Abuya Ashaari Muhammad lived within surroundings in which life was onerous. But his early family life was not too strenuous. Those were wartime years, around 1942-1945. Malaya was under Japanese occupation. In 1945, the British defeated Japan and recolonised Malaya. During Japanese rule, Abuya Ashaari Muhammad’s father was appointed a rice clerk in Lubok Cina. When the British returned, he became a customs officer again. The colonial powers fought each other for authority, while indigenous sons and daughters became their victims.
More difficulties befell Abuya Ashaari Muhammad with the passing away of his mother and of Kiyai Syahid during Japanese rule. He grew up without attention from a mother and father (he seldom met his father who was at work early in the morning and came back home only late at night), thus his spirit and thinking differed greatly from those who grew up with full parental attention.
Abuya Ashaari Muhammad related that he did not like to come home after school for, unlike other children, there was no mother and father to comfort him. He spent his time playing near the river and at other locations. An orphan’s heart was often sad, his behaviour became tough and difficult to fathom. The numerous hardships experienced by him had a deep impact on his character. This can be understood by reading with care the following poem by Abuya Ashaari Muhammad:
Hardship in my younger days
Introduced me to the meaning of suffering
Such that I cannot hear of anyone suffering
I am inclined to help them
My mother’s death when I was a kid
Made me realize how sad it was to be motherless
I therefore sympathize with orphans
I wish I can entertain them
And make them happy
Hardship in my life
In all aspects of experiences
In the consumption of food and beverages
In my place of residence, in the clothes I wear
Made me sensitive to the suffering of others
Experiences in life
Gave me many lessons and guidance
Raised my consciousness and guilt
Very useful for the future struggle
Those are the benefits of higher education having eluded me
Due to hardship and persistent obstacles
But I had the opportunity to learn from life
From here I derive knowledge and experience
Night time, 20th October 2002
One day, as the day approached twilight, he sulked and ran away into the jungles for fear of being scolded. Amidst the darkness of night, his father searched for him, calling out his name to coax him to come home.
The event forced his father to transfer the guardianship of Abuya Ashaari Muhammad to his uncle, Lebai Ibrahim. Since Wak Ibrahim and Wak Imai had no children of their own, they were happy to accept Abuya Ashaari Muhammad and his sister Syarifah to be taken care of.
His was then between 6 to 8 years old. In difficult conditions, he had to take care of his sister, to boot. He cooked, carried water from the neighbour’s well, tended the surroundings and sewed for himself torn garment. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad related how he slept at night at the verandah, accompanied by palm-leaf walls and a smelly pillow. It was very easy for a tiger passing by to grab him and drag him below the house. A tiger once gave birth to 2 cubs behind Kiyai Syahid’s home when the 4-year old Abuya was staying there.
Hardship is a good teacher. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad was guided to realize his follies and take responsibility for them. Allah does not do anything useless to His servants, especially to special ones.
Within terrible surroundings, Abuya Ashaari Muhammad emerged into the world with a spirit which craved for Islam, in the middle of a religious family. All his family members were observant of the daily prayers. How far hardship and sadness struck him, he did not become spiritually vacuous. His spirit had been supplied with the burning desire to struggle for Islam. The spirit had been nourished by Kiyai Syahid, in whose home he resided upon his return from Pangkor island. In 1938, his father brought his wife and children to Pangkor to work as a customs officer under the British administration. During Japanese rule from 1942 till 1945, they returned to Pilin and stayed in Kiyai Syahid’s house.
Abuya was actually a war refugee in Pangkor island. On the day he left Pangkor, immediately after stepping on mainland Peninsular Malaya, Pangkor was bombed. As soon as he reached Pilin, the port of disembarkation was bombed. Having safely reached Pilin, Kiyai Syahid greeted the five-year old Abuya with tenderness and gratefulness.
Playing in the fields within or outside the school compound, Abuya Ashaari Muhammad was fond of organizing war front lines. A group pretended to be Imam al-Mahdi’s army, another group became the enemy. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad will lead soldiers on Imam al-Mahdi’s side. A tight war would take place amidst the trees in Kampung Pilin; the fighters using pistols made from bamboo sticks and bullets from seeds.
Why Imam al-Mahdi?
Actually, in Malaya, in the 1940s to 1960s, the subject of Imam al-Mahdi was a general topic of conversation, but it was especially popular at centres of Sunni teaching. The hub was Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi’s place. From his students, the word spread around on the imminent emergence of Imam al-Mahdi.
Abuya Ashaari Muhammad related that around the 1940s until 1950s, during Abuya’s childhood, he often heard the elders at Pilin prayer house talking about how Imam al-Mahdi would arrive to Islamize the world how the Prophet Jesus (PBUH) would kill the Antichrist.
Abuya further related, in those days, sermons in mosques would pray for the Othmaniah Turkish government which had been toppled by the modernist movement. It was then that Abuya learned about Turkey, whose last ruler was Sultan Abdul Hamid. Amidst British colonial rule in Malaya, Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi successfully enlivened the talk about Islam being glorified again the second time on a global scale. At the same time, the Wahhabis, after which the modernist school of Islam had come to be known, conquered Mecca from the hands of the Othmaniah government. Islamic ambitions were ignited so that Muslims would revive and struggle for Islam at the state and global level under the leadership of Imam al-Mahdi.
According to Abuya, Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi’s struggle, which was founded in Klang, Selangor, was in actual fact the struggle of a reformer of the 13th century. He had successfully preserved the true understanding of Islam, shielding it from corrupting influence of the colonial power. By relying on the concept of congregation and not pesantren, he circumvented the colonial efforts to destroy the true Islamic struggle.
Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi nurtured 40 representatives, called caliphs, to oversee branches all over Asia, in what was truly a congregation of the Ikhwan (Brothers). A member of his congregation was known as a ‘brother’. At first it was thought that Allah’s promise, that Islam would be glorified the second time, would be realized in his hands. He himself had imagined having to go through the process of occultation. When the colonial administration became very threatening, Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi, who possessed the traits and features of Imam al-Mahdi, disappeared in the manner of the Prophet Jesus’s (PBUH) occultation. It was not until 60 years later that the Islamic resurgence would be really felt and his congregation would be emulated by Abuya Ashaari Muhammad.
His caliphs had delivered the message of Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi’s struggle straight into Abuya Ashaari Muhammad’s hands. It was a good passing of batons which evaded the barriers set up by the colonialists. God had destined that Sayidi’s message safely reached through into Abuya Ashaari Muhammad’s hands.
Abuya Ashaari Muhammad’s spirit had been nourished with ambitions of the Islamic struggle. At five years old, Abuya Ashaari Muhammad had already been talking about Islam. According to Kiyai Syahid’s daughter-in-law, Fatimah (Syuhud’s wife), in Pilin, since a child, if asked which school he would like to go to, Wak-i (Abuya’s nickname among Pilin locals) would answer “Islamic school.” Yet in Pilin at that time there was no Islamic school. This shows that Abuya Ashaari Muhammad was born with an Islamic heart and faith. In addition, his early education was immensely effective in moulding his heart and mind.
His internal fighting spirit had consistently been aglow, to the extent that the sight of a non-Muslim in Pilin was troubling to him. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad had the effrontery to pinch a Chinese kid being carried by his mother. At that time, Abuya was himself a kid, still immature mentally. Motivated by his premature fighting spirit, he catapulted stray Chinese dogs and pigs.
When Soekarno presided over Indonesia, his voice vehemently challenged the USA. As told by Abuya Ashaari Muhammad, every time Indonesia celebrated its independence (on 17th August every year), he will play truant from school so that he could listen to Soekarno’s speech broadcast over Radio Indonesia. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad would go to the only shop in Pilin which had a radio and listen attentively with the village elders. Following Soekarno’s speech, he would memorize and act as if he was giving the speech.
His prodigious ambition was not to be taken for granted. At Pilin prayer house, Monday and Thursday nights were filled with tahlil (gathering of remembrances of Allah) and religious feasts. Covering himself with a sarong, he would lie down whilst listening to the elders chatting about Imam al-Mahdi’s struggle. Other children dashed home after having their food, but Abuya Ashaari Muhammad showed an extraordinary interest in listening to the elders’ conversation led by Lebai Ibrahim. They would remain in the prayer house until dawn.
Abuya related that it was the style of Sayidi’s people to open up interesting stories from midnight until dawn. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad would fix his ears to listen to such ‘midnight stories’. People would think he was asleep. He actually pretended to be asleep for he was embarrassed to be among the elders.
It was here that Abuya Ashaari Muhammad derived early information about the struggle towards the end of time. Pilin recruited Abuya Ashaari Muhammad as a lifelong fighter of Imam al-Mahdi. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad had heard the history of Imam al-Ghazali with Imam Az-Zahum when he was 6 years old, but it has remained intact in his memory. In his youth, Abuya fervently disagreed with Hassan Bandung’s movement which disdained Imam al-Ghazali, but at that time Abuya was still untrained in the art of argumentation.
I once asked Ashaari Muhammad, might not Abuya’s mind, which had been invariably full of pro-Mahdist ambitions, have been the result of indoctrination from the environment of the Pilin community then? Moreover, Abuya’s reading was limited to the traditional ‘yellow books’ which stored such messianic information.
His answer was: “Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi sent Kiyai Syahid to the isolated village of Pilin as part of his plan to create an environment favouring Imam al-Mahdi. For what? To educate a child by the name of Ashaari bin Muhammad, so that Imam al-Mahdi’s struggle towards the end of time is implanted in his spirit and thought. Rather than being a mistake, this is God’s plan for the Islamic resurgence.”
Abuya further said, at the time when Islam was declining in Turkey and Mecca, colonial powers came to the Far East to Christianize people here. The colonial entry into the Middle East had managed to de-Islamize or secularize Spain, Egypt and other Arab states. Islam in Turkey was eventually destroyed. A profound Christian mission was brought by the colonialists to this part of the world, whereas Islam in the Malay archipelago was not that strong yet. Many of its residents were still animists. The logical consequence should have been a Christianization of Malaysia, or at least the spread of Christian influence until it became at par with Islam, as in Indonesia.
But oddly the colonialists failed in Malaya. Eventually, Islam was made the official religion of the Federation of Malay States. Amazing! The colonialists managed only to secularize religion, but to change the religion of the Malays. Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi was in Malaya then. He successfully established a small-scale congregation in Pilin to save his followers from the secularism brought by the colonialists. Who would have thought that Abuya, born in a house whose walls were made from palm-leaf and floor built from bamboo sticks, would emerge as someone special, coming out from the jungles of Pilin to challenge secularism?
People would think, Abuya avoided the shackles of colonialism just as the Prophet Moses (PBUH) escaped death at the hands of the Pharaoh. Abuya’s salvation allowed him to embrace genuine religious teachings inherited from Sayidi Syeikh Suhaimi through his trusted community elders.
Abuya chose to read only from ‘yellow books’ – written in Jawi script or Arabic by the traditional ulama because: his heart whispered to him that contemporary books on Islam were written based on a rational rather than religious interpretation. The authors’ interpretation of religion neglected intuitive knowledge, but relied solely on their intellect. The ‘yellow books’, on the other hand, were written by authoritative ulama who had long since passed away. They inherited a still pristine religion whose sources were revelation and intuitive knowledge, with an insignificant amount of mixture from the intellect. Abuya Ashaari Muhammad explained, “Further into time the author has passed away, the better. For he is nearer to the genuine source of the religion.”
Abuya Ashaari Muhammad continued, “A spiritual voice whispered into my heart, as if it was a teacher who was always teaching me. But no teacher had physically instructed me in that manner. In fact the thinking of my religious teachers was very much influenced by the secular religion of their era. Sunni ulama were not talking about the Islamic struggle and its resurgence. The colonialists had made a clean sweep of the Islamic spirit among indigenous Muslims, yet, a Muslim ought to be someone who constantly strives for the truth.
That a ‘teacher’ was there to guide him via the spiritual line was Abuya Ashaari Muhammad’s experience since he was 5 years old. A lot of stances taken by Abuya were not the result of formal teaching, but from an understanding thrown into his heart.
For instance, when he was in primary school in Pilin (for 6 months) and Segambut (for 2 months), he would learn religion in the village. 3 of his teachers were pondok graduates from Padang, Indonesia. All were Wahhabis (modernist school or the Young Faction), all were extremely fond of Abuya. They were all Segambut natives, viz. Ustaz Haji Arshad Khadiman, Ustaz Mokhtar Abdul Manaf and Ustaz Mohd Amin Osman.
Abuya Ashaari Muhammad realized that they desired to make him a Wahhabi. Their attention and affection was evidence of their intention. But Abuya Ashaari Muhammad could not accept it. Since his childhood days, his heart had rejected all forms of Wahhabi knowledge, teaching and practice.
Secular Muslims will reject intuitive knowledge as a source of knowledge. They may even declare as deviant whoever accepts intuitive knowledge, for they say, it may originate from the devil. So they practise the religion at the intellectual level only, denying the illogical. For them, religion was created by the intellect, not by God. God’s will to reveal knowledge to a person’s heart is negated, as if indicating that God is powerless to carry out miraculous and illogical undertakings.
Spiritual experiences which God has destined for others are said to be the work of the devil, as if the devil maws more powerful than God. The knowledge endowed by God is deemed deviant, just because they have not experienced it. They are not gifted with such experience because they are not God’s people, so they pronounce it nonsense by declaring that only the devil is capable of such and such things. They say, Allah will not perform likewise, only the devil will.
Allah is truly closer in His knowledge, hearing and sight to anybody than is the devil. It is impossible that Allah appoints someone to revive His religion without guiding him. Only Allah knows how to revivify His religion. A reformer is actually one who is intuitively guided by Allah through the soul of the Messenger of Allah (PUBH). Go through their history, you will able to witness them.
Abuya’s life experience clearly indicates that he is protected and raised by God. For Abuya – the village son left to fend for himself, like his friends in Pilin and Segambut, a desolate life in the colonial era had rendered their existence pointless to the nation and the country, whether from the perspective of worldly life or the Hereafter. The exception is Abuya, who was raised in the same place but who emerged as an Islamic leader commanding global influence. Is this not because he was guided by God?
The late Tun Ghafar Baba told of his hardship which he claimed was more severe than Abuya, but he eventually became an awesome UMNO leader. He accidentally found the route to UMNO. Abuya, meanwhile, found Islam, so he became an eminent Islamic leader. Such is God’s will.
Whose power it is that makes a relatively ill-educated personality extremely knowledgeable, to the extent of being able of establishing a movement which is seen as a threat by a government? Abuya Ashaari Muhammad created a system within a system, feared by the government and eventually met destruction. He then re-emerged with an even bigger charisma. Whose power is this if not God’s?
For a leader in whose hands miraculous events take place, all obstacles are exploited to expand and bolster his struggle. Excrement, for instance, may be turned into fertilizers. Bear in mind that these miraculous occurrences have been experienced by him since he was 5 years old, in 1942, when he was already talking about Islam!