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

The main theme of the lecture centered on the ‘Crisis of Authority’.  Prof Wan started by stating the many challenges that faced the Muslim world after the death of the Prophet, which includes the wars fought between those that the Prophet taught, the rebellion by the Khawarij, and the Hellenistic ideas that seeped into Mutazilite theology which when adopted as the creed of the state, resulted in Caliph  al-Ma’mun persecuting the scholars who refused to accede to the Mutazilite views on matters of ‘aqidah. What Prof Wan pointed to is that on the outside, these may be an obvious example of a crisis of authority. However, Prof. Wan reminded that al-Ghazali noticed that there is another important crisis that does not manifest physically. What al-Ghazali focused was on the spiritual crisis, a crisis from within which moved him to compose his Ihya’ Ulumuddin, whose main theme is on how to overcome this crisis.

Next, Prof Wan brought examples of writings of Western and Arabic scholars that touched on the issue of a crisis on the Muslim world. These are the papers by Francis Robinson entitled ‘Crisis of Authority: Crisis of Islam?’(2009) in which the writer observed that modern Muslims are affected by the crisis of authority especially in the area of religious sciences. The next paper is by Richard W. Bulliet, ‘Crisis Within Islam (2002)’ who also voiced the same concerns of Robinson’s paper. Finally, Prof Wan brought up the 1930 book written by the Lebanese Druze prince, Shakib Arslan, Li maza ta’akhkhara al-Muslimun wa li madha taqaddama ghayruhum (“why Muslims are backward and others have progressed”)[1].

There are few points of the book which is important for the night’s discussion. What Shakib Arslan attributed as the factors that contribute to the decline of the Muslims is the crisis of the Muslim authority, whereby most Muslim leaders not only lack knowledge, but that they also lack moral integrity and ethical leadership. Furthermore, the reign of these leaders are condoned by the scholars who sought position and financial gains. Arslan mentioned that the partly ignorant Muslims are more dangerous than the ones with total ignorance. Of this point, Prof Wan mentioned his agreement. The next factor that Shakib Arslan mentioned is regarded with more careful deliberation by Prof Wan. This is when Arslan lamented that the Muslims lack courage in confronting their challenges. Arslan faulted the zahids (people who practice zuhud) as those who contribute to this non-confrontation with the oppressing elements.

To this, Prof Wan mentioned that Arslan had a wrong conception of the term, zuhud, much like how the term Jihad is painted in a negative light due to its misunderstanding. Zuhud has been used positively in the Muslim tradition and does not simply mean a rejection of the worldly affairs and those who refused to modernize. In actual fact, Zuhud means that the ones who practice it are involved in the world, and they can be leaders but that they are not controlled by the world. To this, Prof Wan cited Allama Iqbal’s explanation of zuhud, those who are in the world but not controlled by it. Prof Wan also pointed that Prof Al-Attas also elaborated on the crisis of authority in his two books, Risalah untuk Kaum Muslimin and Islam and Secularism.

After discussing the crisis of authority within the Muslim world, Prof Wan continued further by saying that this crisis does not only affect Islam. As a matter of fact, other religious traditions such as the Hindus, Christians, and the Jews are also facing this crisis, as attested by what is voiced by the prominent thinkers in their communities.

On Hindus, the prominent professor A.K. Saran wrote an article entitled ‘Crisis of Hinduism’ (1971) in which he outlined the issues facing the Hindus, which is the challenge towards authority, and losing the Hindu identity not individually, but collectively. Apoorvanand of University of Delhi wrote a column in Indian Express (April 2017) also entitled ‘Crisis of Hinduism’ in which he noted  the rise of Hindu nationalism in the political scene in India does not mean that Hindu is getting stronger, but that they are at risk of losing the essence of Hinduism since the same political dominance tends to marginalize the non-Hindu minorities.

On the crisis within the Catholic Church, Prof Wan cited the example of the Jesuit professor-priest James Schall who in reply to a devastating article by the German magazine, Der Spiegel who took the Vatican and the Pope to task for the many abuse scandals by men of the cloth worldwide, Prof. James Schall instead pointed to another bigger crisis within the Church. It is not so much that the abuse committed by the men of cloth that is dangerous to Christianity, but whether the Church can uphold to its own traditional values in light of the changing values of the modern world. Prof Wan also noted that more and more people in the West are leaving the Church.

The last group talked about by Prof Wan are the Jews, among those communities who realized that they also have their own crisis. Their crisis revolved around the fact that although the modern history of the Jews can be regarded as an unprecedented success story, in which they managed to turn their life around after the horrors of the World War 2. They managed to improve their life such that they were successful in education, in the financial world and having an important political influence, but the more they are successful, they more they lose with regards to Judaism. Two studies well-recognized by the Jewish community revealed that fewer and fewer Jews are concerned about Judaism in connection to their identity. Majority thought that the remembrance of the Holocaust is what is most pertinent with regards to the essence of the Jews, not living according to the Jewish law.

In conclusion for the night’s lecture, Prof Wan reiterated his point that Muslim world does have a crisis, which is a crisis of authority, but this crisis does not only affect the Muslims. As is shown by the examples he put forth, other religions also have their own crisis, with some more fundamental than the others.

The discussions that followed the lecture were lively and enlightening. There were three rounds of questions. Some of the questions that will be highlighted in this summary revolve around the claim of the decline of Catholic Church in Europe, the role of the loss of adab in explaining the decline of the Muslims, and the question on where do this crisis or corruption of knowledge occurred in the educational system. With regards to the observation of the return of religion in Europe, Prof Wan replied that this may be true but the form of the religion that is practiced in Europe now is different than it was before. It is no longer relying on a solid authority, thus agreeing with his remark that there exists a crisis of authority in the Church.  In explaining the role of the loss of adab as the factor causing the decline of the Muslims, Prof Wan explained that those who have adab knows the hierarchy and legitimacy of any authority and will lead to right knowledge and right conduct with regards to the authority. To know who are the right teachers, the ones who know will know. Prof Wan relayed the example of a student who wants to study a particular field, he or she would ask the advice from the elders or teachers of that field and will be pointed to the right teacher. This act of seeking advice involves a level of trust. Similar thing is needed to get out of the vicious cycle of loss of adab and corruption of knowledge; the seekers of knowledge themselves would have to practice adab in seeking knowledge and towards their teachers. Prof Wan also reminded that more of this will be discussed in the next Saturday Night Lectures. In reply to the last question, it is in the mind that the confusion or corruption starts, because knowledge resides in the mind. 

The next Saturday Night Lecture will continue on the theme of the Crisis in Authority.

[1] The book was republished as Our Decline and Its Causes in 2004 by the Islamic Book Trust.