Revisiting “Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islam”

First published in HAKIM here

On the 18th of February 2012, Assembly of Intellectual Muslim (HAKIM) have sent six of their members to a lecture organized by Dar al-Andalus, Suffah Study Circle of Singapore at Orchard Parade Hotel. The lecture entitled “The Meaning and Experience of Happiness in Islām” was delivered none other than Malaysian-based scholar, the honourable Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas.

Right from the start, Prof. Al-Attas had confined his lecture upon two questions raised with regard to the topic of meaning of happiness in Islām as he brilliantly wrote in a monograph and included as the second chapter of his magnum opus – Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam. He mentioned before this topic cannot be elaborated succinctly in 2 hours as it took him one whole semester at ISTAC before to lecture on this in detail and at length. He intended on that day to touch basic matters pertaining to the topic.

The first question touched upon whether is it necessary for the Muslim to understand the Western conception of tragedy before we could understand the meaning of happiness in Islām.

Prof. Al-Attas stressed that though it is not necessary to understand the Western conception of tragedy that flourished in their great works since the Iliad of Homer, Poetics of Aristotle, it is pertinent for the Muslims of today to understand the exact opposite of saʿādah as alluded in Qurʾān – which is shaqawāh rendered into English approximately equivalent of ‘great misfortune’, ‘misery’, ‘straitness of circumstance’, ‘distress’, ‘disquietude’, ‘despair’, ‘adversity’, ‘suffering’.

As explained by Prof. Al-Attas, the concept of shaqawāh is a genera (al-jins) to all other concepts that act as its differentiae (al-fuṣūl, sing. faṣl) such as:

  1. khawf – fear, of the unknown, of utter solitude and incommunicability, of death and what lies beyond, a forebonding of municabililty, of death and what lies beyond, a forebonding of dread, angst.
  2. ḥuzn – grief, sorrow, sadness, roughness of soul
  3. ḍank – narrowness, straitened, misery in the soul and in the intellect rendered incapable of fathoming something causing agitation of doubt in the heart.
  4. ḥasrat – profound grief and regret for something gone and never to be experienced again, such as when referring to the hereafter the exceedingly keen grief and regret of the man who turns away from God and spends his life in self-waste when discovers after death how he has lost his soul and bitterly laments the impossibility of a return to worldly life to make amends.
  5. ḍīq – straintened, of heart and mind, constrained
  6. hamm – disquietude, anxiety, distress of heart and mind due to fear of impending calamity or harm.
  7. ghamm – same as hamm, only that the harm that is feared would come has come, so that it becomes anguish.
  8. ʿusr – hard, difficult and unpleasant of circumstances

It is by understanding what Qurʿān rendered as shaqawāh can we deduce the similarities that exist in Western conception as tragedy as Prof. Al-Attas said, even they themselves – the Greek of Antiquity, formulated such concepts from their interfacing with religion, especially with Judaism where they existed in small number in the city states of Athens.

The opposite of happiness in English that closely resembles shaqawāh as its genera is ‘misery’ – covering the whole dimension of human secular-life. Always in state of flux, changing. As understood in general by the Western people, especially the philosophers, this happiness is all the time like a psychological feeling or emotion that has beginning and ending. These early thinkers thought that this happiness couldn’t be found and attain. It could be only momentary – sometimes it feels sad, sometimes it feels happy. They think that happiness refers to this world and by doing so they found this in constant state of changing. That sort of happiness is the animal-type of happiness – of al-nafs al-ḥāyawāniyyah.

Because of that these philosophers, thinkers thought that they the Western people can never attain the permanent-type of happiness. Contrary to Islām, as projected in Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth, there is another level of happiness in which if we attain to that it become permanent. Happiness or its Qurʾānic equivalent of saʿādah refers to spiritual realm not just in secular realm.

Prof. Al-Attas pointed out to a very important verse in surah Al-ʾAṣr where the word khusr means ‘utter loss’ or in Bahasa Melayu means ‘rugi yang habis-habisan’. This of course will be an exception to those who who have īmān and do righteous deeds, enjoin one another to the Truth and to patience (103:2) as they will not be in state of utter loss.

Muslim in the world today, said Prof. Al-Attas, are using this term ‘tragedy’ and think that it is a play of theatrical sense. The play according to Prof. Al-Attas is imitating something real that is happening within the humankind. Though the idea of tragedy is not unique to Western civilization only, it is they – the Westerners – that through their philosophers and thinkers systematized the concept of tragedy in their writings and gradually being disseminated through their literature, arts until today in the form of pop-culture.

The tragic play is viewed in 3 Acts:

  • Act 1: The hero in the state of ‘utter of happiness’ – in the garden of Eden.
  • Act 2: The hero has an enemy, plotting against him because of lack of insight he made a mistake because being tempted, he felt from that part to the state of conflict, disagreement.
  • Act 3: Discovery of something terrible – in state of confusion on what is the truth, what is right and what is wrong. In case of tragedy the truth is something terrible.

The Westerners, according to Prof. Al-Attas derived the very definition of tragedy from Aristotle. Though we might not totally agree with Aristotle, our concern as Muslim is to probe where did Aristotle get this idea from – to make this definition of tragedy. Prof. Al-Attas proven that – as elucidated earlier – Aristotle got this idea from tanzīl, from what was revealed from Prophet Moses (pbuh) because the Jews were already found living in Athens in those days. The Jews who were the one talking about the One God in which Aristotle – although a pagan himself – writing intellectually about the One God. The definition of tragedy must also be known form the Jews through the Biblical story of the descent of Prophet Adam (pbuh), the father of Mankind.

In the Biblical version, the descent is rather interpreted as a ‘fall’ but in Islam, the understanding of this story as revealed in Qurʾān is totally opposite to the former. Prophet Adam (pbuh) knew the very fact of his descent on Earth is not laden with extreme guilt and hopelessness and rendered it as a punishment (in which from the former version where the Christians took this as an idea of “Original Sin”) but in contrary as stated in Qurʾān Prophet Adam and his consort Siti Hawa admitted their sin and were already forgiven by God after the descent. God even promised them and his progeny guidance that would come from Him and whomever follows His guidance will not go astray nor fall into misery as expressed in Qurʾānic verses of (7: 19-25), (20: 117-124), (7: 72).

The Second Act projected the archetype of ‘The Fall’ in which the tragic hero along with his progeny is succumb and condemn to life full of conflict and misery in this terrestrial realm. Modern psychologist evoked many examples from Greek literature and mythology to describe the condition of man as projected at this stage such as the myth of Sisyphus that took a new rendering in the 20th century in the work of Albert Camus, the French Absurdist.

Prof Al-Attas then continued explaining the method of katharsis – the purging of sin and of guilt from the soul or self. This idea of purging as stated in the Poetics of Aristotle is being done by the play itself. They will watch this kind of play that exhibited in the theatre with the view that by watching it as audiences will render their existential suffering as something ‘external’ to their personal experience – as something that they are not involved with. They will need to watch such play recurrently as the effect is always in temporal manner. According to Prof. Al-Attas, the West is incomparable to any other civilizations in developing such play. They have expanded such play into other forms of expression such as literature, music, and theatre – in which were imbued with tragic stories of philosophical kind.

Today we have confused ourselves by equating happiness with pleasure and amusement whereas in actual fact as explained by Prof. Al-Attas, the very meaning of happiness vis-à-vis misery occurred in the realm of our inner-self. The misery that imprinted upon our inner-self such as ‘doubt’ – ‘satu kesangsian yang tiada dapat mencapai suatu yang menetap, kekal, benar, mu’tamad, dan yang tiada dapat dinafikan lagi’ – is the real source of misery.

When they arrived at the Third Act, the Qurʾān stated that “for them is the terrible homecoming” (13:35). It is a homecoming because all of mankind come from the realm of the spirit and will be returning to that realm again. Islām taught us to overcome this misery by attaining tranquility of the soul – the stable and peaceful calmness of heart (ṭumaʾnīnah) in which this condition also refers to the tranquil soul (al-nafs al-muṭmaʾinnah).

Prof. Al-Attas explained that the verse “there is no fear, nor shall they grieve” (lā khawfun ʿalaihim wa lā hum yaḥzanūn -10:62) – the word khawf in that verse refers to the fear of the unknown, aloneness – incommunicable with anything in which Prof. Al-Attas elucidated further that even by just thinking about it alone will conjure the meaning of fear within us. True believers – Muslim and Muʾmin – can never be in that state of fear as there is always Allah SWT as commanded upon true believers to always remember Him in dhikr. The fear of aloneness will be dispelled through the act of remembrance upon Allah SWT as it is also a form of communication that bring peace and tranquility upon the true believers.

This communication through act of dhikr also connects true believers to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Dhikr as explained by Prof. Al-Attas is not mere remembrance but a consciousness that pre-supposes knowledge (maʾrifah) of the object to be remembered. Some people misconstrue this idea of remembrance when they refer to the verse of the Day of Covenant – mīthāq (7:172) as something that they have never remembered. Qurʾān reminded us with verse such as “thou shall not forget” (falā tansā – 87: 6) in which this should be understood – as clarified by Prof. Al-Attas – with respect to the mīthāq that brought about us into existence by Allah SWT in which we have recognized Him as our Lord. Only here – our existence in terrestrial realm that has exposed us to the forgetfulness and heedlessness that made us forget (on the Covenant).

The question of how to attain happiness will lead us upon the question of the need to possess faith (īmān) in order achieve that ṭumaʾnīnah (13: 28). According to Prof. Al-Attas, the very act of us affirmation in the Day of Covenant itself is an amānāh from God of His Lordship upon us – as His bondsmen. The word amānāh as alluded from this verse related as well to the infinitive noun of amina: amnu which means security freedom from fear. Even in the Bahasa Melayu we derived the concept of peace as aman from the same root as the Arabic amnu. Prof. Al-Attas further explained that by the fact of us having īmān means the fulfillment of amānāh – with respect to the Day of the Covenant – that will lead the true believers about peace. This thing called īmān must not be understood in simplistic way as mere “we believe” but as something that God confides into us about Himself in which this ‘confiding into us’ as a secret thing that comes from Allah SWT. The Day of the Covenant stated that the children of Adam knew about His Lordship.

There are of course people who rejected īmān and be misguided that will lead them to the state of ‘utter loss’ – shaqawāh. In his tadabbur of Qurʾān, Prof. Al-Attas explained that there are many conjugated words related to shaqawāh such as shaqā, yashqā, tashqā, ashqā, al-ashqā, shaqiyy, and shiqwah which denotes to the rejection of guidance from God – not the word ʿusr or iṣr. The word iṣr happen to all – both the believers and non-believers but shaqawāh only refers to the unbelievers – here and in the hereafter. The Prophets also suffered but they know themselves, the meaning and purpose of life and where are they heading so their suffering is not a kind of shaqawāh because they knew their stations (maqāmat).

Prof. Al-Attas stressed that attaining happiness is not an end in itself as the purpose of that is directed to God – love of God that directed to hereafter, related to self both body and soul that is not in the state of doubt. It is not necessary to understand the concept of tragedy as the one that must be understood by Muslim is the concept of shaqawāh. Only that the concept of tragedy that permeates in our contemporary life today through the dissemination of cultural influence from the West can be traced and understood from the Quranic concept of shaqawāh. Prof Al-Attas also criticized our intellectuals that harping upon the ideas of happiness that is not permanent. As if today you are happy and tomorrow you are not happy.

The second question is on the ways to study Prof. Al-Attas writings about happiness. In this he explained that we must know the language properly and not reading it like reading a newspaper. Prof. Al-Attas emphasized that when he wrote something he wrote them in extremely thoughtful and careful manner, in the selection of the words, in putting his thoughts into the paper. It cannot be read in a rush.

Prof. Al-Attas again warned us not to view the concept of akhlāq in simplistic way in which some of our ʿulamāʾ have became confused by reducing akhlāq into ‘social etiquette’. Nowadays, people no longer used the word ‘virtue’ (faḍilah) in English instead they used ‘values’. This according to Prof. Al-Attas happen due to the influence exerted by the economist, social scientist that displaced the concept of virtue from ethics and morality. Values are something we give, ascribed ourselves upon them but virtue is from Allah SWT, not a principle created by human.

Prof. Al-Attas alluded to this shift of semantics happening due to us – the Muslims – are flowing in the same stream that ‘another civilization’ has created, swimming in the fast current of change. This ‘another civilization’ that is dominating in the world today is none other than Western civilization that made freedom as a ‘belief’ in itself. The human rights itself is the result of deification of Man – where man himself is the measure of all things. Even in Bahasa Melayu already can be read people using the phrase ‘tanpa sempadan’ which is conceptually acting against the principle of knowledge that is bound by limits – the limits of truth on every object of knowledge. Without limits we cannot know. Even Allah SWT made us know him in limited way. Without limit everything will be doubtful. The very word ‘definition’ means ‘de – fine’ – to make fine until you cannot make it final.

Before ending his lecture, Prof. Al-Attas gave his humble tafsīr of the verses (2:17-20) where the subject of man in the verse is a metaphor to Modern civilization – always changing, not wanting to listen to the Truth. Entangling themselves with their concept of unlimited freedom and choices bringing only anxiety and doubt, which lead to misery in the sense of shaqawāh.In conjunction of the visit, HAKIM would like to extend utmost gratitude to our hosts – Dar al-Andalus and Suffah Study Circle of Singapore for the warmth treatment that we have received throughout our very short-stint there. We hope more fruitful cooperation can be extended from both sides in near future in supporting the mutual course of strengthening the authentic Islamic knowledge tradition especially among the youth.

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