THE 6TH CONVOCATION OF THE INTERNATIONAL ISLAMIC UNIVERSITY AT THE ISLAMIC CENTRE KUALA LUMPUR 1ST AUGUST, 1992
It is almost a decade since this university was established as an instrument to fulfill the highest hopes of the ummah. These hopes dawned upon us amidst a global environment that promised a significant role for the ummah in world affairs. It was an opportunity to move from a position of marginality to centre stage. A new consciousness began to take root amongst the youth. There was a new sense of confidence and a reassertion of our identity. This was the coming of the 15th century of Islam.
But hopes alone are not enough. Hopes unsupported by hard work, dedication and clearness in thinking and a sense of realism, will often dissipate into bitter disillusionment. Hopes are sometimes mixed with a simplistic outlook or a tendency to underestimate the magnitude and enormity of the challenges before us. Indeed, events and developments within the ummah in the intervening years, had been a sobering reminder that our hopes must go beyond naive optimism. This university was born out of hope but its life must be guided by efforts and commitment to confront the stubborn realities within the ummah.
After many decades of independence, the debilitating residual effects of colonialism still run deep. There seem to linger an overriding sense, not so much of failure, but more of non-fulfillment. Not so much of the futility of our endeavours but more of being bound by the mediocrity of our achievements. The weight of conservatism remains a burden that slows down the pace of social progress. Mass poverty is still a fact of life for hundreds of millions. We have been able to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of foreign domination, but for some only to be replaced be even more repressive national regimes.
Intellectually and culturally, we have not been able to regain the creativity so characteristic of the ummah at the height of its glory as the dominant civilization of the world. We cannot deny the works of a handful of courageous scholars and thinkers. One could easily cite the thought provoking theses of the late Fazlur Rahman on the nature of tradition and the development of the Shariah but again the ummah and even the community of Muslim scholars prefer to pass over their works in silence lest the ummah is awakened from its complacent conformity. For the more audacious ones, they must be ready to face the opprobrium more often than not instigated by the members of the educated class who live comfortably and complacently in their narrow dogmatism.
This university therefore, shoulders the enormous task of initiating internal reforms within our society. The ummah needs lawyers, economists, engineers and doctors. This university will do its fair share in that direction. More than that it will continuously expand its courses to respond to new needs. The coming of the information society will demand new expertise that we cannot ignore. But this university is not founded only to address the manpower needs of the ummah, crucial they are no doubt. Because our participation in the international community requires a frame of mind that is open, bold and creative. This is the attitude of mind that will enable us to revitalize the ummah and revive it from its cultural and intellectual malaise.
Early this century, Iqbal had sown the seeds of intellectual reconstruction. But unfortunately his person received more attention than his works. His message fell on deaf ears, even while his greatness is glorified and extolled. Indeed, his verses have become a self-fulfilling prophecy :
Closer to us, Malek Bennabi advocated the idea of "civilizational dialogue" as an imperative for human existence in a global village. His ideas also have almost suffered the same fate as those of Iqbal.
For this university to carry out its mission it must continue where Iqbal and Bennabi left off. As Iqbal engaged himself in critical discourse with his Western contemporaries, so too must we engage in dialogue with the leaders of contemporary thought. Iqbal attempted to find meeting points between modern philosophy and the spirit of the Quran and the classical Muslim thought, and thus bring those great Islamic philosophers of the classical age of Islam and the message of the Quran to the fore of contemporary consciousness.
As Western philosophy has undergone a series of transformations since Iqbal's time, it would not be in the spirit of Iqbal for us today to engage ourselves in dialogue and debate with the very same philosophers that Iqbal himself confronted. In "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam", we perceive his boldness and witnessed the spirit of adventure, so characteristic of him, in exploring and subjecting to critical analysis the thoughts of al-Ghazali and Kant, al-Ashaari and Russell, Rumi and Bergson. For our part, we should rather look closer to our own time and face the current representatives of Western thought. The challenge today comes not from Russell or Bergson, but from Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. The challenge is no longer from the arrogance of Science taking for itself the role as the arbiter of Truth, but from Feyerabend, who denies any method in science and ends up with an anarchist theory of knowledge in which science is no superior to witchcraft. We no longer face the stubbornness of an A. J. Ayer, who reduces philosophy to logic, but Richard Rorty, who downgrades philosophy itself to the same level as any other literary endeavour, like poetry and the novel.
The ummah has addressed the issue of politics and economics but we have not begun to think seriously about the state of our culture. In the same way that we have considered and attempted strategies to resolve our political and economic problems so too must we nurture the growth and flowering of the arts.
If we take culture as the arts and other manifestations of human achievements looked upon collectively, then the position of the ummah in this regard is marginal. It cannot be poverty and underdevelopment which is the cause of this cultural and artistic sterility. Other communities, notwithstanding their economic circumstances, have demonstrated their cultural vigour on the world stage. Their dramatists, novelists and poets have lent their voices to the store of universal human experience and they are heard in the far corners of the globe. They have produced a Marquez, a Sonyika, a Milosz. Yet Muslim society as a whole have produced few works of universal significance since Iqbal. The presence of Naguib Mahfouz is an exception to the rule. This state of affairs reflects a community without a voice. And for that we are ignored. All our protestations to the world at large become mere noise. We must address this crippling voicelessness.
For these reasons, the International Islamic University must promote greater openness and provide the forum for the convergence and interaction of not only the diverse schools of thought within our society but also of ideas and currents of the contemporary global community. In its academic life, its teachers must guide the students through the labyrinths of contemporary philosophic currents, the social and human ramifications of scientific discoveries, and the debates in the humanities and the arts. The students, on their part, should not be content to remain passive, but strive to become partners in dialogue and discovery.
In conclusion, let us be constantly reminded of the mission of the university, and I cannot do better than borrow and paraphrase the words of Iqbal ;