Considering the geography, today I received a peculiar request although it’s not the first time.
A scholar from the ancient UNESCO city of Shibam, nearby Tareem where I am, is in Malaysia. He’d like to visit Malaysia’s Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Someone asked me to help arrange it (though there’s little I can do, more so that we may back in Yemen now).
During a talk I did three months ago in Malaysia and Singapore, ‘Seeking Islam: Why I’m Still in Yemen,’ and one slide was dedicated to this thinker – specifically drawing attention to his recent work Historical Fact & Fiction.
*This photo album specifically, is dedicated to uploading pictures and captions that follows the same talk I gave, slide by slide according to each photo. Chronologically, this slide on Prof al-Attas is approximately 7 of 23.
Among other things, in the book he proves the source of Islam of Southeast Asia making the region significantly Muslim, that is via the historical work of the scholars of Hadhramout, Yemen.
Weeks after that when I was in London, multiple times I saw his books in the shelves of the homes I visited. One host who had an autograph copy, and I was telling him how extremely under-rated Prof al-Attas is. He shared something fascinating.
‘I visited him in Malaysia with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. The two of them were about to discuss something, and Professor al-Attas asked, how would you like to discuss this? We can do English, Arabic, Malay. My French and Latin is a little rusty but we can try.’ It was amazing. Sitting with him, you really feel like an al-Ghazalian sort of presence. Of our time.’
Weeks later I was in Cambridge University for the summer school and spent some time with a Malaysian who is a Research Fellow based the UK. He too had an al-Attas in his shelf, though not in the photo you see.
Anyhow, he looked for the study of the spiritual aspect of Islam in a few countries but didn’t find much. After making a trip back to Malaysia for a wedding, he happen to find what he was looking for all the while, in the Pondoks (Madrasahs) of Malaysia.
‘It was in my backyard all along. Malaysians sometimes speak of the knowledge of tasawwuf like it’s new thing. But al-Ghazali’s books have been taught in our pondoks for a long time across the country. And some of the works of the local ustaz, it’s quite something. We don’t know what we’re missing.’
It says something about our historical roots, and more importantly our awareness. As well as the level of scholarship dealt with in those tiny village madrasahs, that we today often not just overlook but at times look down upon. In contemporary times, I often meet Westerners and Yemenis who ask me many times about Prof al-Attas.
Indeed, proximity can be a veil.