One of the luminaries that had shaped the Islamic thought in Singapore is Kiayi Muhammad Fadhlullah Suhaimi (1886-1964), the founder of Madrasah Al-Ma’arif Al-Islamiyyah, an all-girls madrasah here. Kiayi Fadhlullah is an Islamic cleric who was born in Singapore to a family of scholars, his father was Syeikh Sayyid Muhammad As-Suhaimi bin Sayyid Abdullah, whose lineage extended to Abu Bakr Bā Shaybān from Hadramaut, a descendent of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.
Picture from: https://blog.pergas.org.sg/
Throughout his life, Kiayi Fadhlullah Suhaimi was immensely committed to developing the intellectual thought of the Muslim community. He was a person with grit and resilience. These attributes may have been developed by his parents’ proper guidance and care. One of his daughters described him as a person who was ‘willing to calmly face any sort of challenges, and certain that nothing is unsolvable.’
In promoting Islamic learning to the community, he was not seen as just a scholar who graduated from Al-Azhar, but also a reformist who strived to guide the community to realise their duties and responsibilities as Muslims. His contributions for such purpose were most likely inspired by the progressive ideas of Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and other reformist scholars during his study in Al-Azhar.
Accordingly, he actively initiated and was greatly involved in providing education through the establishment of schools and institutions, and other initiatives. He encouraged Singapore to have its own religious body like that of Johor and gave other recommendations. He encouraged the youth to be excellent in everything that they do such as aiming to hold at least a position of an inspector in the Police Force.
Here are 3 things you may not have known about Kiayi Muhammad Fadhlullah:
1. A CHAMPION OF KNOWLEDGE
Kiayi Fadhlullah endeavoured to build the Muslim community with knowledge and values in different approaches. One of the ways to achieve this objective was sharing his knowledge on different platforms. He was a prolific writer and authored a considerable number of books and articles. He used to write articles in the local newspaper.
The topics discussed varied; not only on religious matters but also on socio-economic and socio-political issues facing the nation. He also taught at various Islamic schools such as Madrasah Alsagoff where he started teaching in 1916 after he graduated from Al-Azhar University.
His relentless contributions to developing the community were also through the madrasahs. He founded several Islamic schools in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He viewed that the education system in Malaya should be based on the local culture.
In 1927, he was appointed as the first principal in a college named Kulliyah al-Attas in Johor where his first son, Muhammad Taha Suhaimi (1916-1999), pursued his studies after graduating from Raffles Institution in Singapore. All his children were given Islamic education in addition to their academic studies. His decision to send three of his daughters to Egypt to pursue their studies was regarded as odd by the community back then. He received negative criticisms from them but his determination did not waver.
Kiayi Fadhlullah founded Madrasah Al-Ma’arif Al-Islamiyyah, Singapore in 1936 and ensured that it accepted male and female students. At that time, it was not common for the Muslim community to send their daughters for formal Islamic education in schools. The demand was so great from female students that the madrasah eventually became an all-girls school. Such an initiative of providing Islamic education for female students was then followed by other madrasahs.
Madrasah Al-Ma’arif offered three languages i.e. Malay, Arabic and English as mediums for various subjects. Although the decision to use English as a medium of instruction for selected subjects in the madrasah was not well-received by many during that time, Kiyai Muhammad Fadhullah had no qualms about hiring teacher of Eurasian ethnicity to conduct lessons in English.
He also introduced the Malay language as a medium of Friday sermons—which had been all along delivered in Arabic—while ensuring all the rulings of a Friday sermon were met.
2. LIKEABLE AND RESPECTFUL OF SOCIETY’S NORMS
Kiayi Fadhlullah got along well with the community. He was well-liked because of his friendliness. His contributions to the people of Singapore and Johor are constantly remembered by them. Almost every Malay in Singapore, especially in Kampung Melayu Jalan Eunos, knew him because they sent their daughters to Madrasah Ar-Ridhwan at Jalan Madrasah that he had founded near their homes.
According to Hj Ismail bin Umar Abdul Aziz, the first state Mufti of Brunei and one of Kiayi Fadhlullah’s students, his teacher was a scholar who would do things in moderation. This could be seen in his daily routines like eating, drinking, clothing, behaviour and more importantly, in his thinking and mindset.
He ensured that his ideas in addressing religious issues for the benefit of the community were sound and dynamic yet relevant to the society he was in. For example, he agreed with retaining some of the society’s norms like kenduri.
3. PROGRESSIVE RELIGIOUS OUTLOOK
Kiyai Fadhullah conceptualised the Sharī‘ah (Islamic religious rulings) by adapting to the context he was living in based on the ever-changing needs of his society. Although he was influenced by the leaders of revivalism at Al-Azhar University, back in the hometown he was able to reconcile some doctrines held by Kaum Tua (Old Faction), and Kaum Muda (Young Faction).
For instance, he agreed with the validity of ijtihād (independent reasoning) in the modern era as advocated by Kaum Muda, but he disagreed with those who entirely rejected taqlīd (imitation). On the other hand, he agreed with Kaum Tua who opined that taqlīd should be adopted but disagreed with their view that ijtihād was no longer valid. His moderate stance was that there is still room for ijtihād but only for those who have met its conditions, and the general masses should embrace taqlīd as they are not of scholarly calibre, deprived of the necessary criteria of making ijtihād.
What can we learn from his life?
Kiayi Fadhlullah passed away in September 1964 at the age of 78 years old. He left us as a vast legacy of knowledge and Madrasah Al-Maarif which he founded continue to produce female religious teachers and scholars that contribute to the development of Islam to our society today.
Here are some of the lessons we can learn from his luminous life:
Kiayi Fadhlullah had proven in his great effort that seeking knowledge is the key to many accomplishments. This applies to both genders. Any sort of beneficial knowledge should never be undermined as all of it is a blessing and should not be dichotomised unnecessarily.
Although Singapore is only a tiny dot on the global map, its history is full of great stories of renowned figures for us to learn from. Kiayi Fadhlullah and other renowned figures that have especially contributed to the spiritual, social and intellectual well-being of our community are a great inspiration for our generation. In fact, we can say that our achievements today are a result of their hard work, forward-thinking and immense sacrifices.
Before changes are planned and implemented, there is a need to be crystal clear of the objectives that will drive us through the whole journey to finally accomplish our goals. Kiayi Fadhlullah knew what great outcomes he dreamed of the community to achieve. Objectives will yield resilience and determination that are vital traits in creating changes, especially when facing objections from the people around.
May Allah s.w.t reward Almarhum Kiayi Fadhullah Suhaimi with the best rewards for his enormous contributions to the spread of Islamic knowledge. May we continue to advance this legacy of knowledge and appreciate the intellectual tradition of Islam, Amin.
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If you are looking to read more on Kiayi Fadhullah, here are some of the books written by him:
1. Kitab Pelajaran Tauhid (Book of Tauhid) - Cairo, Egypt, Al-Ittihad, 1914.
2. Tarikh Islam (Islamic Dates, Sayyidil Anam) - Batavia (Jakarta), 1918. The eleventh edition was written in Jawi, published by Matba'ah Al-Ahmadiah, Singapore, 1960.
3. Pedoman Kemuliaan Pada Mentafsirkan Qur'an (The Guidance of Nobility in Translating the Quran) - Muhammadiyah Press, Muar, Johor, 1924 (1st volume) and 1956 (2nd volume).
4. Kitab Menyatakan Asas Mazhab Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah (The Book of the Foundations of the Mazhab of Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah) - Malay Press, Singapore, 1926.
5. Kitab Tarikh Al-Qur'an (The Book of Dates in the Quran) - Dewan Pengetahuan, Singapore, 1927 (in Indonesian) and 1929 (new edition in Jawi).
6. Al-Qur'an dan Ulamak (Al-Quran and Scholars) - Johor Bahru, Matba'ah Al-Attas, 1931.
7. Manaqib Al-Arif Billah Kiyai Agung Muhammad Bin Abdullah As-Suhaimi - Matba'ah Al-Aminiyah (in Javanese), 1931, Malay edition by Ramli Ilyas.
8. 8 buah Kuliyah Al-Attas Pada Mentahqiqkan Masalah Khilafiyah dengan Nas dan Qias (8 lectures from Al-Attas on the issue of Khilafiyah, with Evidence and Analogy)- Anglo Asiatic Press, Singapore 1932.
9. Panduan Kahwin (Guide to Marriage) - Matba'ah Al-Ahmadiah, Singapore, 1941.
10. Malaya Baharu (New Malaya) - Matba'ah Al-Ahliyah, Kota Baharu, Kelantan, 1946.
11. Ilmu Al-Qadhak wal Qadar atau Jentera kepada Kemajuan (The knowledge of Qadha and Qadr’) - Matba'ah Al-Ahmadiah, Singapore.
12. Hoki atau Silat Perempuan: Mana yang berguna? (Hockey or Women's Silat: Which is more useful?) - Matba'ah Al-Ahmadiah, Muar, Johor, 1949.
13. Peliharalah Ulamak Kita (Protect our Scholars) - Utusan Melayu Press, Singapore, 1951.
14. Alam Perempuan (Women’s World) - Melayu Raya Press, Singapore, 1951.
15. Wanita dan Politik (Women and Politics) - Ahmadiyah Press, Singapore, 1953.
16. Al-Bayan (2 Volumes) - Al-Ahmadiah Press, Singapore, 1953.
17. Utusan Kebajikan Pada Beberapa Khutbah Jumaat/ Bulan Ramadhan (Messages in Several Friday Sermons/ Ramadhan) - Muhammadiyah Press, Muar, Johor, 1954.
18. Pertahankan Islam Kita (Protect Our Islam) - Pustaka H.M.Ali, Singapore, 1955.
19. Peliharalah Iman Kita (Protect Our Iman) - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1955.
20. Merdeka - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1957.
21. Sinaran Matahari Pada Menolak Kitab Ibadah Karangan Abu Bakar Asy'ari (The Light in Rejecting the Book Written by Abu Bakar Asy'ari) - Al-Ahmadiyah Press, Singapore, 1959.
22. Muhammad s.a.w. Pahlawan Merdeka (Muhammad s.a.w. the Freedom Hero) - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1959.
23. Masalah Loteri (The Problem with Lottery) - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1959.
24. Pancaran Cahaya Matahari Pada Menolak Fatwa As-Sayid Alwi Bin Tahir Menghalalkan Wang Loteri (Rejecting the Fatwa of As-Sayid Alwi Bin Tahir in Ruling that Lottery Money is Halal) - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1960.
25. Hormatilah Ibu Bapa (Respect Your Parents) - Pustaka H.M. Ali, Singapore, 1961.
26. Panduan Hidup (The Guide to Living) - Ahmadiyah Press, Singapore, 1963.
27. Universiti al-Quran, 1948
28. Kitab tarikh al-Islami pada menyatakan perjalanan Saiyidul Anam, 1939.
1. Fadhlullah Suhaimi, arranged by Mustaffa Suhaimi based on a Master thesis by Ni’mah bt Hj Ismail Umar titled The Life and Thoughts of Shaykh Muhammad Fadlullah Suhaimi in 1994, (Selangor: Progressive Publishing House Sdn. Bhd., 1998).
2. Beacons of the Ummah by PERGAS, (Singapore: PERGAS, 2014).
3. “Sumbangan Lepasan Mesir dalam Pendidikan dan Penulisan di Tanah Melayu dan Indonesia, 1920an hingga 1970an,” by Abu Hanifah Haris and Mohammad Redzuan Othman, International Journal of West Asian Studies, vol. 5 no. 1, (2013).