KISSAH AND DAWAT: Engaging the Young Ulama

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 25 November) –  I have been a madrasah and ulama advocate for about three decades now. My advocacy centers on creating spaces within the mainstream polity for madrasah education as integral part and partner in the education of Muslim children and youth, boys and girls, especially in the areas of spiritual and cultural formation, reformation and transformation. Behind madrasah education are the ulama (male religious professionals) and alimat (female religious professionals) who are leading and managing the madaris (plural of madrasah), the traditional system of learning in Muslim communities.

The research of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG) on traditional madaris in 2019 censused 1,850 traditional madaris with the bulk of it (1,534) within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The same research tells us that 90% of these madaris offer tahderiyyah (kindergarten) education, 79% offer ibtida-i (primary) education, 62% offer idadi (intermediate) education, 21% offer thanawi (secondary) education and 2% offer kulliyah (college) programs. This a snapshot of the breadth and depth of influence of the madrasah and ulama sectors on the lives of the Muslim population.

While madrasah education has now received government’s policy and program support through the Muslim Education Program at Department of Education (DepEd) Central, and Madrasah Education Program at the BARMM; the same cannot be said of the ulama and alimat, traditional religous professionals. While senior ulama are  important and influential today, it is the young ulama, the up and coming, the next generation, the should also be given due attention.

Last week, I was invited to facilitate a workshop for a group of about 50 young ulama, up to 45 years old, all males, who have recently graduated their kulliyah studies and those who are still studying at universities in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan and Egypt. They came home for their annual vacation and would be returning back soon to complete their studies. All of them were on scholarship fully-paid by these Middle East governments. The activity was initiated by the Ulama Council of Zamboanga Peninsula (UCZP) and Integrated Resource Development for Tri-People (IRDT).

Aside from keeping in touch with these young ulama, the activity over the weekend was also a way to consult and generate ideas about the young ulama, especially about their views on the Muslim community and their own welfare and engagement. The present breed of young ulama are actually schooled in both secular and religious education. To avail of scholarship in the Middle East, they need to have finish at least their secular high school education and their thanawi Islamic education. Many have secular college education as well. I have met several young ulama who are also nurses, engineers and teachers in the secular realm.

Upon completion of their studies, most of them will end up in their local madrasah as teacher or administrator and masjid (mosque) as imam (prayer leader) or khatib (one who gives sermon). These are their traditional roles. At the start of workshop, I showed them examples of ulama who have transcended these traditional spaces and engaged themselves across several development spheres within the Muslim community in particular and Filipino society in general. Exemplars include Aleem Yusoph Alano, who completed his kulliyah education in Syria is now two-term vice governor of Basilan.

Aleem Marjanie Mimbantas is a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) and co-currently serves as chair of the Bangsamoro Youth Commission. He completed his majistir (master’s) and dukturah (doctorate) in Malaysia.

Another Malaysia graduate is Aleem Prof Dr Atty Hamid Barra, former Dean of King Faisal Center at Mindanao State University and Regional Secretary of the Department of Eucation in the now defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (DepEd-ARMM).  He is currently a BTA member and concurrently Minister for Human Settlement and Development.

The former Grand Mufti (Jurisconsult) of the ARMM Regional Darul-Ifta’ Dr Aboulkhair Tarason completed his Islamic studies up to doctorate degree in Saudi Arabia;  he is currently chairs the Basilan Ulama Supreme Council (BUSC).

Another graduate from Saudi Arabia is Aleem Abdulwahid Inju who once served as Commissioner with the National Commission for Muslim Filipinos (NCMF). His student Ustadz Dr Kasmil Abdulwahid completed his doctorate degree in Islamic Education Psychology for Indonesia and he is now an associate professor with Mindanao State University in Tawi-Tawi; while an older colleague, Ustadz Dr Kamar Abdulkarim, who completed his kulliyah in Pakistan is now dean of the College of International and Arabic Studies at the Western Mindanao State University.

Another graduate from Pakistan, Ustadz Captain Mohammad John Arsad is a chaplain with the Philippine National Police. Yet another Pakistani graduate Ustadz Jojo Abdusalam works in the City Government of Zamboanga as Executive Assistant of Muslim affairs.

Although limited in quantity, these are emerging opportunities for ulama in the Philippines beyond their traditional roles in madrasah and mosque. Creating opportunities for them within the mainstream society will help isolate extremist and violent narratives and showcase counter-narratives that indeed the opportunities for ulama even in secular Philippines are not only possible, but flourishing. This is a keystone in preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism.

To build an inclusive and peaceful Filipino society implies that government, across levels (national, regional and local) need to be creative and passionate in creating opportunities for the ulama, especially the young ones.

From their own perspective, young ulama have two focus – firstly, how to build their community that is just, peaceful and progressive dunya-akhirah (on earth and in the hearafter) using their Islamic education and secondly, how to promote their own welfare and engagement. Therefore, dialogue and positive engagement are keys to understanding these young ulama. The IAG’s research on traditional madaris recommends the following pertaining to the ulama:

  • The government, through the NCMF, should assess the needs of religious sectors (ulama, aleemat, asatidz[a], duat, huffaz, tabligh, shabab, etc.) in the Muslim community, and then partner with, mobilize, and support them in taking proactive and leadership roles in their spheres of influence. They are in the best position to put forward a counter-narrative against violent extremism and to institutionalize learning programs for ordinary Muslims. They can be proactive in promoting Islam as faith and a way of life guided by the principles of moderation, tolerance, and clemency, and in awakening the faithful that tatarruf (extremism), ghuluww (excessiveness), tanattu’ (harshness), and tashaddud (severity) in all its forms are shunned and are immoral in Islam.
  • The … Bangsamoro government … and the national DILG and Department of Justice should strategize on how to involve the … religious sector in local governance and development, socio-economic and cultural development, and peace and security, especially at the municipal and barangay levels. Particularly, the sector can help in resolving issues related to community-based violent extremism and terrorism (VET), drugs, and rido. The DOJ and the DILG can work with senior ulama to mobilize and train graduates of madrasah as counselors, arbitrators, or conciliators in the alternative dispute resolution at the local levels.

National, regional and local governments as well as civil society partners should take heed. Now is the right time to engage the young ulama.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)