I still remember when I first heard of Ustaz Zhulkeflee bin Haji Ismail. I was still a young 22 year old NTU undergraduate and was having a dinner and teh-tarik session with my group of friends at Jalan Masjid when I chanced upon my senior from NTU. I knew he lived at the West Side of Singapore thus I was shocked to see him around Jalan Masjid. ‘What are you doing in my neighbourhood bro? Hilang ker ni? Hehe.’ I remarked. My senior smiled and replied he was going for a class at Masjid Kassim done by an Ustaz Zhulkeflee. He even dragged me by my shoulder and asked me to come along so I asked him what the class was about? He said it was a Fardhu Ain class done in English and it actually challenges you to think about Islam. That truly intrigued me. An Ustaz that encourages you to be critical about Islam! It was especially new for religious studies back in the 2000’s. Unfortunately, I had to excuse myself. Looking back, I guess Allah was calling for me but I was not ready to receive such wisdom.
I heard his name a number of times later on but lost knowledge of it especially when I dove heavily into work as a beginning teacher. Years later, happily married, my wife Nurul told me that she had signed us up for a Fardhu Ain class. I loved the idea after inspiration by the OMAR series during Ramadan that I even roped in my brother Firdaus for the class. I didn’t know who was the Ustaz teaching the class at the time but happily agreed. Ever so thankful to Allah for my wife Nurul, for then I would not have met Ustaz Zhul.
We went for the Friday beginner class at Masjid Kassim where I met Saleha and Firdaus’s secondary school classmate Noh. While registering, I was impressed to learn that the class was free for non-Muslims. A touch I have not heard of for quite some time. It was a packed room as usual females outnumbering my brothers when I saw a Chinese looking man with a white beard and black spectacles sitting at the front while wearing a white Malay baju kurung and a black songkok. When the lesson began, I must admit that I was disappointed to hear the Ustaz having a weird slang and I was about to switch off. However a quick and audible ‘Aaalllllooooo!’ jolted me back up and Ustaz explained that Allah gave him a stroke maybe because he talked too much. Hehe! I chuckle now reflecting on such wisdom and acceptance of challenges from Allah.
As I reprimanded myself for belittling ones disability, I pushed to listen and as I continued to listen, I realised that he was uttering phrases that resonated deep within me. He questioned us why were we a Muslim? There were answers like ‘I agree with the faith’, ‘I was born in it’, and ‘my parents taught me about it’. It was then that he stated that everyone must choose their own religion! That we can’t fall back on such simple notions like ‘because my parents are Muslim and that is why I am a Muslim’! God gave us a Brain to think, to explore, to reason! We are not just sheep that follow just because we are being told or led. It shook my core.
A religious class that wants you to analyse if Islam was true. Questions such as Is there a God? What are the characteristics of God? What are the religions of God? What is Islam? Is Islam true? What are the books of God? Is the Quran true? Who are his prophets? Is Prophet Muhammad s.a.w a true prophet?
Questions that normal Ustazs would brush off and tell you to not ask about Islam. Here was an Ustaz who told us to question everything about Islam. And yet he will prove to us the beauty of Islam and how practical and rational it truly is. For only after exhaustive questioning would you then have no more doubts and realise that you have decided to choose Islam as your faith.
I can tell you right now that I am a better man because of Ustaz Zhulkeflee. His lessons of practical reasoning backed with Quranic & Hadith understandings strengthened my belief in Islam. It is a kind, understanding, considerate and yet firm and fair religion. The activities of reflections and weekly sharings are practices that I instill in my lessons and everyday matters. He was a Lion that challenged the norm and reminded us that there is nothing to fear when you have Allah. He discussed about Singapore’s history of Malay schools, Utusan Melayu & Jawi language to dispelling negative notions of Hadith with the beauty of Isnads and gave pure clarifications towards the understanding of Bida’ah (Innovation).
Thank you Ustaz Zhul for all that you have done for me. I have been away from Singapore for so long but it was nice to have had that last opportunity to sit down with you and share my experiences about the Arabs during my time in Morocco. You may be gone but your teachings shall be passed on by us, your fellow students. May Allah give HIS blessings and comfort to Ustaz’s family. InsyaAllah, hope we shall meet again in Jannah. Ameen.