Prof Syed Naquib Al-Attas was interviewed by Prof. Mehmet Ipsirli on the role that the Prophetic family (Sayyids and Sharifs) played in spreading Islam in South East Asia.


Prof Mehmet: What are the places of Sayyids and Sharifs in the Islamic tradition?

Prof Al – Attas: Nowadays, I feel that these two concepts have become separated in such a way that the Sharif are Hasanese (i.e. following Hasan), and the Sayyid are Husseinese (i.e. following Hussein). I think that this was probably the same in earlier times. Sayyids were called Sharif, and Sharifs were called Sayyid. Of course it is true that the Hasanese gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca and the post of Sharif was established by the Abbasids. I noticed that when I was reading Tabari, he mentioned that Al-Ma’mun appointed one of the sons of Ali as the Sharif of Mecca. The main aim of Al Ma’mun here was to neutralize the followers of Ali in a diplomatic way, as at first they were opposed to the Umayyads and later to the Abbasid’s as well. Thus, he was trying to be friendly with them and to show his favor by appointing such people. Now, Al Ma’mun lived around the year 800; another man al-Dimashqi, who was a geographer, wrote in 1200 that the first missionaries to be sent to Asia were in the time of Uthman’s caliphate; therefore, he said, the missionaries were here because they were running away from Al-Hajjaj, from his persecution, in the time of the Umayyads. They first fled and then they came to that part of Indo-China known at that time as Shampa, and now called Sand in Cambodia. And they then came to Southeastern Asia. Al-Dimashqi referred to them as Alawiyyun (followers of Ali). This was in the time of Uthman. Therefore in the time of Al-Ma’mun and at later dates there were many envoys who were sent to China; it is said that there were at least 32 envoys sent between the time of the Umayyad and Abbasids until around the year 500 (Hijrah).


Prof Mehmet: Was there any policy to send envoys that had been particularly chosen from the Prophet’s descendants?

Prof Al – Attas: Yes, I think that the Chinese emperor respected them more because they were from the Prophet’s descendants. I suppose the reason why the Tang dynasty sent a Chinese ambassador to the court of Medina at the time of Umayyads was because the political center was still in Medina at that time, not in Mecca. There was a Sharif in Mecca, but the seat of caliph was in Medina. The purpose of this ambassador was to report to the emperor about this new power in the world. Who was this new power? It was reported back to China that they were worshipping heaven. They had no idols and they did not eat pork. The source that mentions this ambassador also records that an Arab general accompanied the ambassador back to China. We are not sure who this general it was. Some say that he was Sad b. Abi Waqqas; the Chinese believe that he is buried in the north of the country. This was at the time of the Companions.


Prof Mehmet: Was there a difference between the Sayyids and the Sharifs in this sense?

Prof Al – Attas: The role of the Sharifs, I think, was more administrative. They gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca. That is, they acted like governors and gradually became the rulers. But the Sayyids were the ones who continued to struggle, as the Umayyads were more opposed to the Husseinese rather than the Hasanese.  Many of them were located in southern Arabia. What is now known as Oman at that time was called Hadramout – Hadramout is even mentioned in the Bible, and this was at the time of Moses – and this was a very important area.

Many of the Husseinese were located in this area. They were a seafaring people, who traveled by sea. It is for this reason that Ibn Khurdabbe talks about the sea routes, and he mentions how the Sayyids got to China and how they went on to India and so on. They were people who spread Islam following the hadith (sayings of the Prophet). You know the Dutch scholars and Western scholars talk about merchants and traders. Merchants and traders would not be able to be close with ruling powers. The ruling powers would only have respected people who were descendants of the Prophet. For that reason, the locals intermarried a great deal with the Sayyids, just like in Sumatra.

I think one of the characteristics of the Sayyids is that wherever they went, they were not very nationalistic or racist. I think it was Sayyid Ali who was the first one to marry with a non-Arab, the daughter of the Persian emperor, Yezdecarb. In other words, the Sayyids married non-Arabs, but other Arabs did not act like this. When the Sayyids went to Africa, they gradually became like the Africans with this intermarriage, and the same can be stated for China.

But what is important here is that the role of these people, this mission, was prepared in advance. It did not happen accidentally. In other words, they were selected as pious people who knew Islam, and were brave enough to go on these dangerous routes. They were not only traders and merchants either. The western people knew that traders and merchants would not able to spread the religion. They claim that in Islam everybody is a missionary. Of course, theoretically this is true, but in reality, a missionary must be acquainted with many things, because ultimately he has to speak with the king. They have to be able to be close to the kings. Much of the missionary work consists of this high-level diplomacy. That is what is most important in my opinion.


Prof Mehmet: In your opinion, what is the social responsibility of descending from the family of the Prophet?

Prof Al – Attas: These descendants of the Prophet spread knowledge. Even Western orientalists say that the descendants of the Prophet are the ones who spread the knowledge. They mentioned the Fatimids and the Al-Azhar. These people established universities and places of education, and much more.

Of course, not everybody was doing all of these things. Some of them, the simple people, may have been doing nothing.  It was a question of spreading knowledge and the religion.

And they were careful not to add to the heresy. They were more traditional, and being traditional entailed going back to the ways of the Prophet. This was because, particularly in the southern part of Hadramout, they were isolated. The early Sayyids who came here learned the hadiths, and then they read the works of the ulama. The books that we can see they were using were ones like Kutb al-Kulubal-Maki, al-Qushayri’s Risala and several others, as well as Ghazali, of course.

As for Hadramout, the first man who brought Sufism (tasawwuf) was a man called Fakih al-Mukaddaam, and this must have been sometime in the 15th century.


Prof Mehmet: We see that these journeys started very early from the time of the Prophet. As soon as they learned about Islam they left their country and went to a different part of the world. The Prophet also encouraged the Companions to make these journeys.

Prof Al – Attas: Yes, as we have said already, before the advent of Islam, it has been acknowledged that there were already Arabs in Europe, even at the time of Christ in that area, and they were involved in trade at the time of the Romans.

But I think the role of the Sayyids was to spread Islam. This was the most important. The second factor was that they were trying to teach people the proper forms of Islam from such books. They did not add any thing. Of course, they studied the hadith, so they had more information about what was legitimate. They also read other works. But they did not seek publicity. They also did not care if people acknowledged them or not. They just completed their tasks.


Prof Mehmet: How were the Sayyid roots of the first people arriving into Asia influential in the Islamization of the region?

Prof Al – Attas: It is true that the Sayyids came first. These Sayyids were already in the north of Sumatra. They came first to Sumatra, then to the Malay peninsula and then to Joho. Malaca, of course is Joho, and from there they went to Brunei and from there to Sulu and then finally Java. I think the reason why they arrived last in Java is because Java was very powerful at that time and the kingdom was very large. There were also Arab writers there in ancient times; it is said that the maharaja was not called a maharaja, but rather known by the Japanese title batara. It is said that he had a hundred thousand troops and weapons ships. In other words, this was a very strong kingdom with a tradition of Hinduism or Hindu -Buddhist.

So, the plan was probably to first Islamize the Malay side and when that was done then to go on to Java. It would not have been possible to go to Java first, because they were so powerful. Gradually, of course, by coming to them in the 1470s, the Japanese kingdom fell into the hands of Islam. However, some Arabs navigators writing in the 1430s said they Muslim kingdoms were already present in Java. The problem is that I am not sure if this date is correct.

The simpler meaning of Sayyid is those people who went to the villages. They taught people Islam, and the question of adab (manners). This is still going on. If you go to Indonesia you can find many of such people in the villages. They demonstrate a certain exemplary behavior, and they are very pious people. You can the see Hasanese in Singapore; they are very popular in Singapore, even among the non-Muslims, because they are simpler and more open-handed as well.

Syed Muhammad al Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is one of the few contemporary scholars who is thoroughly rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences and who is equally competent in theology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, and literature. He is considered to be the pioneer in proposing the idea of Islamization of knowledge. Al-Attas’ philosophy and methodology of education have one goal: Islamization of the mind, body and soul and its effects on the personal and collective life on Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature.

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