The 1995 IIU Convocation, International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, 8 August 1995
We are here this morning to honour our students who have been successful in their studies and to confer on them their respective degrees. This is a universal practice with its origins dating back from the third Hijriah century. The tradition and organization of higher education, of colleges and universities, with academic freedom as one of their most treasured possessions, began in the medieval "licence to teach," known in Latin as the licentia docendi. Again, long before the licentia docendi appeared in the medieval Christian university, it had already developed in Islam, with the same designation, expressed in Arabic as ijazat at-tadris.
In our day, the authority to teach is conferred upon the doctoral candidate who has proven his scholastic competence in a field of study to which he has contributed an original thesis. His academic freedom to profess his thesis -- his `opinion' -- is recognized, and the thesis is accepted and applauded for its originality, because it is the fruit of his own intellectual labour. Henceforth the new doctor, the new professor of original personal ideas, based on his research, is authorized to profess these opinions freely, unhindered by any extraneous force. This phenomenon of the doctorate's authority, the dignity of the doctoral degree, first come into being in classical Islam in the guilds for the study of the discipline of the Shariah. They were called faqih, mujtahid and mufti.
In fact, one of the most enduring legacies of the discipline of the Shariah upon the discipline of law as we know it today and with far-reaching effect on the growth of an open and democratic society, is the idea of dissent. The fact that one of the most prolific genres of Islamic legal literature is the sub-discipline called khilaf study or the study of dissenting opinions reveals the importance of dissent in the body politic of the Muslim community. If the Muslim community were able to draw correct inferences from their own tradition of learning, we would not be on the wrong side in the on-going debate about democracy and human rights.
Contemporary Muslims are all too often apologetic on the crucial issues of our time and on the need to nurture the growth of a civil society within the ummah. The basic proposition governing democracy and civil society is the idea of the dignity of man. That idea took a long time to grow. The earliest comprehensive formulation of the concept of the dignity of man in the West was made during the Renaissance by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in an oration delivered to an audience of priests. As an honest scholar, he began his oration by declaring the source of his idea. He said:
I have read, reverend Fathers, in the works of the Arabs, that when Abdala the Saracen was asked what he regarded as most to be wondered at on the world's stage, so to speak, he answered that there is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man (nihil spectari homine admirabilius).
A century and a half after Pico, the idea of the dignity of man was to be expressed in unsurpassed beauty and brevity in Shakespeare's Hamlet:
What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.
This Abdala the Saracen, the source of Pico's idea on the dignity of man, which in turn inspired Shakespeare, could be no other person than Ibn Qutaiba, the celebrated humanist of the Abbasid era and author of Khalq al-insan or The Creation of Man.
The ummah will not be able to solve the chronic problem of political violence, sectarian and ideological bigotry and tribal blood-letting unless it begins to address the issue of the establishment of a civil society, al- mujtama' al-madani. Moderation and tolerance, equilibrium and flexibility, compassion and justice must replace extremism and dogmatism, severity and rigidity, tyranny and capriciousness.
A revolution in consciousness, a reorganization of our collective memory and a change in our self-image is the sine qua non for renewal and renovation. The civil society that we envisage is a society based on moral principles, where governance is by rule of law rather than by human caprice, where the growth of civic organizations is nurtured rather than suppressed, where dissent is not stifled, and where the pursuit of excellence and the cultivation of good taste takes the place of mediocrity and philistinism. For that, we have to retrieve, revive and reinvigorate the spirit of liberty, individualism, humanism and tolerance which Islam had contributed to the making of the modern world.
These ideas and values must again play a dominant role in our society. In this regard, the universities must make it their mission to disseminate and inculcate them among the students, regardless of their particular field of study or discipline. More specifically, the universities must produce graduates who not only excel in their own chosen field of specialization, such as law, medicine and economics but also have a firm grasp of dialectics and philosophy, in addition to having a taste for art, literature and music. Our students must aspire to be multidimensional men of learning, mutafannin, as they were called during the apogée of Islamic civilization. In fact, the Western idea of the Renaissance Man corresponds to the idea of the mutafannin, inasmuch as the studia humanitatis -- the humanities -- was none other than what the Muslims knew as the adabiyyat, which included the study of grammar (nahw), rhetoric (kataba), poetry (shi'r), history (akhbar or tarikh) and moral philosophy (`ilm al-akhlaq).
For our students to develop the love for philosophy and the taste for art, literature and music, they require an environment conducive for the pursuit of learning and intellectual ventilation. For this reason our libraries must be well-stocked with the canons of world literature, and records and commentaries of the major intellectual debates and disputes of all ages. For even in our time raging polemics and controversial discourses continue to characterize a vibrant intellectual tradition. Virtually no discipline, be it jurisprudence, economic theory and policy, philosophy, philosophy of science, and the humanities in general, is exempt from that characteristic. It is sheer pity if our students and faculty do not participate in the discourses, content to being mere officious bystanders, satisfied merely to listen to the distant echos. But it is a tragedy indeed if they are totally unaware of those intellectual battles.
Inevitably, the burden of establishing the intellectual and humanistic environment that we envisage falls squarely on our faculty. They must exhibit mental vigour and intellectual fecundity; be through and competent in their chosen discipline, and at the same time be a connoisseur of art, literature and music, having acquired the mental horizon of the mutafannin or the Renaissance Man.
Finally, let me conclude by citing a stanza from the Muntazam of the celebrated humanist Abu'l Fath al-Busti.