Muslims must rethink the notion of knowledge, starting from an integral conception of the human being and his relationship with God

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:47

Read the introduction to this article It isn’t True Science if it isn’t Open to God


The Islamic world has absorbed from the West a purely utilitarian idea of knowledge, deprived of any relation with transcendence, which aims to transform creation rather than understanding it as a divine sign. Muslims must rethink the very concept of science, taking an integral conception of the human being and his/her relation with God as their starting point.


Many challenges have arisen in the midst of man’s confusion throughout the ages, but none perhaps more serious and destructive to man than today’s challenge posed by Western civilization. I venture to maintain that the greatest challenge that has surreptitiously arisen in our age is the challenge of knowledge, indeed, not as against ignorance; but knowledge as conceived and disseminated throughout the world by Western civilization; knowledge whose nature has become problematic because it has lost its true purpose due to being unjustly conceived, and has thus brought about chaos in man’s life instead of, and rather than, peace and justice; knowledge which pretends to be real but which is productive of confusion and scepticism, which has elevated doubt and conjecture to the ‘scientific’ rank in methodology and which regards doubt as an eminently valid epistemological tool in the pursuit of truth; knowledge which has, for the first time in history, brought chaos to the Three Kingdoms of Nature; the animal, vegetal and mineral. It seems to me important to emphasize that knowledge is not neutral, and can indeed be infused with a nature and content which masquerades as knowledge. Yet it is in fact, taken as a whole, not true knowledge, but its interpretation through the prism, as it were, the worldview, the intellectual vision and psychological perception of the civilization that now plays the key role in its formulation and dissemination. What is formulated and disseminated is knowledge infused with the character and personality of that civilization – knowledge presented and conveyed as knowledge in that guise so subtly fused together with the real so that others take it unawares in toto to be the real knowledge per se. What is the character and personality, the essence and spirit of Western civilization that has so transformed both itself and the world, bringing all who accept its interpretation of knowledge to a state of chaos leading to the brink of disaster? By ‘Western civilization’ I mean the civilization that has evolved out of the historical fusion of cultures, philosophies, values and aspirations of ancient Greece and Rome; their amalgamation with Judaism and Christianity, and their further development and formation by the Latin, Germanic, Celtic and Nordic peoples. From ancient Greece is derived the philosophical and epistemological elements and the foundations of education and of ethics and aesthetics; from Rome the elements of law and statecraft and government; from Judaism and Christianity the elements of religious faith; and from the Latin, Germanic, Celtic and Nordic peoples their independent and national spirit and traditional values, and the development and advancement of the natural and physical sciences and technology which they, together with the Slavic peoples, have pushed to such pinnacles of power. Islam too has made very significant contributions to Western civilization in the sphere of knowledge and in the inculcation of the rational and scientific spirit, but the knowledge and the rational and scientific spirit have been recast and remoulded to fit the crucible of Western culture so that they have become fused and amalgamated with all the other elements that form the character and personality of Western civilization. But the fusion and amalgamation thus evolved produced a characteristic dualism in the world view and values of Western culture and civilization; a dualism that cannot be resolved into a harmonious unity, for it is formed of conflicting ideas, values, cultures, beliefs, philosophies, dogmas, doctrines and theologies altogether reflecting an all-pervasive dualistic vision of reality and truth locked in despairing combat. Dualism abides ill all aspects of Western life and philosophy: the speculative, the social, the political, the cultural—just as it pervades with equal inexorableness the Western religion.


In formulates its vision of truth and reality not upon revealed knowledge and religious belief, but rather upon cultural tradition reinforced by strictly philosophical premises based upon speculations pertaining mainly to secular life centered upon man as physical entity and rational animal, setting great store upon man’s rational capacity alone to unravel the mysteries of his total environment and involvement in existence, and to conceive out of the results of speculations based upon such premises his evolutionary ethical and moral values to guide and order his life accordingly. There can be no certainty in philosophical speculations in the sense of religious certainty based on revealed knowledge understood and experienced in Islam;[1] and because of this the knowledge and values that project the worldview and direct the life of such a civilization are subject to constant review and change. […]


The fundamental truths of religion are regarded, in such a scheme of things, as mere theories, or discarded altogether as futile illusions. Absolute values are denied and relative values affirmed; nothing can be certain, except the certainty that nothing can be certain. The logical consequence of such an attitude towards knowledge, which determines and is determined by the world view, is to negate God and the Hereafter and affirm man and his world. Man is deified and Deity humanized, and the world becomes man’s sole preoccupation so that even his own immortality consists in the continuation of his species and his culture in this world. […]


Reliance upon the powers of human reason alone to guide man through life; adherence to the validity of the dualistic vision of reality and truth; affirmation of the reality of the evanescent-aspect of existence projecting a secular worldview; espousal of the doctrine of humanism; emulation of the allegedly universal reality of drama and tragedy in the spiritual, or transcendental, or inner life of man, making drama and tragedy real and dominant elements in human nature and existence – these elements altogether taken as a whole, are, in my opinion, what constitute the substance, the spirit, the character and personality of Western culture and civilization. It is these elements that determine for that culture and civilization the moulding of its concept of knowledge and the direction of its purpose, the formulation of its contents and the systematization of its dissemination; so that the knowledge that is now systematically disseminated throughout the world is not necessarily true knowledge, but that which is imbued with the character and personality of Western culture and civilization, and charged with its spirit and geared to its purpose. And it is these elements, then, that must be identified and separated and isolated from the body of knowledge, so that knowledge may be distinguished from what is imbued with these elements, for these elements and what is imbued with them do not represent knowledge as such but they only determine the characteristic form in which knowledge is conceived and evaluated and interpreted in accordance with the purpose aligned to the worldview of Western civilization. It follows too that apart from the identification and separation and isolation of these elements from the body of knowledge, which will no doubt also alter the conceptual forms and values and interpretation of some of the contents of knowledge as it is now presented,[2] its very purpose and system of deployment and dissemination in institutions of learning and in the domain of education must needs be altered accordingly. […]


Definition and Aims of Education


[…] The aim of education in Islam is to inculcate goodness or justice in man as man and individual self. The aim of education in Islam is therefore to produce a good man. What is meant by ‘good’ in our concept of ‘good man’? The fundamental element inherent in the Islamic concept of education is the inculcation of adab, for it is adab in the all-inclusive sense here meant as encompassing the spiritual and material life of man that instills the quality of goodness that is sought after. Education is precisely what the Prophet, upon whom be Peace, meant by adab when he said:


My Lord educated (addaba) me, and made my education (ta’dīb) most excellent.


Education is the instilling and inculcation of adab in man—it is ta’dīb.[3] Thus adab is precisely what applies to man if he must acquit himself successfully and well in this life and the Hereafter. And the definition of education and its aims and purpose are already in fact contained in the brief exposition of the concept of adab as here outlined.


Islamic System of Order and Discipline


[…] Education in Islam is a continuous process throughout life on earth, and it covers every aspect of that life. From the point of view of linguistic usage, we must see that the fact that the term ‘ilm has been applied in Islam to encompass the totality of life—the spiritual, intellectual, religious, cultural, individual and social—means that its character is universal, and that it is necessary to guide man to his salvation. No other culture and civilization has ever applied a single term for knowledge to encompass all activities in man’s life. Perhaps this was why the organization, inculcation and dissemination of knowledge was conceived as a system of order and discipline pertaining to the kulliyya, a concept conveying the idea of the universal. We know that from the earliest periods Islam began its educational system significantly with the mosque as its centre; and with the mosque (jāmi‘) continuing to be its centre even—in some cases—till the present day, there developed other educational institutions such as the maktab; the bayt al-hikma; the gatherings of scholars and students (majālis); the dār al-‘ulūm, and the madāris; and in the fields of medicine, astronomy and devotional sciences there rose the hospitals, observatories, and zāwiya within the Sufi fraternities. We also know that the early Western universities were modelled after the Islamic originals. Very little information is available to me, however, concerning the original concept of the university within the Islamic system of education, and the extent to which original Islamic concepts pertaining to the structure of the university had influenced the Western copies. But the general character and structure of the universities today, which are veritable copies of Western models, still reveal significant traces of their Islamic origin.


The very name for the institution which derives from Latin: universitatem [sic] clearly reflects the original Islamic kulliyya. Then again, apart from the role of medicine in Islamic learning and its early and great influence in the West, the anatomical concept of the faculty, which harks back on quwwa which refers to a power inherent in the body of an organ, is most significant, not only—it seems to me—in establishing its Islamic origin, but in demonstrating the fact that since the concept ‘faculty’ refers to a living being in whom the attribute ‘knowledge’ subsists, and that this knowledge is the governing principle determining his thought and action, the university must have been conceived in emulation of the general structure, in form, function and purpose, of man. It was meant to be a microcosmic representation of man—indeed, of the Universal Man (al-insān al-kulliyy).


But the university as it later was developed in the West and emulated today all over the world no longer reflects man. Like a man with no personality, the modern university has no abiding, vital centre, no permanent underlying principle establishing its final purpose. It still pretends to contemplate the universal and even claims to possess faculties and departments as if it were the body of an organ—but it has no brain, let alone intellect and soul, except only in terms of a purely administrative function of maintenance and physical development. Its development is not guided by a final principle and definite purpose, except by the relative principle urging on the pursuit of knowledge incessantly, with no absolute end in view. It is a symbol that has become ambiguous - unlike the Quranic concept of āya—because it points to itself (i.e. to the sciences for the sake of the sciences) instead of to what it is meant to represent (i.e. to man), and hence is productive of perpetual confusion and even scepticism. Because of the secular basis of Western culture, which is mentioned in the beginning, the university is geared to a secular relative purpose, and hence reflects the secular state and society and not the universal man. But there never has been nor ever will be, except in Islam in the person of the Holy Prophet, upon whom be God’s Blessings and Peace!, the Universal Man (al-insān al-kāmil) that can be reflected in microcosmic representation as ‘university’. Neither can state nor society be truly considered as capable of possessing an attribute called knowledge, for that is only possessed by the individual man.


And even if it be argued that the modern university is in fact emulating man, yet it is the secular man that is portrayed; the rational animal devoid of soul, like a circle with no centre. The various faculties and departments within them, like the various faculties and senses of the body, have in the modern university become uncoordinated, each preoccupied with its own endless pursuits; each exercising its own ‘free will’, as it were, and not the coherent will of one being, for there is no ‘being’—all is ‘becoming’. Can one be judged sane and coherent who contemplates some affair, and at the same time recognizes something else entirely different from what is being contemplated, and who says something again quite different altogether, who hears different sounds and sees yet again different things? The modern university is the epitome of man in a condition of zulm, and such a condition is maintained by the encouragement and elevation and legitimization of doubt and conjecture as epistemological tools of scientific enquiry. The Holy Qur’ān repeatedly repudiates such methods, branding them contraries of knowledge. Thus doubt (shakk), conjecture and guess (zann) disputation and contention (mirā’, jadal), inclination of the mind or soul towards natural desire (hawā), are all generally considered blameworthy—the more so when applied to and masquerading as knowledge.


We must take note of the significance that, in the case of Western culture and civilization, and with reference to the sociology of knowledge, the West has defined knowledge in terms of the effort of science as control of nature and society. With respect to man as an individual, to the improvement and identification and elevation of his personality and the desire to learn about the Divine order of the world and salvation, to this most important purpose—and hence true nature— of knowledge the West no longer attaches any significance and reality. This is and has been so by virtue of the fact that the West acknowledges no single Reality to fix its vision on; no single, valid Scripture to confirm and affirm in life; no single human Guide whose words and deeds and actions and entire mode of life can serve as model to emulate in life, as the Universal Man. […]


Concluding Remarks and Suggestions


Since we have said that all knowledge comes from God and is interpreted by the soul through its spiritual and physical faculties, it follows that the most suitable epistemological definition would be that knowledge, with reference to God as being its origin, is the arrival (husūl) in the soul of the meaning (ma‘nā) of a thing or an object of knowledge; and that with reference to the soul as being its interpreter, knowledge is the arrival (wusūl) of the soul at the meaning of a thing or an object of knowledge. The World of Nature, as depicted in the Holy Qur’ān, is like a Great Book; and every detail therein, encompassing the farthest horizons and our very selves, is like a word in that Great Book that speaks to man about its Author. The word as it really is is a sign, a symbol; and to know it as it really is is to know what it stands for, what it symbolizes, what it means. To study the word as word, regarding it as if it had an independent reality of its own, is to miss the real point of studying it, for regarded as such it is no longer a sign or a symbol, as it is being made to point to itself, which is not what it really is. So in like manner, the study of Nature, of any thing, any object of knowledge in Creation, pursued in order to attain knowledge of it; if the expression ‘as it really is’ is taken to mean its alleged independent reality, essentially and existentially, or its perseity, as if it were something ultimate and self-subsistent—then such study is devoid of real purpose, and the pursuit of knowledge becomes a deviation from the truth, which necessarily puts into question the validity of such knowledge. For as it really is, a thing or an object of knowledge is other than what it is, and that ‘other’—at least at the rational and empirical level of normal experience—refers to its meaning. This is why we have defined knowledge epistemologically as the arrival in the soul of the meaning of a thing, or the arrival by the soul at the meaning of a thing. When we speak of ‘rational’ and ‘empirical’ as we do here, we are not thereby subscribing to the principal cleavage along methodological lines determined by what is called rationalism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other, as here we are deliberating in an Islamic context which is not the same as that of Western philosophy and epistemology. Reason and experience are in Islam valid channels by which knowledge is attained—knowledge, that is, at the rational and empirical level of normal experience. We maintain that there is another level; but even at this other, spiritual level, reason and experience are still valid, only that they are of a transcendental order. At this level the rational has merged with the intellectual, the empirical with what pertains to authentic spiritual experiences such as inner witnessing (shuhūd), tasting (dhawq) and other interrelated states of trans-empirical awareness. This is the level at which tasawwuf, which I have defined earlier as ‘the practice of the sharī‘a at the station (maqām) of ihsān’, becomes the context in which knowledge means unification (tawhīd).


In appraising the present situation with regard to the formulation and dissemination of knowledge in the Muslim world, we must see that infiltration of key concepts from the Western world has brought confusion which will ultimately cause grave consequences if left unchecked. Since what is formulated and disseminated in and through universities and other institutions of learning from the lower to the higher levels is in fact knowledge infused with the character and personality of Western culture and civilization and moulded in the crucible of Western culture, our task will be first to isolate the elements including the key concepts which make up that culture and civilization. These elements and key concepts are mainly prevalent in that branch of knowledge pertaining to the human sciences, although it must be noted that even in the natural, physical and applied sciences, particularly where they deal with interpretation of facts and formulation of theories, the same process of isolation of the elements and key concepts should be applied; for the interpretations and formulations indeed belong to the sphere of the human sciences. The ‘Islamization’ of present-day knowledge means precisely that, after the isolation process referred to, the knowledge free of the elements and key concepts isolated are then infused with the Islamic elements and key concepts […].


Our next important task will be the formulation and integration of the essential Islamic elements and key concepts so as to produce a composition which will comprise the core knowledge to be deployed in our educational system from the lower to the higher levels in respective gradations designed to conform to the standard of each level. The core knowledge at the university level, which must first be formulated before that at any other level, must be composed of ingredients pertaining to the nature of man (insān); the nature of religion (dīn) and man’s involvement in it; of knowledge (‘ilm and ma‘rifa), wisdom (hikma) and justice (‘adl) with respect to man and his religion; the nature of right action (‘amal-adab). These will have to be referred to the concept of God, His Essence and Attributes (tawhīd); the Revelation (the Holy Qur’ān), its meaning and message; the Revealed Law (sharī‘a) and what necessarily follows: the Prophet (upon whom be God’s Blessings and Peace!), his life and sunnah, and the history and message of the Prophets before him. They will also have to be referred to knowledge of the Principles and practice of Islam, the religious sciences (‘ulūm al-shar‘iyya), which must include legitimate elements of tasawwuf and Islamic philosophy, including valid cosmological doctrines pertaining to the hierarchy of being, and knowledge of Islamic ethics and moral principles and adab. To this must be added knowledge of the Arabic language and of the Islamic worldview as a whole. This core knowledge, integrated and composed as a harmonious unity and designed at the university level as a model structure and content for the other levels, must invariably be reflected in successively simpler forms at the secondary and primary levels of the educational system. At each level, the core knowledge must be designed to be made identical for application in the educational system throughout the Muslim world, since the core knowledge is obligatory for all Muslims (fard ‘ayn).


[Excerpts taken from Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islām and Secularism. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 19932, pp. 113–167 passim]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] […] The Holy Qur’ān mentions three degrees or levels of certainty of knowledge: certainty derived by inference, whether deductive or inductive: ‘ilm al-yaqīn (al-Takāthur [102]: 5); certainty derived by direct vision: ‘ayn  al-yaqīn (al-Takāthur [102]: 7); certainty derived by direct experience : haqq al-yaqīn (al-Hāqqah (69): 51). These levels of certain knowledge pertain to truth, whether manifest or hidden, empirical or transcendental; and the certain knowledge of what is hidden has the same force of certainty as that of what is visible. These levels of certainty also pertain to that which is perceived by the spiritual organ of cognition, the heart (al-qalb), and refers to knowledge as belief and faith (īmām).
[2] ‘Some of the contents of knowledge’ referred to here pertains mainly to the human sciences.
[3] On the definition and a more extended elaboration of the concept of adab, see chapter IV, which treats of the subject. What is here proposed, that education means ta’dīb, in contradistinction with the generally accepted tarbiya, is of paramount importance and must seriously be considered. Tarbiyah in my opinion is a comparatively recent term applied to denote ‘education’. Semantically, however, the term seems neither appropriate nor adequate in conveying the conception of education, which is peculiar only to man. Basically tarbiya conveys the meaning of ‘to nurture’, ‘to bear’, ‘to feed, foster, nourish, to cause to increase in growth’, ‘to rear’, ‘to bring forth mature produce’, ‘to domesticate’. Its application in the Arabic language is not restricted to man alone, and its semantic fields extend to other species: to minerals, plants and animals; one can refer to cattle farming and stock breeding, chicken farming and poultry husbandry, pisciculture and plant cultivation each as a form of tarbiya respectively. Education is something peculiar only to man; and the activity involved and qualitative elements inherent in education are not the same as those involved and inherent in tarbiya. Moreover, tarbiya basically also refers to the idea of possession, and it is usually the ‘possessor’ who exercises tarbiya on the objects of tarbiya. God, the Sustainer, Nourisher, Cherisher, Lord and Possessor of all (al-rabb) is already ever exercising His Dominion over all, so that tarbiya is something that man must do. In the case of man it is usually the parents who exercise tarbiya over their offspring. When the exercise of tarbiya is transferred over to the state, there is danger that education becomes a secular exercise, which is happening in fact. Furthermore the end of tarbiya is normally physical and material in character as it deals with physical and material growth only. Yet we all know that the real essence of the educational process is set towards the goal pertaining to the intellect, which inheres only in man. So we must select a precise term to denote education that fulfills the end and purpose of education, which is to produce a good man. The only appropriate and adequate term is ta’dīb. Error in the selection and application of terms employed for cultural, religious and spiritual concepts invariably leads to confusion in knowledge, in theory and in practice.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, “The salvific power of knowledge”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 93-103.

Online version:
Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, “The salvific power of knowledge”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/the-salvific-power-of-knowledge