February 23rd, 2016

How Islam was taught at Istac

Class discussions 20 years ago still hold useful lessons for teachers and students today.

ABOUT 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to study at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (Istac).

One of the compulsory courses taught was ‘The Religion of Islam’, taught by the Founder-Director of the Institute himself, Tan Sri Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. What follows is one of the discussions in his class.

Although we say that the world and what is in it tends to distract us from the truth, we do not consider it inherently evil, because they are supposedly the signs of God.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people used to think that the world outside the monastery was an evil sort of thing.

But Islam does not denigrate the world, because in Islam there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane.

In fact, the world (al-dunya) is a stage in our journey to the hereafter, and everybody has to go through it.

God is related to His creation in a mysterious manner, just like the soul’s relation with the body. Even though it is not mixed with or joined to the body, the soul somehow influences it.

So it is with God’s creation. In the Quran we find a verse which says: “Wherever you turn, you’ll see His aspects”, and “If there are three of you, He is the fourth”.

It means: “He is the witness to everything, and therefore, He knows everything. He knows what goes on in our minds.

“He is so intimately related to His creation even without incarnation, because His creation is constantly annihilating, and He is therefore not of that creation.”

Yet some belief systems do conflate God with His creation, and this idea is not supported by Islam.

God, according to the Quran, needs no rest because He is not overcome with fatigue or in need of sleep. He is active all the time and with this conception, based on the Holy Quran or Revelation.

Therefore, His creative activity is what is manifested in everything.All His creations must be something like that and somehow also separated in a certain way from Him .

Such as would be the case, for example, between the architect and the building.

The building, although born from the mind of the architect, which he then puts on paper, is cut off from him when it is built.

Even if the architect dies, the building will still continue to exist.

Science and knowledge seek an understanding of the meanings of things around us, not of the things in themselves, because the things themselves do not exist as themselves. They are there to convey meanings.

So the universe out there is like a big book, and as a book, it is meant to be read.

But if one looks at a book, and his sole concern are the words in it, he is not actually reading the book anymore because his concern is no longer the meaning that the book contains.

Perhaps one of the reasons why many are not attracted to science today is because modern science seems to have overlooked the meaning of things as well.

Although it ultimately wants to know the meaning of things, this generally does not seem to be what science is doing.

The word is actually a symbol.

It has a shape, a colour, and a certain size, but the reality of the word is the meaning, although the shape is also real in the sense that without that shape we cannot convey the symbol of the meaning.

This is an example of how Islam was taught at the Institute, and how it ought to be taught at the universities of today.