|Biographical detail : ||A Contemporary Malaysian Philosopher/Theologian
Al-Attas is the only scholar in Malaysia who has occupied distinguished Chairs of different academic disciplines. In his person he resembles the universal character of scholars of the past in the mastery of many branches of learning: religion, metaphysics, theology, philosophy, education, philology, letters, art and architecture, and military sciences.
Al-Attas engaged in polemics on the subjects of Islamic history, philology, and Malay literary history, which have resulted in the opening of new avenues for known as the Sha’ir, and have established that Hamzah Fansuri was the originator of the Malay Sha’ir. He has also set forth his ideas on the categorization of Malay literature and periodization of its literary history. He has contributed importantly to the history and origin of the modern Malay language.
His commentaries on the ideas of Fansuri and al-Raniri are the first definitive ones on early Malay Sufis based on 16th and 17th century manuscripts. In fact he discovered and published his meticulous research on the oldest extant Malay manuscript, wherein among other important matters, he also solved the riddle of the correct arrangement of the Malay-Islamic cyclical calendar. He was also responsible for the formulation and conceptualisation of the role of the Malay language in nation building during debates with political leaders in 1968. This formulation and conceptualisation was one of the important factors that led to the consolidation of Malay as the national language of Malaysia. As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malaya, he personally initiated its implementation and mobilized the Faculty and the student organizations toward the systematic implementation of Malay as an intellectual and academic language. In fact, al-Attas's writings in Malay on Islamic subjects are unique in their poetic prose, and serve as literary models for the Islamic-oriented scholars and writers of Malaysia. This marks the first time that modern Malay is used intellectually and philosophically, thereby creating a new style of language.
In addition, and even more importantly, his discourses on Islam and its relationship to cultural and historical identity attracted vast audiences --- particularly the university students who later on, and under his intellectual guidance, formed the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), Muslim Writers’ Association of Malaysia (GAPIM) and the Academy of Islamic Science (ASASI). Although no proper study has been conducted on the intellectual origins and basis of Islamic revivalism in Malaysia in the 1970s, many early participants would agree that al-Attas played the most central and substantive role.
He is also an able calligrapher, and his work was exhibited at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam in 1954. He has also published three Basmalah renditions on a living subject (kingfisher, 1970; chanticleer, 1972; fish 1980) in some of his books. He also planned and designed the building of ISTAC (1991), the unique scroll of the al-Ghazali Chair (1993), the auditorium and the mosque of ISTAC (1994), as well as their landscaping and interior decor, imbuing them with a unique Islamic, traditional, and cosmopolitan character.
Al-Attas has won international recognition by orient lists and scholars of Islamic and Malay civilisations. He has chaired the panel on Islam in Southeast Asia at the 29th Congress International des Orientalistes in Paris in 1973. In 1975, he was conferred Fellow of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy for outstanding contribution in the field of comparative philosophy. He was a Principal Consultant to the World of Islam Festival held in London in 1976, and was speaker and delegate at the International Islamic Conference held concurrently at the same place. He was also a speaker and an active participant at the First World Conference on Islamic Education held at Mecca in 1977, where he chaired the Committee on Aims and Definitions of Islamic Education. From 1976-77, he was a Visiting Professor of Islamic at Temple University Philadelphia, USA. In 1978. He chaired the UNESCO meeting of experts on Islamic history held at Aleppo, Syria, and in the following year the President of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, conferred upon him the Iqbal Centenary Commemorative Medal.
Al-Attas has attended and chaired important sessions at numerous international congresses organized by UNESCO and other academic bodies. He occupies a position of intellectual eminence in his country as the first holder of the Chair of Malay Language and Literature at the National University of Malaysia (1970-84), and as the first holder of the Tun Abdul Razak Chair of Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University, U.S.A. (1980-82) and as the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), Malaysia (since 1987). He has delivered more than 400 lectures throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and the Far East and the Muslim world. And in 1993, in recognition of his many important and far reaching contributions to contemporary Islamic thought, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, as the Chairman of ISTAC and the President of the International Islamic University Malaysia has appointed al-Attas as the first holder of the Abu Hamid al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Thought at ISTAC. King Hussein of Jordan made him a Member of the Royal Academy of Jordan in 1994, and in June 1995 the University of Khartoum conferred upon him the Degree of Honorary Doctorate of Arts (D. Litt.).
He authored Rangkaian Ruba’iyyat a literary work that was among the first ever published in 1959 and the classic work, Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised Among the Malays, in 1963. His two-volume doctoral thesis on The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, which is the most important and comprehensive work to date on one of the greatest and perhaps the most controversial Sufi scholars in the Malay world earned him the PhD in the UK in 1965.
Dr. al-Attas was appointed, in 1965, Head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. From 1968 to 1970, he became Dean of the Faculty of Arts at that University where he reformed the academic structure of the Faculty requiring each department to plan and organise its academic activities in consultation with each other, rather than independently, as had been the practice hitherto.
Al-Attas developed an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that uniquely characterized his Malay writings and language. In 1970, al-Attas was also one of the senior founders of the National University of Malaysia, which sought to replace the English language with the Malay language as the medium of instruction at the tertiary level of education. In 1973 he founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM) at the new University.
Syed Muhammad Naquib bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Muhsin al-Attas was born in 1931 in Bogor, Java. His adolescent experiences were spent in Java during the height of the Indonesian struggle for Independence in 1945.
Prof. al-Attas is both a great and original thinker who brings new meanings and interpretations to old ideas, thereby providing both continuity and originality to important intellectual and cultural problems of his times and through it, of mankind.