ISLAM: CONCEPT OF RELIGION AND THE FOUNDATION OF ETHICS AND MORALITY
by Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas
Professor Syed Al-Attas penned his lecture on ‘Islam: The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality’ in the month of Ramadan of 1975, and it was part of his seminal ideas pertaining to the problem of Muslim education and allied topics of an intellectual and revolutionary nature, such as the idea of Islamization of contemporary knowledge. This lecture was delivered to the Islamic Conference at the Royal Commonwealth Society in London in 1976. It was later published as a monograph in the same year by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. In 1978, it appeared with other lectures in a book of one volume entitled, The Challenge of Islam and published by the Islamic Council of Europe, London.
In this article, Al-Attas examines the concept of din . The Arabic term DYN is analysed in some detail, exploring its many elaborations and subtleties in an attempt to convey the all embracing and integrating nature of this concept, central to the teaching of Islam. Al-Attas examines the nature of man’s Covenant with God, and related concepts such as justice, virtue and brotherhood. He stresses the importance of knowledge as the basis for all right practice of religion, ethics and morality. He defines the role and character of the individual and society, of the Self or soul and its journey to God.
Man is an instinctive worshipper whether or not he chooses or is aware of it. It is only in the nature of the worshipped deity or the way he is worshipped that one man differs from another. To worship or more accurately submit to God does not entail a loss of freedom for him, since freedom in fact means to act as his true nature demands. His worship of God is either true or deviant.
Since time immemorial, the basic issue in man’s life has been, and will be till the Day of Judgement, the question of worship. Who is to be worshipped and how is He to be worshipped? This is further aggravated by his identity crisis. The innate questions that consciously or unconsciously press on man in his journey through this world such as, What exactly is man? What is his role on the earth? From where have we come?, demand answers.
Al-Attas claims that other religions fail to show the ‘clear bond between man and God’. He further says that ‘no revealed Book of the People of the Book made any reference to any fundamental and original Covenant between man and God. Only in the Quran is there found clear reference to this most important basis of religion’. If there is such reference as stated by Al-Attas, then such a bond will revealed truths about man and his journey in this world.
I will now seriously attempt to analyse some of his pertinent points in this article and look at his arguments to support the above claims. I will also try to elucidate this Covenant in more detail to bring about a better understanding of why this Covenant forms the basic ground in his interpretation of the concept of Islamic religion.
Prof Al-Attas establishes the bond between man and God by drawing from the Quran the following verse. “When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam from their loins – their descendents, and made them testify concerning themselves saying : “ Am I not your Lord?” – they said: “ Yea! We do testify!” .He points out that when God said,” Am I not your Lord?” and man’s true self (his soul) , testifying for itself, answered :“Yea! in acknowledgement of the truth of God’s Lordship, it has sealed a covenant with God.
Before we see the implications of his interpretation of this verse, I will attempt to explain its background to bring a better picture and understanding.
It was said that when Adam was sent down to Earth after being expelled from the heavens, he prostrated to God, crying in repentance for his sin, for 200 years, begging for forgiveness from God. When God forgave him, he wondered for another 40 years, walking from Sri Lanka finally reaching the barren dessert of Arafah in Saudi Arabia. There it was said that God made all of Adam’s progeny to assemble and all of them individually and collectively testified to acknowledge Him as his Lord. Man has basically agreed to acknowledge God as Absolute King, Possessor, Owner, Ruler, Governer, Master, Creator, Cherisher and Sustainer. In short, all of mankind has made a contract to be ‘owned, ruled, governed, enslaved, created, cherished and sustained’. Thus it was said that the ritual during Haj where pilgrims congregate in Arafah symbolises this event, besides giving man a picture of all mankind coming together on Judgement Day. It was also a time where man is to recall and reaffirm his contract. Arafah also means ‘getting to know’, signifying man getting to know his real identity.
This Covenant or contract implies that man is first spirit or soul long before he appears as man. The Covenant establishes man’s relationship with God, his real position in this world, his true identity. He has been assigned to become God’s vicegerant , to look after the universe and govern it in a manner already prescribed by Him. At the same time, man is a servant of God  created to worship Him, and gives total obedience to Him alone.
Al-Attas concludes that the Quranic concept of man’s Covenant with God is the ‘fundamental concept of din and of faith and belief in Islam.’and is the ‘dominant and central theme in all other Islamic concepts’. He reiterates the fact that individuals in Islam, whether male or female, establishes their identity through recognition and confirmation of the Covenant, and recognize their ultimate destiny through affirmation and realization of that Covenant by means of sincere submission to God’s Will and obedience to His Law.
Before we sail further to look at how this Covenant determines the nature of other Islamic concepts, let us examine the main point. In my point of view, Al-Attas seems to imply that man now has not been able to recall the contract except those who are ‘rightly guided’. Man has basically forgotten the Covenant. He is alienated, confused and torn asunder. He neglects his soul in order to attain earthly pleasures for the body. The body thrives and the soul is sick.
As a result disturbance occurs in the soul as well as in the actualities of life, as is testified by events that lead to disorder and confusion. The scientist-physician Alexis Karel indicates that our serious ignorance of the nature of man as well as our neglect of its spiritual aspect, and our setting up of economic, social and political systems based on ignorance, lie at the root of our deterioration as people, even though this coincides with our scientific and cultural progress.
Man must find a cure for the soul. And obviously the cure is to pay attention to it, gives it what it needs which is, to restore his identity. His identity as revealed in the Covenant. Man must seek a religion that emphasizes on the soul, at the same time not surpressing the body and creates harmony between the two. Only Islam, according to Muhammad Qutb, in his article What Islam can give to Humanity today, ‘puts into effect a simple and realistic though far-reaching measure, namely an invitation to the soul and body to take part in the whole of life’.
Apparently the soul and body are both of genuine authenticity in the human make-up.
“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels:”I am about to create man from clay. When I have fashioned him ( in due proportion) and breathed into him My Spirit, fall you down in obeissance into him.” Although they were brought together inseparably at the birth of man, Al-Attas from his idea of the Covenant, clearly indicates that the soul also existed before the physical manifestation of man.
There are two schools of thought pertaining to the existence of the soul. Its time of creation becomes a source of conflict. The first argues that the soul was created before the instruction to the angels to prostrate to Adam, the first man in human form. They refer to the Quran which says,
“And surely, We created you and then gave you shape (the nobel shape of a human being), then We told the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”, and they prostrated to Adam, and they prostrated, except Iblis, he refused to be of those who prostrate.” 
Among the first to make such an argument were Muhammad Bin Nashr Al-Marwazy and Abu Muhammad Bin Hazm. Ibn Hazm related that this concept was based on ijma. This argument was supported by a Hadith narrated by Imam Malik in Al-Muwattha. However the famous Ibnu Qayyim Al-Jauziyah strongly refuted the argument, providing his own arguments from the Quran, Hadith and atsar. He addresses all aspects of the soul in his book, Ar-Ruh li Ibnil Qayyim and he is a towering figure in Islam and an intellectual. He was a student to the argumentative Ibn Taimiyyah. He clearly believed that the verse, “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels:”I am about to create man from clay. When I have fashioned him ( in due proportion) and breathed into him My Spirit, fall you down in obeissance into him.”, clearly indicates the sequence that the soul came later after the body.
I do not intend to spark a debate on the issue of the Covenant but merely stating the existing conflict in the interpretation of the verses. It is beyond the scope of this article to present Ibn Qayyim’s arguments but it is good source of knowledge for those who wants a more comprehensive understanding on the subject.
Whether man did make a contract with God or not, man is still simply man. He is neither god nor animal – the two extremes argued by Huxley and Darwin respectively. His role is to be vicegerent on earth; to inhabit it in accordance with the will of Allah. Allah has bestowed on man the talents and abilities necessary for this role. Among them is the ability to learn, the ability to know and distinguish between the path of righteousness and the path of evil, and the ability to choose and pursue one of them. It is because of this ability that man’s actions acquire moral value. All his actions have moral values.
Al-Attas takes the view that Islam holds that justice is not merely correct relations between two parties, but is ‘everything in its right and proper place’. Justice is an individual affair, meaning that when man does injustice, he has “wronged his own soul…he has misused it…he has caused it to deviate from what is right… entails a violation of his Covenant with God.” 
Thus Prof Al-Attas stresses the importance of knowledge as the basis for all right practice of religion, ethics and morality. He outlines the purpose of seeking knowledge in his article, and stresses that knowledge pertaining to God as the most important for only such knowledge will lead man to know his Creator, his purpose of existence and so on. He presents his concept of knowledge in very much the same manner as Imam Al-Ghazali. He points out that the purpose of seeking knowledge in Islam is to inculcate goodness in man. “Good” not in general sense, but good from the Quranic perspective, ie good to his self, not to be unjust against his inclination to obedience. Goodness in the real sense, that is knowing who he is, his ultimate destiny, his purpose of existence. The knowledge that will help him to recall his contract with God.
Al-Attas centres around the soul and the nature of man, common among sufis and philosophers, and the souls journey to God. All Muslim philosophers concerned themselves with the subject of the soul. The most detailed and most important works on this subject are those of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. Muslim philosophers recognized that the first issue, that confronts the human mind with regard to the soul is its existence. The discussion of the human soul, its existence, nature, ultimate objective and eternity, occupies a highly important position in Islamic philosophy and forms its main focus.
It is not far to see that Prof. Al-Attas is writing this article in his philosophical sufi perspective. His style shows a slight resemblance to Muhammad Iqbal, another philosopher, Sufi, intellectual, poet and Islamic thinker, and both points to metaphysics in their approach.. Both seek to awaken the Islamic spirit and spent their lives preaching Islam through the pen.
For the most part Muslim philosophers agreed, as did their Greek predecessors, that the soul consists of non-rational and rational parts. While Al-Attas uses the terms ‘rational’ and ‘animal’ souls, Iqbal uses different terms such as ‘appreciative and efficient selves’.To see this similarity, students are encouraged to read translations of Iqbal’s works especially Secrets of the Self and Mysteries of the Selflessness. . But unlike Iqbal who wrote poems to express his ideas, Al-Attas works are of easier reading and more related to contemporary issues. Al-Attas differ from Iqbal in their views on Western civilisation. While Al-Attas heavily criticises the West, Iqbal accomodates Western scientific spirit.
Al-Attas philosophic terms such as ‘being and becoming’, ‘permanence’ and ‘change’ to present the Islamic Vision of Reality are concepts that can be traced back to Greek philosophy. The concept of the Covenant and his notion of the soul pre-exists the body, and his use of a number of sufi terms such as insan al-kamil can be traced to Islamic Philosophers and Sufis such as Ibn Kindi, Ibn Sina and even Ibn Al Arabi.
To conclude this write-up, I believe that Al-Attas makes a convincing attempt in protraying the true concept of religion in Islam. Religion is faith and laws; a faith governing spiritual relations with God, and laws administering the affairs of life in the name of God. The concept of the Covenant, which according to Prof Al-Attas to be only inherent in Islam, explains the relations of all things to God, establishes the identity that man is constantly searching and the knowledge of his ultimate destiny. It shows Islam as the original religion and also suggest that all human beings are born Muslims. To this covenant all people are held accountable. All humans are responsible to live up to the covenant struck with their first father, Adam. On the day of judgment there will be no excuse. Finally, the authority of the Quran in the form of the Shariah providing the laws and the perfect model of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) should be the constant source of guidance to all Muslims.
 Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam: The Concept of religion and the Foundations of Ethics and Morality (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992).
 A lecturer at the Department of General Studies, Kulliyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM).
 Din means religion in English. The term din used by AL-Attas is based on Ibn Manzur’s Lisan Al Arabi.
 refers to fitrah, man’s natural tendency to worship God. This meaning is inherent in the term din.
 Din also means to ‘submit’.
 p.49, Secular-Secularization-Secularism. This article is also found in the book Islam and Secularism by Prof Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas.
 Al-Araf (7):173
 Ibid. p.73
 Shad (38):26, Yunus (10):14, Yunus (10):73, Al-An’am(6):165
 Az-Zariyat (51):56
 rightly guided man refers to the man, having consciously realized that he is himself the subject of his own debt to His Creator and Sustainer and Cherisher, enslaves himself to his self and hence ‘returns’ himself to his true Lord.
 Muhammad Qutb, in his article ‘ What Islam can give to Humanity today’.
 Shad (38):71-72
 Al-Araf (7) :11
 Ibid p.78
 Secrets of the Self and Mysteries of the Selflessness written by Muhammad Iqbal.I