This article being the summary and report of Prof. Dr Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud’s Lecture on “Internal and External Challenges of Our Time” in conjunction with the HIKMA Forum 2020 | 26th December 2020 

Summary and Report by Sharifah Hajar Almahdaly (RZS-CASIS PhD Student)

Prof. Wan begin the session by setting the stage for the first ever HIKMA Forum which hoped to introduce to Muslim professionals how to understand the nature of our challenges. Once the nature of the challenge is understood, one can better navigate the unique times we are living in. He acknowledged that the topic at hand although may be repetitious, it is pertinent to discuss. The challenges that beset the Muslims have always been in the thoughts and discussions among  the more discerning  Muslim thinkers since the fall of Baghdad in 13th Century. Having said that, he began the session by citing Richard Bulliet’s call to the “Crisis Within Islam” in the 20th Century as an example of the perspective coming from the West to our current predicament. Bulliet detected the development of this crisis was due to the decentralized authority existing within Islam (1). However, he also acknowledges that despite the crisis experienced within Islam, Bulliet was impressed by the ability of the Muslims to solve every crisis that comes their way: 

“One can see in this capsule history of Islamic religious development a demonstration of the fact that a faith with no central institution for determining what is good or bad practice is bound to experience periodic crises of authority. But this history also demonstrates that the Muslim religious community has overcome every crisis it has confronted.” (2) 

During the fitnah wars between the Khawārij and the Ṣahābas, Sunni Muslims developed a civilisation in Baghdad, who later on after its destruction, saw the rise of  the Seljuk, Mogul, Balkan, Ottoman, and the Malay world. The ability to rise from a fall presupposes that one is clearly aware of the challenges of the past and emerge stronger than ever to build a new civilisation. This proves that there is a unique frame of mind within the Muslims which enabled them to identify the problems that they were afflicted with. 

Professor Wan then said that we are not the only one who experienced challenges in upholding our identities, pointing out the case of the Jews. In the beginning of 19th Century, before World War II, the Jewish influence had been prevalent in the world and they reasserted their dominance to a point which left the Germans unsettled and retaliated. If we look back even before the current century, as an ancient group of people, the Jews have been with us for thousands of years before the rise of Islam, albeit with different predicament. They were enslaved, first by the Pharaoh for centuries, then by the Babylonian Greek rulers, Nebuchadnezzar (1126 -103 B.C.), and further mistreated by the Christian world during the Byzantium Empire, Russia, and Europe.  This resulted in a bitter feeling of survival, such that it brings anxiety to uphold a religious identity over a tribal one.  Scholars narrated that the accumulating historical experiences of the Jewish community indicated that the more dominant they appear to be, the more they will lose their religiosity; which is true to what we see today: the remaining Jewish communities uphold their blood related identity more than their religious belief itself. Another example of the decaying dominance of religious identity over socio-political identity are the case of the Hindus. After the fall of the Mogul Empire, the Hindus began to be politically dominant, but to the expense of other religions, which contradicts the sanctity of the plural aspect of their religion.

In the West, however, we should learn from the experience of overcoming the greatest threat in communism (Soviet Union and China) in the 20th century. Economics, military, and political agents are adopting the communist ideologies and creating oppressive social structures contributing to a more real internal threat. The rise of increasing racism, for example, has been ingrained in their consciousness. They are feeling the threat as well with the rising population of other races taking over their countries. The much more pertinent internal struggles, however, are their loss of religiosity. Professor Wan shared several data pertaining to this social phenomenon, where according to the Pew Center – the loss of religiosity in Europe are among the highest around the world: Belgium 74%, Denmark 85%, Ireland 69%, Italy 72%, and UK 68%. 

Even Catholicism, known as the most conservative and powerful in their religious institutional structures, are undergoing the biggest crisis they have ever experienced in their history (see for instance, Prof. Dreher, American Conservative, “The Catholic Church Greatest Crisis”, October 2018).  Despite the great sins occurring among members of the church in the past, the internal order and leaders of the church never questioned their belief. However, the crisis of belief within the higher ranks of their religious institution in the last few centuries have proved to be afflicting their community in rapid scale.  

In the Muslim world, crisis of belief such as this is equivalent to the abolishment of the empire and embracement of secularism by the Young Turks never took place before in the history of Muslim world.  A scholar from Kalimantan by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Basuni Imran (1884  – 1920M)  once wrote an open letter published in the Al-Manar magazine entitled  “لماذا تأخر المسلمون و لماذا تقدّم غيرهم” (Why are Muslims Backward and Others Developed?) in 1930s which later on inspired Shakib Arslan (1869 -1945M.) to address this issue in his book entitled the same with the English translation of “Our Decline and its Causes” (3). The book was published less than 10 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He identified that the challenges that Muslims are facing are of two factors: 

  1. Insufficiency of knowledge, especially among the political and religious leadership;
  2. and lack of moral and ethical integrity of leadership of all types. 

The leadership he was referring to was the ‘ulama who used religious knowledge as a vehicle to acquire positions and wealth. People were misled by the overly external mannerism of these ulamas who broke the religious boundaries with religious pretexts of mainly the halal and haram as instrument. Shakib Arslan was living during the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and saw the lack of courage that was portrayed by some leaders which caused them to not struggle and sacrifice their life for the sake of religion, ummah and homeland. 

Another case in point is Beduzzaman Said Nursi (1877-1960 M) who fought against the Russians but was imprisoned and later suppressed by Atartuk’s regime. He used to travel all over Turkey and the Balkans to help revive the religious understanding amongst Muslims so that they may be strong again. He wrote a book entitled The Words (Sözler) to describe what he noticed as the basic problem caused by three general factors :

  1. Poverty (material) – Ottomans broke down and Muslims susceptible to compromised when they borrowed money from Western bankers
  2. Ignorance – Nursi’s attempt to improve this by building an educational institution, the Madinah Al-Zahrah. 
  3. Disunity – Consequence of poverty and ignorance. 

Professor Wan, however, identified a unique factor between recent reformers who have attempted to identify the challenges had only transpired during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the retreat of colonialism. This is not the case for Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (1931 – ). In fact, al-Attas lives during our time. He observed the outcome and product of secularisation happening throughout the Muslim nations albeit their independence from colonial rule. The problems are seen by reformers from the experiences of their times but could not have seen the effect of these threats during the period when we are free from direct power dominion of the colonisers. One can argue that the nations held under the Ottoman Empire were never fully colonised, but they did not escape the external challenges posed in a form of education.

The challenges that prevailed upon Muslims, as stated by Al-Attas since the 70s, exists both internally and externally. Both are not mutually exclusive from the other, neither are they equal in corrupting. The greatest threat that came from the outside, caused by the influence of Western thought, culture, and civilisation through colonisation and education, could not have penetrated itself into our identity unless the internal principles are in check. Colonisation was a result of their claim of superiority which coalesced those from the opposition to follow them; influence of ideologies and cultural affinities were transmitted through education using secularisation as a philosophical program. 

The secularisation process begins with the disenchantment of nature. Although Islam in its worldview does disenchant nature from a paganistic understanding, Islam, however, does  not rid nature of its spiritual meaning. Rather, it solely removes false spiritual affiliations and retains the true spiritual existence in nature. Islam retained the soul of man, the existence of angels, Iblis and satans, but not to trees as if it has spirit to control the natural world.

One of the example presented by Professor Wan on the outcome of disenchantment of nature is in the theory of evolution of species that slowly usurps itself as a secular framework to provide meanings to the origin of man.(4) He presented fresh statistics to show that the belief in human evolution is more prevalent in the Middle East than Muslim countries in Asia.  Secularisation as a philosophical program which indoctrinates, via media and institutions of higher learning, the minds of Muslims is deadlier to our identity. It means that there is mass confusion regarding who or what is the holder of power and wealth over us, and that we are not able to harness our God given resources that are given as a trust (amanah) to us.

The second effect of secularisation falls into the desacralization of politics, where the purpose of power is to gain control of this world without the consideration of the Hereafter. Even though Muslim governments might provide for religious affairs, but their involvements are merely for political interests and not necessarily for the spiritual wellbeing of themselves. The earlier Muslims (Sultans in the past) may have committed injustice, but they were not secularised in their worldview. 

For example, Muawiyyah (605-680 M.), who was responsible for the destructions of the Caliphate through force and domination, was once reported to have received a letter regarding the Prophet’s attitude toward Ali r.a. (632 – 661 M.) as someone that Prophet loves and respect, he cried thinking that, if he were to know this, he would have been more than happy to be serving under Ali r.a. instead of opposing him. Also Aishah r.a. (613 -678 M.), for instance, asked for forgiveness from Ali r.a. after she realised her mistake. We can also read about Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi (1137 -1193 M.), who was known for his courage in the service of Islam and remembered for recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders – yet when he was young in Egypt, he used to drink wine before changing his ways by the time he became a vizier, and went on a self-reformation process which is of tremendous in nature. Babur (1483 – 1530 M.), the founder of Mughal Empire too had a weakness, but he realised that he must put a limit to improve his responsibility as leader. They know their accountability to God and when they made a mistake, they must immediately rectify it when it became necessary. 

The disintegration of the proper recognition and acknowledgement of what consists of knowledge in Islam, in the minds of our ulama’ and leaders, have weakened the Ummah against this threat.  Al-Attas, who engaged with great thinkers of the West, debated with professors from the best of both Muslim and Western world, has come to conclusion that these confrontations will be a permanent one to the Muslims (5) due to the systemic internal disruption of knowledge concerning truth. 

The internal challenges are, therefore, the last line of defence and more fundamental such that its destructions can be seen in the rise of unqualified and false leaders in every field. Shakib Arslan identified this in terms of the problems of the leaders as well. These leaders will perpetuate similar leaders, and creation of policies and education systems will be geared to create similar falsehood.  It is important to outline the fundamental problem of confusion in order to clearly arrive at the solution. This confusion of knowledge later caused the disintegration of adab in the thinking, attitude, and lifestyle of Muslims that it nurtures cowardice in the hearts of our leaders so much so that they are willing to sell their country for the sake of material gains. 

What is adab? In the Malay world, we understand adab generally as good behaviour. Al-Attas interprets it through the metaphysical lens, not only the social manifestation of it. Adab is the spiritual aspect which is in the mind reflected in the body and motivates one to act according to its proper places such that it will lead one to recognise and acknowledge Allah. This certainty of one’s origin and purpose in life is the foundation for moral strength. Knowing what is right and wrong, and confidently knowing who is placed as the ultimate authority. Adab, if understood properly, will lead to the rise of proper leaders in every field. Poverty, for example, as identified by Nursi, should not be the main cause of a decline in quality of the ummah. The majority of the Muslim nations are blessed with the relevant natural resources, but it is a problem of injustice in distribution of these wealth. When there is no clarity about knowledge of what is right and wrong, we do not know how to properly harness these resources. Superficial identification of the causes of change will result in shallow representation of how we effect change. Stress on mere scientific and technological development that contributes to material advancements to increase the GDP of the country, or building more roads and buildings, will not establish the moral and civilisational character of the Ummah. Instead, what would  be enriching and a proper investment in the building of a civilization, would be to build great educational institutions and support knowledge culture according to Islam.  

Due to the confusion and error in knowledge prevalent in every field, there seems to be no solution to where we are right now. Muslims are too confused that even in America, 25% of them are leaving Islam. However, the same number are also becoming Muslims. Despite the increasing numbers, what is worrying is that more and more of them are adopting the wrong understanding of Islam.

According to the Pew Research on what is considered as morally unacceptable behaviour among Muslims, we can see that, for example, 28% of the overall Muslims in the world does not believe that belief in the prophet is essential to becoming a Muslim. Among those claim to be religious, only 88% of them believed in God; this begs the question on what happened to the 12%? The evidences are pointing towards an increase of mere cultural appropriation of religion in our community. We are becoming like the those who only identify with religion as a cultural or hereditary icon. To them, it is not about the belief, but merely their genealogical affiliations. Due to the confusion of basic knowledge of Islam, something as fundamental as the role of man and woman in Islam have been slowly compromised. For example, the percentage of Muslims that believe in the acceptance of homosexuality as a practice are increasing; 27% of them in (2011) to 52% (2017), and most of them who believe this to be the case are Muslim women. 

How do we overcome these challenges? How do we undo this confusion of knowledge? And how do we produce proper leaders? To start, al-Attas proposed, that it must begin at the level of adab. Inculcating right and proper adab to everything around us, for example, recognising people in every field and place them accordingly. Everything has its own places determined by its purpose of creation. 

Professor Wan stressed that if we want to solve our huge problems, we must solve them at the level of adab. Even with regards to matters such as the genesis of secularisation, our adab is to understand how it happened in the West. To understand it properly, is to put it in its right place. First, by understanding its meaning and process, and secondly by ensuring that it does not appear as a dominant force in the Muslim mind. This second act; of course, comes in hand with knowing our own beliefs, practices, and essentially, our worldview as Muslims. Professor Wan, however, reminded us that not everything secular or Western is bad. For secular here does not mean merely of the separation of religious and worldly matters, but of the outlook and priorities of what comes immediate and close to us, the here and now. We can take whatever aspect of secular element in governance of foreign and domestic affairs, or in general public welfare of man, but by also inculcating our own ethical and moral worldview. Locating something and putting them properly is the entire process of being a Muslim, such that it reflects that the whole of existence is created in order, hence reflecting adab. 

Adab towards the Prophet for example, is to exemplify an attitude towards truth and authority. Who would be the one teaching our current and future generations of the correct ethical and moral framework based on our religion of Islam? Surely, it must be an effort coming from the one who knows to the one wanting to know, and that is from the right scholars who could also lead institutions. We have seen the ugly outcome of leaders with unethical and immoral attitudes will only create both personal and institutional injustice throughout their leadership. We need to begin somewhere, and the easiest and yet not without its challenges, must begin with the self. 

During the question and answer session, Professor Wan mentioned that to be truly free is to have knowledge and courage to do what is right, and this one can practice even when we are in a non-Muslim country. Choosing and dealing with the right leaders requires knowledge of what is right and wrong, together with doing justice when upholding it.

(1) The expansion on the crisis of authority is currently an ongoing research by Professor Wan to elucidate the crisis of authority in Islam and its solution ( 

(2) Richard Bulliet, “Crisis Within IslamThe Wilson Quarterly, Winter (2002), No.2, 18

(3) Sheikh Muhammad Basuni Imran was a student in Al-Azhar during that time and was close to Muhammad Rashīd Riḍā. Shakib Arslan’s book was published in and later on the english translation was published in 1944; Indonesian translation in 1970 further information can be taken from F.Pijper  (1977),  Studien  Over  de  Geschiedenis  Van  De  Islam  In  Indonesia  1900-1950. Netherlands:  E.J.  Brill  Leiden ; c.f. Didik M Nur Haris & Rahimin Affandi Abd Rahim “Pemikiran Keagamaan Muhammad Nasuni Imran” in Al-Banjari Vol.16 No.2 July – December 2017 (1-25). 

(4) Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’ latest work confronts this challenge of the origin of man in his On Justice and the Nature of Man: A Commentary on Surah al-Nisa (4):58 and Surah Al-Mu’minun (23):12-14 (Ta’dib Foundation, Kuala Lumpur, 2019)

(5) Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Ta’dib Foundation, Kuala Lumpur, 2019), 97.