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Letter to Islamic University's ex-rector

'I choose the path of societal reform'

Dear Brother Abdul Hamid Abu Sulaiman,

Assalamu`alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu. Fecilitations and du'a for you, Faekah and the rest of the family. May you be blessed through your sawm and devotions in Ramadhan Mubarak to enhance sabr and taqwa.
Azizah has informed me of your departure from Malaysia and the moving farewell at the airport. I am greatly saddened by the circumstances of your resignation from the IIU. You've been a central pillar in the intellectual life of the University, the physical development of the Gombak Campus and the initial planning of the Kuantan Medical Campus.
But I know you as a man of forbearance and wisdom, and I trust you recognise that the machinations of a desperate despot and his handful of courtiers do not reflect the real sentiments of the citizenry. Thus, the venom of a contemptuous few cannot obliterate your indelible imprint on the university.
Since I am in solitary confinement, I am able to write a long treatise! But don't be alarmed. I know that my handwriting used to be atrocious; so out of mercy for you, I will attempt to rewrite this -- slowly. Remember you almost insulted me for your inability to decipher my Arabic writing. No excuse for my English, please!
The week your resignation was announced, IIU students, staff and graduates swarmed the courthouse just to let me know their regrets over your impending departure and how grateful they were to you for all that you had done for the University. It is gratifying to note that there is such popular acclaim for you within the University, notably for your dedication, diligence and magnanimity. In the process, naturally, I got harassed for university funding requirements. I, brother Jamal Barzanji and others have repeatedly implored without success that you should exercise reqularly and engage in some recreational activities. One night, in a phone call, I inquired of sister Faekah why you were still not home at such a late hour. Her response: "Brother Anwar, Abdul Hamid is married to the University."
In the quiet solitude of prison, I'm able to recollect vividly our meetings in Riyadh beginning more than 20 years ago. In spite our shared ideals, we  were always engaged in heated debates on the issues of wasilah (way of reform) and fiqh awlawiyyat (order of priorities). Unfamiliar as I was with loud Arab rhetoric, I had to force a readjustment of my subdued mannerisms -- in other words, my Malayness -- just so I could be heard. But, each time, it was the diplomatic mastery of Dr. Ahmad Totonji that brought about an amicable end to our debates. You were always adamant in putting across your view that islah and societal reform could be meaningfully achieved only through education and knowledge or, more precisely, in the realm of thought. It's amazing how consistent you have been, expounding those very ideas in The Crisis of the Muslim Mind, which you published years later. You maintain there that even as we marvel at the brilliance of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi's reign, we cannot ignore the importance of the scholastic tradition and educational reform preceding it.
I have chosen the path of societal reform and, in so doing, I often have had to sacrifice that just balance I have always wanted to maintain between contemplation and action. Through ABIM, student and youth morements, and later in government, I have tried to generate public awareness (taw'iyya) of the crucial importance of ensuring al-adl wal-ihsan (justice and virture/equty) in all human affairs. It is true that I have often been conciliatory, and at times I  have been critisised by colleagues and Islamists and social activists and the opposition, who insisted that not all of such compromises could be rationalised in the name of hikmah, or wisdom. (In fact, I intimated to you some time ago of my growing disenchantment and frustrations at the excesses of the government, Dr. Mahathirs abhorrence of criticism, his mega- enterprises and delusions of grandeur.) However, I had to draw the line when transgressions went beyond acceptable boundaries, when corruption had become pervasive and rampant, when religious laws and ulamas were belittled and abused, when public funds were plundered to enrich families and cronies, and when there was travesty of justice and the rule of law trampled. I have highlighted some of these issues in my earlier letters from prison, such as From the Halls Of Power to the Labyrinths of Incarceration. (I had wanted to use "Labyrinth of Solitude," but it's a novel by Octavio Paz).
Of course, I am paying a high price for sticking to my convictions. Nor am I alone in facing the rage of an aging dictator. Unfortunately, my family and friends have to suffer along with me. Some have been arrested, tortured, or otherwise harassed by the Special Branch. My experience in detention in 1974 taught me that it would be totally unacceptable merely to survive as a conformist while having to endure corruption and oppression. Alternatively, having to pursue a reform agenda as a competent critic is certainly challenging and beset with obstacles. Nonetheless, it is beyond my worst expectations   that Dr. Mahathir could act in such a desperate, despicable manner -- to allege that I am guilty of acts of treason (foreign agent), sexual misconduct, corruption, even explored the possibility that I was involved in a complicity to murder. And the fitnah and mihnah continue unabated, with vilification by the government-controlled media. Since you left, the Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Rahim Nor, has resigned and Dr. Mahathir has relinquished his role as Minister of Home Affairs. But I intend to proceed with a civil suit against him and the IGP for the physical assault, for being stripped naked, and the inhuman treatment under police custody. A lesson must be learnt. Citizens cannot be subjected to brutal physical abuse and ridicule.
Neverheless, like you, I have no regrets. I'm trying to keep myself busy--with prayers and du'a, tadarrus and reading. How else could I be expected to finish The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, Will Durant's Study of Philosophy, The Penguin History of the World, works of Plato and Aristofle etc. etc.? My old copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation of the Quran is most valuable because of my earlier short notes and references from Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi's tafsirs. Because of the limited number of books permitted at any given time, my hadith collection is confined to Riadh us-Salihin for the present.
So, as you can observe, I have not overlooked the importance of education and the intellectual tradition in bringing about reform. I recall my last IIIT meeting with al-Marhum Ismail al Faruqi in Virginia, which featured a debate on "Ibn Khaldun and Change," based on Ernest Gellner's Muslim Society. Al-Marhum Ismail had a way to compel me to read the relevant texts before such meetings. Such encounters undoubtedly helped to further enhance my love for scholarly discourse and rekindle my passion for literature, which I have tried to share with the public even in dry budget speeches in Parliament in the hope of introducing the great minds to the uninitiated. Thus, while trying to justify the need for reform or the reduction of taxes, for instance, I used to slip in quotes from Ibn Khaldun. I concur with Mortimer Adler in his attempt to popularise philosophy. Thus Asian sages and reformers feature regularly in my speeches and writings, including Kung Fu Tze, Wang An Shih and the author of Kurikural. The Asian Renaissance series (of conferences) beginning with Jose Rizal whom I consider a precursor to the Asian renaissance, was a great success. I am indebted to Ceaser Adib Majul, whose seminal work on the Filipino Revolution and on Mabini, its foremost intellectual luminary, greatly influenced me. You know the tradition of the old sheikhs. Sheikh Ceasar virtually forced me to go through the texts with him till about 4 in the morning at his residence in Manila. My only other such experience is of course with Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Our second conference on Muhammad Iqbal was also well attended, and his son Javed's participation made it more exciting. Our plans on Jamaluddin al Afaghani, Rabindranath Tagore and Sun Yat Sen have had to be temporarily shelved.
My humble apologies for digressing due to my lack of academic rigour and discipline! When I assumed the office of Minister of Education I had to persuade you to immediately travel to Kuala Lumpur as IIU's new Rector. Sensing your initial reluctance, I had to prick your conscience by reminding you how you had been pontificating over the issue of education and the Islamisation of knowledge and that you now had the moral responsibility to assist in the actualisation of the ideals. And not a word about pay or perks. You ended up receiving a salary substantially lower than the renumeration you were used to as a professor in Riyadh. But I must say without hesitation that it was indeed a worthy sacrifice. Despite the limitations and constraints of the system, and with the help of selected colleagues, you have expanded its academic programme, initiated a new university culture and caused some resentment in the process), advanced staff and academic training schemes, increased substantially the intake of both local and foreign students and embarked upon an ambitious and impressive physical development of the new campus.
Upon reflection, we do realise how ardous and perplexing was the task. The predominant attitude regarding education then was utilitarian. Educational institutions were seen as factories to churn out graduates with the necessary skills and expertise to meet the demands of industry. While it is right to expect universities to match the requirements of industry, one should never lose sight of the fundamental aim of education, which is to cultivate the love of learning and scholarship, the ladhdhat ul-ma'rifah. Or, as Abul Fath al Busti haas put it, fa anta bil nafs, la bil-jismi, insanu--you are a man not because of your physique, but becase of your intellect. ( I used the full quote in my Asian Renaissance). And consistent with the holistic approach, the assimilation of knowledge incoporates faith (iman), Knowledge (ilm) and ethics/morality (akhlaq). Its success is contingent upon the realization of its ideals and its subsequent application in daily life by our graduates. I would venture to add their commitment to disseminate truth. It is therefore incumbent upon the leadership of institutions of learning to play a catalytic role in intellectual and societal reform. I remember recommending that all vice-chancellors read A Nation At Risk, the report of the decline of education in the United States, and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, exhorting for a more intellectualy profound educational tradition and the relevance of morality in education. I soon began to realize, as Minister of Education in the eighties, that there would be resistance unless universities were led by competent academics and managed as a university; not as a school or corporation!
The university requires a resolute and firm leadership to withstand the dictates of political masters wanting to colour education purely as a propaganda tool or to serve the requirements of corporate tsars. Otherwise, we will see an intellectually sterile leadership succumbing to all possible dictates of the system, preventing discourse, criticism and public dialogue, which would in turn breed mediocre academics and students. This reminds me how as a young activist exasperated by the increasing number of restrictions on academic freedom and dissenting voices on campus, I alluded to the "sacred cow" Ivan Illich speaks of in his devastating rebuke of the educational system. It is impossible to envisage dynamism, intellectual inquiry and the mushrooming of ideas under an oppressive, intolerant regime. Even in the Islamic education system, what has been paraded as "traditional" has gone wide of the mark of true tradition and is in fact nothing more than an "obsolete, truncated system," as Fazlur Rahman so convincingly argues in his Islam and Modernism. We must restore the spirit of inquiry and that of tasamuh, the tolerance of differing views. We must explore new avenues whilst remaining firmly rooted in authentic tradition. This is precisely why I have encouraged intellectual discourse among young academics. They must have some familiarity with philosophy whilst being, for instance, computer literate and academically qualified in their various disciplines.
Sheikh Taha Jabir al-Alwani, for example, expounds on the premise of turath, legacy or heritage as a prerequisite for scholarship and consequently for reform. One has only to fathom the scope and depth of traditional scholarship from the comprehensive, though not necessarily exhaustive, overview of Frantz Rosenthal's Knowledge Triumphant or George Mokdisi's The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West, among others. To begin with, it would certainly help shake one's prejudice and ignorance of the subject. I would urge our students to be exposed to the works of contemporary scholars such as Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas's Islam and Secularism, Ismail al Faruqi's Tawhid, Syed Hussain Nasr's Science and Civilisation in Islam. I am conscious of my bias for English texts, regrettably due to my rudimentary knowledge of Arabic. Our regular meetings in Riyadh and even a brilliant tutor, Dr Kamal Hassan (when I was at the University of Malaya) were not much help. My only consolation is that Arabic now is better than most of my classmates'. But credit is due to the tutor.
Fortunately, all the major works of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi and Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali have been translated into English or Malay. And their other works in Arabic have special English annotations for my personal perusal. At no time did I suggest that we ignore other Great Works, such as the collection edited by Mortimer Adler. I would even include Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, which explores the Western literary tradition. I confess my special interest because he places Shakespeare at the center of his Canon. But what is perplexing is our failure to enlighten our young intellectuals with our own Great Works or canon in English or Malay. The late President Zia ul-Haq's exceptional initiative with A.K. Brohi to undertake a major intellectual enterprise--that is, to compile and recommend appropriate titles and to publish 100 Great Works in Islam in the English language--deserves recognition . Since I was involved with the project from the beginning together with Prof. A. Majid Mackeen, and now that the progress has been somewhat sluggish, I have intimated to our colleagues in Pakistan to collaborate in the continuation (of the project), at least in some selected titles. Similarly, the effort of the Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge in publishing some of the works of Hujjatul Islam Imam al Ghazali, including Ihya Ulum ud-Din, needs to be endorsed. I have derived inspiration from such enterprises and I have embarked upon a similarly ambitious Karya Agong project in Malay, which would include Malay classics such as Sejarah Melayu, Islamic classics by Malay traditional scholars, other Islamic great works and the great works of the East and the West.
I reiterate my profound gratitude and appreciation for your impressive performance. I commend you for being able to manage against the odds and particularly for exercising your utmost patience with me. Yes, I constantly react to students' complaints and the frustrations of some members of the academic staff. Where criticisms are legitimate, we have to be magnanimous as you have consistently shown. But when we notice racist overtones to deny fact that the very existence of the University was to serve Malaysians and the Ummah, then you are right to react firmly.
Our universalistic approach of assimilating knowledge from both the East and West, while remaining rooted in the our tradition and Islam, must be built upon. The IIU is clear testimony to our resolve to maintain our independence. You would understand why some quarters in the ruling elite resent this philosophy and approach. Throughout recent history, we encounter the so-called nationalists with strong anti-Western rhetoric, but who remain captive to the Western mind set, either in their understanding or the issues of faith, morality and values or in their notion of laws, governance or development. This is well articulated by Sheikh Muhamad al-Ghazali as isti'mar ruhi wafikri, the imperialism of the soul and mind which is devastating to the Ummah. Or, as alluded to by Malek Ben Nabi, the characteristics of colonisibilite, the subconscious acceptance of colonialism or colonial policies. We must remain steadfast and resilient against any form of foreign domination or threat. And we must have the courage to condemn atrocities perpetrated by any power--the Serbs in Bosnia Herzegobina , Israel in Palestine or, recently, the United States in Iraq. But we should not remain na´ve, to be duped by dictators and desperate regimes to deflect from the real issues and the wrath of their own people. Dr Mahathir is again using the foreign bogey and their perceived threat as a ploy to camouflage excesses and corruption. We Malaysians fought the colonial powers because of their oppression and plunder. Surely, we would not want these powers to be replaced by indigenous oppressors and squanderers. As I have indicated in The Asian Renaissance (1996): "It would be a tragedy indeed if this hard-earned freedom were to result merely in the substitution of a foreign oppressor with a domestic one" (p.62). The foreign bogey is not anything new. Neither is it unique to Malaysia. Mussolini used it to dominate the Italians. He was followed by Hitler. In fact, all dictators past and present like nothing more than to maintain the perception of an ongoing threat. When they are finally defeated, they are found to have amassed enormous amounts of wealth, the accumulation of years of plunder.
I pray that the foundation that has been laid be expanded and not curtailed, advanced not derailed. I am relieved to hear of Dr Kamal's appointment as the Acting Rector. I have full confidence in him and his impressive academic credentials and experience. I am proud of our students and credentials and experience. I am proud of our students and graduates, and I pray that they will continue to carry the torch of knowledge and Islamic spirituality wherever they go. And , wherever they are, I hope they will keep calling for change and islah, in obedience to the verse from Surah Hud: "In uridu illal islaha mastatu`tu."
Azizah and the children join me in reciprocating your affection. Sister Faekah was such a great help and comfort to Azizah and the children. Yes, we were all baffled initially at the extent of acrimony and rancour. But we soon realised that fitnah and mihnah by the perpetrators knew no bounds. Did I have a choice? Should I fear retribution and fabricated charges? Without hesitation and with a clear conscience, I will continue to struggle. Yes it is somewhat arduous seemingly insurmountable. But we have seen the spontaneity of support, overwhelming and expressing genuine concern. They know of the moral standards of the leadership, the hypocratical lifestyles and the vices which abound among those discussing morality. They are aware of the billions amassed by leaders who are close confidantes of the leadership and who continue to be rewarded. They are not oblivious to the bailout of children and cronies. The mega projects, the majestic palaces are just too conspicuous to be erased. They have heard tape recordings of speeches abusing ulamas and denigrating religious laws and values. And now more evidence of conspiracy at the highest level to assassinate me politically seems to be surfacing.
Your du'as and those of concerned friends have helped strengthen my patience and resolve. Azizah and the children have done remarkably well. It's not easy, but I'm managing fine. These are but temporary aberrations; the dawn of a new Malaysia cannot be far off. Insha Allah, justice will come, truth will prevail, wickedness and treachery will be exposed and I shall be vindicated. As Cordelia says in King Lear: "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides." Man proposes, Allah disposes! Please keep me informed of your plans. I am sorry that you were unable to visit me in prison. I certainly miss your company and Faekah's sumptuous meals, including the kebabs and umm ma'ali. Our salaams to the family and friends. Tell Shiraz that `Ammu Anwar owes her and her husband a treat.
Alas, what a farewell - no dinners, no presents. What else can I provide from here except to express my gratitude from the heart - hadith al qalb bil qalb!
Do seek the assistance of Dr Jamal or Dr Hisham al-Talib to dechiper my writing. I can assure you that this is about the best I could offer--taking the entire Sunday. There are no other facilities available.
Again,
Eidul Mubarak
Min al-`Aidin wal faizin
Kullu `am wa antum bi khair
Wassalamu`alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu

Affectionately,
Akhukum fil Islam

Anwar Ibrahim
Sg Buloh Prison
23 Ramadhan 1419
11 January 1999

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