[This entry is a selected summary and report of the RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture (CSNL) given by Prof. Wan Mohd Nor on 21st August 2021.]

Ahmad Khushairi Ismail (RZS-CASIS MPhil Alumni)

Editted by Sarah Albani

On the 21st of August 2021, The Raja Zarith Sofiah Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (RZS-CASIS) continued with its sixth installment in the 11th series of Saturday Night Lecture (SNL). Professor Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud continued discussing one of his most important writings, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: An Exposition of the Original Concept of Islamization, with a specific focus on major themes such as the meaning and purpose of education, manhood and citizenship, new barbarism, higher education and university, as well as content and methods of education.  

Prof. Wan started with a brief remark on the recent transition of political power in Malaysia, which took place peacefully and in a more refined manner compared to the previous transition of leadership three years ago (2018). This is indirectly related to Prof Wan’s later evaluation of the leaders as individuals and the people around them who play a role in shaping our modern nation-state. From this he then resumed the discussion from the previous SNL installment on the purpose of education in Islam as understood, interpreted and practiced by prominent Muslim scholars and continued by Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Essentially, the aim of education in Islam is to produce a good man, or a man of adab, contrary to the goal of the modern nation-state which is only to produce a good citizen or a good industry worker; a statement that must be reflecting the characters of our current leaders.

Prof. Wan stated that without introducing real historical figures and sharing examples of their ideas, lifestyles, and contributions, the explanation of what constitutes a good man would be purely theoretical. In the rich tradition of Islam, we have always had real and actual examples, particularly the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), as well as presidents of varying degrees from the generations that followed. Having said that, in the previous SNL session, Prof. Wan exhausted a number of personalities from among the Companions of The Prophet from different ranks and ethnicities. In this particular session, Prof. Wan focused on highlighting profiles of good men of later centuries to point out that, although they may be distinguished geographically, the defining ethical, moral and legal frameworks remains the same across  different eras and places.  

The first example was Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, a well-known Sunni scientist, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who lived in the later part of the 10th century and died around 1038 A.D. He lived during the Abbasid Caliphate, surrounded by the Buwayhid dynasty, Mu’tazilites as well as strong Fatimid Shiites. Prof. Wan pointed out that it required discipline to acquire scientific knowledge in a difficult political and ideological climate.  Amongst his aims for pursuing natural and mathematical sciences was to discover the attributes of Allah and draw nearer to Him. Apart from being a scientist, he was also a jurist and theologian (mutakallim) who wrote treatises correcting critics of the mystics against the followers of Mu’tazilite leader Ibn al-Rāwandī. Ibn al-Haytham was also known to be pious, humble, and respectful. Through this example, Prof. Wan emphasized the importance of seeking the best knowledge everywhere without compromising one’s own integrity and principles.

Another example of a man of adab from around the same period is Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna (d. 1030 AD); who was not a scholar in a professional sense but a Sunni scholarly leader of a vast region that included Samarkand, Bukhara, Khurasan, and parts of modern day Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. His father was a tribal leader, which influenced his very early education including mastery of the religious sciences, memorization of the Qur’an, as well as training as an administrator. Prof. Wan pointed to Sultan Maḥmūd as a man of adab in a holistic sense. He appointed ministers and personally supervised matters related to governance, gathered scholars and supported scholarship through many means, including administering stipends, in addition to respecting religious authorities and spiritual masters (awliya’). Upon realizing his mistakes, he sought forgiveness and tried to rectify matters. He never led his anger influence his judgment and possessed a controlled rationality. In his  book The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, Dr. Muḥammad Nāẓīm concludes by saying: “As a man he was affectionate, just, pure, kind, generous, devout and religious, a truly great and admirable character. As a conqueror, he stands conspicuous among the greatest warriors of the world…”  He also loved all sciences and was one of the pioneers of the great initiation of national Persian literature.  

The third example Prof. Wan shared was of Abū Muḥammad ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064 A.D), a man from Andalusia, a western Muslim land. He came from a wealthy family and his father was a wazir (minister) in the earlier Umayyad Caliphate. During the age of 15, there was an economic and political upheaval with much floundering, instability, and civil wars. Despite all that, he remained disciplined in learning a vast array of sciences and became a polymath.  Although he was known to be part of the Ẓāhirī school of thought, and wrote criticisms against the Maliki scholars, he respect them when he was defeated in debates. He always practiced fairness and justice, giving everyone their due.  

Niẓām al-Mulk al-Ṭūsī was another leader-scholar and administrator par excellence. He was a Sunni Ashaarite-Shafiite who came from humble beginnings. His father was a tax collector under the Seljuk dynasty, and due to economic struggle, Niẓām al-Mulk was forced to depart his homeland of Ṭūs, Khorāsān to continue his studies in the Islamic sciences, such as Ḥadīth and Taṣawwūf.  He then became the wazir of Sultan Alp Arslān, later serving under Sultan Malik Shāh; and was well-known as the most powerful figure in the Seljuk Empire for more than 30 years. He pioneered and established madrasah centers of learning, while showing respect to  leaders from other religious sects and preaching unity among them. Part of his religious diplomacy involved exchanging letters with scholars from among the the Mu’tazilites and the Shi’ites in an effort to discuss and better understand their views, all the while being careful to do justice to all parties. One of his most important works which is still referenced today is Siyāsatnāmeh (Siyar al-Mulūk in Arabic), a political treatise that discusses the societal and Islamic imperative for justice, good governance and effective rule through historical examples. On a personal level, he was known to constantly be in a state of ritual purity (wudu’), regularly reciting the Qur’an, performing obligatory prayers on time, and a practicing forbearance and forgiveness. 

Another just ruler that Prof. Wan introduced was Ṣalāh al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī (d. 1193 A.D).  During his early age, he exhibited several bad habits such as the drinking of wine, although he was generally a good person. However, after becoming the Governor of Egypt at thirty years of age, he left the habit altogether. He exemplified praiseworthy traits such as kindness and justice. During war, he invited scholars to read the Prophetic tradition. Despite a difficult political and military situation, he did not neglect the intellectual and spiritual needs of his society as he provided enough funds for  the development of various sciences. He tried his very best during his lifetime to unite the Muslims, and died humbly with only several silver coins and few gold dinars.  

The final man of adab who Prof Wan profiled was the founder of Mughal empire, Bābur, or Zahiruddin Muhammad Bābur (d. 1530 A.D.). Prof. Wan highlighted that Babur’d foundational spiritual, mental and personal makeup was cultivated at home with the excellent guidance of his parents who instilled within him discipline, respect for scholars and knowledge. Prof. Wan again emphasized the importance of the home environment in building personal qualities, which must not be taken for granted. Similar to Aurangzeb, an exemplary figure from the same empire who ruled for about 50 years, like Sultan Sulaymān al-Qānūnī of the Ottoman empire.  Both of them instituted laws to govern large empires based on justice and rooted in  the Islamic legal (shari’ah) tradition. He memorized the Qur’an from the early age and was guided by proper teachers. When he became older, he could write the Qur’an by himself and sewed prayer caps as a hobby.  He even used his own money to build mosques around the kingdom and organized legal codes for the betterment of the administration.  Although he is attacked by contemporary Orientalist writers as an extremist, one of the major points highlighted by Prof. Wan was his practice of just leadership and management. He employed Hindus and Shi’ites to be part of the government for suitable roles, and respected Hindu officers such as Raja Raganusa very highly.  He died in 1707 A.D. and was asked to be buried in the area of the Sufis and preferred not to be known.

Prof. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud highlighted that he purposely selected figures in different regions from various schools of religious thought (mazahibs) in every corner of Islāmic civilization, so as to show the impact of the universal worldview of Islām; which is to produce these upright men of adab.  Prof. Wan reiterated that adab is not just practiced in personal manners, rather it is discipline at the highest level, as exemplified by the historical and real figures above.  All of them managed to produce architecture, books and literature; and most importantly civilized people around them, which is why even in the Malay language, peradaban is the other word for tamadun.  

In the Question and Answer portion of the lecture, Prof. Wan answered questions regarding (i) the obligatory foundational religious knowledge required for each individual (fard al-‘ayn), which he stated should and must be dynamic in the sense that must it be tailored vis a vis age and responsibility; (ii) the importance of knowing other religions and gender interactions among youth, in contrary to excessive emphasis on laws; (iii) the unnecessary slogans, images, and soundbites with regard to religious teachings; (iv) the origin and history of the definition of adab; and (v) the necessary evil in politics for greater good. 

The Final CSNL will be on the 13th December 2021 or via Zoom, click here to register. 

To read the previous summaries of the 10th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series:

Below are the summary for the 11th RZS-CASIS Saturday Night Lecture Series

  1. March 2021“Knowing Knowledge Through its Classifications”
  2. April 2021 “The Meaning and Purpose of Education” 
  3. May 2021“The Importances of the Individual as a Matter of Principle and Practice”
  4. June 2021 “Of Adab (al-Insan Al-Adabi) as the Meaning and Purpose of Education in Islam (al-Ta’dib)” 
  5. July 2021 “The Life and Times of Man of Adab”