Transcript from Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas lecture on “The Religion of Islam”, ISTAC, 20th April 1998.
Now I want to talk lastly about what is called the “identity crisis” because this is something very important. I think the Muslim world is experiencing it, although maybe it does not see it yet and does not know its cause but this term “identity crisis” means one has lost one’s roots. One does not know any longer who one is. If we look at all societies we will find three generations: there is the very young, there is the middle age and then there is the old. You’ll find that everywhere. Now as far as Islam is concerned in the past, I mean to say, it is more so than now, although now also there still exists a lot of Muslims that follow the correct tradition but in the past there was no division between the adolescent, the middle age and the old. They all seemed to follow the same values, the values of the adolescent is the same as that of the middle age is the same as that of the old. Now why is that so? It is because of the Prophet, because he is an example to follow and as long as the Muslim follows him then there will be no gaps between these generations, there is no generation gap. But now, why are there generation gaps among the Muslims? This is because they no longer regard the Prophet as he ought to be regarded.
Now let us see what we mean by this generation gap. Again we take the West as an example, because they are the ones who talk about these things and who actually have these things all the time, even in the past; although maybe in some areas in the past there was no generation gap because they believed in certain permanent values and principles. When they attacked religion, secularization as a philosophical programme worked among them and this generation gap became more pronounced. Now every generation is looking for its identity. The young people know they are not following the values of their fathers (the middle age) because their fathers when they were young also were not following what their fathers had been saying. This is because when it comes to what is the truth, what is good, what is right, they tell the young: “Well, we don’t really know ourselves because we are seeking that too, and therefore you have to look it for yourselves, you must have freedom and that is why you have to believe in freedom to find out who you are, your identity. Now as regards the old, they have lost their identity, they cannot be an example. The reason is because this whole role of identity has to do with citizenship. If you say that your purpose is to be a good citizen, and we said government change, concepts change, therefore they don’t have an example to follow. They cannot have, and they cannot follow any of their leaders of the past as an example. You cannot make Socrates as an example; Aristotle, Plato also cannot be examples, for all times. Buddha also cannot be examples. Jesus of course cannot be examples, because he is half-God or God Himself and furthermore he does not marry so if you really want to follow his example as man then that is the end of Christianity. So none of them has a man like the Prophet in Islam as an example whom they can follow.
Now the Prophet is not just an example for little boys, girls, middle age, old men, men and women-he is an example for all. Which also means that we are looking at him not just physically as a man because he is also an example for women but also at the spiritual, the values and other things. Now there is no such human being in other civilizations because of that there must be this generation gap in these civilizations because they all want to find identity. If the identity is based on citizenship then the identity is based on usefulness to the state so the moment they are retired like the middle age group, they have lost their identity. As for the old they don’t like to talk so much about it because that reminds them of death. So in such a society, the old lose everything, they have lost their worthiness as a citizen, they are no longer working, and have become a kind of nuisance. They also remind the middle age of what they will be like later. The young also don’t want to be reminded of this.
This continual seeking of identity has now become worse because not only is there a generation gap, there is also a gap between a man and a woman because each one is also seeking their own identity. Women are seeking identity as women. So this is a chaotic state really. Now if the Muslims do not regard the Prophet in the correct way, they will be having this kind of problem too. Therefore the Prophet is the one who is actually keeping the structure of Muslim society as an ummah. Unfortunately the modernists have been despiritualizing the Prophet by making him an ordinary man like you and me. Of course he is a human being, nobody has worshipped the Prophet. That is why they keep on talking about the verse in the Qur’an carefully and look at all such verses that occur in the Qurāan: Innama ana basharun mithlukum and yet for example they don’t realize that if they study the Qurāan, other carefully and look at all such verses that occur in the Qurāan, other Prophets were also told to say the same thing. It is always directed to unbelievers, and the Prophet did that too, which means that you did not accept Islam, and the earlier Prophets did that too, which means that you can’t apply that verse to believers and yet they (the modernists) are applying that to us. So it is an incorrect application and the verse was revealed because the unbelievers were asking all kinds of irrational things from the Prophet. They asked why was God sending him as the Prophet, why not somebody else among them who was better than him, who was leader of the tribe? Or why not God Himself come? There is a verse in the Qurāan which Ibn Sina quoted: “Why does not He come in the canopy of clouds?”So because of that therefore what is meant there is that if an angel comes you will not understand the language of the angels, even angels when they come must appear in the form of man. Therefore a Prophet must be among human beings, therefore it is ana basharun. That is one point.
The second point is that this word bashar simply means a biological man, meaning flesh and blood like you. It is not the same as insan, it did not say ana insan mithlukum, it says ana basharun mithlukum but then the Prophet said: “I received the Revelation.” There is a very big difference here, that means what we are calling the perfect man is because he is man, there has been no report in Muslim history of people worshipping the Prophet although there have been reports of people worshipping ĂAli but not the Prophet because the kalimah shahadah already makes it impossible for the Prophet to be worshipped. So why is it that the modernists are throwing the verse at us? We are not unbelievers. It is they who don’t realize this. Why must you make the Prophet the same as everybody? They said it is because the Prophet himself said so. Yes, but the Prophet also said: “I received the Revelation.” That means he is not just like you and me, because in receiving the revelations he must have had some psychological or spiritual changes occurring in him as he is not bashar, he is also insan. And what’s wrong with that? Because the idea is that you don’t worship the Prophet, like the Christians with Jesus, but the Muslims have never done that in the first place. And therefore this reason is no good. One of the scholars whom I met in Ohio (in 1980) was saying: “Yes, before I used to think of him as a super man, now I think of him as just an ordinary man like you and me.” So you are just like the jahiliah to whom the Prophet was addressing all these things.
Husein Haykal, the author of The Life of Muhammad (the title of the English translation from the original Arabic-Hayat Muhammad), makes the Prophet as if he is just an ordinary man and he makes the experience of wahy very much the same as what Ibn Arabi was talking about fana and the sufis. How can you say that? The sufis themselves never said this, on the other hand they say their experience is nothing compared to the Prophet, and yet Haykal puts the Prophet down to the level of the sufis, the wahdatul wujud. Even the original Arabic title of the book, Hayat Muhammad, is something that nobody in the past has given to such a biography. They would say Sirat ul-Nabi, not Hayat, nobody in the past has written that. Sirat, because they know that it is a biography while hayat is a biological life. You can’t talk about the Prophet’s biological life as bashar, as it were, because there are things that are not really physical, for example how are you going to explain the angels? How are you going to explain the angel giving him the Revelation? This is not something happened to the hayat of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great or Gamal Abdul Nasser, and yet he equated the Prophet in that way.
To my mind, this is how the Muslims gradually get the generation gap. When the ahl hadith began to quibble a little bit about the ahadith, gradually and finally people now say they had better go back to Qurāan, not the Hadith. So this role of the Prophet as the consolidator and unifier of the Muslim ummah is gradually destroyed. As result he is no longer the example, and therefore you begin to seek identity. Even our leaders very seldom praise the Prophet. They will of course say Allahu Taala in their speeches but very seldom I hear them saying Prophet Muhammad. I think this is one of the causes regarding the role of the Prophet in Muslim society so far as preventing the generation gap is concerned because if he is really taken as an example of what he says then whatever is taught to the young is also the same with the middle age, the same with the old age, the same with men, and the same with women. Then there will be generation gap. But it is not the case now. The young people argue and say: “Well, that’s what you think.” We have seen that following what is in the West as portrayed on television. They say, I have my own life, it’s my own life. Some women are even saying: “Yes, it’s my body and I just can’t allow it to anyone and therefore I have the right to have children or not.” Already they are making cases in Australia and other countries of the West.