There have already been in the past few days quite a few messages, writeups, and videos dedicated to Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman (1936-2021), one of the great contemporary Muslim scholars. Many will be speaking about his intellectual legacy, and rightly so. In this short essay, I want to focus on my interactions with Dr. AbdulHamid and the lessons I learned from them. His demise is a great loss for the Ummah. As he was someone I respected and loved a lot, this loss feels very personal. But his memory and work will stay with us and inspire us to continue the great legacy he left behind. May Allah have mercy on him and enter him into Jannah, while granting his family patience and perseverance.
For those wishing a good place to begin learning about Dr. AbdulHamid’s thought, I highly recommend the carefully curated and compiled selection from his major works (in Arabic), published by the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World at Shenandoah University in collaboration with al-Hadara Center in Cairo
With br. Shahran Kasim, Prof. Hashim Kamali, and Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman in Malaysia
Photo courtesy of Shahran Kasim
“Ya Shaykh!” Those were the favorite words by Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman. He would use them to draw your attention, ask a question, explain something, or simply call you. It is rare to find a combination of scholarly erudition, humility, approachability, and wholesomeness. Wholesomeness. That is probably the best word to explain and understand Dr. AbdulHamid. A complete person who engaged equally with the most modest among us and with the most learned.
Though my encounters with Dr. AbdulHamid were rather brief, they left a lasting impact. I am sure it is the same with everyone else who has had the blessed opportunity to meet him. When I first arrived at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) as a student in 1994, I heard of the university’s Rector who was heavily involved in every aspect of the university. What was impressive to me is that he was genuinely concerned with the student’s well-being. Many of us came from war-torn and poorer regions of the world, so he knew that we couldn’t afford tuition or cover our living expenses. He worked hard with the university administration to raise money for this purpose. Dr. AbdulHamid encouraged students to get married. Under his leadership, the administration provided additional financial assistance to married students. Faithful to the Ummatic spirit which he fostered among everyone around him, he advised students from different ethnic and national backgrounds to get married. He saw the IIUM as the ground for creating a new identity, one that is rooted in the cosmopolitan understanding of the Ummah and not on narrow ethnic, racial, or regional identities.
Dr. AbdulHamid thought and lived the Ummah his every waking moment. The idea of the crisis of the Ummah – more precisely, of the Muslim mind – consumed him. For that reason, he took the task of leading an Islamic university – together with his friends and colleagues – and shaped its very identity based on the idea of “Islamization of knowledge,” (IOK) as developed by Ismail al-Faruqi (Naquib al-Attas took a different approach to IOK, though there are many similarities between the two). Dr. AbdulHamid saw education as a way forward for the Ummah. At the IIUM, the students in Islamic studies had to minor in humanities/social sciences, while those who majored in the latter had to minor in Islamic studies. He wanted the Islamic scholars and social scientists to be able to communicate with one another. He also believed that those who studied humanities and social sciences needed to learn Arabic to connect with Islamic heritage. This was a huge leap forward, compared to Islamic schools and secular universities, which usually excluded one another.
One of Dr. AbdulHamid’s favorite stories that illustrate his love for the Ummah was from his early childhood. Growing up in Makkah, he observed the pilgrims on their annual Hajj. He observed the faces of the hajjis, both men and women (who are not to cover their face), and concluded that Allah wanted people to gather in their diversity to understand, “this is your brother, this is your sister.” The equality of Muslims was foremost in his mind. Dr. AbdulHamid would often recall ‘Umar’s (RA) words about Abu Bakr (RA): “Abu Bakr is our master who freed our master (Bilal RA).” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Dr. AbdulHamid also narrated how he would go around Makkah, looking at its geography and topography, only to conclude that Prophet Muhammad SAW could not have come up with the Qur’an on its own, that it had to have been a Revelation from Allah SWT. He wanted other Muslims to come to similar conclusions based on their thinking, and not simply because they were told so. Consequently, personal accountability ranked high in Dr. AbdulHamid’s mind. He was eager for Muslims to develop a thinking mind that would lead to authentic selfhood, rooted in the Qur’anic worldview and sound thinking. Such an authentic self would guide Muslims in their worldly pursuits and secure a felicitous standing in the Hereafter. A Muslim who developed such an awareness would be highly conscious of his/her behavior and actions, so much so that on the Day of Judgment his/her accountability would be self-evident. To this end, he would quote, “Read your scroll; this Day you suffice to take account of yourself.” (Al-Isra’, 17:14)
I had the great good fortune of spending almost three weeks with Dr. AbdulHamid in 2014 when I worked at the IIIT. Dr. AbdulHamid was advising the IIUM on curricular reform. He met daily with various university faculty, administrators, and leadership. I accompanied him through these meetings and lectures, learning a great deal about his work ethic. He was almost 80 at the time, but he tirelessly worked toward his life goal of creating a university worth of a Muslim. He stressed the need for Muslims to be critical thinkers and well-versed in various areas of knowledge, while at the same rooted in the Qur’anic worldview.
As a person, he was humble and modest in a very refreshing way. We are constantly bombarded by religious leaders and celebrities who promote hierarchy and require adulation. Dr. AbdulHamid wanted none of that. In Malaysia, where traditional Asian and Islamic values demand respect for the authority to an n-th degree, he stood for equality and humility. Where the Malays would kiss the hand of an elder or a prominent person, Dr. AbdulHamid would withdraw his hand after shaking hands to avoid it being kissed. He wanted Muslims to be confident and independent, not servile and self-abasing. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from him.
Dr. AbdulHamid’s legacy goes way beyond his intellectual works. He was a wonderful example for contemporary Muslims who are trying to find the way in today’s complicated world, negotiating between Islamic traditions and legacies on the one hand, and contemporary knowledge and realities on the other.
Fittingly, Dr. AbdulHamid was buried after the Jum’ah prayer in Makkah al-Mukarramah, his birthplace. May his soul rest with members of the Prophet’s SAW family, companions, and other illustrious predecessors, and may they be rejoined with the Prophet Muhammad in Jannah al-Firdaws.