Discovering the treasure that is Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

In one of our sessions with Shaykh Faraz at the University of Toronto studying Imam Haddad’s Poem of Counsel, we were recommended to read Syed Muhammad al-Attas’s book “Islam and Secularism.” The pdf I had was a little difficult to read, but during the break my brother showed me how easy it is to read on the iPad, and alhamidullah, that has helped me start the text. And subhanAllah, it’s a gorgeous read! Yesterday I was reading a section of the book where the author speaks about the different meanings of the word deen, and though the section needs to be read in its entirety, there are a few passages I wanted to keep handy that I’ve included below. (Note: the capitalization and italics are from the original text).

On the connection between deen and madinah.

“It is I think extremely important to discern both the intimate and profoundly significant connection between the concept of din and that of madinah which derives from it, and the role of the Believers individually in relation to the former, and collectively in relation to the latter.

Considerable relevance must be seen in the significance of the change of name of the town once known as Yathrib to al-Madinah: the City – or more precisely Madinatu’l-Nabiy: the City of the Prophet – which occurred soon after the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!) made his historic Flight (hijrah) and settled there. The first Community of Believers was formed there at the time, and it was that Flight that marked the New Era in the history of mankind. We must see the fact that al-Madinah was so called and named because it was there that true din became realized for mankind. There the Believers enslaved themselves under the authority and jurisdiction of the Holy Prophet (may God bless and give him Peace!), its dayyan*, there the realization of the debt to God took definite form and the approved manner and method of its repayment began to unfold. The City of the Prophet became the Place where true din was enacted under his authority and jurisdiction. We may further see that the City became, for the Community, the epitome of the socio-political order of Islam; and for the individual Believer it became by analogy, the symbol of the Believer’s body and physical being in which the rational soul, in emulation of him who may God bless and grant Peace!, exercises authority and just government.

*dayyan: judge, ruler, governor

~Syed Muhammed al-Attas, Islam and Secularism, p.53, footnote 42

On the meaning of being in a state of debt

 The nature of the debt of creation and existence is so tremendously total that man, the moment he is created and given existence, is already in a state of utter loss, for he possesses really nothing himself, seeking that everything about him and in him and from him is what the Creator owns Who owns everything. And this is the purport of the words in the Holy Quran:

Verily, man is in loss (khusrin). (103:2)

Seeing that he owns absolutely nothing to ‘repay’ his debt except his own consciousness of the fact that he is himself the very substance of the debt, so must he ‘repay’ with himself, so must he ‘return’ himself to Him Who owns him absolutely. He is himself the debt to be returned to the Owner, and ‘returning the debt’ means to give himself up in service or khidmah to his Lord and Master; to abase himself before Him – and so the rightly guided man sincerely and consciously enslaves himself for the sake of God in order to fulfill his Commands and Prohibitions and Ordinances and thus to live out the dictates of His Law. The concept of ‘return’ alluded to above is also evident in the conceptual structure of din, for it can and does mean, as I will elaborate in due course, a ‘return to man’s inherent nature’, the concept ‘nature’ referring to the spiritual and not altogether the physical aspect of man’s being. It must also be pointed out that in the words of the Holy Qu’ran:

‘By the heaven that hath rain’ (86:2) 

the word interpreted as ‘rain’ is raj which means literally ‘return’. It is interpreted as rain because God returns it time and again, and it refers to good return in the sense of benefit, profit and gain. Raj is therefore used synonymously in this sense with rabah, meaning gain, which is the opposite of khusr, loss to which reference has already been made above. Now it is appropriate to mention here that one of the basic meanings of din which has not been explained above is recurrent rain, rain that returns again and again; and hence we perceive that din here, like such a rain, alludes to benefit and gain (rabah). When we say that in order to ‘repay’ his debt man must ‘return’ himself to God, his Owner, his ‘returning himself’ is like the returning rain, a gain onto him. And this is the meaning of the saying:

He who enslaves himself gains (rabiha whose infinitive noun is: rabah)

The expression ‘enslaves himself’ (dana nafsahu) means ‘gives himself up’ (in service) and hence also ‘returns himself’ (to his Owner) as explained. The same meaning is expressed in the words of the Holy Prophet may God bless him and grant him Peace!:

“The intelligent one is he who enslaves himself (dana nafsahu) and works for that which will be after death.

p.56-59, Islam and Secularism.

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