Article – Getting to Know the Late Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Via His Sermons (Karyawan, October 2023)

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By Muhammad Haniff Hassan

This article seeks to provide brief insights into the late Ustaz Sonhadji’s religious thinking and personality through the compilation of his Friday sermons published in a three-volume publication by Pergas in March 2023, titled Meninjau Pemikiran Ustaz Ahmad Sondhaji Mohamad Milatu: Daripada Khutbah-Khutbah Karangannya. This author is one of the three editors who worked on the project[1].

112 handwritten manuscripts of sermons of different topics dated from 1971 to 1980 are among the many intellectual legacies left behind by Ustaz Sonhadji. They were donated by his family to the National Library Board (NLB) to be properly archived.

With permission from the NLB, the sermons, which were originally in Jawi text, were transliterated to Roman letters and published in three volumes by Pergas. The public can now, for the first time, read Ustaz Sonhadji’s sermons and benefit from his knowledge. More researchers can access them for various study purposes because they are now available to the public.

Not only do the sermons contain religious guidance for Muslims, but they also provide information about Ustaz Sonhadji’s personality. Knowing Ustaz Sonhadji and other local religious figures such as Ustaz Syed Abdillah Aljufri, Sheikh Omar Al-Khatib, Ustaz Abu Bakar Hashim and Ustaz Osman Jantan is important and research about their lives, thoughts and ideas should be encouraged. They are respected religious figures who have helped the Singapore Muslim community contextualise their religious understanding and practice in the form of fatwas in their capacity as members of the MUIS Fatwa Committee, answering religious queries, delivering sermons, conducting religious classes and publishing reading materials such as books and articles in local newspapers. If not for these initiatives, the knowledge and wisdom of these figures would remain hidden in manuscripts and recording devices kept by the national archives, libraries, and family members. Over time, future generations of Singaporean Muslims would lose them.

Admittedly, Pergas in the past years has taken the initiative to ensure the preservation of local scholars by publishing a book series entitled Obor Ummah (The Beacon of the Ummah) that contains short biographies of local religious figures as well as a book that compiles bibliographies of articles and books published by the same figures for the past 100 years. However, a deeper appreciation of these figures is achieved not only through their life history and works. It must also incorporate attempts to discover, study and present their intellectual legacies and wisdom to the masses. This article is a humble attempt to address the lack of such initiatives today, as observed by this author, with the hope that it will catalyse more research efforts in the future.

It could be discerned from the sermons that Ustaz Sonhadji is a traditionalist in his understanding and practice of Islam. Here, a traditionalist refers to a person whose understanding and practice of Islam represents the dominant mazhab professed by Malays throughout the Nusantara region – Shafi`ite (Shafi`iyah) in matters of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Ash`arite (Asha`irah) in matters of `aqidah (creed) – and committed to the way of the ulama (Islamic scholars) from the larger Ahl Al-Sunnah Wa Al-Jamaah (Sunni) tradition. Ustaz Sonhadji, as can be seen from some of his thoughts and ideas, may have personal choices that hint at his personality and also showcase the depth and vastness of his knowledge. However, these personal variations are exceptions and they do not put Ustaz Sonhadji out from the dominant mazhab here.

To understand this further, Ustaz Sonhadji’s Islamic understanding and practices should not be put in the category of reformists like the one popularly associated with Kyai Ahmad Dahlan and the Muhammadiyah organisation which he founded in Indonesia, which is also manifested through the thoughts and ideas of Pak Hamka, the author of the widely read and studied Quranic exegesis entitled Tafsir Al-Azhar. Ustaz Sonhadji also ought not be regarded to represent an alignment with the haraki movements – a trend influenced by Hasan Al-Banna and the Ikhwan Muslimin (Muslim Brothers) movement which he founded in Egypt in 1928 and has since spread globally. Ustaz Sonhadji is not a Salafi-Wahabi in thought and practice – the latter referring to the teachings of Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab in the 18th century in Najd, Saudi Arabia, and was later adopted as the official mazhab of the Saudi government.

This could be seen from the following points found in his sermons:

  • equating taqwa to the fear of Allah in all his sermons – a meaning widely held by the asatizah community and religious establishments in this region, although the actual meaning of the word in Arabic relates to one’s commitment to do what is commanded and avoid what is prohibited by Allah and this could be done out of love, not necessarily by fear[2]
  • standpoint on Islamic rulings on fasting and fidyah payment[3]
  • standpoint on Islamic rulings pertaining to zakat[4]
  • ruling that marriage between male non-Muslim and female Muslim is forbidden (haram)[5]
  • ruling on those who do not fast during Ramadan[6]
  • permissibility of ‘beating’ nusyuz (disobedient) wife by husband as a means to correct her[7]
  • permissibility and virtue of celebrating Maulid (Prophet’s birthday)[8]
  • permissibility of commemorating the new Hijrah year[9]
  • strong rejection towards those who view the obsolescence of cutting off one’s hand as criminal punishment for thief[10]
  • upholding traditional punishment on hirabah (crime involving armed transgression of life and property)[11]
  • comments on Good Friday[12], the Trinity faith held by Christians and celebrating Christmas[13]
  • rulings pertaining to divorce and iddah (waiting period before re-marriage) for divorced women and widow.[14]

Although Ustaz Sonhadji is a traditionalist, he was not strict in following the dominant tradition and was open-minded towards changes in religious practices and understanding when situations call for it.This is especially so when the change would align him with the mainstream asatizah community.

The progressive elements could be seen in the following standpoints found in the sermons;

  • gave more attention to internalising Islamic values and beautiful manners on a personal level when promoting Quranic concepts such as Muslims’ life guidance instead of the implementation of hudud law (Islamic criminal law) as promoted by some da’wah activists[15]
  • allowed for the use of money as payment for zakat fitrah following the view held by the Hanafite mazhab, in place of rice held by the Shafi`ite ulama, in line with the fatwa issued by the Mufti of Singapore[16]
  • incorporated opium and marijuana under forbidden items for consumption to concur with contemporary context, although both were not mentioned in traditional book of fiqh[17]
  • incorporated opium, intoxicants, and drugs under al-fahsya’ (abominations) mentioned in the Quran[18]
  • drawing the correlation between the use of modern measurement through technological advancements and the manner in which Angels record Man’s deeds in this world[19]
  • recognised modern scientific findings on the lack of oxygen at high altitude and space when commenting on verse 125 of Surah Al-An`am[20]
  • regarded corruption as haram and worse than marijuana dan drugs, in line with the position held by the Singapore government[21]
  • held that obedience to the Singapore government is obligatory in matters that do not contradict with the religion, even though it is ruled by non-Muslims.[22]

Ustaz Sonhadji did not only speak on traditional religious topics in his sermons. He also spoke on and offered religious guidance on contemporary life issues, such as;

  • encouraging saving and prudence in financial matters and forbidding wastefulness and extravagance[23]
  • promoting conscientiousness among Muslims and asserting that Islam recognises the important role played by labour to achieve progress[24]
  • encouraging Muslims to resume work and not wasting time with a long rest after performing Friday prayers in line with the fact that Friday is a working day in Singapore, unlike Muslims in neighbouring Johor where Friday is a public holiday.[25]

The existence of a contextualised Islamic understanding and practices in Ustaz Sonhadji’s sermons is not uncommon. Often, such matters could be found among many traditionalists, in the past and present. The opposite could also be found among progressive and modernist figures: some of them would have conservative viewpoints on certain issues. In fact, this represents human nature where one is not easily boxed into a category in an absolute manner. An attribute given to a person is usually based on his dominant character and this therefore warns anyone who seeks to study a person’s ideas to assess him holistically, rather than nitpicking on certain strands of thought that may represent an exception or a small part of him.

Like many traditionalists, Ustaz Sonhadji faced difficulty in reconciling traditional ideas when facing with contemporary challenges and modern ideas. For example, in one of his sermons, he held that man is created with natural traits that give him advantages over a woman. However, in another sermon, he pronounced that God has created man and woman equals in His eyes.[26]To this, he held a progressive view that education should be encouraged equally for both men and women.[27]

There are a few ideas and standpoints which Ustaz Sonhadji delivered in the sermons that could be misconstrued as radical and problematic as it is apparently not promoting social harmony as professed by national political leaders such as:

  • his views and theological standpoint on Good Friday, Christmas and Trinity.

This could be regarded as problematic when seen from the ban imposed on Mufti Menk, a popular foreign Muslim scholar, from entering and delivering talks in Singapore for the view he held that it is forbidden for Muslims to wish “Merry Christmas” to Christians [28] and the cancellation of work pass and repatriation of an Indian nationality imam of a local mosque who prayed emotionally during a Friday sermon that God grants victory to Muslims above all Christians and Jews.[29]

  • his views on punishment of crimes that fall under the Islamic hudud law such as stealing, hirabah and imposition of takzir (discretionary criminal punishment) on those who do not fast in Ramadan without a valid excuse.

This could be regarded as contravening the secular nature of Singapore and, thus, unconstitutional. Also, it could be misconstrued as a tacit recognition, support and sympathy towards the implementation of the Shariah across the border by movements such as PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) and Hizbut Tahrir of Indonesia.

With regard to the above, the author wishes to make a few notes for the benefit of readers. Firstly, it must be noted that the sermons by Ustaz Sonhadji were delivered in the last four to five decades. Ustaz Sonhadji passed on in 2010 and is not able to provide an explanation for his views such as the context and the background through which the views were expressed in the abovementioned sermons. Thus, caution and prudence are necessary before one could fault him for them.

Furthermore, Ustaz Sonhadji’s latest views on the issues could not be ascertained because it is common for a person’s views to evolve or change over time and it is not impossible, if he were still alive, to hold to a different viewpoint.

Although the expressed views could be regarded as problematic in today’s context, no one who knows him would agree that Ustaz Sonhadji was a radical and an unhealthy element for social harmony in Singapore throughout his life. In fact, he was recognised both as a religious and community leader that kept social harmony between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities close to his heart. In addition, he actively contributed to its upholding in his lifetime.[30] The most relevant testimony is the fact that he was appointed as one of the advisors and resource persons for the RRG (Religious Rehabilitation Group) – an organisation entrusted by the Singapore government to rehabilitate those who are detained under the Internal Security Act for terrorism and national security cases and to speak on the deviant nature of Al-Qaeda and IS ideology and promote wasatiyah (justly-balanced) among Singaporean Muslims.[31]

The author testifies that, during his study at Madrasah Aljunied in the 1980s, Ustaz Sonhadji was a teacher in the madrasah who encouraged the students to organise the madrasah’s inaugural National Day celebrations. The event was commemorated with a flag raising ceremony during the morning assembly and the singing of the national anthem. He also reprimanded students who did not take their participation seriously.

With regard to Ustaz Sonhadji’s views on Islamic punishment of crimes, the author also testifies that he, as a member of Pergas Masyayikh Council, regularly attended and actively participated in discussion sessions on the draft of three working papers before they were presented in the Ulama (Scholars’) Convention organised by Pergas in 2003. These papers were later adopted as Pergas’ official stand on moderation in Islam and published in a book titled Moderation in Islam in the Context of Malay Muslim Community in Singapore. The book contains Pergas’ official stand on the issue of hudud law in the Singapore context. Ustaz Sonhadji expressed strong support and agreement to the stand which is as follows:

Hudud in the Singapore Context

Implementing hudud is but one of the various religious obligations required of the Muslim ummah.

Therefore, we need to observe its place in the sequence of priorities that have to be fulfilled, according to the place and time. In line with this context, the Muslim community living as a minority group in Singapore views hudud as such: while we believe in it, we recognise the reality, and our priorities differ from that of the Muslim ummah elsewhere.

As mentioned in the discussion on secularism, in the Singapore context, our priority is to safeguard the free and peaceful environment which allows us to practise the basic obligations of the religion in the spirit of democracy, and to promote a civil society.

Although it is obligatory for us to observe hudud, our inability to do so does not mean that our Islam, or our status in the eyes of Allah, is lower than that of other Muslims; for it is also obligatory for us to work within constraints.

Allah Almighty says; “On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear.” (The Holy Quran 2: 286)

We reject the perception that defines someone as being extremist or inclined towards extremism, just because he is convinced of, and believes in the sanctity of hudud. We are of the opinion that it is necessary to differentiate between iman (belief in God) and conviction with experience. In this respect, we acknowledge the importance of contextualising conviction with reality.” [32]

Many other findings may be deduced about Ustaz Sonhadji from the sermons. It is up to the intellectual ability of a researcher now that the sermons are easily available in the public domain.

It must be highlighted here that the above findings should not be construed as the absolute representation of Ustaz Sonhadji because they are based on his sermons, which represent a small portion of his intellectual legacy. Nevertheless, the findings are useful references for those who wish to research more about Ustaz Sonhadji and his contributions.

The last two decades after the 9/11 incident witnessed active efforts on the part of Singapore’s religious leaders to promote Islamic understanding and practices that are contextualised to contemporary times and more importantly to unique Singapore realities as exemplified in books published by Pergas already mentioned above and by Muis entitled Risalah Membangun Masyarakat Islam Cemerlang[33] and Thriving in Plural World: Principles and Values of Singapore Muslim Community.[34] This intellectual discourse should continue, but to further entrench the community’s contextual Islamic understanding and practice calls for the pertinent need to develop a strong sense of attachment to local religious figures, past and present, through a systematic study and dissemination of their ideas as exemplified by the compilation of Ustaz Sonhadji’s Friday sermons book. With a strong attachment to local figures, dependence on foreign figures and their ideas which may not suit the Singapore context could be reduced.

This article is based on and improved from Muhammad Haniff Hassan (2023), “Kenali Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Dari Khutbah Khutbahnya (Getting to Know Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji’s Ideas From His Sermons)”, in Meninjau Pemikiran Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Mohamad Milatu Daripada Khutbah-khutbah Karangannya (A Look Into Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji’s Ideas From Collections of His Sermon), edited by Mohamed Qusyairy Thaha, Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustazah Bahari, Singapore: Pergas. 


1Mohamed Qusairy Thaha, Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustazah Bahari (eds.) (2023), Meninjau Pemikiran Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Dari Khutbah-khutbah Karangannya (A Look into Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji’s Ideas From Collections of His Sermon), Singapore: Pergas, vol. 1-3.
2 See sermon titled Perintah Mengerjakan Puasa, in Mohamed Qusairy Thaha, Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustazah Bahari (2023), Meninjau Pemikiran Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Dari Khutbah-khutbah Karangannya (A Look Into Ustaz Ahmad
Sonhadji’s Ideas From Collections of His Sermon), Singapore: Pergas, vol. 1
3 Ibid.
4 See sermon titled Menunaikan Zakat Fitrah, vol. 1.
5 See sermon titled Larangan Berkahwin Dengan Orang-orang Musyrik.
6 See sermon titled Puasa Menghilangkan Bencana Syahwat Perut, vol. 1.
7 See sermon titled Pengajaran Bagi Suami Terhadap Isteri Yang Nusyuz, vol. 3.
8 See sermon titled Memperingati Maulid Al-Nabi s.a.w, vol. 1; Memperingati Kelahiran Nabi s.a.w, vol. 1
9 See sermon titled Menyambut Tahun Baru Hijrah dan Masihi, vol. 3.
10 See sermon titled Hukum Pencuri Dengan Kerat Tangan, vol. 2.
11 See sermon titled Balasan Orang Yang Memerangi Allah dan RasulNya, vol. 2.
12 See sermon titled Nabi Isa a.s Tidak Dibunuh, vol. 2.
13 See sermon titled Nabi Isa a.s Bukanlah Tuhan, vol. 1.
14 See sermon titled Talak Itu Hanya Dua Kali, vol. 3; Janda Diwajibkan Beriddah, vol. 3; Perempuan Yang Bercerai Hendaklah Beriddah, vol. 3.
15 See sermon titled Perhatikanlah Isi Al-Quran, vol. 1.
16 See sermon titled Menunaikan Zakat Fitrah, vol. 1.
17 See sermon titled Bermohonlah Kepada Allah Dengan Merendahkan Diri, vol. 1.
18 See sermon titled Perintah Allah dan TegahanNya, vol. 2.
19 See sermon titled Setiap Manusia Mempunyai Pengiring, vol. 3.
20 See sermon titled Siapa Yang Dikehendaki Allah Supaya Terpimpin, vol. 1.
21 See sermon titled Makanlah Dari Jenis Yang Baik, vol. 2.
22 See sermon titled Kemanisan Iman, vol. 1.
23 See sermon titled Kebajikan Berjimat dan Keburukan Orang Yang Boros, vol. 2.
24 See sermon titled Bekerjalah Mencari Mata Pencarian, vol. 2.
25 See sermon titled Sembahyang Jemaah dan Jumaat, vol. 1.
26 See sermon titled Janganlah Menjadi Orang Yang Memecah Belahkan Agamanya.
27 See sermon titled Lelaki dan Perempuan Sama Darjatnya, vol. 3.
28 Tham Yuen-C (2017), “2 foreign Islamic preachers barred from entering Singapore for religious cruise”, The Straits Times, 30 October
29 Today (2017), Imam who made offensive remarks to be repatriated; stern warnings for two others: MHA, 4 April.
30 See short biography of the late Ustaz in Pergas (2014), Beacons of the Ummah: Tracing the Footsteps of Singapore Religious Leaders, Singapore: Pergas, p. 103-10; See his contribution to community and recognition received at national level in Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil, “Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Mohamad Milatu”, SingaporeInfopedia, di (19 May 2023).
31 RRG (n.d.), Our People, The late Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Mohamad, at[gallery-2]/1 (19 May 2023).
32 Pergas (2004), Moderation in Islam in the Context of Muslim Community in Singapore, Singapore: Pergas, pp. 129-30.
33 Muis (2006), Risalah Membangun Masyarakat Islam Cemerlang Singapura, Singapore: Muis.
34 Muis (2018), Thriving in Plural World: Principles and Values of Singapore Muslim Community, Singapore: Muis.