By Dayang Nurhazieqa, a Ph.D. candidate at CASIS

This second Saturday Night Lecture began with Prof. Dr. Wan Mohd Nor sharing his recent visit to Istanbul, Turkey, to receive the prestigious DOST award on behalf of Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. The 15th DOST Service to Islam award was conferred on Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas as a form of appreciation, recognition and acknowledgment of his encompassing and lasting contribution to Islamic thought. Prof. Wan Mohd Nor presented a brief introduction to the organisers of the award ceremony, the TURKKAD Turkish Women’s Cultural Association and the KERIM Education, Culture and Health Foundation whose roots can be traced to the Rifa’iyah Order in Turkey. The acceptance speech by Prof. Wan relaying Prof. Al-Attas’s ideas was received positively by the Turkish audience.

Prof. Wan then led the continuation of Saturday Night’s Lecture, on the theme of the Crisis of Authority. If in the first lecture the audience was given a tour of the crisis of authority in other major world religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism, the night’s lecture directed the focus to the state of the Muslim ummah. A recap of the first lecture was given, which emphasized that Islam is not the only world religion that is experiencing this crisis of authority, and that the crisis of authority in Islam will give a major effect on all world religions because Islam is based on the last Prophet. Prof. Wan went on to demonstrate how this Crisis of Authority manifests itself in the Muslim world.

Prof. Wan proceeded with sharing the results of surveys done on American Muslims, giving a nod to the fact that in this highly globalized world, discourses of the American Muslims can quickly be transferred to and become influential to other Muslims in different geographical areas. Muslims in America are considered the most educated as far as Muslims in general are concerned. The survey results (obtained from Pew Research Center) show that the period of 2007-2017 witnessed a shift in Muslims’ opinion regarding religious matters. In 2007, 72% of Muslims regard religion as most important in their lives; the percentage decreased to 69% and 65% in 2011 and 2017 respectively. 83% of American Muslims regard the belief in God as important, but alarmingly, higher percentage of American Muslims regard justice as more essential than believing in the Prophet, with only 67% regard belief in Prophethood as essential. The data also shows increasing numbers of American Muslims agreeing to the notion that homosexuality should be accepted in the decade between 2007-2017. There is a fundamental shift in the understanding of the halal and the haram things too. Prof Wan remarked that the acceptance of homosexuality is higher in Muslim women than are men and the college-educated ones are more open to accept it in society. A discomforting observation israised by Prof Wan was that it seems that the more educated the Muslims are, the more they are further away from the essentials in religion. This brings him to infer that there is something fundamental in the education system that led to these results, and one that we should not turn a blind eye to, for it is not only happening in the United States but also in other parts of the Muslim world.

Prof. Wan linked the observations and findings to the crisis of authority; if the sources of understanding Islam isare of less authority, the result would be confusion. Confusion in our history is not new. In the previous lecture, Prof. Wan said that the first crisis took place after the Prophet’s death.Though the seed of the loss of adabwas already shown in the time of the Prophet, it was not due to the Prophet’s teaching but had more to do with the adabof particular individuals. Prof. Wan further illustrated the audience with the story of the distribution of the war booty where a man questioned the Prophet and complained that there is no justice and God-consciousness in how the Prophet distributed the booty. The man committed error in leveling the Prophet to that of his own; he thought that the Prophet distributed the booty in such a way because the Prophet ascribed worldly value to the booty. The Prophet responded by giving a warning that from the loins of this man, there would arise a group of people who runs away from the religion like arrows leaving the bow. This group of people are the ones who are serious in their practice of Islam, but their worldview is confused and show signs of loss of adab.[1]

In those early days, the problem of loss of adaband crisis of authority was somehow contained. The period after the death of the Prophet too have seen the coming to collision of different ideas; the Muslims having been influenced by thousand ideas but the challenges could be met then for it was a battle of ideas against ideas. However, the situation has changed nowadays. The idea of secularization which contained in it the loss of adaband the leveling of authorities are now being advanced by scholars, nations, and institutions who hold major key in the political and economic realms, making the battlefield of ideas no longer level. Muslims are learning about Islam from the West. However, Prof. Wan remarked that this is not the fault of the West. For decades, the scholars and institutions in the West have been given funding to advance their studies whereas the wealthy in the Muslim world do not regard this as important.

Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas has stressed about the problem of knowledge at the First World Muslim Conference on Education in 1977 in Mecca, and not just the problem of knowledge as ignorance but the confusion and error in knowledge. Knowledge imbibed through the prism of secularism causes this confusion and error and this leads to injustice. It is due to this that we can see gradual changes in the Muslim world with regards to their understanding of Islam, which the earlier survey results on American Muslims proved.

Prof. Wan also presented a number of data that shows the views of Muslims around the world on issues pertaining to religious injunctions. The data does not give a uniform picture, but still something worth thinking about because it gives us an understanding on how Muslims think. One of the data shown is the percentage of Muslims who accept the evolution theory. To this, Prof. Wan elaborated that the belief in evolution touches on aspects of adab and shariah, and he linked the belief in evolution with the diminution of the stature of the Prophet. An implication to the belief in evolution would make us concede and agree with the orientalists who characterize to the Prophet’s generation as primitive which to us, is certainly an error. The personality of the Prophet himself holds extreme importance to Muslims as he is the key to the right knowledge of God. Those who disregard the Prophet would have trouble understanding who God is.

The problem of knowledge can be rectified by proper education. Prof. Wan mentioned the effort to balance both religious and secular education by making the students memorize the Quran and learn religious sciences in tandem with learning the secular sciences. While this effort is a positive step, Prof. Wan stressed that it is not so much the subject matter to be taught that needs to be highlighted, but the question centers on who and how these subjects are taught. A student can learn and memorize the Quran but if the teacher teaches this student with a modernist perspective, then that learning is spoiled. The inclusion of any subject matter should be seen as only one initial method to bridge the gap caused by secularization. Another essential aspect that is often overlooked is the need for teachers thatwho are properly trained to teach these subjects.

On the loss of adaband the resulting leveling of authorities that follows, Prof Wan lamented the skepticism and outright refutations of Imam al-Ghazali for using or basing his arguments on what is labeled as weak hadiths. However, Prof Wan reminded that those weak traditions have roots, for example, in Hasan al-Basri. Prof Wan drew the audience as to the stature of Hasan al-Basri. He is not just a figure among other figures and we have to resist leveling him to other’s position. Leveling him will only burn a hole in our rich heritage of knowledge.

Secularization takes place both internally and externally. Prof. Wan stated that we are not opposed to the secular state, or the making of non-ulama as rulers. But what we are against for is when religious values are disregarded, and the politics divested of moral values and spiritual principles. In overcoming this crisis, Prof. Wan again stressed that knowledge is not inabout the content alone, abut the most pertinent aspect of knowledge pertains to the meaning it conveys. And the focus shall not be on students only, but also on the training of teachers as well. The solution to this crisis is right education and right adab. Prof Wan cautioned that it will take years to understand the concept of right adab, and therefore, Prof. Wan reminded us to be patient.

With that Prof Wan concluded his lecture and before moving to the question and answer session, to appreciate the audiences coming from far, he invited Fatih Madini, a 16 year old pesantrenstudent in Depok, Indonesia to deliver a moving poem reflecting his experience visiting ISTAC through the eyes of a new young generation, thirsting for a civilizational meaning.

The questions posed as usual elicit enlightening answers from Prof. Wan. On the role of Malay civilization and Islam, Prof. Wan stressed that it is important to understand how Islam came to this part of the world without the help of the military forces. This makes the Islamization of this region unique for it clearly shows that Islam has ethical and intellectual aspects and it is these aspects, when they had seeped into the role of knowledge, akhlak, and linguistic usage became the agents of Islamization, transforming the minds of the people. Nevertheless, the opposite can also happen; when the Muslim languages are imbued with the secular worldview, the whole concept of Islam will be distorted, rejected. Therefore, it is right to say that the study of Islam as world history, and Islam in the Malay world is important.

On the question of the different speed or ability of people in understanding the truth, Prof. Wan emphasized the importance of sincerity in seeking knowledge. Sincerity is not a concept, nor is it merely a stating of terms. Sincerity is a reality of a state of the seeker of knowledge’s intention, who seeks knowledge purely for the sake of Allah. Sincerity is a constantly developed reality, and that is why it is incumbent on the student to do tazkiyah al-nafs(purification of the soul), and this is a lifelong process.

The night ended with a few closing statements by Prof. Muhammad Zainiy Uthman, who thanked the audience and Prof. Wan and reminded everyone of the fact that knowledge does not reside in the books or majestic buildings; knowledge resides in the soul of those men and women who appreciate knowledge wherever they go. The Academia, the Lyceum and the Nizamiyya colleges are all destroyed but the ideas remain in the hearts of men and women and it is to these kind of teachers that we have to go to.

[1] Adab here not in the superficial reference of mere etiquette, but what it means is the recognition and acknowledgment of the proper places of things. Hence the loss of it reflects the inability and confusion of recognizing and acknowledging thetruth in relation to its reality. See Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’ Islam: The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality(Kuala Lumpur: DBP, 1992, republished by Ta’dib International, 2018). The monograph was a speech delivered by al-Attas in the 1976 (5thApril) International Islamic Conference under the auspices of the Islamic Council of Europe in the hall of the Royal Commonwealth Society, London.