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Rescuing History from the Orientalists: Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas and Islam in the Malay World

Rescuing History from the Orientalists:

Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas and Islam in the Malay World

By: Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied

Islam and the process of Islamization in the Malay World have received wide attention from scholars in Asia and elsewhere. Varying – and sometimes conflicting – interpretations have been presented and aired, and the points of contention are on issues pertaining to the question of origins and influences, as well as the backgrounds of persons and institutions responsible for the spread of Islam in this region, notwithstanding the collateral consequences which flowed from the shift in religious affiliations among the Malays. To this must be added a mention of the unending inquiries into the nature and validity of evidence available. Tainted by myths and legends, indigenous sources have been subjected to critical scrutiny and seen as too unreliable to be used to reconstruct the history of the conversion to Islam. It has been argued that one way to overcome this limitation is to turn to alternative European, Chinese and Arabian accounts of developments in the Malay world, for they provide us with a supposedly more dependable depiction of events and happenings and the circumstances that resulted from the rapid spread of Islam in the Malay world.

The Malaysian scholar Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas’ recently published monograph, Historical Fact and Fiction (2011), should be regarded as a major intervention into the debates surrounding the writing of the history of Islamization among the Malays and of the religious transformations of a region which the Malays view as the cradle of their civilization. The book marks a culmination of the author’s decades of engagement on the subject and his efforts at reiterating certain cogent points that have not been deliberated upon at length by contemporary scholars. To readers unfamiliar with Al-Attas’ prodigious scholarship and lifelong commitment to revising the history of Islam in the Malay World, this book might seem out of place. Al-Attas is, after all, a Muslim philosopher whose central interests have always been in the realm of the metaphysics of Islam. If such categorization is not enough to situate Al-Attas within a vocation which he has never claimed as his own, historians and social scientists have been relatively lukewarm (if not outright dismissive) of Al-Attas’ contributions to the historical discipline in general and the historiography of Islam in the Malay World in particular. Mona Abaza and Geog Stauth, for examples, held that Al-Attas is but an “anti-Orientalist Orientalist” or a prodigal son of the very group of elitist European scholars he had sought to demolish. In the same vein, Farish Noor locates Al-Attas, his writings and the ISTAC (Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization) squarely within the Islamization programme sponsored for many decades by the Malaysian state, a programme that coloured Al-Attas’ writings in a manner that over-emphasize the role of Islam in shaping Malay history above and beyond other religions that predated it.[1]

Hyperbolic and, to some extent, apocryphal, these criticisms are well worth considering, for they tell us much about the shifts in the present thinking about the Islamization project in a globalized world than about Al-Attas as a scholar of Islam. And yet, it is important to recognize that Al-Attas’ contributions in widening the frontiers of the history of Islam in Malay world have so far remained unsurpassed by any contemporary local scholar based in the region.[2] This holds true especially of his early works which, as Peter Riddell has perceptively observed, included a wide range of topics covering “Malay Sufism, doctrinal conflict among competing Sufi groups and scholars, and the transmission of Islamic thinking from the Arab World to Malay world.”[3] However, Riddell’s appraisal overlooks the fact that Al-Attas was not only interested in reconstructing and revising substantive issues about Islam in the Malay World. Rather, at the core of his oeuvre is his concern with the ways in which the history of Islam and its believers in Malay world has been approached. Al-Attas was and is still critical of prevailing paradigms and methods of analysis which have failed to portray the history of Islam in early modern Malay world in the most accurate way possible. His entire career has been dedicated to correcting the errors committed by a select group of the Orientalists and their problematic attempts at explaining the venture of Islam in the region.

Put differently, to understand Al-Attas’ unique contribution to the Malay-Islamic historiography, we must direct our attention to the problems of orientalism which Al-Attas has sought to address. Scholarly deliberations in Malaysia on the challenges posed by orientalism in Malay-Islamic historiography are, of course, not unique to Al-Attas, and are found in the writings of Syed Hussein Alatas, Shamsul Amri Baharuddin and Syed Farid Alatas, to name a few in our time.[4] Be that as it may, a comprehensive survey of Al-Attas’ writings tells us that he clearly stands above his peers in that respect. Since the beginning of his foray into the world of scholarship and up until the publication of his latest book, Historical Fact and Fiction, Al-Attas has been consistent in providing not only critiques of orientalism, but also pathways to transcend it. Although Al-Attas did not dedicate an entire monograph to orientalism as a distinct topic and object of study in its own right, he interwove it into the substance of his writings. In the following pages, I will illuminate and probe into these topics found in Historical Fact and Fiction and the larger corpus of his work to bring to attention a neglected aspect of his contribution to Malay-Islamic historiography.

Biography and Scholarship

Before doing so, it is necessary to mention here that Al-Attas’ intellectual quest is closely related to his early history. He was born in the 1930s at a time that was marked by cataclysmic changes and upheavals in the local and global arenas. European imperialism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East had unleashed the forces of discontent and resistance in the colonies. Entangled with the earnest desire among the non-European peoples to liberate their homelands from the yoke of colonial rule was a pervasive sense of disenchantment with native systems of governance and the conservative rendering of religious beliefs promoted by local imams and the state-sponsored clerics. New idioms of identity and brotherhood were thus invented by secularly-educated intellectuals, religious activists and others who were inspired by calls for Islamic revival and appeals for Pan-Arabic and Pan-African unity. As the world descended into the Great Depression in 1929 (just five years after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924), socialism, communism, fascism and social Darwinism became even more deeply intertwined in the language of Muslim reform and ethnic nationalism. Not surprisingly, the currents of thought in the wider Islamic world affected developments in Malay world.  Al-Attas, was then growing up in Bogor, Java, where Arab families had established their reputation as community leaders under Dutch colonial rule. This was an age characterized by the emergence of multiple movements and mass political activity, a time of experimentation and innovation manifested in the form of mass printing and the founding of political organizations, schools and welfare institutions, all of which would shape Al-Attas’ early life and thinking.[5]

Hailing from a family of saints, scholars, wayfarers and warriors whose genealogy could be traced to Hadramaut in Yemen and back to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, Al-Attas received instruction in the rudiments of the Islamic and spiritual sciences early in his life. The fact that Al-Attas’ great-grandfather, Syed Abdullah al-Attas, was a respected religious teacher and leader of atariqah (mystic order), placed an extra degree of responsibility upon him to be acquainted with the subtleties of the religion and its history. It is obvious that the philosophical as well as scriptural knowledge of Islam nurtured during his formative years became core elements of the epistemological basis of his thinking as a would-be scholar of Islam in Malay world. The training that he later received at McGill University and the School of Oriental and African Studies did much to cement and fortify what he had learnt under the tutelage of his grandfather, in that it informed him of the excesses of the orientalist assumptions and depictions of Islam. He soon sought to remedy such excesses, as clearly shown in his doctoral thesis about the mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri. It would not be excessive to argue that this doctoral thesis laid the essential foundations of almost all of his subsequent writings relating to Islam and the history of Muslims in the Malay world. The purpose of writing about topics related to Islam and Islamic history, to him, is to clarify some mistaken notions about the religion and its missionaries and, at the same time, to address the misperceptions among Muslims about their own pasts. These misperceptions were molded and affected by the colonial and anti-colonial experiences which Al-Attas had witnessed and endured. [6]

The Problem of Orientalism

The problem posed by orientalism lay at the very centre of the Al-Attas’ writings on the history of Islam in the Malay world. Like Edward Said, he saw orientalism as a form of knowledge that essentializes Islam, stripping it of its worldly dynamism as both a faith and a lived experience.[7] The orientalists were responsible for essentializing the history of Islam in the Malay world in ways that would tacitly cast it as a regressive period, or at least, a sterile phase in comparison to those years that preceded and followed it. In the Orientalists’ formulation, the coming of Islam signalled the rapid end of a cultural renaissance among the Malays as evidenced in the destruction of monuments, artworks and relics that were built during the times of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms. The orientalists also essentialized Islamization in the Malay world by depicting it as merely a veneer overlaying a pre-existing system of beliefs. From this point of view, the conversion of Malays to Islam was historic, but it was neither revolutionary nor disruptive in bringing about a total transformation of the religious beliefs of the Malays. Such essentializing is a lynchpin of orientalism, and it obfuscates the realities and complex nature of Islamization, according to Al-Attas.[8]

Al-Attas however differs from Edward Said in one fundamental way. He does not conceive of orientalism as leading to the material domination of the Orientals through the colonial and postcolonial periods. In other words, Al-Attas does not equate orientalism with colonialism or neo-colonialism per se and does not attribute the orientalists’ jaundiced attitudes to the sense of mission civilisatrice. While orientalist scholars like Snouck Hurgronje and Thomas Stamford Raffles may have employed knowledge in the service of imperialism and as a civilizing and missionizing tool, Al-Attas believes that it is more crucial to recognize that their writings were guided and structured by a secularist worldview (tasawwur) that was an outcome of the “tragic marriage” between a corrupted version of Christianity and the philosophies and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.[9] The influence and consumption of their writings by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars has resulted in the secularization of knowledge, thus enabling the conditions for the rise of confusion and the loss of adab, a term defined by Al-Attas as the loss of justice.[10] More crucially, the orientalists’ writings brought about a volte-face in the interpretations of Malay-Islamic history towards a secularist interpretation, an interpretation that assigns more significance to material factors as the driving forces of history than to religious and spiritual factors.

The orientalists also cast doubts over indigenous sources and interpretations relating to Islamization and the growth of Islamic culture. Doubt towards all subjects and knowledge foreign to their own traditions is the starting point of the orientalists’ inquiry and their methods of inculcating doubts were manifold. The most common was that they tended to support each other’s conclusions, thereby creating an aura of authoritativeness that would, in the last analysis, rule out other alternative indigenous postulations and facts. This can be most vividly illustrated in the case of discussions by A. Teeuw’s writings on the origins of Malay sha’ir and H.S Paterson, C. O Blagden and G.W.J. Drewes about the inscriptions on the Trengganu stone.[11] Al-Attas held that the aforementioned scholars’ doubts about the fact that Hamzah Fansuri was indeed the originator of Malay sha’ir and that the dates that were inscribed on the Trengganu stone were defective, developed from their presumption that pre-existing orientalist interpretations were trustworthy, even if they required some minor modifications. One presumption thus led to another and, along with the orientalists’ lack of knowledge of Arabian calligraphy, semantics and the Muslim sciences, the end product was the invention of the idea that indigenous sources are unreliable. To Al-Attas, such doubts are:

“not knowledge – the more so when it is ‘inconclusive’; when acceptance of its belief is based on articulate vagueness pretending to clothe itself in the garb of reasoned ‘general grounds’; when it is led towards the precipitous abyss of falsehood by blind ‘feeling’; when it contradicts itself that there is no reason to doubt and yet still doubts; when in fact it does so not because of the problematic nature of the historical situation, which it invariably makes out as a scapegoat for failure to achieve positive knowledge, but because of the scholar’s own ignorance of the limits of his own knowledge of the subject.”[12]

He highlighted that Drewes, for that matter, had never seen the stone in its physical state and made his theoretical formulations based on his predecessors’ assumptions and through incomplete pictures of the stone made available to him.

Another problem with problem with orientalism which Al-Attas highlighted is their attempts to decouple and de-emphasize the Arabian-Islamic influences in Malay life and thought. Because the orientalists saw many things through Indic spectacles and regarded developments in the Malay world as largely shaped by influences from India, they refused to acknowledge the roles of other figures and collectives that played an equal or greater role in the making of Islamic communities. The distinct roles of Hadrami Arabs are often neglected in most studies of Islamization, and in the isolated instances where prominent personalities from this social group are mentioned, it is often the case that their ethnic backgrounds are ignored or that their inventiveness is downplayed. Further, the orientalists also drew dichotomies between what they conceived as the “Malay language” as opposed to what was labelled as “foreign”. The Arabian influences upon the Malay language were regarded as corruptions to the Malay language. By doing this, the orientalists sought to downplay the importance of words and terms adopted from the Arabic lexicon into the Malay language and pave the way for the creation of a language that free from Islamic elements.[13]

There is also a prevailing tendency among the orientalists to postdate the crucial events connected to Islam in the Malay world and to construct periods and phases in ways that is in congruent to their biased view of Islamic history. In Al-Attas’ view, dates, periods and phases in history should not be taken for granted because they symbolize a particular way of organizing historical data which have implications on how the present is understood. As the Chinese historian Prasenjit Duara has observed, periods and phases confer “meaning on individual identity.”[14] The orientalists’ dating and periodizing of events often coincide with the propagation of colonialism and Western modernity in the region. Proceeding from that basis, the orientalists argue that Islam would not have made much of impact in the Malay world and that the momentum of its spread would not have been quickened if not for the presence of the Europeans who came to institutionalize their ideas and practice of colonial mercantilism and secular values. In other words, the Europeans and not the Muslim missionaries were vital factors in laying the conditions for Islam to flourish.[15]

Finally, Al-Attas underline the orientalists’ inclination to judge Islam in the Malay World and the writings that have been produced by Malay writers based on categories that are familiar to them. The orientalists subscribed to seeing Malay literature as consisting of poems, romance, or epics or folklore meant for mere entertainment. Because of this, they could not discern that these works functioned as missionary texts just as they were a source of relaxation and enjoyment of the listeners. The orientalists greatest failure here was that they were unable to analyze local texts and practices on their own terms and in their true essence.[16]

Transcending Orientalism

Is there a way out of orientalism? Al-Attas’ answer to this vital question that has been repeatedly raised by followers and detractors of Edward Said is not to dwell on a drawn-out critique of orientalism and thereby give significance to the very knowledge that ought to be decentred in the first place. Nor does he claim to “indigenize” or even offer “alternative discourses” to the histories written by the orientalists and their interlocutors. His antidote to orientalism lies instead in transcending the limits of orientalist thought by reconstructing the histories of Islam and Muslims in the Malay world. This requires a few steps and, with these moves, Al-Attas provides us with the means, even if in relatively unelaborated forms, by which the history of Islam in the Malay world could be rescued from the orientalists.

First, there is a need to understand in clear terms just who the orientalists are and their respective positions in regard to Islam in order to avoid the fallacy of nativist fundamentalism that would lead to unjust attitudes towards useful knowledge and indifference towards writings by persons foreign to one’s culture and origins. On this score, Al-Attas approach is analogous to the medieval Islamic philosopher, Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), whom he held in high regard. Confronted with the challenges of Hellenistic philosophy, Al-Ghazali advocated a middle course between a total rejection and assimilation of the Hellenistic corpus into the study of Islam. In the same vein, Al-Attas did not share the view among many critics that orientalism was a necessarily European phenomenon or that orientalists shared common attitudes towards Islam because they all hailed from Europe or that all of the orientalists findings and arguments are to be rejected. This is the slippery slope of Occidentalism or “Orientalism-in-reverse” that Al-Attas is conscious of. There is nothing ethnic about orientalism except for the fact that the practitioners of that form of knowledge share common epistemological starting points – secularism and the assumption that the Orient is inferior which characterize most but not all Western scholarship. Hence, even a non-European scholar could be regarded as an orientalist if his/her analysis of Malay-Islamic historiography is guided by the predetermined notions and bias against the contributions of Islam and Muslims in the Malay world and the will to secularize Islamic histories. The effacement of vital facts and memories of Islam and Muslims, the excessive scepticism towards indigenous perspectives and sources and the obsession with the exotic, as well as the belief in the regressiveness of the Orientals and the tainting of “theories with settled aversion towards Islam” forms the essential rubrics of the Orientalist endeavour.[17]

Because of this non-racial definition of Orientalism, Al-Attas exhibits a balanced and judicious acceptance of certain aspects of knowledge from the orientalists from Europe and elsewhere. Orientalism is to be rejected and corrected only when its errors get in the way of a true depiction of Malay-Islamic society and history. The works of orientalists must be credited in instances when they exhibit a perceptive and in-depth understanding of the histories of the Islam. For example, Al-Attas acknowledges Van Leur’s famous thesis that “Hinduism, as the Malay-Indonesian practiced it, was a merely a superstructure maintained by a ruling group above an indifferent community.”[18] Other Orientalists for whom he has high regard include Bertold Spuler, Henri Pirenne, Hamilton Gibb, Toshihiko Isuzu, A. J. Arberry, Mortimer Wheeler, and Richard Winstedt. In the beginning pages of Historical Fact and Fiction, Al-Attas wrote at length that:

“European historians of the Malay Archipelgo comprising prehistorians, ethnologists, archaeologists, philologists, sociologists and other scholars belonging to the social sciences, have meticulously researched and brilliantly elaborated their cogent findings with such diligent and inspiring scholarship that evokes due praise. We much sincerely acknowledge their wonderful contributions and affirm what is true in their interpretation of our history which they have gradually set in the crucible agreed among themselves.”[19]

To this must be added the proposing of new and more grounded theories of the origins of Islam and the spread of new forms of knowledge in the Malay world through the agency of Muslims. To theorize, according to Al-Attas, is not to engage in mere conjecture or speculation which is prevalent among a select group of scholars. Theories are supposed to be verifiable but they are not irrefutably verified. Any effort at theorizing about the processes of Islamization must begin with the premise that the spread of that faith was unique in its own way and should not be spuriously compared with other religions that came prior to it or other ideologies that came after Islam first laid its roots in the hearts and minds of the Malays. It follows then that a theorist of Islamization must understand first the exceptional nature and unique character of the coming and spread of Islam. It is exceptional because, unlike the propagation of Hinduism and Buddhism in the Malay World, which led only to the conversion of the literary elites whose acceptance of those faiths was only skin-deep, Islam brought about a mass conversion of the body and the spirit among the Malays.[20] But how did Al-Attas arrive at this?

To him, such theories could only be conceived if historians free themselves from “the epistemology and methodology of the social sciences” which would inevitably lead to their confused understanding of Islamic civilization.[21] No specifics are given about who these historians are and what branches of the social sciences he openly disapproves of, but it may be speculated that Al-Attas is referring to his contemporaries, especially those Malaysian scholars in the 1970s, who were enamoured with sociological (read orientalist) theories on Islamic civilization. Al-Attas view these theories as problematic because they consist of value-driven judgements. Influenced by such theories, Malaysian scholars promoted a developmentalist and evolutionary theory of Islamization. In brief, proponents of this theory believed that all societies move from one stage to another in a linear fashion – that is, from the traditional or primitive stage to a modern and industrialized era. Islamization in the Malay world is couched as a transitory stage to modernity, a supposition which Al-Attas plainly rejects, as we shall we later.[22]

Having freed themselves from the taint of social sciences, theorists of Islamization and Islamic history must acquaint themselves with a whole mass of indigenous and non-indigenous sources which can provide evidence for origins and spread of Islam. “It seems to me”, according to Al-Attas, “that before one can formulate any theory – historical or otherwise – one must on the basis of the facts gathered from what one knows and on the basis of inferences and implications about the relevant past or even present, that be deduced from those facts, make positive statements of the nature of justifiable assumptions or even postulates in order that the theory may take definite shape.”[23] Often regarded as unreliable due to stories that are deemed as imaginary, Malay texts should be revisited and read more closely for they provide clues to some processes at work in the making of Muslim societies in the region. The method he advocates in analyzing these varied sources is by way of semantic analysis of the concepts used in these texts. Here, he is indebted to the works of the Japanese Islamicist, Toshihiko Izutsu, who argued that an analytic study of the key words within a given language could aid scholars to attain “a conceptual grasp of the Weltanschauung or worldview of the people who use that language as a tool not only of speaking and thinking, but, more important still, of conceptualizing and interpreting the world that surrounds them.”[24] By analyzing the keywords and concepts which were found in the works of early modern Muslim mystics and scholars such as Hamzah Fansuri and Nuruddin Al-Raniri and of texts such as the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai and Sejarah Melayu, Al-Attas shows how Islam had brought a shift in the worldview of the Malays towards adopting a more reasoned and scientific approach to life and belief.[25]

Al-Attas also places a high degree of importance on material remains such as tombstones to determine dates of conversion and other important events. Beyond that, it is only proper for a historian to compare Arabian, Persian, Chinese and European accounts with indigenous sources and not to give more importance to one source over another except in instances where historical accounts found in any of these sources defy known facts, logic and sound reasoning. Writing in the tradition of the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, Al-Attas proposes that imagination and intuition must used to predict and explain certain events and trends through these sources, and why certain personalities did what they did in a given context.[26]

By utilizing these methods of approaching the sources, Al-Attas is at pains to point out that with Islam came manifold and unprecedented changes in Malay societies. The coming of Islam, as he forcefully points out, “was the most momentous event in the history of the Archipelago.”[27] In the realm of literature, Malays were introduced to new genres of writing such as the syair, which was already well-established in the Arab-Persian world before finding its way into the Malay world. The person responsible for this was none other than the Sufi mystic Hamzah Fansuri, whose prose and poems represent not only a rupture in “the field of Malay mystical literature, but also in the field of Malay literature in general.”[28] While orientalists saw Hamzah’s works are unoriginal and replicas of texts that could be found in other parts of the Muslim world, Al-Attas maintain that “Hamzah was not merely translating what these Sufis had written, and connecting these translations together to form an intelligible whole; he also demonstrated that he had a total grasp of their ideas and put them, for the most part, in his own phraseology.”[29] Hence, Hamzah Fansuri, and not Munshi Abdullah, should be regarded as the father of Malay literature.

The planting of the seeds of the Islamic culture in the Malay world also contributed to the enrichment of the Malay language, according to Al-Attas’ Islamization theory. The vocabulary and terminologies found in the Malay language expanded with the mass conversion of the Malay literati into Islam. In fact, the language was transformed into becoming a vehicle for philosophical discourse and this had inspired the founding of new forms of creative writing and upgraded the use of Malay from the language of seamen and the market to the language of scholars and the learned. Other consequences of the transformation in the Malay language were the change in the naming of days and months in the calendar used by the Malays and the adoption of terms and writing styles derived from the Arabic script. This is in turn had the effect of linking and exposing the Malays to a wider community of believers that has established their fame and foothold into much of the world. The Malay civilization grew in size and opulence because of this sense of being a part of a once flourishing civilization until the advent of formal colonialism.[30]

One other step that is essential to transcend the problems of orientalism is to redefine certain terms that have been used to explain the history of Islam in the Malay World. Three terms – modern, Islamic civilization and Islamization– preoccupy Al-Attas throughout his career.  He held that the term “modern” used by contemporary scholars explains the European experience but not the Islamic societies in the Malay world. To be modern in the European sense is to revolt against the teachings of the Church, to uphold reason and oppose faith based on unfounded fact. The term “modern” in European history implies the spirit of individual freedom and a humanistic and internationalistic outlook on life. The coming of Islam in the Malay World too ushered in rationalistic, humanistic and internationalistic outlook but that phase is not be considered as “modern” in the European sense because it did not entail a revolt against the Church and the exercise of individual freedom above and beyond the interests of the Muslim community. The “modern” in the light of the history of Islam in the Malay world should be understood as process that brought about a revolution in the spiritual, cultural and material spheres of Malay life and thought towards embracing of the idea of the unity of God (tawhid), the upholding the spirit of the shari’ah (religious law) and the fusing of the practices and ideals of tasawwuf (spirituality).[31]

As for civilization and Islamization, Al-Attas sees both terms as constituting twin processes. To him, no proper definition of these terms has been attempted. Viewing these processes as dynamic, complex, changing and inter-related, Al-Attas stress that the Islamic civilization could only be realized by eradicating societies of the godless elements and irrational practises which run contrary to the religion of Islam. That process does not entail a complete rejection of past legacies but incorporation of the old and the new into a unified system. To quote him at some length here for the reason that his definition is clear and self-explanatory:

“I define Islamic civilization as a civilization that emerges among the diversity of cultures of Muslim peoples of the world as a result of the permeation of the basic elements of the religion of Islam which those people have caused to emerge from within themselves. The process by which such emergence comes about is called Islamization, which is the liberation first from the magical, mythical, animistic and ethnic cultural tradition incompatible with Islam, and then from secular control over one’s reason and one’s language. Whatever basic and praiseworthy of the pre-Islamic civilization that bind people together and are accepted as compatible with Islam become part of Islamic civilization. It is a living civilization whose pulse describes a process of Islamization, not in the dialectical sense of an evolutionary ‘development’, but in the sense of progress involving every generation of Muslim towards realization the original nature and spirit of Islam as something already established in history; in the sense of the unfolding of the theoretical and practical principles of Islam in the life of the people; in the sense of an actualization of the essentials and potentials of Islam in the realms of existence. This progress, unfolding and actualization depend upon the levels of knowledge of Islam, of intellectual and cultural attainment of the peoples in which the progress, unfolding and actualization occur. Islamic civilization is therefore a manifestation of unity in diversity as well diversity in unity. In terms of cultural history, Malay civilization is an Islamic civilization.”[32]


Al-Attas’ impact on the study of the history of Islam in the Malay World is evident from the frequent references to his works in most books on the subject. His influence upon the present generation of Islamic thinkers in the Malay World is undoubted and the Islamization programme, of which he was a pioneer and leading expert, has gained the attention of thinkers and intellectuals beyond the Southeast Asian borders. This notwithstanding, very little attention has been given to explicate on his concerns with regards to the problems of historical writing, methodology and analysis particularly on the issues he took up against those works that were borne out of the biases of orientalism. The ways in which Al-Attas sought to transcend these problems and critique the suppositions of the orientalists remains a neglected topic even by his most ardent admirers and followers.

There are many reasons that could explain this state of affairs, the most plausible would be the continual assumption that Al-Attas’ most enduring impact resides only in the realm of Islamic philosophy and metaphysics. Another reason could be the attitudes which most local scholars have had in regard to the writings of home-grown scholars and intellectuals. As I have indicated elsewhere in a study of Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, there exist a pervasive assumption that Malay scholars offered little by way of conceptualizing, theorizing and explaining the various transformations in local societies. Lacking in the theoretical sophistication as well as the methodological rigour that are felt to be present in the works of their South Asian, Arabian and African counterparts, the works of Malay scholars such as Al-Attas are often mined solely for facts and figures, literary styles and linguistic conventions rather than for wide-ranging insights and relevant generalizations.[33]

It is only timely that we step out of this intellectual quandary. And one of the crucial steps towards that direction is to revisit and scrutinize the works of local scholars such as Al-Attas so as to open up new vistas in the study of Islam in the Malay World. Indeed, it is in the history of Islamization in this part of the world, the relating of stories about personalities and collectives that have sowed the seeds of Islam, the uncovering of sources that have by far been neglected and misunderstood and the dismantling of the fallacies of orientalist scholarship that one finds Al-Attas’ most profound insights and his most lasting accomplishment.

[1] Mona Abaza, Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), p. 90; Farish A Noor. ‘The localization of Islamist Discourse in the Tafsir of Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Murshi’ul Am of PAS,’ in Virginia Hooker and Norani Othman (eds.), Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics (Singapore: ISEAS, 2003), pp. 195-235 and Geog Stauth, Politics and Cultures of Islamization in Southeast Asia (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2002), pp. 187-228.

[2] Even so, no extensive discussion of Al-Attas’ contributions to the study of Southeast Asian Islamic historiography is made in the colossal Festschrift in honour of his lifetime achievements. This is rather unfortunate, especially given that history forms the axis that binds most, if not all, of Al-Attas’ writings. See: Wan Mohd. Nor Wan Daud and Muhammad Zainiy Uthman (eds.),Knowledge, language, thought and the civilization of Islam: Essays in Honor of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (Skudai: UTM Press, 2010).

[3] Peter Riddell, Islam and the Malay-Indonesia World: Transmission and Responses (London: C. Hurst and Co. 2011), p. 234.

[4] For a review of works by Malaysian scholars on orientalism: see Syed Farid Alatas, Alternative discourses in Asian social science: responses to Eurocentrism (Thousand Oaks : Sage Publications, 2006).

[5] Taksahi Shiraishi, An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912-1926 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

[6] For a more detailed biography of Al-Attas, see: Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud,The educational philosophy and practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas : an exposition of the original concept of Islamization (Kuala Kumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1998).

[7] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003).

[8] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Preliminary statement on a general theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago (Kuala Lumpur , Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1969), p. 5.

[9] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Origin of the Malay Sha’ir (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1968), p. 50-51.

[10] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), 1993), p. 106.

[11] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Origin of the Malay Sha’ir, p. 3.

[12] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Correct Date of the Trengganu Inscription (Kuala Lumpur: Museums Department, 1970), p. 7.

[13] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, ‘Pendita Za’ba: Satu Penghormatan’, in Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Bahasa dan Kesusasteraan Melayu (Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan, Belia dan Sukan Malaysia, 1976) pp. 4-5

[14] Prasenjit Duara, ‘Transnationalism and the Challenge to National Histories’, in Thomas Bender (ed.), Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 30.

[15] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Preliminary statement on a general theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelagop. 31.

[16] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Preliminary statement on a general theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelagop. 13.

[17] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Historical Fact and Fiction (Johor Bahru: Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Press, 2011), p. xiii.

[18] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970), p. 186.

[19] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Historical Fact and Fiction, p. xi.

[20] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Preliminary statement on a general theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago.

[21] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Historical Fact and Fiction, p. xiv.

[22] See for example: Syed Hussein Alatas, Modernization and social change: studies in modernization, religion, social change and development in South-East Asia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1972), p. 24.

[23] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Origin of the Malay Sha’ir, p. 5.

[24] Toshihiko Izutsu’s God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung (Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964), p. 11.

[25] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970), 142 ff; Islam: the Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992); and his The Concept of Education in Islam: A Framework for an Islamic Philosophy of Education (Kuala Lumpur: Muslim Youth Movement Malaysia, 1980).

[26] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Historical Fact and Fiction, p. 1-41 and Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Correct Date of the Trengganu Inscription.

[27] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Preliminary statement on a general theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, p. 2.

[28] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970), p. 178.

[29] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970), p. 14.

[30] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Islam dalam sejarah dan kebudayaan Melayu (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1984), pp. 40-41.

[31] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism, p. 170.

[32] Syed Muhd Naquib Al-Attas, Historical Fact and Fiction, p. xv.

[33] Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, ‘A Theory of Colonialism in the Malay World’, Postcolonial Studies, 14, 1, p. 7.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • ibn Jamak 19 November 2013, 12:04 pm

    May Allah bless this effort of yours and always guide your goodself to His Path and
    Pleasures. Baarakallaahfiekum

  • fathullah munadi 11 June 2014, 9:21 pm

    thanks for the article,
    salam kenal,

    Fathullah Munadi

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