Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas was born in Bogor, Java, Dutch East Indies into a family with a history of illustrious ancestors, saints. His genealogical tree can be authentically traced over a thousand years through the Ba'Alawi sayyids of Hadramaut and all the way back to the Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. He was the second of three sons; his older brother, Syed Hussein Alatas later became an academian and politician, and also had a younger brother, Syed Zedal. He has also at least one known cousin, namely the academician Ungku Abdul Aziz.
After World War II, in 1946 he returned to Johor to complete his secondary education. He was exposed to Malay literature, history, religion, and western classics in English, and in a cultured social atmosphere developed a keen aesthetic sensitivity. This nurtured in al-Attas an exquisite style and precise vocabulary that were unique to his Malay writings and language.
After al-Attas finished secondary school in 1951, he entered the Malay Regiment as cadet officer no. 6675. There he was selected to study at Eaton Hall, Chester, England and later at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK (1952–1955). This gave him insight into the spirit and style of British society. During this time he was drawn to the metaphysics of the Sufis, especially works of Jami, which he found in the library of the Academy. He travelled widely, drawn especially to Spain and North Africa where Islamic heritage had a profound influence on him. Al-Attas felt the need to study, and voluntarily resigned from the King's Commission to serve in the Royal Malay Regiment, to pursue studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore (1957–1959).
While an undergraduate at University of Malaya, he wrote Rangkaian Ruba'iyat, a literary work, and Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays. He was awarded the Canada Council Fellowship for three years of study at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He received the M.A. degree with distinction in Islamic philosophy in 1962, with his thesis Raniri and the Wujudiyyah of 17th Century Acheh. Al-Attas went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London where he worked with Professor A.J. Arberry of Cambridge and Dr. Martin Lings. His doctoral thesis (1962) was a two-volume work on the mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri.
In 1965, al-Attas returned to Malaysia and became Head of the Division of Literature in the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Malay, Kuala Lumpur. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1968 until 1970, 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.
Thereafter he moved to the new National University of Malaysia, as Head of the Department of Malay Language and Literature and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He strongly advocated the use of Malay as the language of instruction at the university level and proposed an integrated method of studying Malay language, literature and culture so that the role and influence of Islam and its relationship with other languages and cultures would be studied with clarity. He founded and directed the Institute of Malay Language, Literature, and Culture (IBKKM) at the National University of Malaysia in 1973 to carry out his vision.
In 1987, with al-Attas as founder and director, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) was established in Kuala Lumpur. This institution strives to bring an integrated Islamisation into the consciousness of its students and faculty. Al-Attas envisioned the plan and design of every aspect of ISTAC, and has incorporated Islamic artistic and architectural principles throughout the campus and grounds.
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.
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 categorisation of Malay literature and periodisation 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 mobilised the Faculty and the student organisations 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.
Al-Attas maintains that modern science sees things as mere things, and that it has reduced the study of the phenomenal world to an end in itself. Certainly this has brought material benefits, however it is accompanied by an uncontrollable and insatiable propensity to destroy nature itself. Al-Attas maintains a firm critique that to study and use nature without a higher spiritual end has brought mankind to the state of thinking that men are gods or His co-partners. "Devoid of real purpose, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a deviation from the truth, which necessarily puts into question the validity of such knowledge." [Islam and Secularism, p. 36]
Al-Attas views Western civilisation as constantly changing and 'becoming' without ever achieving 'being'. He analyses that many institutions and nations are influenced by this spirit of the West and they continually revise and change their basic developmental goals and educational objectives to follow the trends from the West. He points to Islamic metaphysics which shows that Reality is composed of both permanence and change; the underlying permanent aspects of the external world are perpetually undergoing change [Islam and Secularism, p. 82]
For al-Attas, Islamic metaphysics is a unified system that discloses the ultimate nature of Reality in positive terms, integrating reason and experience with other higher orders in the suprarational and transempirical levels of human consciousness. He sees this from the perspective of philosophical Sufism. Al-Attas also says that the Essentialist and the Existentialists schools of the Islamic tradition address the nature of reality. The first is represented by philosophers and theologians, and the latter by Sufis. The Essentialists cling to the principle of mahiyyah (quiddity), whereas the Existentialists are rooted in wujud (the fundamental reality of existence) which is direct intuitive experience, not merely based on rational analysis or discursive reasoning. This has undoubtedly led philosophical and scientific speculations to be preoccupied with things and their essences at the expense of existence itself, thereby making the study of nature an end in itself. Al-Attas maintains that in the extra-mental reality, it is wujud (Existence) that is the real "essences" of things and that what is conceptually posited as mahiyyah ("essences" or "quiddities") are in reality accidents of existence.
The process of creation or bringing into existence and annihilation or returning to non-existence, and recreation of similars is a dynamic existential movement. There is a principle of unity and a principle of diversity in creation. "The multiplicity of existents that results is not in the one reality of existence, but in the manifold aspects of the recipients of existence in the various degrees, each according to its strength or weakness, perfection or imperfection, and priority or posteriority. Thus the multiplicity of existents does not impair the unity of existence, for each existent is a mode of existence and does not have a separate ontological status". He clarifies that the Essence of God is absolutely transcendent and is unknown and unknowable, except to Himself, whereas the essence or reality of a thing consists of a mode of existence providing the permanent aspect of the thing, and its quiddity, endowing it with its changing qualities. things that has begin with life study
Al-Attas developed a style and precise vocabulary that uniquely characterised his Malay writings and language. In 1970, al-Attas was 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.
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, United States. 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.
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, USA (1980–82) and as the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (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, 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 is also an able calligrapher, and his work was exhibited at the Tropenmuseum 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.
Syed Naquib is of mixed ancestry; His father, Syed Ali al-Attas, was the son of a Hadhrami Arab preacher and a Circassian noblewoman. On his father's side, Syed Naquib was the son of a Hadhrami Arab and a Sundanese noblewoman.