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MALAYSIA. The Malay Peninsula before the imposition of British rule in the late nineteenth century was made up of traditional Malay states under the control of hereditary Malay sultans. In these states Islam, which spread to this part of the world during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, was already strongly established at all levels of society. Aspects of Islamic law were observed to varying degrees, although elements of preIslamic culture were still prevalent among the people as a whole. Among the sacral powers of the Malay rulers was responsibility for the defense and good governance of Islam as the state religion. In some states, such as Johore-Riau, Malacca, Kelantan, and Trengganu, certain rulers were well known for their patronage of Islamic religious learning and scholarship.



The role of the religious scholar was essentially that of faithfully preserving, transmitting, translating, and commenting on the classical Arabic texts from Mecca that he had learned, mastered, and to a large extent memorized. The intellectual tradition and paradigm of religious taqlid (faithful preservation and imitation of traditional opinions regarded as authoritative and orthodox) that was nurtured in the Malay kingdoms prior to the twentieth century had roots in the intellectual environment of Mecca in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The inclination toward tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism) and popularity of Sufi tariqahs (brotherhoods) among the Malays was due to the widespread influence of Sufi-oriented Muslim preachers and scholars-hence the preeminent position of al-Ghazali’s thought in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Owing to the unifying and integrating thrust of al-Ghazali’s intellectual contributions, many great figures of Islamic learning in the Malay states from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth pursued a tradition of Islamic learning in which fiqh (jurisprudence), tasawwuf, and kalam (theology) were integrated.

What formal education existed during the early part of the nineteenth century for the Malay community was purely Islamic religious education revolving around the reading and memorization of the Qur’an and the learning of basic religious rituals such as prayer, fasting, zakat, and the hajj. The mosque was the only site of such education until the emergence of the pondok (private residential religious seminary) in the late nineteenth century and the madrasah (school) in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Muslim states of the Malay Peninsula outside the three Straits Settlements (the island of Penang acquired in 1786, the island of Singapore in 1819, and Melaka [Melacca] in 1824) remained free from British interference until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Pangkor Treaty of 1874 signaled the imposition of British rule on the Malay states of the peninsula. It provided for the appointment of a British resident to the Malay state; it was incumbent upon the Malay ruler or sultan to ask for his advice and act upon it in all matters “other than those touching Malay Religion and Custom.” This led to the creation of a new religio-legal bureaucracy subservient to the royal palace and subordinate to the traditional Malay elites close to the palace. This bureaucratization of Islam served to strengthen the control of the Malay sultan and the secular traditional elite over the religious life of the people.

Perceiving British rule as essentially one of kafir dominance supported by Christian evangelism, the Malay religious leaders and scholars generally adopted a hostile attitude toward western culture. Consequently they mobilized their resources to strengthen and defend the Islamic identity of the masses by building their own pondoks and madrasahs with independent curricula and financial resources. Except in areas where the spirit of jihad against British colonialism or Siamese expansionism in the north was generated by a few prominent religious scholars around the turn of the century, an attitude of resignation and submission to British rule prevailed among both the Malay rulers and the masses.

The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of an Islamic reformist (islah) movement that began to criticize the socioeconomic backwardness and religious conservatism of traditional Malay society of the time. This new socioreligious activism began when several religious scholars studying in the Middle East came under the powerful influence of the revivalist and reformist ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad `Abduh at the close of the nineteenth century; others were earlier exposed to the puritanical teachings of the Wahhabi movement. The leader of the Malay reformist movement, Shaykh Tahir Jalal al-Din (18691957), a student of `Abduh, founded Al-imam in 1906, the first periodical to spread the message of Islamic reformism in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. From their base in Singapore and later in Penang, the reformers pioneered the establishment of modern Islamic schools (madrasahs) whose curriculum differed radically from the pondok system with the introduction of several modern subjects and a new method of learning and teaching religion. This modernization of religious education and the spread of reformist writings and thought through the new media of magazines and newspapers had far-reaching social and political consequences.

The religious bureaucracy and the traditional `ulama’ were used to some religious practices regarded by the reformists as bid’ah (unlawful innovation), and they tolerated some degree of accommodation with local traditions that were perceived by the reformists as khurdfdt (superstitions and accretions). They opposed the views and activities of the reformists, popularly called Kaum Muda (the Young Group). The call for greater exercise of independent religious reasoning (ijtihad) with direct reference to the Qur’an and the sunnah and less reliance on a single madhhab (legal sect) was strongly resisted by the traditionalists, who came to be known as Kaum Tua (the Old Group). In their efforts to rouse the Malay community from its intellectual slumber and socioeconomic inferiority to the immigrant non-Muslim communities in the urban centers, the reformists also came to criticize and challenge the political order of the British colonialists. Indeed, the seeds of Malay nationalist consciousness were sown by the reformists. However, the fruits of their labor were to be reaped by the next elite who emerged from the new schools, as well as by the scions of aristocratic families who led the anticolonial struggle in the 1940s and 1950s. Seriously inhibited by British colonial policy coupled with opposition from both the traditionalists and Malay secular elites, Islamic reformism in British Malaya was unable to become an effective social force.

The Japanese interregnum during World War II, though traumatic for the masses, did not seriously alter the position of Islam among the Malays. The Islamic reformist spirit was suppressed while Malay nationalist sentiments were gathering momentum. Postwar Malay nationalism of a conservative orientation saw the foundation of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO) in 1946. The British formed the Federation of Malaya in 1948 after its Malayan Union proposal was rejected by the Malays. They arrested both the radical Malay nationalist leaders and the proponents of an Islamic political party, Hizbul Muslimin, which was banned a few months after its formation in 1948. The

Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, better known as PAS) originally developed from the defection of the `ulama’ faction in UMNO in 1951 and became a registered political party in 1955. Its emergence marked another turning point in the development of Islamic thought in the Malay states. The idea of establishing an Islamic state in British Malaya was propagated and articulated for the first time as mainstream Malay nationalists in UMNO pressed for the independence of the country from British rule. The British granted independence to the Federation of Malaya in 1957, with Singapore becoming a separate colony, and thus began the era of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. In 1963 Malaysia came into being, with the inclusion of Singapore (until mid-1965) and the two Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The total population of Malaysia in mid-1990 was estimated to be 17,755,900, compared with 13,764,352 in mid-1980. According to 1990 estimates, the Muslim Malays in peninsular Malaysia constituted 58 percent of the total population, the Chinese 31 percent, and the Indians io percent. The 198o census put Muslims at 53 percent, Buddhists at 17.3 percent, Confucians, Taoists, and traditional Chinese believers at 11.6 percent, Christians at 8.6 percent, and Hindus at 7 percent.

Although the position of Islam as the official religion of post-independence Malaysia-with the Malay rulers of each state serving as the guardians of Islamic religion and Malay custom-was guaranteed in the constitution, only some aspects of the life of the Muslim community and the nation were influenced by Islamic values and norms. The government under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman with the support of the British was committed to a secularistic vision of the new nation and vigorously opposed the Islamic political struggle and ideals. As such, it came under strong attack from the PAS and Islamically oriented Malay organizations. Five years after the 1969 racial riots, the PAS joined the coalition government of the National Front. As a result, the government under the second prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak, established the Islamic Centre, which formed an important part of the Islamic Religious Affairs section of the Prime Minister’s department. Tun Abdul Razak’s government gave increased attention to the educational, social, and economic development of the Malay Muslims to accommodate the demands coming from PAS within the government and from the da`wah movement outside it.

The assertive and generally anti-establishment da’wah (Islamic proselytization) movement emerged in the 1970s through the activities of youth organizations in secular educational institutions, including PKPIM and ABIM (the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, established in 19’71). It represented a new phase in Islamic thought and action, but its vision of Islam as a complete and holistic way of life was in fact a continuation and elaboration of earlier reformist and revivalist movements in the Middle East and Pakistan. Complementing the Islamic political movement in the country, the youthled da’wah organizations pressed for the greater application of Islamic laws and values in national life and articulated the holistic Islamic perspective of social, economic, and spiritual development. While the scope of Islamic religiosity was widened to embrace all aspects of human life, the intensity of religious life was simultaneously emphasized by da’wah proponents. Thus the form and content of Islamic life were noticeably affected. The government under Tun Hussein Onn at first viewed the new phenomenon negatively and was extremely wary of the political effect of assertive, Malay-dominated da’wah on the multiracial nation and its own political strength. One of the central government’s responses was to initiate its own da’wah-oriented institutions and activities under the aegis of the Islamic Centre and in cooperation with government-linked Muslim missionary organizations such as PERKIM, USIA in Sabah, and BINA in Sarawak. The Ministry of Education was also progressively improving and upgrading the teaching of Islam in the schools; it established the Faculty of Islamic Studies in the National University of Malaysia in 1970, opening up new opportunities for Islamically committed graduates to work in the civil service.

The resurgence of the holistic Islamic consciousness spearheaded by the da’wah movement, with its call for Islamic alternatives, continued to influence the Malay community as well as the state authorities. It reached a high point around 1979-1982 with the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The demand for the establishment of more Islamic institutions in the country was raised by several organizations in national seminars and international conferences held in Malaysia. The government under Tun Hussein Onn’s premiership made some concessions and decided to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of an Islamic bank in Malaysia; when Dr. Mahathir Mohamed became prime minister in 1981, this was one of the projects that received his immediate attention.

Under Mahathir’s leadership the government took a more conciliatory and positive approach toward the demands of the da’wah movement. PAS had been forced to leave the National Front coalition government in 1977 and had continued its struggle for complete implementation of the shari`ah and the establishment of an Islamic state in Malaysia as an opposition party. It regarded Mahathir’s Islamic initiatives and efforts as “cosmetic islamization” aimed at undermining the influence of the Islamic party. Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of ABIM and an articulate spokesman of nonpartisan da’wah in the 1970s, decided to support Mahathir by joining his government in 1982 in order to achieve his Islamic objectives from within the administration. Anwar Ibrahim’s support gave a new lease on life to Mahathir’s Islamic initiatives. The creation of the Islamic Bank and the establishment of the International Islamic University in 1983, followed by the that of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in 1987, were the immediate results of Anwar’s direct involvement in Mahathir’s administration.

Under Mahathir the islamization process in Malaysia entered yet another important new phase. This included the institutionalization of concrete Islamic programs within the government; the inculcation of Islamic values in the administration; the encouragement of Islamic intellectual discourse in government departments and institutions of higher learning; the reform of national education by incorporating Islamic perspectives and values; the initiation of changes in the legal system to facilitate the growth and expansion of Islamic shari ah court administration; the removal of glaringly un-Islamic practices from the official ceremonies of government departments; finding ways and means to cease the practice of charging interest on government loans to Muslims; and the establishment of an Islamic insurance company, an Institute of Islamic Understanding (1992), and interestfree banking facilities in conventional commercial banks (1993). In foreign relations the Mahathir administration strengthened its pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel policy. It became more vocal and consistently critical of the superpowers.

The widening scope of Islamic consciousness outside the government framework also affected the world of Malay literature and journalism, which had formerly been under the influence of socialist as well as secular humanist trends. The urgency for an Islamic paradigm in economics and other social sciences in the universities was articulated in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of a new realization among Muslim intellectual circles world wide. Thus the mission for the “islamization of human knowledge” came into being, and the International Islamic University, Malaysia, was entrusted with pursuing it without any government obstruction. [See International Islamic University at Kuala Lumpur.] Meanwhile, the ABIM leadership decided to change its approach of sloganeering and Islamic rhetoric to one of “problem-solving” and “corrective participation” in cooperation with the government. The emphasis on solving immediate social problems and direct involvement in community development seemed to be the order of the day in the early 1990s. All the major Islamic da`wah organizations, such as ABIM, Darul Arqam, and JIM (Jamaah Islah Malaysia, established in 1991), have embarked on active educational programs for preschool, primary, and secondary school children nationwide.

PAS, as an opposition party, and some Islamic factions continued to dwell on the ideal of an Islamic state, the abolition of secularism, and the complete implementation of the shari`ah, including that of capital punishment (hudud) in the state of Kelantan. The Muslim community in the 1990s, however, is confronted with many new issues, such as efficient management of big businesses, increasing whitecollar crime, environmental degradation, serious drug abuse, AIDS, the plight of Muslim female workers in factories, widespread corruption and fraud, negative influences of the electronic media, and increased interreligious dialogue. As Malaysia moves toward the goal of becoming an industrialized nation by the year 2020, the place of ethics and spiritual values in an industrial society will certainly become more crucial. Several Muslim leaders and Islamic groups are beginning to realize that the challenges of industrializing Malaysia are far too numerous and complex to be handled by any one group or party. The future demands greater unity, cooperation, and interdependence among all groups within the Muslim community.

[See also ABIM; Dar ul Arqam; Da’wah, article on Modern Usage; Madrasah; Malay and Indonesian Literature; Partai Islam Se-Malaysia; PERKIM; United Malays National Organization; and the biography of Ibrahim.]


Ahmad Ibrahim, ed. Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia. Singapore, 1985.

Bastin, John, and Robin W. Winks. Malaysia: Selected Historical Readings. Kuala Lumpur, 1966.

Deliar Noer. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia 1900-1942. Singapore, 1973.

Funston, John. Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of United Malays National Organization and Party Islam. Kuala Lumpur, 1980. Holt, P. M., ed. The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2. Cambridge, 1970. Chapters 2 and 3 are extremely useful.

Hooker, M. B., ed. Islam in South-East Asia. Leiden, 1983.

Lyon, M. L. “The Dakwah Movment in Malaysia,” Review of Indonesian and Malayan Affairs 13.2 (1979).

Mauzy, D. K., and R. S. Milne. “The Mahathir Administration in Malaysia: Discipline Through Islam.” Pacific Affairs 56.4 (Winter 1983-1984): 617-648.

Means, G. P. “The Role of Islam in the Political Development of Malaysia.” Comparative Politics 1 (1969): 264-284.

Mohd, Nor bin Ngah. Kitab Jawi: Islamic Thought of the Malay Muslim Scholars. Singapore, 1982.

Morais, J. V. Anwar Ibrahim: Resolute in Leadership. Kuala Lumpur, 1983.

Muhammad Kamal Hassan. “The Response of Muslim Youth Organizations to Political Change: HMI in Indonesia and ABIM in Malaysia.” In Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning, edited by W. R. Roff, pp. 18o-196. New York, 1987.

Muhammad Kamal Hassan. Moral and Ethical Issues in Human Resource Development: Old Problems and New Challenges. Kuala Lumpur, 1993

Naguib al-Attas, Syed Muhammad. Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays. Singapore, 1963.

Naguib al-Attas, Syed Muhammad. Preliminary Statement of a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. Kuala Lumpur, 1969.

Revival of Islam in Malaysia: The Role of ABIM. Kuala Lumpur, n.d. Roff, W. R. The Origins of Malay Nationalism. Kuala Lumpur, 1967. Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. Mekka in the Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century. Leiden and London, 1931.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/malaysia/

  • writerPosted On: August 1, 2014
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