3 July 2017

Sudan: Ahmad Surkati - A Glory Built Not With Marble Columns but With Knowledge


"I am sorry to visit you and find that you have lost your eyesight. But I must tell you that you have opened our sights we Indonesians."

It was with this impressive statement that the late Indonesian president Ahmed Sukarno, upon his release from prison and before he was sworn in as president, greeted Sudanese Sheikh Ahmad Surkati (who had lost his eyesight) according to historian Mohammad Abdelraheem (1878-1966).

Sheikh Ahmad Surkati and the society he had set- Jam'iyat al-Islah wal Irshad al-Islamiyyah (The Reform and Guidance Society) had left an undeniable effect on the history of Indonesia's political and national struggle against the Dutch colonization of the East Asian nation. In this respect the late President Sukarno says in a conference in 1951: Indonesians did not and will not forget the role played by the societies that rekindled the national zeal and religious jealousy that sped up the grand revolution against the colonizers, like the Islamic Sharikat Islam and the Reform and Guidance societies.

As President Sukarno had said, the Reform and Guidance Society had a great national role. It had contributed quite a lot to the Indonesian Islamic thought that matches the contributions of Islamic reformers Jamal Eddin al-Afghani, Mohamed Abdu and Mohamed Rasheed Rida.

Ahmad Surkati was born in 1875 AD in Udfu, Arqu island near Dongola town, Sudan. The word Surkati is taken from Dongolawi language meaning Many Books (Sur, books; Kati, many), because his grandfather had a lot of books when he returned from study abroad.

Says Sudanese Historian, Dr. Ahmad Ibrahim Abushoak: The last quarter of the 19th Century and the 1st half of the 20th Century had seen the beginnings of an Islamic awakening based on the call for a return to the Koran and the sunna (tradition of The Prophet Mohamed) and the opening of doors for discretion to create a harmony between the Islamic texts (Koran and Sunna) and contemporary life and knowledge.

That awakening was the result of the external interactions between the presence of Western colonization in most Islamic countries and between personal motivations that drew from the legacies of Muslim scholars Ahmad Ibn Hambal (780-855 AD) and Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) who rejected heresies and myths dictated by the local heritage rather than by insightful knowledge about the tenets of Islam. The banner of that campaign was carried by noble scholars like Jamal Edin al-Afghani (1838-1897), Mohamed Abdu (1849-1905) and Mohamed Rasheed Rida (1865-1935). Due to the contributions of those scholars the circle of Islamic awakening widened to engulf a lot of Muslim nations one way or another.

Influene of the Reform and Guidance Society:

Dr.Mahamed Shaykhoun, a researcher in Arabic and Islam, says that while the traditional religious leadership of the Hadrami (Yemeni) Alawis was the most dominant in Indonesia, the common Indonesians and youths were looking for reform. This situation had prompted Ahmad Surkati to move from Mecca to Indonesia. Surkati had lived between Mecca and Madeena (in today's Saudi Arabia) for about twelve years studying Islamic jurisprudence. After he obtained his certificate he travelled to Indonesia in 1911 on contract to teach in that country. He launched a lot of schools and disseminated Islamic jurisprudence. Surkati was influenced by Imams Jamal Eddin al-Afghani, Mohamed Abdu and Mohamed Rasheed Rida. His schools taught religion, arithmetic, geography, history and languages. He made an integration between the school subject and teaching approach. Surkati's teaching programme was appreciated by the Khair (good) Society that recruited him in the first place. Khair considered Surkati's approach "a qualitative jump in educational curricula and teaching approaches."

Surkati had paid special attention to the education of students on the values of equality and perseverance in the acquisition of knowledge. He had shunned the opinion of some conservative Alawis who asked him to oblige his students to kiss the hands of persons of claimed Alawi descent at the beginning of the school day.

He was daring in issuing fatwas (Islamic rulings). One of his most outstanding fatwas was his assertion that it was the right of any Muslim to espouse a woman of Alawi descent, that brought him a lot of trouble. The Alawis were against such marriages in order to preserve the linage of The Prophet Mohamed. They confronted the Sheikh and criticized him in the newspapers. This had prompted him to resign his job in the Khair society in 1914. He wanted to leave Indonesia if it were not for the intervention of some Hadrami non-Alawi notables who convinced him to stay and continue with his educational and reform programme. He accepted this plea and opened a private school he called al-Ershad (guidance) Islamic School. He then launched a society to financially and morally back the school and organize its teaching and educational activities. It was from this society came the idea of the Islah (Reform) and Ershad (guidance) Arab Society in Jakarta. The Society now runs over 140 educational institutions, including some universities that teach Arabic and Islamic disciplines around Indonesia. The graduates of these institutions are very distinct and an Arabic- speaking Indonesian would boast that he is "an Ershad school graduate."

Sheikh Surkati died in 1943 at his residence in Jakarta, aged 67 and after spending 30 years in Indonesia. His funeral was attended by Indonesian dignitaries, including his friend, head of state Ahmad Sukarno, the country's first post-independence president. In an eulogy, Sukarno enumerated Sheikh Surkati's traits and contributions in the teaching of Arabic and Islamic knowledge in the country. Sukarno had also accounted for Surkati's role in the Indonesian renaissance and the country's struggle against the Dutch colonization, as many of his students had opted to challenge the colonial power.

This Sudanese preacher had brought fame for his country. He was one of the self-made generation of Sudanese who enjoyed a glory they built with knowledge and not by columns of marble, as Dr.Abu Shoak had put it.


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