The transmission of Islam in the Malay-Indonesian world remains entrenched in history as one of the foremost examples of peaceful proselytisation of religion on a trans-continental scale. So successful was the continuous process from around the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, that the Islamic faith (agama) became comfortably embedded as a definitive criterion, apart from the Malay language (bahasa Melayu) and rulership (kerajaan), of Malayness – in reference to the broad category of Southeast Asia’s indigenous population who were previously adherents of animism and variants of Hindu-Buddhist religious traditions prevalent in the archipelago. The sources, modalities, timing and other details of the genesis of Islam among the Malays had always been diverse – there were sufis or Muslim mystics and shias; Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Bengalis; sayyids, sheikhs and itinerant missionaries; merchants, traders and political escapees from the flux engulfing their lands of origin or transit.
With its kaleidoscopic provenance as the backdrop, Islam as understood and practised by Malay-Muslims prior to the era of the nation state never bore monolithic traits. On the contrary, accommodation of mores from a variety of civilisational traditions prevailed, as strongly reflected in the assortment of religious practices deriving from various ethno-cultural traditions that eventually assumed the label of being part of Malay-Muslim heritage. Hence we find for instance, in Penang, the boria musical tradition which traces its ancestry to Shiah festivities. Religio-cultural marhaban and berzanji troupes who commonly perform during Malay wedding receptions, in turn, owe their origins to rhythmic salutations of the Prophet Muhammad popularised by sufi congregations. Islam in Malaya, up till independence on 31 August 1957, had remained steadfast to the spirit of wide interpretation, as personified by its perennial willingness to accommodate the intricacies of local customs known as adat, and to tolerate the arrival of new cultural strands such as the Kaum Muda and even the West. The celebrated public debate in Kelantan on whether a dog’s saliva could be considered impure or not in 1937 was indicative of the spirit of tolerance of diversity of views that prevailed in pre-independent Malaya. The differences of views between the traditional and reformist ulama notwithstanding, the terrain of Islam in Malaya was invariably pluralist from the pre-colonial through the colonial epochs.
Accompanying independence from Britain on 31 August 1957 was the inauguration of a Federal Constitution which installed Islam as the state religion via Article 3(1). The Constitution was arguably a hybrid document, which was nothing peculiar in view of the new nation state’s eclectic sources of national history. Many analysts have put forward arguments that it had secular intent, but yet it seemed to elevate the religion of the majority of the population to a pedestal unreachable by other religions. The precise implications of Article 3(1) never made clear, the political role of Islam in independent Malaya and later Malaysia was left to the behest of Malay-Muslim politicians entrusted with governance of the fledgling nation state. In managing Islam as a component of public life, however, religious purity was made subservient to political expediency connected in one way or another to the political fortunes of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has continuously ruled the country together with its non-Malay component partners in the multi-racial Perikatan (Alliance) and Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front) coalitions. The public fate of Islam was thereby laid in the hands of successive Prime Ministers and UMNO leaders, who resorted to the bureaucratisation of Islam in order to assist them. The expansion of the Islamic bureaucracy took place at a relentless pace under Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Islamisation programme in the 1980s.
By the time his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pronounced Islam Hadhari, through which Islam was to be interpreted and applied through enlightened civilisational lenses, the Islamic bureaucracy had ossified into a monstrous elite whose ruthless hold on the Muslim populace was justified on the basis of Article 3(1).
In contrast to his predecessors who had refrained from exploiting Islam as a political tool, whether out of their own ignorance or respect for constitutional niceties established by its secular-inclined drafters, Mahathir unabashedly championed Islam as the most effective way of outflanking his competitors for Malay loyalty, namely the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS: Islamic Party of Malaysia) and emergent dakwah organisations such as the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM: Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) and Darul Arqam, which later morphed into Rufaqa’ Corporation and Global Ikhwan following Darul Arqam’s banning in 1994. In doing so, Mahathir unwittingly (or not) inducted many elements of political Islam or Islamism into the official state apparatus. Inducting the Islamist (which needs to be differentiated from Islamic) strand into affairs of the state was a double-edged sword. While being a politically deft move in neutralising the Islamist challenge, the state also incorporated negative aspects of marrying the management of Islam with overt politics, parallel with the regressiveness of the Saudi Arabian state as a result of its adoption of the Wahhabi brand of conservative Islam during its inception.
The state’s recent repression of unorthodox Islamic groups, as exemplified in renewed crackdowns on the Shiah and Global Ikhwan movements following the thirteenth general election, smacks of its inability to intellectually engage discontented elements within its majority Malay-Muslim population, who increasingly find the state’s handling of Islam to be inept and downright hypocritical. It would have looked credible for the UMNO-controlled state if its actions were all guided by a sincere intent to defend the integrity of Islam, but the fact of the matter remains that when so-called transgressions against orthodox Islam are committed by elements organically connected to the state, the ruling elites indulge in deafening silence.
My personal contacts in the police’s anti-terrorism unit admits that influential UMNO individuals at branch and division level also have connections to the Shiah, but the focus of the authorities, such as in seminars conducted across the country on the ‘Shiah virus,’ have portrayed as though the heterodoxy is an affliction linked solely to PAS. Solitary pronunciations by political elites that Shiism is acceptable for non-Malay Muslims such as Iranians (who provide good income by forming the bulk of Middle Eastern students conducting postgraduate research in Malaysian universities), but forbidden for Malay-Muslims, adds an ethnic dimension to the state’s management of Islam (comprehension and practice of Islam) in Malaysia being a factor of ethno-religious politics rather than religious purity.
The government acts only on rogue Muslims in such a way that political benefit accrues to the state and its organic linkages. It is utterly unable to fathom that the Malay-Muslims have developed their Islamic horizons intellectually as a result of the shrinking of the ummah into a global village in the internet age, and so are open to the more sophisticated choices of models of Islam offered throughout the world. How could the state isolate the Islamic understanding of its Malay-Muslim population but at the same time urges them to embrace globalisation and modernisation?
The state continues to pursue an anti-pluralist approach to religion, but fails to appreciate that diversity of views and perspectives among the learned, even in theological matters, has been part and parcel of the glorious Islamic civilisation. Many eminent scholars such as Al-Kindi (d. 873) and Al-Jahiz (d. 868), were not orthodox Muslims as we would normally understand it. Even the great Ibnu Sina aka Avicenna (d. 1037) has been considered by some historians as having belonged to the freemason-like Ikhwan as-Safa brotherhood or one of the Shiah sects. In addition, prominent Sunni ulama putatively acknowledged by the later generations of Muslims as veritable reformers such as Al-Shafie (d. 820), Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Al-Suyuti (d. 1505) clashed with the religious officialdom of their days. Al-Shafie, whose school of law Malaysia’s Sunni Muslims purport to follow, was dragged to the court of Harun Al-Rashid on the accusation of colluding with Shiahs.
By equating unorthodoxy with deviancy, the Malaysian state is killing off intellectual creativity and innovativeness among its Muslim populace, over whom it prefers to exert an everlasting dominance. Ironically, this runs counter to the Islam Hadhari strand of civilisational interpretation of religion which the government once projected itself to be a proponent of. Not only is the government rolling back on its supposedly enlightened conception of Islam, but by laying itself vulnerable to skewed interpretations of Islam proffered by cohorts of conservative ulama infesting its bureaucracy, it is also espousing an overall regressive trajectory in the sphere of ethno-religious relations. Small wonder then that the self-appointed guardians of present-day Malaysian Islam, all organically linked to the state, utterly fail to understand how the appellation ‘Allah’ can be justifiably employed by non-Muslims as a religious reference to an omniscient God. Internalised in the Malay-Muslim psyche as a factor of Malay ethnocentric politics, Islam in Malaysia has been reduced by the powers that be to a political tool to satisfy their political machinations towards ensuring continual Malay-Muslim (read: UMNO) hegemony.
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid is associate professor and chairman of the Political Science programme, School of Distance Education, University Sains Malaysia.
This article first appeared in New Mandala hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific.