Remembering Philosopher-King Shaykh Adam Abdullah Al-Ilory (1917-1992)


In the name of the Almighty, the Beneficent the Merciful “And do not say of those who are killed in the cause of Almighty that they are dead; no, they are alive but you do not perceive (Quran 2:154).

Today’s sermon was not originally planned to plumb the inner portals of the legendary patrimony of the icon of Arabic-Islamic scholarship in this part of the world, Shaykh Adam Abdullah al-Ilory, who departed this world in 1992. No. I had thought of exploring the present tense of contemporary Muslim life some of which call to question the known ideals of Islam. Of relevance to the latter is the on-going hideous face-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I thought nothing speaks to the disconnect between Islam and Muslims of today than the collusion between the nation of Islam and the Other. I do not know how to make sense of a situation where support for Palestinians, the mainly-Arab-Muslim race without a state in the modern period, could become patronage of terrorism. Brethren, when support for those struggling to reclaim their national identities becomes acts of terror, it follows, ceteris paribus, that all supporters of such stateless subjectivities would become terror. Remember in diplomatic circles, the friend of my enemy is equally my enemy.

Now I had to side-step all of the above in deference to some of the highly insightful and memorable stories shared with me and another Professor by a former student of Shaykh Adam Abdullah al-Ilori, himself a Senior Professor, a former ‘this and that’ and currently a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a popular Federal government’s agency. An excursus into aspects of the life of the intellectual prodigy and a stellar intellectual of uncommon characterization that was Shaykh al-Ilori, was an actually an happenstance. We did not set out to relive his life. Rather we were immersed in the discussion of the challenges confronting Muslim scholars of today. We were lamenting how individuals who ordinarily should represent the cremé-dé-la-cremé of our society have become charlatans in the cathedral of the devil. Professor then recalled at least two instances in which the life of the late Shaykh began to have lasting impacts on his vision and mission in the world. It was a story he told, with relish and passion, in storeys.

One day, Chief M.K.O Abiola, the late popular philanthropist and, according to some critics, the best President Nigeria never had, paid an unscheduled visit to Shaykh Al-Ilori. To be visited by Chief M.K.O during those years was to be visited by riches and fame; to visit that great man of yesterday, indeed what a great man he was, was to have an appointment with wealth, though temporarily, and affluence. Thus came Chief M.K.O Abiola to Markaz that day. According to our teacher and senior colleague, the Chief came to the Markaz with an unsolicited gift for Shaykh Al-Ilori -a brand new car. After exchanging pleasantries with Shaykh, Chief Abiola then announced with great pleasure and happiness the gift he has brought to Shaykh. Little did Chief Abiola know then that he had come to pay a visit to a Philosopher-King. Chief Abiola did not reckon with Plato’s assertion during the classical period that “there will be no end to the troubles of the state or indeed of humanity until philosophers become kings or until those we now call kings really and truly become philosophers.”

Thus Shaykh al-Ilori, after having contemplated the brand new car brought to him by the extremely wealthy Chief Abiola, then calmly asked him the following question: “are you aware of the Council of League of Imams and Alfas in the region?” Chief Abiola responded in the affirmative. Shaykh Al-Ilori asked him another question: “Do you know that that Council has a leader and that presently neither the Council nor its President has an official vehicle?” Chief Abiola was taken aback. He said he was completely aware of that fact. Then Shaykh al-Ilori told him to take the vehicle to the President of the Council and hand it over to him.

Soon after the incident, people began to tell different kinds of stories. But those who knew Shaykh al-Ilori very well were fully aware that he was an incorruptible scholar; that rather than run after the world and its temporary enjoyments, it was actually the world that was running after him. But the above was only the beginning. Soon thereafter, Chief Abiola came back to Markaz with yet another car. Once again, Shaykh Al-Ilori politely refused to accept the car. He asked Chief Abiola: “Do you know that I came from Abeokuta, Ogun State and that the leader of Imams and Alfas in the State has no official car?” Once again, Chief Abiola pleaded ignorance. Again, as it was in the beginning, Shaykh al-Ilori asked him to take the car to the Imam in question. It was lesson number two for those were living witnesses to the incidents. Exactly what and where lie your worth? Does your worth lie in money or in the acquisitions of these earthly possessions?

Whatever his intention was then, Chief Abiola was not prepared to give up on his desire to contribute to the progress of Markaz. He refused to be cowed by the uncommon austere or rather puritanistic personality he had encountered in Shaykh al-Ilori. Eventually he came to Markaz with yet another car- the third car. Having refused the offer of a car gift for the first and second time, Shaykh Al-Ilori then hesitantly and grudgingly accepted the car. But the lessons to be learnt from the encounter had not yet been exhausted. We were told Shaykh al-Ilori never set his foot inside the vehicle up till the day he transited to the great beyond.

Philosopher-kings usually know the ways and wiles of kings; they are well imbued with the styles, the politics and the histrionics of their fellow philosophers. Philosopher-kings usually know the kings; they know when to adulate the latter and when to abominate them.

I thought the above stories were highly instructive. They were instructive of yet the continuing effulgence in the life and living of the polymath, the scholar and great intellectual who happened to be Shaykh al-Ilori.

“People say I am a Sufi…” Shaykh Al-Ilori wondered. “Yes..I am a Sufi as long as tasawwuf means indifference to what is with people and yearning for that which is with the Almighty. I am a Sufi only if tasawwuf signifies the unveiling of unseen realities and inspired knowledge of the Creator”.
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