Event Review: Legacy of Singapore’s Past Ulama
Who: Ustaz Firdaus Yahya
Where: University Town, National University Singapore
When: Thursday, October 6 · 7:00pm – 9:30pm
It had been raining heavily by the time we reached University Town. The sky was dark and the air was cold. It was nearly time for Maghrib. I had made this trip to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in anticipation of a talk organized by the NUS Muslim Society (NUSMS). It was titled, Legacy of Singapore’s Past Ulama. The speaker was Ustaz Firdaus Yahya, the person behind ibnyahya.com – the personal site that inspired the groundbreaking book by PERGAS and LBKM on Singapore’s past Ulama’, Obor Ummah.
Soon after Maghrib, while waiting for the arrival of Ustaz Firdaus Yahya and Ustaz Mohd Jakfar bin Embik, I settled into the front row with a copy of Obor Ummah. Seated in between brothers Azhar Ismail and Walid Jumblatt, we browsed through the book, appreciating its content and pictures, while sharing with one another our own experiences with one or two of the said Ulama’ who we had the honour of meeting. My very own teacher, Ustaz Syed Ahmad Semait, who passed away in a car accident in 2006, was amongst the 20 Ulama’ featured in the book.
When the two Asatizah arrived, they were warmly greeted by the crowd of 30 or so young men and women who had braved the torrential rain and gathered in the function room.
Ustaz Mohd Jakfar – head coordinator for this research and the book – gave an introductory address before Ustaz Firdaus Yahya began the session proper. Both speakers emphasized the importance of documenting the biographies and contributions of our past Ulama’ while at the same time highlighting the challenges faced in the process. One such challenge they noted included the choice of family members of a deceased Ulama’ in wanting to maintain anonymity. Such was the state of tawaddhu’ of both the Ulama’ and their family. Yet, anecdotes and information readily provided by the students of these very Ulama’ are testimony to their contributions to da’wah of Islam and education of Muslims in Singapore.
Ustaz Firdaus started by sharing with us how his website, ibnyahya.com was conceptualized. The idea to start the website came when he was finalising his MA thesis in late 2004. He recalled how he was caught in a situation when he realised that there was no documentation of our Ulama’ readily available to be referenced. The only reference he had was his own interaction with the said Ulama’. It was also then that he realised that not all of our Ulama’ had been thoroughly researched. Thus it began the meticulous process of documenting the Ulama’ of Singapore.[pullquote_right]On the death of Sheikh Omar al-Khatib: So many were the number who had gathered to pay their respects, that the tractor usually used for filling the burial plot with earth could not get through the thousands of people there.[/pullquote_right]
Ustaz Firdaus acknowledged the fact that as he began researching the lives of the past Ulama’ and recording them, he realised that there was also a transformation within him. As he listened to personal accounts of an Ulama’ – such as his educational background, his interaction with his family – Ustaz Firdaus began to appreciate these Ulama’ better. Aptly, he quoted the Malay saying, “Tak kenal maka tak cinta.”
For the benefit of the young crowd that had gathered in the room, Ustaz Firdaus recalled, with much sentiment, his own experiences with some of these Ulama’, in particular, one of the most distinguished ‘aalim known to our region, Syeikh Omar bin Abdullah Al-Khatib. Ustaz Firdaus shared with us how he was witness to the crowd that had gathered at Pusara Abadi when Syeikh Omar passed away. So many were the number who had gathered to pay their respects, that the tractor usually used for filling the burial plot with earth could not get through the thousands of people there. It had to be done manually, without machinery. In my heart, I noted how this must have indeed been an honour accorded to him by Allah swt.
Syeikh Omar’s love and respect for his teachers was so great. In his youth, one of his teachers was the eminent Shaykh Omar bin Abdullah Bagharib. Although his son, Shaykh Zakaria bin Omar Bagharib later became his own student, Syeikh Omar Al-Khatib’s humility, love and respect for his teacher meant he always kissed the hand of Shaykh Zakaria. Ustaz Firdaus noted Syeikh Omar did not call Shaykh Zakaria by name, but by the respected title of Mu’allim (teacher).[pullquote_left]Tips on seeking knowledge: to always be close to Allah swt and to ask Him to guide us to learn from good and compatible scholars; and to have patience in the process.[/pullquote_left]
By the end of the session, one of the students present asked Ustaz Firdaus for some tips on seeking knowledge, to which he replied – to always be close to Allah swt and to ask Him to guide us to learn from good and compatible scholars; and to have patience in the process. Masya Allah, I must say it truly was a timely reminder for myself.
With the website and the launch of the book Obor Ummah, we are ensured that accounts of our Ulama’ – their contributions and their exemplary characters – will not be lost to our future generation. The Islamic heritage that belongs to our community and Singapore will insya Allah be safeguarded.
Abbas teaches English and Literature at a local secondary school. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org