The IIU President's Conferment Award for Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali, 22 August 1995
It is indeed a privilege for this university to honour a scholar/ preacher-cum-activist who has devoted his lifetime to the cause of Islam. Be it in his voluminous writings, public lecturers or public debates, Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali has always spoken for a rational, moderate and tolerant Islam. For myself and the youth of my generation, our initial encounter with his ideas was through Min Huna Na'lam, translated by almarhum Professor Ismail al-Faruqi as Our Beginning in Wisdom. It was a spirited, yet rational response to the secularization thesis of his Azhari colleague, Sheikh Khalid Muhammad Khalid, who in his book Min Huna Nabda -- From Here We Start -- exhorts the Muslims to make a clean break from their past by reducing Islam to mere beliefs and rituals.
Sheikh Khalid's thesis was indeed bold but it was a seed of dissension within the Ummah. What it amounted to was that the Muslims should take a path similar to that trodden by Europe since the Renaissance, that is to free the domain of public affairs from the constraints of religion and morality. Secularization demands a separation between public space and private sphere, while the vision of Islam encompasses both, guided by supreme moral authority.
For a while there seemed to be an internal crisis and a schism was looming large, because for the first time the call for secularization had come forth from a member of the scholarly community, someone who had all the while been regarded as a guardian and transmitter of the teachings of Islam. However, the seed failed to germinate and it was so owing in no small measure to the intellectual calibre of the person we are honouring today. His rejoinder was as persuasive as it was devastating and effectively debunked the secularization thesis of Sheikh Khalid's and in so doing flushed out a deadly venom from the mind of the Ummah.
At a time when the Ummah is all too prone to be swayed by the impulses of passion, the ideas of Sheikh al-Ghazali provide a powerful counterpoise. His is the celebration of reason over passion, balanced view over blinkered perspective, knowledge over ignorance, intellectual rigour over indolence and sloppiness, tolerance over bigotry. These, to my mind, are his enduring legacy, the legacy of the central motives of Islam, of the great scholars of the past, which he has faithfully transmitted to us. These are the virtues and mental attitudes that the Muslims today must summon in our move for internal social and political reform as a pre-condition for the establishment of civil society within the Ummah.
The establishment of civil society -- al-mujtama' al-madani -- is certainly among the greatest challenges to us today. The ubiquity of evils in our society -- violence, corruption, moral decay, violation of human rights, economic stagnation and suffocating intellectual environment -- is to a large measure due to absence of civil society. By a civil society we mean a flourishing of social intermediaries between the family and the state, a social order founded upon moral rules rather than individual fancy, a governance based on popular participation rather than elitist imposition, rule of law instead of human capriciousness, respect for individual freedom and the freedom of expression within the bounds of morality and decency. It is altogether ironical that while Islam provides all the values and impetus for the successful establishment and sustenance for civil society, yet it is like a mirage among us.
Our failure today is not only to establish civil society but more importantly also because we have not begun to address this fundamental issue. Our attention is often diverted to trivialities and futile hair- splittings.
It was a rare privilege for me to be present on an occasion where Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali was confronted with those minds prone to indulge in trivialities. It was some 20 years ago at the Dhahran's University of Petroleum and Minerals, after his lecture on the Sunnah, a young student rose to question our venerable Sheikh why he could discourse so persuasively on the Sunnah of the Prophet but failed to practice one of the Sunnah -- that is, keeping a beard like the Prophet.
But al-Ghazali refused to be dragged into such triviality and with a wry sense of humour replied: "My son, you are sitting too far behind, thus you can't see my beard. I have a beard, an Egyptian beard, a thin one." Of course the hall burst into laughter. The student took offence because his question was not taken seriously and again rose to ask the same question and Sheikh al- Ghazali refused to reply.
The same question repeated for the third time, by the same student, in a manner which caused uneasiness among the audience, prompted Sheikh al-Ghazali's reply, not on the issue of beard per se, but on the issue as an outward manifestation of the crisis of the Muslim mind. I would say it was a blunt and devastating critique of a state of mind so pervasive among us, a mind that is all too eager to indulge in trivialities and an obsession with detailed outward conformity. Forms are certainly important and indispensable in religion, but what is objectionable, as happens most of the time, is the loss of sense of balance and proportion, that is a kind of obsessive preoccupation with forms that induces a forgetfulness and diversion from the substance, that is the fundamental objectives and teachings of religion.
To restore the lost balance and to regain the sense of proportion is a challenge to our intellectuals and one of the functions of this university. By doing so, we will begin to address the crucial and most urgent issues confronting the ummah and thus pave the way towards a genuine renaissance.