One of the renowned activists who advocated for reform in Southeast Asia, Syed Sheikh Alhadi (1867-1934), wrote in his book, Ugama Islam & Akal (The Religion of Islam and Intellect):

‘Islam is a religion that calls upon mankind to acknowledge the existence of Allah SWT that has created this universe, and also His Singularity. The advocation towards this acknowledgement is placed solely upon mankind’s intellect. From this call, the minds of people are awakened after being in slumber for so long. The minds are prepared to carry out their responsibilities after a period of negligence. The minds of each person are also shown the path of using true analogy; to observe the happenings of this vast universe through reflecting upon the essence of what Allah SWT has decreed, which are arranged immaculately in an order that connects every effect to its causes.’ [1]

The understanding from these words is that Islam is a religion which advocates mankind to utilise their intellect to ‘carry out their responsibilities’ so that they may acquire goodness for themselves in this world and the hereafter. However, our journey here is not one where we are alone, because upon this path are many others who are in need of Allah’s guidance, and therefore, as Muslims, we must seek to become the agents of His mercy and grace. This is in accordance with one of the foundational principles of our religion, that is ‘Rahmatan lil-‘alamin’ — ‘To be of mercy to the universe.’ Other than our time and energy, our intellect is also a form of capital that should be utilised for the goodness of other people. The usage of our intellect should be following the principle of Islam that advocates for believers to be of benefit to others — the Prophet PBUH said, ‘The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to people’ [2]— which I believe is best manifested through both the critical and creative elements that our intellect possesses, so others would be able to see the beauty of Islam. 

My emphasis on the intellect should not be understood as placing it above revelation, as the intellect is undoubtedly limited in is ability to perceive certain matters that require our other faculties, such as the soul that can penetrate what the intellect is unable to. It is with both soul and intellect that a person can comprehend and convey the fruits of revelation. Rather, the point I would like to convey in this article is aligned with the advocation of what the renowned Indonesia religious scholar, Hamka, termed as ‘guided reasoning.’ What he meant by this can be summarised as follows; it is a form of reasoning guided by good character, borne out of necessity of changing contexts, and importantly revelation conveyed to us by the prophets of Allah. [3]  Therefore, the intellect is a tool that can bring vast benefit to others regarding the manifestation of religious values and principles. After all, being blessed with an intellect is a sign of ‘honour’ that Allah has bestowed upon us. As He decrees in the Quran:

‘Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment.’ (Surah Al-Isra’, verse 70)

Regarding the interpretation of this verse, Hamka highlighted that both the elements of criticality and creativity are what distinguishes and glorifies mankind:

‘So much glory was given to the Son of Adam. The main thing is that he was given reason and mind, the creativity to think about his past, present and future times; which inspired him.’ [4]

The reason why this matter is worth highlighting is because upon reflection of today’s context, although these two elements have long existed in our Islamic tradition, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on them today as it is through criticality and creativity that our intellect will achieve its true potential, and subsequently the essence of Islam can truly be manifested and benefit by others. Without these two elements, the form of Islam — which is equally important to its substance — might be unsuitable with the needs and trends of current context. 

These two elements are evident in the legacies of Muslim scholars and artisans, be it in the religious field or otherwise. The four scholars of Jurisprudence expressed criticality in understanding the need to develop areas of Islamic Law, and also creativity in interacting with Islamic sources through their methodologiesThe scholars of Theology, be it from the Mu’tazilah, the Maturidiyyah, the Asya’irah, utilised their criticality and creativity to engage with the understanding of one another and develop their distinctive creeds. The scholar Ibn Khaldun utilised criticality and creativity in his perspective upon history, which resulted in the founding of ‘Ilm al-Umran’ — Sociology. The works of the poet Rumi, such as in the Masnavi and Diwan, contain such elements as well. Thus, such elements are needed whether it is the sciences or arts.

In addition to intellectual outputs, without these two values, the manifestation of Islamic values that are universal in nature, such as liberty, mercy, justice, beauty and diversity, will not be seen by those who need them, be it Muslims or otherwise. The Golden Age of Islam was a period when these values were synonymous with the faith, which undoubtedly contributed greatly to the religious, philosophical and scientific achievements of the period. [5] Therefore, these two elements can be likened to tools that would allow us to extract such principles.

While the factors that have caused the dearth of criticality and creativity are several, I hope that by highlighting the legacy of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH who manifested these two values, we will gain inspiration and hence strive to follow his footsteps principally. The stories of our Prophets in the Quran consist of universal parables and values that are not restricted by place and time. However, for the wisdom in them to be extracted and also expressed through a medium relevant for the benefit of our society today, it is important for us to contextualise these values that may be found in the stories and strive to manifest them in a way that is relevant and impactful in our context today. Otherwise, without an appropriate medium, they would be seen as irrelevant and against what others would define as ‘universal values’ which can be considered as a bridge that connects the inherent nature of mankind (Fitrah) to the faith. It would be apt for us to consider if our enactment of religious principles are aligned with this nature. 

In the Quranic anecdote of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH, we learn the importance of criticality and creativity in manifesting religious values and principles. Scholars believe that the incident of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH mentioned in Surah Al-An’am (75-79) occurred when he was a child. Here, we see that he utilised the method of critical reflection upon the belief system of his people, who worshipped the star, moon, sun and air, to reach the highest station of truth and certainty regarding His Creator. [6] When night fell and he saw a star, he sought critical reflection and asked himself if this creation was worthy of worship, but he said that he did not like a Lord that has to set and therefore rejected this notion. When the moon arrived, which was much more radiant than a solitary star in the sky, again he asked if this creation was deserving of worship. But then it eventually made its way for the coming of day, and he said that he did not like a Lord that has to set. When day came and brought the sun along, whose rays were much brighter than the moonlight, he asked himself if this meant that it deserved to be worshipped. Once he saw that even the sun was subjected to the laws of nature, having to take its leave in account of the night, he declared that he was free from what his people worshipped, and he would turn towards the One who created the heavens and earth, without associating the Creator with any creation. 

There are much lessons that scholars have derived from this anecdote of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH, such as creedal, spiritual and philosophical interpretations. Though what I wish to emphasise here is that this anecdote highlights the essence of criticality, which is to utilise and interact with our surroundings through our intellect, rationality and objectivity, with the purpose of acquiring the truth i.e. knowledge, which then should be manifested through our thoughts and actions. To apply this principle in our context, it would be apt for us to reflect upon how Prophet Ibrahim PBUH exercised criticality with his inner-self to derive the truth and be among those who are of ‘certainty’, which we can understand that criticality is a tool that could and should be harnessed to elevate ourselves to a station of goodness. As Hamka wrote about this anecdote:

‘The endeavour of his intellect, which had caused him to reflect and think, brought Ibrahim to a certainty that was assured, as what had been mentioned in verse 75 (And thus did We show Abraham the realm of the heavens and the earth that he would be among the certain (in faith). He had reached certainty because his physical eyes were only tools for his inner-vision.’ [7]

In Islamic Tradition, criticality is equated to Ijtihad, which literally means ‘to exert effort.’ Conventionally, the term is used to denote a process in Islamic Law that our scholars utilise to derive judgements regarding practical matters based on Islamic sources and principles. [8] However, it is not only through the area of Islamic Law that a believer is required to exercise their criticality, as it is a value that should also be direct towards all aspects of our lives, especially when the need arises regarding the forms and expressions of our faith. The importance of Ijtihad in this context can be surmised in the words of Mukti Ali:

‘Today, if Islam is to function in this new world that is undergoing radical change, it must be rebuilt to be able to provide people with initiatives and dynamic views in facing a life full of opportunities and challenges, while also providing ideals and creative aspirations for human life.’ [9]

To advocate the values of our faith, it is important that we be critical — though based upon religious values and principles — in our religious advocation and manifestation. For example, to reflect upon whether certain orientations, judgements and interpretations, that were moulded and developed during a period that is much different than ours, are suitable in our context. Criticality manifests through different ways in accordance with context. To my understanding, criticality is synonymous with contextualising, as a person cannot be one without the other. The manifestation of our religious values and principles should be exercised critically and contextually, so that it would fall in accordance with universal humanistic principles such as liberty, justice and equality, while also adopting a form that would resonate with the wider society. 

Often we do not realise that these values represent the exterior architecture of Islam that others would be able to appreciate. Though for it to be so, like how each culture would have its definition of an accomplished and elegant architecture, it is imperative for it to take upon a shape that resonates with their custom and context. It is through the exterior beauty that others would be enticed to enter this abode of Islam, where they would then see the interior architecture of our faith, such as the Quran and Hadiths, and also the creedal and ritual aspects. Only when one is familiar with an architecture will they willingly enter. 

We need only to look towards the example of our beloved Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his companions and the early generations of Muslims regarding criticality and contextualising. With criticality, their manifestation of Islam resonated with the Fitrah of others during their time, which is both inherent and shaped by cultural and social values. To suggest otherwise would be denying the nature of reality. As Ibn Khaldun said,

“Man is a child of the customs and the things he has become used to. He is not the product of his natural disposition and temperament. The conditions to which he has become accustomed, until they have become for him a quality of character and matters of habit and custom, have replaced his natural disposition. If one studies this in human beings, one will find much of it, and it will be found to be a correct observation.” [10]

For example, the Prophet PBUH allowed a Companion to utilise Ijtihad when a situation would arise in his context and he would be unable to find an explicit solution regarding it in the Quran and Sunnah. The Islamic values and principles were implemented by them with criticality and contextuality, because without this element, their practice of Islam would have been borne out of irrationality, which could not be further from truth. Without advocating and manifesting the universal values Islam possess, it would have never been accepted by people as rapidly as it did during the Prophet’s time.

The Prophet himself was a manifestation of mercy and grace. The exterior beauty of our Prophet PBUH, such as his character which manifested grace, compassion and trustworthiness, was well-established before his prophethood. The life of our Prophet PBUH before prophethood also bears testament of values that are universal and resonate with the inherent nature of mankind. An example would be the value of justice, which the Prophet PBUH exemplified in his partake of Hilf Al-Fudhul. The implementation of justice can only be executed with criticality as it is a value that makes a distinction between what is moral and immoral. The companions followed this Prophetic Way. An example would be the Uhda Al-Umariyyah (Umar’s Assurance), which was an assurance by the second Caliph, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, to the Christians in Jerusalem. In the assurance, he promised to honour the safety of Christians in Jerusalem and the liberty to practice their faith.

In today’s context, rather than directing our criticality solely inwards, such as towards the discourse of Islamic Laws and Creed that have been revolving around similar issues for generations, it would be of much benefit if we balance our criticality in regard to the manifestation and expression of universal values that would benefit those who have not yet resided in the House of Islam. After all, shouldn’t the priority be to benefit them? However, as how history has indicated, to do so, it is not enough to be only critical, but also creative.

The principle of creativity is also displayed in another anecdote of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH in Surah Al-Anbiya’ (verses 58-68). In this story, we are told that he had reduced the statues of his people to fragments, and in certain narrations, he then hanged an axe around the neck of the biggest statue in the temple. When questioned if he had been the perpetrator, he replied that it was the largest statue that had done this, and so they should ask it accordingly. As a result of his creative method directed towards their intellect, the leaders of his people fell into conflict and accused one another of wrongdoing, because they knew the truth in Prophet Ibrahim’s PBUH actions. Alas, as they were people of power and high positions, it would be inexcusable for them to admit the error of their ways! Therefore, they reversed the natural and objective conclusion that their minds had made and turned against the prophet.

Here, it is important for me to emphasise that generations of scholars have stressed that the understanding of Quranic verses should not be taken literally. Rather, they should be understood contextually in accordance of our times today. Thus, it would be wrong for us to derive a literal understanding of this set of verses, which informs us of an incident that occurred during the time of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH, and come to the conclusion that the desecration of statues today is what being advocated. The prohibition of desecrating the religious abodes of other faiths has been clearly agreed upon by Islamic scholars as it against the firmly established principles of Islam, such as freedom of and respect towards other faiths. [11]

With that being said, the takeaway from this set of verses should be the principle of creativity showcased by Prophet Ibrahim, which can be defined as to develop new ways and forms that resonate with the intellect and senses of others, for the purpose of conveying religious values and principles, in accordance with the norms of their context. The values of Islam should be expressed dynamically through an array of mediums, be it creative usage of actions and words (spoken or written). In the aforementioned story of Prophet Ibrahim PBUH, what should be reflected upon is the element of his creativity that is expressed through his words, in which he asked for his people to question the statue that he said had committed the destruction. He said, “Rather it was this supreme one who has done it. So ask them, if they can speak.” [12]Without such creative usage of intellect and language, his actions beforehand would be deemed as irrational and destructive without purpose. However, it is clear from his words that he had directed his creativity through eloquence, with the intention of resonating with his people’s intellect and rationality.

Therein lies the importance of the creative usage of language. Since ancient times, the foundational manifestation of creativity for the human race has been through language. Poetry is an example as it is a universally appreciated form of art that requires creativity to interact with surroundings to derive ideas and subsequently express it with eloquence.

Today, I believe that an issue which should be of interest to us is the form of discourse that we use to advocate Islamic values, whether it can resonate with today’s diverse and plural society. As religious advocation is a process that can only take place through socialisation i.e. interaction with society, it is vital that the language and content of discourse is one that would be able to resonate with the context of today — one that encompasses the universal values of our religion such as mercy, compassion, equality and so on. It is a discourse that consists of Islamic values and lessons while utilising a medium that appeals to the wider society. This is a tradition that is exemplified by past religious advocates who relentlessly strove to produce works that were creative in the sense that they conveyed knowledge in new and contextual forms. These were not only our scholars, but also our artists, poets and writers. It is important for those who can manifest their creativity in alternative artistic mediums, and not just formal ones, and for those who are unable but aware, to lend their support to these capable individuals.

Regarding the element of creativity in our Islamic Tradition, how can we deny that such an element exists in our Quran with its usage of language and ability to tell stories and construct parables? One need only to look at a chapter that encapsulates the Divine Creativity of our Creator while simultaneously utilising creativity to advocate the truth — Surah Al-Fatir (The Originator).

Have you (Prophet) not considered how Allah sends water down from the sky and that We produce with it fruits of varied colours; that there are in the mountains layers of white and red of various hues, and jet black; that there are various colours among human beings, wild animals, and livestock too? It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true awe of Allah. Allah is almighty, most forgiving. (Surah Al-Fatir, verse 27)

This creative advocation of the Quran also manifests in its employment of animals to resonate with our intellect, such as livestocks and birds.

There is a lesson for you in livestock: We produce milk for you to drink from their bellies. And they have many other benefits: you eat them. (Surah Al-Mu’minun, verse 21)

Do they not see the birds above them with wings outspread and (sometimes) folded in? None holds them (aloft) except the Most Merciful. Indeed He is, of all things, Seeing. (Surah Al-Mulk, verse 19)

From this, following the way of the Quran, we must interact with our surroundings and contexts creatively to expound the values and principles of the faith i.e. poetry, literature, drama, music, calligraphy, architecture, as these are mediums that possesses a universal dimension of beauty that can be appreciated by the wider society. It is a shame that certain religious advocates are not well-versed in such areas, or even deemed as un-Islamic by some, hence they are not utilised. Such attitude hinders the universal nature of Islam that allows its inherent values and principles to be advocated in various permissible mediums in accordance with religious principles. 

Examples should be taken from the legacy of the Wali Songo/Sanga in the Nusantara region. In their advocation of the faith, they incorporated religious values and teachings through the cultural expressions of art, such as hymns and theatre. Despite being the indirect recipients and beneficiaries of such creative advocation that brought no conflict between religion and culture, some have forgotten or even shun such advocation. Works such as Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Fareeduddin Al-Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Buya Hamka’s novels, Hamzah Fansuri’s poems, are good examples of writings from Muslims that contain universal principles. It is of no coincidence that literary works of Islamic origins are of more prominence among those of other faiths as compared to works of theology and jurisprudence. Though these works are of the utmost importance, they are directed towards those who already residing in the House of Islam. If the criticality and creativity that are poured into these areas are balanced with works that seek to further express and develop the universal aspects of the faith, be it in various forms, surely there would be more who will benefit from the faith.

As aforementioned, the elements of criticality and creativity have long been part of our Islamic Tradition, as evident in the Quran, the life of our Prophet, and the legacies of earlier generations of Muslims. While it would be of much difficulty for those of us without the resources and opportunities to exercise criticality and creativity in certain mediums, what would be apt is to ensure the relevance and consciousness of legacies and works that contain such values, be it in a personal capacity or the public sphere — such as through social media which can be considered as an excellent medium for today’s context. Nevertheless, this exercise of our intellect should also be executed with grace and mercy, as it is with these values that the message retains its Prophetic element, which would be able to resonate with the soul of mankind as it has done for people of the past.


[1] My translation. Syed Sheikh Alhadi, Ugama Islam & Akal, Malaha Press, pp 9-10

[2] al-Muʻjam al-Awsaṭ 6/139,

[3] This topic is elaborated more in Hamka and Islam: Cosmopolitan Reform in the Malay World, Chapter Between Reason and Revelation, ISEAS Publishing by Khairudin Aljunied.

[4] Hamka, Tafsir Al-Azhar (Vol 6), p 4093

[5] Mustafa Aykol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, W.W. Norton & Company, p 76-77

[6] It is said that the people of Prophet Ibrahim worshipped stars as well. Hamka, Tafsir Al-Azhar: Volume 3, Pustaka Nasional, p 2083

[7] Ibid, p 2087

[8] Ahmad Ali Taha Rayyan, Dhawabit Al-Ijtihad wa Al-Fatwa (Implementation of Ijtihad and Fatwa), p 19

[9] H.A. Mukti Ali, Ijtihad dalam Pandangan Muhammad Abduh, Ahmad Dakhlan dan Muhammad Iqbal (Ijtihad in the View of Muhammad Abduh, Ahmad Dakhlan and Muhammad Iqbal), p 25

[10] Fuad Baali, Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought, p 39


[12] Surah Al-Anbiya’, verse 63