By Muhammad Faris Alfiq
The asatizah community in Singapore is one that is well-regarded by the Muslim community here. Asatizah, is the plural form of Ustaz or Ustazah in Arabic, and generally refers to Islamic religious teachers. Their purpose is to provide religious knowledge and guidance to the Muslim community.
The contributions of the asatizah are not new in Singapore. In fact, as we commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Raffles landing in Singapore, it is important to note that the asatizah have been contributing to Singapore’s Muslim community even before that.
Several asatizah became prominent within the community over the years, such as the likes of Syed Sheikh Al-Hady, Syed Taha Suhaimi, Syed Abdillah al-Jufri as well as Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji. They have all contributed to various fields of religious knowledge in Singapore – from fiqh (jurisprudence), tafsir (exegesis) as well as modernising religious education.
While these scholars remain intellectual Muslim icons for the Singapore Muslim community, the question is then what are the roles of the asatizah now given the progress of the Singapore Muslim community over the years and the current complexities that entangle the Muslim population?
This question seemed to be answered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his Malay National Day Rally Speech. In it, he highlighted Ustaz Zahid Zin, CEO of Muslim Youth Forum, as a ‘role model’ for the asatizah to emulate. PM Lee outlined several traits of Ustaz Zahid that were beneficial for the asatizah community: (1) a fresh pedagogy on religion, (2) inclusive religious outlook in a multi-religious society and (3) active participation in communal- and national-level activities.
While these traits are essential to develop a more inclusive and moderate asatizah in Singapore’s context, they do not, however, give a clear definition of the roles that the asatizah should play. This, perhaps, can be made clearer after the Committee of Future Asatizah (COFA), chaired by Senior Minister of State Dr Maliki Osman, submits their recommendations.
Beyond that, I argue that there needs to be a clear and conscious decision to develop a new generation of asatizah who are more aware of the nuances within the Muslim community and acknowledge their position in giving out religious guidance.
Who Are These New Asatizah?
This new generation of asatizah, or I would refer to as the “New Asatizah”, adapted from the concept of the “New Malay” developed by the late Professor Syed Hussiein Alatas in his speech titled The New Malay: His Role and Future.
In his speech, he mentioned the traits of this “New Malay” in terms of religiosity as “not [to] have a limited, restrictive and narrow-minded concept of religion”.
Using his idea on the New Malays, it is then possible to transpose it to the New Asatizah. Thus, developing the New Asatizah is then to develop a group of religious scholars who are not parochial in their worldview towards religion and use sociological lenses in analysing issues and problems faced by the Muslim community in Singapore. Hence, this is to say that the New Asatizah would then not use religion as a tool to solve all of the problems faced by the community. He or she must acknowledge the structures, power relations and other sociological models that cause the problem and that the solution is also in line with the problems identified.
It is also important to note that the term New Asatizah should not be confined only to the outward appearance of asatizah, by their ability to master the English language in religious discourse nor their capabilities in reaching out to the masses by using new media. However, this generation of New Asatizah is defined by their fresh religious outlook yet grounded in local context.
Alatas also mentioned that by acknowledging the “new”, it does not mean to discredit the “old”. Each generation of asatizah contributed in one way or another to the community. However, due to the complexities and changing landscape of the Muslim community in Singapore, this newer approach seems to be in line with the context we are living in today.
This also means that the demand for the future asatizah would be different from the New Asatizah as proposed now.
Contextualising Religious Thought
The application of this non-parochial worldview can be applied to some of the more concerning problems affecting the community. Recently, the discussion surrounding mental health has been on the rise. This is especially so within the Muslim circles around the world.
Several asatizah have made an important note, which is to refer to a mental health specialist if one is suspected to be having mental health issues; it is not in the asatizah’s area of expertise to comment or diagnose mental health problems.
Thus, this ability to distinguish between a religious and a non-religious problem is a step forward for the asatizah. In this case, acknowledging that mental health is not a religious issue is an example of how the New Asatizah should deal with such matters. This would be a departure from how mental health issues used to be commonly perceived – that it is a disease of the heart caused by a lack of iman or faith in God – because those misconceptions place the causes of mental health squarely within the religious domain.
This rational understanding and non-parochial view of religion can be applied to other fields as well – marriage, financial issues as well as scientific issues. In fact, this thought process has been introduced and applied in the fatwa (Islamic legal ruling)-making body in Singapore when faced with a problem or an issue that requires non-religious bases to find a solution.
It is then hoped the other asatizah can follow this rational, universal and non-parochial way of thinking and looking into issues so as to develop a multidisciplinary approach in understanding religion.
What I mean by multidisciplinary here does not refer to the asatizah needing to have an expertise on sociological theories of Weber, Durkheim or Foucalt. What is meant by multidisciplinary is that they should understand that the cause of a particular problem can go beyond the realm of the sacred.
Asatizah As Public Intellectuals
On top of the traits highlighted by PM Lee, these New Asatizah would then be a force in thought leadership within the Muslim community, and at the same time elevate themselves in the eyes of others. This would then mean that the New Asatizah possesses the capacity to be a public intellectual.
An intellectual, according to Prof Syed Hussein Alatas in his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies, is someone who is able to (1) pose a problem, (2) define a problem, (3) give a thorough analysis of a problem and lastly (4) give a solution to the problem. Armed with these abilities, the New Asatizah would then be able to reach the level of an intellectual according to Alatas as “it is a vital condition for nation-building”.
Hence, with higher expectations of the New Asatizah, this will elevate quality or level of discourse and produce even more intellectuals in the community well-versed not just religious issues but also issues critical to the development of the Muslim community in Singapore and develop a community of intellectuals much like Singapore Muslim intellectuals of the past.
 Full text of the National Day Rally 2019 (in Malay) can be found here https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/national-day-rally-2019-malay-speech-in-full-11819990
 COFA is a public consultation and engagement to determine how to develop the asatizah professionally. From
 Alatas, H. (1996). The New Malay: His Role and Future. Singapore: Association of Muslim Professionals.
 Abdelgafar, B., & Hassan, M. H. (2018). Thriving in a plural world: principles and values of the Singapore Muslim community. Singapore: Muis Academy.
 Alatas, S. H. (1977). Intellectuals in developing societies. London: F. Cass.
Muhammad Faris Alfiq is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He specializes in the discourse on Islam in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, sociology of Islamic law and political Islam. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Malay Studies from National University of Singapore (NUS).
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, October 2019, Volume 14, Issue 4.
Photo Source: The Karyawan