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>Man, Language and Knowledge


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In the Holy Qur’an there are several occasions where one can find some accounts of Adam’s encounter with man’s nemesis, Iblis. Carefully attending to those accounts with intelligence, sincerity and honesty can surely help Muslims derive useful lessons, insights and reminders not only about human strength and potentials but also human weaknesses and vulnerability. One such account is comprised of verses 30 to 39 of the Second Chapter of the Qur’an, al-Baqarah. It is crystal clear from those pertinent verses that compared to other creatures, particularly the angels, man derives his superiority from the epistemic ability which God endowed in him.

 prev46 The Qur’an talks therein about Adam being taught by God the names of all things. The term for "name" in Arabic is ism (plural: asmaa’), a derivative of the root word wasm or simah, meaning "sign," "mark," or "brand." A name qua sign basically functions as an indicator to point to something so that the thing or object concerned may be found and subsequently grasped by man’s searching mind. In fact, the human process of knowing the various objects of knowledge is almost inconceivable without involving any kind of language. Thus far, the human act of knowing almost always involves man’s recognition of the various objects by their names. And scientific discoveries almost always result in naming things with terms that are scientifically befitting.  In short, the aforementioned episode gets to show the importance of language in Islam as a system of symbolic forms so indispensible for the human cognitive activities. Such a cognitive significance of language is further reinforced by the fact that man, insofar as the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam is concerned, has been essentially considered to be al-hayawan al-natiq, a living being that is possessed of speech (nutq), pointing thus to his rationality and intelligence—in short, a rational animal.

The term al-natiq, signifying a differentia distinguishing man from other animate beings, itself being a derivative of the root word nutq (the power to formulate meaning manifested as human speech), in fact marks the symbiosis between language and the mind. As Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has aptly described in his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, both the terms natiq and nutq when applied to man as his special differential "signify a certain power and capacity innate in man to articulate words or symbolic forms in meaningful patterns" (p.122). In fact, in the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam, logic as the science of thinking and discourse is referred to as ‘ilm al-mantiq, the word mantiq itself being another cognate word stemming from the same root.


Hence, not only is man, to somewhat use today’s academic jargons, homo sapiens but he is also homo loquens.  He is homo loquens precisely because he is homo sapiens (from sapienta, scientia, etc.).  It also important for us to note that throughout this so-called dialogue between God and His somewhat disquiet angels, God clearly chose to emphasize His omniscience from amongst all His Attributes. In one instance, for example, while addressing the uneasiness of the angels concerning the fact that God had created a being who would make mischief on earth and shed blood despite them singing His praises and sanctifying Him, God asserts: "SURELY I KNOW THAT WHICH YE KNOW NOT." In another instance, after the angels had admitted both their ignorance and the fact that God is not only their Sole Source of Knowledge but is also All-Knowing, followed then by Adam’s ability to demonstrate his epistemic superiority, God again declared to the angels: "DID I NOT TELL YOU THAT I KNOW THE SECRETS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, AND I KNOW WHAT YE REVEAL AND WHAT YE CONCEAL?"

It is only then that God summoned them to bow down to Adam, to which they all willingly obeyed, except Iblis. It is very obvious therein that in affirming man’s epistemic superiority and hence his nobility, God is invoking His supremacy in matters of knowledge and wisdom.  Such a Qur’anic event, therefore, serves as the best foundation for us to conclude that in matters of knowledge and understanding, one’s professorial claim—or one’s claim to authority—in any field of expertise, let alone in matters of guidance and life-orientation, must only be demonstrated in terms of wisdom, knowledge and proofs, and not in terms of power, wealth and lineage.  Should a Muslim’s actions be otherwise, then such contrary practice simply betrays his digression from the parameters of truth as exemplified by the Qur’an.

Article courtesy of Dr. Mohd Zaidi b. Ismail (IKIM)


>“Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” (English)

>These are the worst of times. “Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path). (2/al-Baqarah, 18).” What man sought was the light of truth and salvation; what he kindled was fire. The flames manifested by the blaze produced shock and awe and won the acclaim of all. But because the nature of fire is temporal, praise was short lived and soon darkness once again descended, this time however it was exponentially worse. Hypocrisy, fraud, arrogance, all the evil vices once again prevailed at the expense of truth, sincerity, and all noble virtues. In dismay, mankind struggled to speak without realizing no one was listening nor could anyone truly see, and were therefore rendered apathetic and mute.

The population of the world held its collective breath during the recently concluded American Presidential elections; would a Republican candidate prevail and continue the despotic legacy of his predecessor, or would a Democrat triumph and introduce the overdue changes promised? The much touted eventual victor won the applause of all leaders around the globe; the panacea of change was on its way eagerly awaiting its turn in the spotlight, reveling behind the curtains to the crescendo of propitious voices which rushed to conclude amid jubilation that the institution of Western democracy had once again claimed victory over inequality and the unseen hand of anarchy and rebellion.

Certain leaders of the Arab world in particular breathed a collective sigh of relief and appeared more than honored to blow the victor’s trumpet; after all, they had been led to believe that their predicament rested in the duplicitous policies of the previous administration. Indeed, the nomenclature of democracy was that it was just, honorable, moral, and true. Promises of a resolute effort towards a conceivable solution seeking to end hostilities in the Middle East, was introduced; again to the collective applause of the world.

Assurances vowing to return to peaceful dialogue surrounding the perennial cruelty faced by the subjugated Palestinian people, were made; once again to the collective applause of the world. The Palestinian population had suffered tyranny, oppression, domination, cruelty, and unimaginable repression for decades. And the true believers from amongst the global Muslim community experienced and endured their agony with them, “like one body; if one part suffers injury and pain, the entire body experiences wakefulness and fever” (hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him). It was as though their ankles were being twisted to the point of breaking, and they were screaming out in extreme pain praying that their fellow man, their own brethren would heed their cries and rush to alleviate their anguish and punish their tormentors.

The foregoing promises had been made before, but to the temporary applause of the leaders of the world for those very same promises were soon wanting. Alas, although the screams of the Palestinian peoples had been heard no one had been listening, and their cries ultimately fell on deaf ears. Rather than rid them of the cause of their torture and agony, namely their tormentors twisting their ankles, the leaders of the world, even their own brethren, unilaterally decided that the screams of the Palestinians were too deafening for man’s delicate ears and that they should be further punished for polluting the sanctity and purity of sound. What alternative were they left with? What choice would present itself to the Palestinians?

In rushed the institution of democracy. After all, would not the institution of democracy, with its presumed inherent moral code of justice, freedom, honor and truth later rid their Arab neighbor of a despotic tyrant? Had not the Arab world been repeatedly told of the virtues of accepting democracy? Had not the mechanism of democracy been illustrated to them time and again? For perhaps the first time in decades, the Palestinian peoples heeded the call of democracy and dutifully went to the polls to elect a government of their choice. What they craved more than anything else, was justice. Justice is not synonymous with law, for the law had failed the Palestinian people.

Like any other Muslim of sound mind, justice for them meant the most comprehensive of all virtues synonymous with truth, the right and good; its antithesis therefore was synonymous with injustice, tyranny, falsehood, and arrogant compromise with evil. And if truth and righteousness were apportioned according to its proper place, namely if dignity, wealth, opportunity, security and the like were afforded regardless of race, creed, political allegiance or social standing, and were distributed according to a just manner, then there would be peace, harmony and happiness in society. For decades, the leaders of the world had generally considered the actions of the Palestinian people in terms of their appearance, inclined to interpret those actions as they appeared, rather than as they were and what they were in reality. As a result, wealth was apportioned to the already rich; control of their destiny was handed to a government comprising a race of people who considered themselves to be ‘God’s chosen flock’; jurisdiction of their mosques and schools was assigned to ‘God’s chosen troops’. Such manner of distribution certainly brought benefit to the foregoing government, yet was indeed oppressive and a deviation from justice; such a government was indeed unjust for it had failed to recognize the proper places of those things in relation to their recipients.

Unlike the victor of the democratically elected soon to be appointed President of the United States of America who had earned the applause of all leaders around the globe, the victor of the democratically elected leader who had merited the esteem of the Palestinian peoples, was summarily condemned by many leaders of the world, including some from amongst the leaders of the Arab world. Democratic salvation was in fact democratic abandonment. It turns out that the moral code of justice, freedom, honor and truth was not inherent to democracy; rather democracy was the vessel of terror, terrorism, and terrorists, at least this is what the aforementioned leaders of the world would have us conclude. Today therefore, the schism suffered by the Muslim world is more and more apparent.

There are those in Malaysia, Turkey, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, who experience and share in the anguish of their fellow human beings and desperately want to render assistance. Sadly however, their democratic voices are drowned out by an overpowering deafening roar resulting from a torrential inundation of the scum of democracy. Certain leaders of Arab countries and Muslim representatives in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) have vaingloriously and deliberately ignored the rope of hope, optimism, and deliverance offered to the m by those having true knowledge of justice during fleeting intervals of truth amidst the vast swathe of ignorance and despair. Conversely, they have elected to remain cynical, hypocritical, duplicitous, and untrustworthy. As a result, change for the better with regard to the fate of the Muslims and the Muslim world remains impossible while their democratically elected leaders grope about, deaf, dumb, and blind.

Source : From IKIM, written by, Datuk Dr. Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas

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