“Janganlah tertipu daya kamu dengan angkatan dan pangkat kebesaran gelaran pembesar-pembesar kamu kerana mereka itulah asal segala bala yang telah menimpa ke atas kamu ini dan mereka itulah sehingga masa ini sebesar-besar penolong segala bangsa-bangsa yang telah menindih dan hendak menindih kamu akan kamu.”
[Syed Shaykh al-Hady, Teriak Sebenar, Al Ikhwan, 1(2), 16 Oktober 1926]
[Do not be deceived by the titles and accolades of your dignitaries for they are the source of all the miseries that have befallen you. And they are until today, the collaborators of the races who had oppressed you and intend to oppress you]
Syed Shaykh al-Hady in The Real Cry
That was the cry of Syed Shaykh al-Hady about a century ago. The call for the Malays to break away from their traditional mode of living and from being dependent on their tribal leaders, for they will be slaves to their masters that will lead to their continued state of oppression. They should instead strive to modernize their society, their economy, and their educational system before they were left behind for good by the other races in the country. The lifestyle of the ruling elite to him was morally corrupt, decadent and unjust and confounded with the teaching methods of the conservative ulamā, the Muslim ummah had sunk to such an abysmal state.
Al-Hady, widely regarded as the Khalifa of the Kaum Muda (Islamic modernists), did not only focus his critics on the Malay feudal leaders and the conservative ulamā, but also on the British Imperialist. In his journal al-Ikhwan, al-Hady wrote: “for if we are conscious and still possess the faculty of thought, then how can we allow another people to rule over us, to be our guardian in our beloved nation?”
But of course, his most vicious attack was against the so-called traditional ulamā that have persistently tried to maintain an exclusive monopoly on Islamic discourse. It is not strange then when al-Hady wrote in his essay ‘Perchayakan Ulamā’ in his journal al-Ikhwan “Is it not proper for us to question and enquire? Are the mere words of the others sufficient? It would appear that to study the words of Allah and His Prophet is to commit a wrong, for it would indicate a lack of trust in the ulamā, and thus, we would have strayed beyond the pale of Islam! Who among the ulamā dare say such a thing? Except the hawkers of religion who earn their living in the name of Islam, although Islam wishes to keep itself away from them as far as possible.” It is for this reason that Syed Shaykh al-Hady and Kaum Muda contend that not all words uttered by the ulamā are necessarily true and should be accepted as we accept what is written in the Qur’an.
The struggle of Syed Syakh al-Hady and his contemporaries like Sheikh Muhammad Tahir Jalaluddin, Haji Abu Bakar al-Ashaari, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmi, Haji Abbas Mohamad Taha, Sheikh Mohamad Salim al-Kalili and Zainal Abidin Ahmad or more popularly known as Pendeta Za’ba, was basically a continuation of the struggle of the reformist thinkers, Sheikh Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Redha in Egypt. Without doubt, al-Hady was the one of the most revolutionist thinkers and Islamic activists of his time. And through him and his contemporaries that the radical ideas of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Redha were introduced to the Malay Muslims in the Malay Peninsular.
More than a century ago, far away in the land of Egypt, Jamaluddin al-Afghani asked a question on the reason for the decline in Islamic civilization in the nineteenth century where his struggle first started. To al-Afghani, the religious orthodoxy defended by the ulamā, as well as the despotic rulers who use the ulamā to support their regimes, were the main sources of stagnation. And the adoption of one particular religious interpretation by a ruler in order to maintain a social order that is beneficial to the survival of the regime; is also a cause for the decline.
It is not strange then when Syed Shaykh al-Hady proclaimed the same idea that it was the traditional ruling elite and the traditional ulamā who were mainly responsible for leading the Malay Muslims astray and leaving them in such a pathetic state and helpless condition. In the journal Al-Imam – most likely taking cognizance of the title Ustazul Imam of Muhammad Abduh – al-Hady said: ‘We have deceived ourselves by drinking the delicious poison of apathy, foisted upon us by our leaders, and thereby we have chosen for ourselves the diseases of deception and hypocrisy until we can do no more than cry and beg from God: O Allah, we have been loyal to our Penghulus and our traditional leaders and they have led us astray. They are the heads and we are the tails. They are the seeds of all calamities and sufferings. They are the spendthrifts and the kings of the ignorant. They are the origins of all afflictions and misfortunes.’
The journal Al-Imam, which al-Hady co-founded, was the main instrument of the reformers in propagating their reformist ideas. It was aimed to revitalize the teachings of Islam in the region and to reintroduce Islamic concept of life and worship that is free from heretical innovation or bid’ah and other harmful elements alien to the nature of the religion. Humanism and rationalism were the salient features of the reformists’ project. Its fundamental framework was meaningfully crafted to remind those who are forgetful, to awaken those who are asleep, and to lead those who have gone astray, and to communicate news of hope to them.
Al-Imam advocated a progressive and dynamic worldview and published works that strongly reflected the ideals and aspirations of the journal it emulates – al-Manar of Abduh and Redha – as well as other reformist thoughts that have flourished in Europe. It is conceivable then when al-Imam is said to manifest itself as a continuation of the European reformist movement of Martin Luther on the Malay world, which centered on the enlightenment.
To al-Hady, the true calling of Islam is for worldly progress. The subsequent quest for an eternal bliss in the hereafter is not a reason to abandon striving for a better life in this world. So it is understandable why al-Hady accused the traditional religious ulamā of having lost all abilities to understand the true calling of their sublime religion. To al-Hady, to change the condition of the people is first by changing their attitude towards life in this world. And that, any form of worship, which did not serve the development of the individual Muslim or have any practical social virtues and benefits to the community in actual fact, failed to live up to the real spirit of ibādah (worship).
To al-Hady, Muslims cannot expect change by just sitting down and making du’a and that miracle will happen. They should not have this false belief that everything in this world has been predetermined for them. It is as if, no matter how much they strive, what has been predestined to them will never change. Because the result is, Muslims will be the most backward and unproductive lot in their contribution to science and technology, and to human civilization.
Subsequently, Muslims need to free themselves from the rigid and fatalistic theologies of the Ash’ariyyah. The earlier Muslim generations did not sit down to wait for al Mahdi to come and save and guide them. That was the main reason for the proliferation of the ummah and their civilizations. Understanding the Qur’an shook Arabia, and made a nation out of its perennially warring tribes. Within a few decades, the Qur’an spreads its world-view far beyond the confines of Arabia and produced the first ideological society known to man, through its insistence on consciousness and knowledge. It engendered among its followers a spirit of intellectual curiosity and independent inquiry, ultimately resulting in that splendid era of learning and scientific research that distinguished the world of Islam at the height of its cultural vigor. This was basically the spirit of the teaching of Ustazul Imam Muhammad Abduh, who had the greatest influence on the mind of Syed Syaikh al-Hady.
But perhaps the most important agenda of al-Imam as propagated by Syed Shaykh al-Hady and the Kaum Muda, was to defend reason (‘aql) and independent reasoning (ijtihad). New investigations and interpretations of religious fundamentals were necessary rather than relying on the tradition and past interpreters of Islam. This principle clearly resonates with the principles and idealism of Muhammad Abduh in defending reason and rational investigation in the form of ijtihad, above the allegedly blind reliance or taqlid upon the opinions of the medieval jurists.
Muhammad Abduh has proclaimed in his most important work Risalah at-Tawhid (The Theology of Unity) – which was read and cited by al-Hady – that the Qur’an directs us, enjoining rational procedure and the intellectual enquiry into the manifestations of the universe and as far as may be, into its particulars, so as to come by certainty in respect of the things to which it guides.
Clearly the attitude of Muslims during the time of al-Hady, and even today; who have the tendency to resort to literal interpretation of “texts” (nas), and refuting anything that falls within the realm of “reason”; has contributed to the intellectual stagnation and decaying condition of the ummah itself.
And Abduh’s argument that religion could never enter into conflict with knowledge and that reason would necessarily accept the dogmas of religion after testing the proofs of its truth; truly had a profound effect on al-Hady. He was so impressed by this argument that he wrote a book titled Kitab Agama Islam dan Akal (Islam and Reason) in which he presented Abduh’s ideas in simple terms for the Malay readers.
It is in this book that al-Hady launched his attack on the conservative Ash’arites and the Sufis, who were hostile to Muslims who advocated the idea of Islamic modernism. To al-Hady, for the Malays and Muslims to progress, they must be able to compete with their conquerors. The fundamental aim of his reform agenda was to reconstruct the modern worldview of Islam and adapt to modern requirements of dynamic civilization. Al-Hady said: ‘When an indigenous people have education comparable to that of the invaders, follow the way of these intruders educate their children, venture into any industry and profession, use the same shield in he battle of life; then surely they would survive and compete with he foreigners’.
Hence it is not surprising that al-Hady also attacked the Sufis for their overemphasis on the eschatological aspects of Islam, which he felt led the people from their worldly responsibilities.
“Tiada syak lagi sekalian penjaja-penjaja agama dan penjual-penjual azimat atau penjinjit tasbih atau pemusing akal perempuan dan segala pengikutnya akan mengatakan saya dengan sebab karangan saya ini seberapa daya upayanya daripada segala perkataan yang jahat-jahat, tetapi tiada saya endah akan perkataan mereka itu selama saya menyeru dengan seruan Qur’an. Kepada Allah jua saya bergantung” [Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, Saudara, 27 October 1928]
[No doubt that those who fondle and count their tasbihs (rosaries), or those who sell the words of the Qur’an as amulets, or those who twist the minds of women, will condemn me vehemently and in the worst language; but I do not care, as long as I am appealing with the call of the Qur’an].
There is not a slightest doubt that the struggle of Syed Syakh al-Hady and Kaum Muda in trying to liberate the Malay Muslim minds from the shackles of religious conservatism is still relevant in our modern time. The Malay Muslim community is at the crossroads of history once again. But this time around, they seemed to be caught between the three seemingly irreconcilable alternatives: the conservative strain that continues to struggle for Malay dominance and supremacy and the Ash’arite theology, the modernist strain that embraces reason and rationality, and the revisionist strain that reinterprets religion into its literal and exclusive view and understanding.
And finally, without doubt, after reading the entire chapters in this book, we came to an undisputed conclusion that the life and vision of Syed Shaykh al-Hady have definitely been captured and presented very precisely. For Kaum Muda’s da’wah and jihad are being carried forward in this century within this Malay Archipelago by numerous organizations and think tanks; the Islamic Renaissance Front, not excluded. Hence we would like to express our sincere gratitude to Lia Syed, the Executive Director of the Malaysian Sociology Research Institute (MSRI), and the Board of Directors of MSRI, for allowing us to republish the seminal work of the authors of this book. May this endeavor be blessed by the Almighty, for the struggle of Syed Shaykh al-Hady and his contemporaries among the Kaum Muda was an effort that should not be left idle in the folds of history.
Dato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa is a Director at the Islamic Renaissance Front, a think tank committed in liberating the Muslim minds from rigid conservatism and orthodoxy; and dedicated to the reform (islah) and renewal (tajdid) of Islamic thought.