Embracing the ship metaphor


  • Letters Premium
  • Wednesday, 10 Nov 2021

YEARS ago, the then rector of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Prof Mohd Kamal Hassan, used the metaphor of a ship to describe the university.

The ship metaphor has precedence in Western literature. In Donne and the Ship Metaphor (1961), D.C. Allen of Johns Hopkins University states: “The image of a ship caught in a storm and struggling to make harbour was to the fathers of poetry a superb way of expressing the life course of a hero or the political fate of a state.”

As a society or community, all of us are on a journey on a ship. In this journey, our leaders are the captains and rowers, and our smooth arrival at our destination depends on their integrity, efficiency and trustworthiness.

Even those who prefer to distance themselves from religion can still embrace this ship metaphor, as we all seek to attain a happy and prosperous life with the guidance of honest and capable leaders.

Importantly, the ship metaphor has an allusion to a prophetic tradition. Often referred to as the ship hadith, it reports Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) saying: “The example of the person abiding by God’s orders and restrictions in comparison to those who violate them is like the example of those persons who drew lots for their seats in a ship. Some of them got seats in the upper part, and the others in the lower. When the latter needed water, they had to go up to bring water (and that troubled the upper deck passengers), so they said, ‘Let’s make a hole in our share (lower deck) of the ship (and get water) so that we don’t trouble the upper deck passengers.’ If the upper deck people left the lower deck ones to do what they had suggested, then all in the ship would be destroyed; but if they had prevented them, then both parties would be safe.” (Bukhari)

The ship metaphor is also relevant to the role of a university. As the Prophet describes two groups of people, the upper deck passengers and the lower deck ones, in society we have the enlightened and the general population.

It is the responsibility of the former to guide the latter to truth and justice. In other words, the upper deck passengers are university academics, graduates and affiliates and the lower deck passengers are the wider community beyond campus boundaries.

University communities have an obligation to guide the wider society towards honesty, fairness and morality in both direct and indirect ways. Otherwise, evils in society will creep in and eventually destroy the moral fabric of universities as well as the nation. If people on the upper deck neglect this moral/educational/religious responsibility, they will be complicit in the collective failure to establish justice and peace, and to maintain harmony and order in society. Therefore, universities must train students in such a way that they would be equipped with the right skill sets, and mindsets to lead their communities to holistic welfare – often denoted by the Malay word sejahtera. In order to materialise this, a university needs to be an example of excellence and best practices.

I believe universities around the world should transcend religious and ideological differences and embrace the ship metaphor and ship hadith. If they can produce competent, responsible, and morally upright graduates, all of us can dream of a better world free of oppression and injustices.

DR MD MAHMUDUL HASAN , Department of English Language and Literature International Islamic University Malaysia

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