By Dr Norshahril Saat
JULY 16, 2016
Amid signs of growing religious fundamentalism and the Arabisation of Islam in Malaysia, the religious elite in the country has also become more politicised. Recent controversial views expressed by religious scholars on what defines acceptable conduct — such as how Kelantan mufti Shukri Mohamad said non-Muslims should dress conservatively during Ramadan, and Pahang mufti Abdul Rahman Osman slamming the secular opposition Democratic Action Party as non-believers opposed to Islam — indicate this group may be straying from the national policy of religious moderation. Dr Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute researching Malaysian politics, analyses the trend of exclusivist attitudes towards religious discourse in the South-east Asian nation.
Recent writings on Malaysia’s religious elite — the muftis (state-appointed persons with religious authority), Ulema (religious scholars) and religious bureaucrats — show the group as a whole is becoming more conservative, authoritarian and exclusive.
Recently, the Pahang mufti, Abdul Rahman Osman, has been issuing exclusivist remarks against non-Muslims who oppose Islamic laws in Malaysia, including the DAP (Democratic Action Party). He declared them to be Kafir Harbi (non-believers opposed to Islam). He was also quoted as saying working with them is a sin in Islam.
Academics and activists have accused the religious elite of being influenced by the puritan version of “Middle East” Islam, namely Wahhabism/Salafism.
Ms Marina Mahathir, a human rights activist, opined that Malaysia is undergoing an Arabisation of Islam because the way the Malays dress, behave and think no longer reflects Malay identity. For example, she said, Malay women under the age of 50 no longer know how to tie the baju Kurung (Malay costume).
Mr Syed Farid Alatas, of the National University of Singapore, argued in an April 2014 article in The Straits Times that, extremist ideas (he refers to Salafism) from the Middle East have influenced the Ulema’s thinking and behaviour.
At a forum, he stated that the Malays show a lack of self-confidence in believing they become more authentic Muslims through copying Arabs.
The Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Iskandar, joined in, declaring: “If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia.”
To be sure, the behaviour of the religious elite contradicts the way Malaysian prime ministers Abdullah Badawi (2003-2009) and Najib Razak (2009-present) had sought to portray the country’s practice of Islam: Islam Hadhari (progressive and civilisation Islam) and Islam Wasatiyyah (moderate Islam).
And recent controversies involving the religious elite, such as book bans, the persecution of religious minorities (such as the Shias), and the banning of the use of the word “Allah” for “God” by non-Muslims do not help Malaysia maintain an image of Muslim moderation.
It is true that Malaysian Muslims are becoming more conservative, and the religious elite have contributed to it. While an increasing number among the religious elite reflect elements of Wahhabism/Salafism, there are also many (such as Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers) who are influenced by revivalist ideas that have been popular since the 1970s, and by Sufism (interpreted as mysticism or as a devotional/spiritual orientation).
On the one hand, one can blame the Middle East for the elite’s conservatism: They continue to receive their training in its universities, and there is greater promotion of Wahhabism/Salafism by the Saudi Arabian government, funded by petro-dollars.
Yet it would be a mistake to discount the role of the dominant Malay party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and the Malay rulers, with their continuing patronage over the Ulema, in shaping the Ulema’s political and religious behaviour.
The dynamics of this reflect the thinking of Malays’ feudal past. There is still a deep fear of authority in general, a strong emphasis on rituals and mysticism, and little regard for universal Islamic values such as equality. Thus, blaming the Middle East alone for the country’s conservative bent ignores the historical, institutional, and political conditions under which the Ulema functions.
What Malaysians need to be wary of is the exclusive attitude towards faith in general: Defensiveness of particular ideas, authoritarian attitudes in approaching diversity, and relegating alternative voices as being liberal or deviant. The exclusivist attitude towards religion does not derive from the Middle East solely, but from local factors as well, and is found across different theological orientations.
Evolution of Malay-Islamic Thought
One interesting finding is that not all so-called Wahhabis/Salafis are extreme in thought, even though they may be in aspects of rituals and in jurisprudence.
Conversely, followers of competing ideologies are also clearly guilty of extremism.
In general, Malaysian muftis are traditionalists: They adopt a literal stance towards religious texts, and this is a by-product of the Islamic resurgence movement of the 1970s.
One has to understand the socio-historical factors that conditioned their styles of thinking. Islam was introduced into South-east Asian societies that were largely feudal. As depicted in the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu, the religious life of Malay feudal society was coloured by magic and fear of authority, and the Malay ruling elite was not especially concerned about principles such as social justice, equality, and education for the masses.
Colonialism introduced modern sciences to the Malay world, but religious schools continued to teach feudal romances and myths rather than the hard sciences.
In the 1970s, the Malays experienced an Islamic resurgence. The movement, though made up of many competing groups, had a common goal — to introduce an alternative Islamic way of life which was all-encompassing. This meant introducing Islamic finance, Islamic banks, Islamic state, Islamic dressing, Islamic development and many more.
This attitude perpetuated an “us versus them” attitude between Muslims and non-Muslims. The movement also believed all modern problems could be resolved through reference to the Quran and Sunnah.
While all Muslims believe their religion is a spiritual guide, the resurgence movement sought an Islamic order that was fixed and immutable. In their writings, leaders of the resurgence, for example, portrayed the West as a monolithic civilisation in decline.
The Heterogeneity of the Religious Elite
It is useful to highlight the religious and political behaviour of three well-known muftis (chief Ulema of the Malaysian states) — Harussani Zakaria (Perak state), Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (Perlis state) and Mohd Yusof Ahmad (Negeri Sembilan state) — to demonstrate the complex nature of Malaysian Islam.
Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (known as Maza by followers) was appointed Perlis mufti in 2006, left after two years, and was reappointed in 2015. He is popular among the young, runs a popular blog, Minda Tajdid, and has published many books on Islam.
Mohd Asri’s critics claim his views conform to Wahhabism/Salafism, even though he is uncomfortable with the label. However, in his first stint as Perlis mufti, he published books that reflected Wahhabi/Salafi concerns, that were anti-mazhab (a school of jurisprudence), that were critical of hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) fabrications, and that condemned Sufi practices.
He considered these phenomena to be not in line with “pure” Islam, and urged Muslims to return to Islam’s true teachings. Sources he cited were also often those referred to by those conforming to the Wahhabi/Salafi school of thought.
Mohd Asri continues to write books, and deliver sermons critical of Shiism. His anti-Shia sermons are widely circulated on social media, particularly on YouTube. He continues to hold this position against Shiism even though several prominent Malaysian leaders have signed the Amman Declaration, which upholds both Shiism and Sunnism as mainstream Islam.
While Mohd Asri may be conservative on many aspects of religious rituals, some of his views on women’s rights, religious freedom and religious worship are largely recognised to be progressive. He is particularly critical of mysticism, a dominant religious orientation of Malaysian Malays which pays scant attention to modern scientific knowledge.
This debunks the view some scholars have of a direct correlation between Wahhabism, violence and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). He also urges Malaysian Muslims not to accept the Shafie School as the only source of law, but to be more receptive of other schools of jurisprudence. This position departs from the one advocated by the ulama in the Nusantara region, which largely adopts the Shafie School of jurisprudence.
Many in the National Fatwa Committee do not agree with his thinking on many issues, and disagreements between Mohd Asri and other muftis have often played out publicly. Muftis and religious bureaucrats in other states have tried to prevent Mohd Asri from speaking in their states, and in 2009, he was detained by religious officials for preaching in Selangor without permission. This was despite him being a mufti himself.
The case of Mohd Asri demonstrates two points. First, one can be labelled a Salafi/Wahhabi in outlook, particularly on matters of faith and rituals, without religious training in Saudi Arabia, the country known to uphold that ideology most prominently. Second, a Wahhabi/Salafi can be progressive on many issues not concerning religious rituals, even more so than the traditionalists and Sufis. Mohd Asri received most of his religious training in Malaysia. He graduated with a Bachelor degree in Arabic from Jordan University, a Masters degree in Islamic Studies from the Malaysian Science University (USM) and a doctoral degree from the International Islamic University of Malaysia.
The Role of Malay Rulers and Umno
Without a doubt, the Middle East has influenced religious discourse in the Malay world. A large number of Malaysian students studied in Middle Eastern universities such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, Madinah University in Saudi Arabia and Yarmouk University in Jordan. On their return, these students refer to their Middle Eastern mentors and interpret Malaysian matters according to the situation in the Middle East.
Yet focusing too much on the Middle Eastern influence diverts attention from local and regional factors that also shape the thinking of the Malaysian Muslim elite.
For example, in religious affairs, Malay rulers have the prerogative to decide who gets appointed to their state’s religious councils and who becomes the mufti. In the same vein, Umno also has the authority to lobby personalities on to the religious councils, especially in the states it governs. In most instances, Umno wants a mufti that is friendly to the party.
Mr Harussani Zakaria, the mufti of Perak, is a case study of a mufti having close ties with a Malay ruler. He has served as the Perak mufti since 1985.
The Sultan of Perak has, over the years, conferred many titles and state honours on him. In 2008, Mr Zakaria was named Tokoh Maal Hijrah 1430 (Maal Hijrah Person of the Year), a prestigious recognition awarded to Muslims for their contributions to Malaysia. In 2009, he became a “Tan Sri”, a title that only 75 individuals in Malaysia can hold at any one time.
The Perak royal family has retained his services for three decades, despite the fact Malaysia produces hundreds of Islamic Studies graduates and PhD holders every year with the qualifications to replace him.
Having protection from the Perak royal family, Mr Zakaria has expressed his conservative ideas publicly without fear of retribution from the state or from Umno. He has issued controversial statements through the mainstream media — including the Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia — which have embarrassed the state.
During the Abdullah Badawi government, many of his remarks ran counter to the government line. On July 8, 2006, Mr Zakaria made the unsubstantiated remark that 100,000 Muslims in Malaysia had become apostates.
His views on apostasy have helped shape public opinion about Christian proselytisation and evangelism, and his alarmist overtone is likely to have deepened mistrust between Muslims and non-Muslims. Several Islamic NGOs such as ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia or Malaysia Muslim Network) and ABIM have since publicly pressured the federal government to ban all attempts to convert Muslims out of Islam.
In 2009, Mr Zakaria resolutely defended the Sultan of Perak at the height of the Perak constitutional crisis. This crisis was precipitated by three Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state assemblymen leaving their party to become independents who, in effect, would support the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The Perak Sultan allowed BN to take over the Perak government from PR, leading to public demonstrations and claims the Sultan’s move was unconstitutional.
Mr Zakaria declared those who criticised the Perak Sultan to be menderhaka, or treacherous: “The Malays do not defy the Sultans. As Malays, they (demonstrators) should not be cursing, swearing, and destroying other people’s property as Malay culture is refined. How can we say we are struggling for Islam when we behave in such an un-Islamic way?”
What lay behind his resolute stand in support of the monarchy on this occasion? One can perhaps point to Saudi clerics and their quietist approach towards the Saudi monarchy that, in return, allowed the clerics space to be guardians of religious matters.
However, he never received his religious training from any Middle Eastern university. Under the purview of Mr Zakaria, the Perak religious council tolerates religious rituals which Wahhabis/Salafis would consider “innovations” and un-Islamic.
Yet his views on women are conservative. Last year, Mr Zakaria declared that gymnastics is not for Muslim women because they are required to wear costumes that do not meet Islamic guidelines. He made these remarks about Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, who won a gold medal at the SEA Games in Singapore.
Mr Zakaria is one case of a Muslim leader who is exclusivist without being influenced by Wahhabism/Salafism, and without receiving any training from the Middle East.
Exclusivist across Ideologies
What most analysts fail to observe is that exclusivism cuts across theological divides.
While the Wahhabi/Salafi school may clearly be promoting exclusivism, such is also the case among certain Sufi groups. The paragraphs below demonstrate how muftis of the state of Negeri Sembilan exhibit an exclusive orientation despite being Sufi oriented.
Muftis in Negeri Sembilan are generally known to hold views stemming from Sufism, which in theory are apolitical, moderate, and benign. Sufis claim to promote a soft brand of Islam which emphasises spirituality and rituals.
The current mufti, Mohd Yusof Ahmad, also received his religious education from Al-Azhar University, and he is against Wahhabism/Salafism. In early 2015, the Negeri Sembilan religious council declared Wahhabism to be contradictory to the Sunni school of thought.
Mohd Yusof proclaimed that Malaysians should adopt the Shafie School of jurisprudence and should not to be misled into accepting Wahhabism.
In 2014, Mohd Yusof was unhappy with the Federal Court of Appeal’s judgement to allow three transgender Muslim men — Muhammad Juzaili Mohd Khamis, Shukor Jani and Wan Kay — to dress as women. Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Shariah Criminal Code 1992 forbids Muslims from dressing as the opposite gender, and those who do face up to six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to RM1,000 (S$340) or both.
The three men had been arrested several times for breaking the religious law in Negeri Sembilan, and in October 2012, the High Court informed them that they had to obey those laws since Islam was a state matter.
However, in November 2014, the Court of Appeal ruled it unconstitutional to prevent the men from dressing the way they wished, as the Constitution protects minority rights.
Mohd Yusof disagreed with the Court of Appeal, declaring that the judgment was against Islam. The Islamic Religious Department appealed at the country’s highest court, the Federal Court, which in August 2015 reversed the verdict of the Court of Appeal. This created an uproar among human rights groups, both locally and internationally.
Mohd Yusof said, “I stand by the Syariah Court in the state (of Negeri Sembilan). These laws are crafted to uphold Islam more than anything else. Laws in the state are based on Islam, Quran, and Hadith.”
Look Beyond Wahhabism/Salafism
To sum up, the study of religious extremism in Malaysia should extend beyond its present focus on Wahhabism/Salafism.
The patronage of Malay rulers remains key in defining the political behaviour of some Malaysian muftis, and Salafi/Wahhabi thinking is more marginal to Malaysian society than what many scholars suggest.
The majority of Malaysian muftis remain Sufis and conservative, like the Perak and Negeri Sembilan muftis. In the same vein, the Selangor religious council, for instance, defends Sufi practices frowned upon by Wahhabis/Salafis, and the opinions of religious councils are backed by the Malay rulers, who are constitutionally the custodians of Islam in each state. Yet, as mentioned, the Selangor authorities prevented Dr Mohd Asri from speaking because he holds a different theological viewpoint.
The way forward should therefore be for analysts to be critical of any form of exclusive attitude in the religious discourse, rather than to single out particular religious doctrines.
An exclusivist is an exclusivist, regardless of whether he (or she) is a Wahhabi/Salafi, Shia, Sufi, Sunni or a self-declared liberal. A common space for debate on religious ideas and values is needed.
Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This is an excerpt of a longer piece in ISEAS Perspectives.