- Tradition and Islamic Learning: Singapore Students in the Al-Azhar University by Norshahril Saat
Norshahril Saat's Tradition and Islamic Learning: Singapore Students in the Al-Azhar University is a much briefer and easier read than his other book published in 2018 by Amsterdam University Press, The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. As Norshahril himself admits, as a 'preliminary study' and 'fact-finding [End Page 186] study', Tradition and Islamic Learning has no intention of making 'big claims' (p. xii). Apparently triggered by his concern about the over-emphasis on security considerations given by past scholars studying Islam and Muslims in Singapore, Norshahril's work seeks to disentangle the hazy connection that some analysts have postulated as existing between Islamist2 extremism and conservative Islamic teachings as propagated by age-old educational institutions of the Muslim world. The focus of Norshahril's ethnographic study is the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a world-renowned higher learning institution for Islamic studies and the most popular destination for Southeast Asian Muslim students seeking tertiary qualifications in the Islamic sciences such as sharia (Islamic law), usul al-din (theology), tafsir (exegesis of the Quran), hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and Arabic literature. Many of these graduates go on to become members of the Islamic religious intelligentsia and Islamic officialdom in their home countries. The political influence of this religious elite has been increasing in recent years due to the global wave of Islamic resurgence that has made Southeast Asia a fertile ground for the growth of Islamist trends emanating from the Middle East. As a non-Muslim-dominated country sandwiched between the two Muslim-majority nation states of Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which have been troubled in recent years by paroxysmal outbursts of Islamist militancy, the attention paid by the Singaporean government to a lurking Islamist threat, however remote that threat might be, is understandable. As the institution traditionally responsible for producing the core and indeed the cream of ulama (Islamic religious scholars) in the Malay world, Al-Azhar's curriculum, pedagogy, learning culture and staff orientation are of particular interest, as drawn out by a special British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series entitled 'The Battle for Al-Azhar', which Norshahril mentions in his preface (p. ix) and in which I was one of BBC's interviewees.3
In contrast with the bleak picture painted by some observers who claim that Al-Azhar has not been immune from Saudi Arabia-style ultra-conservatism that is potentially conducive to Islamist extremism and the straining of ethno-religious relations in Singapore's plural society,4 Norshahril comes out largely vindicating Al-Azhar from charges of propagating extremism. In upholding its wasatiyyah (moderate) tradition (p. 55), Al-Azhar has been open enough to expose its students to a variety of streams of Islamic thought, including unorthodox ones such as Shi'ism, Mu'tazilism (rationalism) and Greek philosophy (pp. 73–7). Its students are not compelled to follow any particular line of thinking, hence the absence of a specific 'Al-Azhar school of thought' among its graduates (p. 13). This does not mean, however, that Al-Azhar is not conservative. Its conservatism is rooted rather in orthodox Sunni theology and jurisprudence, thus its ulama products, at least in the Southeast Asian context, have unsurprisingly been overwhelmingly purveyors [End Page 187] of the classical Sunni tradition rather than reformists or revolutionaries commonly identified with the Salafi or Salafi-jihadi currents of Islamist thought and practice.
Al-Azhar's largely moderate trend does not, however, preclude the possibility of its graduates venturing outside their orthodox comfort zone and becoming Islamist-oriented scholars, as was the case with Syeikh Muhammad Tahir Jalaluddin (1869–1956), pioneer of the Kaum Muda movement in Malaya and Singapore in the 1930s, and former Kelantan Menteri Besar from the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS: Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), Nik Aziz Nik Mat (1931–2015) (pp. 45–6). At the international...