Remembering AIKOL’s founding father, Ahmad Ibrahim

By Mahadhir Monihuldin

AikolFest2016 is a wonderful time of celebration. It is a time when the people of Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws (AIKOL) commemorate their department as a haven for education, not in just any field, but in the very mighty field of law.

AIKOL has definitely come a long way since its inception. It went from being one’s far-away dream of someday having both secular and Islamic legal education under one roof, to now being an institution set in stone, with concrete walls and solid grounds that bear the presence of many, all with a singular passion for law.

But one wonders, what exactly was the starting point from which all this greatness was able to stream from? Well, it takes the form of a man who had greatness coursing all over his veins. His name is Tan Sri Datuk Prof. Ahmad bin Mohamed Ibrahim.

Biodata of Professor Ahmad Ibrahim

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A young Professor Ahmad Ibrahim

Professor Ahmad Ibrahim was born on 12 May 1916 in Singapore. He was a student of the prestigious Cambridge University where he graduated with first class honours in 1955, not only in law, but also in economics. After breaking through the realm of academia as a student, he made it a mantra to take what he had learnt and accomplish feats no ordinary man could do.

He was a person who played a key role in the historical merger talks between Singapore and Malaysia in the early 1960s. He went on to become Singapore’s Attorney-General in 1966, making him the nation’s first ever non-British Attorney-General after gaining independence. During his tenure, he drafted the Administration of Muslim Law Act, bringing Singapore’s Syariah Courts to much greater heights. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore was created under his guidance, and it bears the duty of advising the President of Singapore on Islamic matters for Singaporean Muslims till now.

Yet, despite having done so much for Singapore, when Professor Ahmad came over to Malaysia, his greatness continued to spill over in ways that have benefitted this country. AIKOL’s professor Ms Najibah is the one who has studied Professor Ahmad’s biography to an extensive degree and she shared  her vast knowledge about the man during a recent interview.

The Nadrah case

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The cover to Haja Maideen’s book on Nadrah’s legal case

According to Professor Najibah, during the rising career of Professor Ahmad as a civil rights lawyer, he became an attorney to a young girl named Maria Hertogh in the 1950s. Maria was a Christian girl of Dutch descent who was living with her guardian, Aminah, in Terengganu. It was during this period that Maria converted from Christianity to Islam, giving birth to the name, Nadrah.

Nadrah’s Dutch parents were both tragically captured by the Japanese during the Second World War. It took them an excruciatingly long time until the war was over to finally be released from the clutches of the Japanese. After they were released, Nadrah’s parents was very eager to get their daughter back to the family. However, Aminah, who had devoted her whole life to care for young Nadrah, was unwilling to give her back. From this point of conflict ensued a disheartening custody battle under the Singaporean High Court to which Professor Ahmad invested himself as lawyer to Nadrah. Yet, at the end of it all, Nadrah’s parents was able to win the court battle.

Nadrah had to be sent back to her parents in the Netherlands and was forced to convert back into Christianity after the request of her parents. Professor Najibah recalls how the authorities had to forcibly remove Nadrah from her guardian, Aminah, despite Nadrah wanting so much to remain under her care.

Professor Najibah said this left a huge blow to Professor Ahmad. He felt that the court decision on the case was unfair. Not only did it disregard the wishes of Nadrah who was at that point already baligh and was wise enough to make her own decision, but Professor Ahmad was also dissatisfied by the fact that the Singaporean courts comprised of mostly British people with no full understanding of Malay culture and values. He vowed to bring change to the Singaporean court system, and change Professor Ahmad most definitely brought.

“It was only after the Nadrah case that we could see alterations to the Singaporean courts,” shared Professor Najibah. “In fact, most of the statutory laws passed in Singapore was actually made by him. Amendments came later on of course, but he was the one who drafted most of them.”

Surely one can admire the relentless pursuit of Professor Ahmad to achieve the goals he has in mind. It didn’t stop there for him. Upon moving from Singapore to Malaysia, Professor Ahmad had very big plans in store, but only this time, it was outside the courts of justice and inside the halls of learning.

Legacy in Malaysia

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Professor Ahmad Ibrahim seen seated in the middle of the table during a meeting organised by the all-Malaya Muslim Missionary Society

“In the later stages of his life, he began contributing to education to the extent where he once said, teaching is part of his amal jariah,” shared Professor Najibah.

The land of Malaya saw Professor Ahmad starting out a clean slate in 1969. His venture into education began with him donning the modest role of economics lecturer in University of Malaya (UM). Yet, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, the vice-chancellor of UM at the time was the one who went leaps and bounds to get Professor Ahmad into his university. It was as if he already knew that a modest role is no way suited for a man of Professor Ahmad’s caliber. Sure enough, in 1972, Professor Ahmad became the man who established the first ever law faculty in Malaysia. He held the honorary title of Dean to UM’s faculty of law.

While education was what held Professor Ahmad firmly by the heart, Professor Ahmad couldn’t help but make changes to Malaysia’s legal system as well, primarily in Malaysia’s Syariah law. He worked with the predecessor of ‘Jabatan Agama Kemajuan Islam Malaysia’ (JAKIM) called the ‘Majlis Kebangsaan Bagi Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Malaysia’ (MKI), and within that framework, he was able to tabulate six statutory laws for the Syariah courts, strengthening its jurisdiction for Muslims.

Regarding this, Professor Najibah said, “You can see how he is the type of person who does well in whatever he puts his mind into. His philosophy—wherever you are in life, you should find a way to seek the benefits of your situation, and give the best that you can.”

Story behind AIKOL

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The idea to set up an Islamic university dated back in the 1960s. The government proposed the formation of the Kolej Islam Malaya (KIM), a university that will bear the principles of Islam. Professor Ahmad was known to have made strides in Islamic-based education while he was Dean of UM’s law faculty. He had introduced the first Islamic law paper as an optional test for law students to take. This was his attempt in trying to establish a mode of education which peered through the lens of Islam.

“He’s very much an Islamist in that sense,” Professor Najibah said.

At the same time, it should be noted that Professor Ahmad was one who also admired modern, secular ideas as well. He believed that law was something that can never be restrained into a single dimensional entity. Whether it be from the Muslim world or the Western world, law should be something malleable to the endless forces of progress. He encouraged Muslims to learn from everywhere around the world because he believes that whatever which exists in the highest of quality doesn’t necessarily reside in Muslim countries at all. It can reside in anywhere.

Thus, when the Malaysian government decided to go ahead with a project in the field of Islamic education the likes of which have never been undertaken before, the creation of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, Professor Ahmad was the only person they thought capable enough to shape the curriculum for the university’s law faculty. He became the Sheikh and Dean of IIUM’s Kulliyyah of Law. His name, Ahmad Ibrahim, is ingrained into the title of the law faculty itself, so as to show that not even death can separate him from it.

Professor Ahmad’s Glorious Passing

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An old family portrait of Professor Ahmad’s family

Professor Ahmad passed away on 17 April, 1999 during the sacred day of Maal Hijrah, a day where Prophet Muhammad embarked on a beautiful journey to a far and distant land, and so too was it a beautiful journey for Professor Ahmad. It was mentioned by Professor Najibah that three months prior to his passing, he began experiencing some complications in his health, but despite that, Professor Ahmad still went on strong with his passion – teaching, learning, writing to the best of his abilities for the sake of others.

A day before he parted, he was able to finish the last book he will ever come to write, a book titled ‘Undang-undang Keluarga Islam.’ The moment he had penned down his last few words, he gently placed his manuscript on his table, looked straight in the eyes of his secretary, gave her a smile that could warm the world, and said, “at last, I have completed my work.” Professor Ahmad knew he can finally rest in peace.

If he were still alive right now, Professor Najibah has no doubt that he would be proud to see what AIKOL has become today – a touch bearer for Islamic law seen throughout the globe. “What we have now in AIKOL is merely a continuation of what he had laid down. It’s not an easy task, but as students of his guidance, we can do it,” Professor Najibah shared.

So here’s a brief and concise description of the great man that was Professor Ahmad Ibrahim. “Prof Ahmad is a legend by himself. He possessed qualities that others simply didn’t have. Sophisticated in every field whether it’s as an academician, administrator, legal expert, whatever. This is what an extraordinary person looks like.” ***

Mahadhir bin Monihuldin

A conflicted writer

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118 thoughts on “Remembering AIKOL’s founding father, Ahmad Ibrahim

  1. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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