, in the time of the Umayyads. They first fled and then they came to that part of Indo-China known at that time as Shampa, and now called Sand in Cambodia. And they then came to Southeastern Asia. Al-Dimashki referred to them as
 Alaviyyun
(followers of 
 
 Ali). This was in the time of Uthman. Therefore in the time of Al-Ma'mun and at later dates there weremany envoys who were sent to China; it is said that there were at least 32 envoys sent between thetime of the Umayyad and Abbasids until around the year 500 (Hijrah).
-Was there any policy to send envoys that had been particularly chosen the Prophet's descendants?
 Yes, I think that the Chinese emperor respected them more because they were the Prophet'sdescendants. I suppose the reason why the Tang dynasty sent a Chinese ambassador to the court of Medina at the time of Umayyads was because the political center was still in Medina at that time, notin Mecca. There was a Sharif in Mecca, but the seat of caliph was in Medina. The purpose of thisambassador was to report to the emperor about this new power in the world. Who was this new power? It was reported back to China that they were worshipping heaven. They had no idols and they did not eat pork. The source that mentions this ambassador also records that an Arab generalaccompanied the ambassador back to China. We are not sure who this general it was. Some say that he was Sad b. Abi Vaqqas; the Chinese believe that he is buried in the north of the country. This was atthe time of the Companions.
-Was there a difference between the Sayyids and the Sharifs in thissense?
The role of the Sharifs, I think, was more administrative. They gradually became the Sharifsof Mecca. That is, they acted like governors and gradually became the rulers. But the Sayyids were theones who continued to struggle, as the Umayyads were more opposed to the Husseinese rather thanthe Hasanese. Many of them were located in southern Arabia. What is now known as Oman at thattime was called Hadramout - Hadramout is even mentioned in the Bible, and this was at the time of Moses - and this was a very important area.Many of the Husseinese were located in this area. They were a seafaring people, who traveled by sea. It is for this reason that Ibn Khurdabbe talks about the sea routes, and he mentions how theSayyids got to China and how they went on to India and so on. They were people who spread Islamfollowing the hadith (sayings of the Prophet). You know the Dutch scholars and Western scholars talk about merchants and traders. Merchants and traders would not be able to be close with ruling powers.The ruling powers would only have respected people who were descendants of the Prophet. For thatreason, the locals intermarried a great deal with the Sayyids, just like in Sumatra.I think one of the characteristics of the Sayyids is that wherever they went, they were not very nationalistic or racist. I think it was Seyyid Ali who was the first one to marry with a non-Arab, thedaughter of the Persian emperor, Yezdecarb. In other words, the Sayyids married non-Arabs, butother Arabs did not act like this. When the Sayyids went to Africa, they gradually became like the Africans with this intermarriage, and the same can be stated for China.But what is important here is that the role of these people, this mission, was prepared inadvance. It did not happen accidentally. In other words, they were selected as pious people who knew Islam, and were brave enough to go on these dangerous routes. They were not only traders andmerchants either. The western people knew that traders and merchants would not able to spread thereligion. They claim that in Islam everybody is a missionary. Of course, theoretically this is true, but inreality, a missionary must be acquainted with many things, because ultimately he has to speak withthe king. They have to be able to be close to the kings. Much of the missionary work consists of thishigh-level diplomacy. That is what is most important in my opinion.
-In your opinion, what is the social responsibility of descending thefamily of the Prophet?

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