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The Malay Peninsula before the imposition of British rule in the late nineteenth century comprised 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 pre-Islamic culture still existed among the people. Among the sacred powers of the Malay rulers was responsibility for the defense and good governance of Islam as the state religion. The rulers of some states, such as Johore-Riau, Malacca (Melaka), Kelantan, and Trengganu (Terengganu), were known for their patronage of Islamic religious education 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 largely memorized. The intellectual tradition and paradigm of religious taqlīd (faithful preservation and imitation of traditional opinions regarded as authoritative and orthodox) that was nurtured in the Malay kingdoms before the twentieth century had roots in the intellectual environment of Mecca in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The inclination toward taṣawwūf (Islamic mysticism) and the popularity of Ṣūfī ṭarīqahs (brotherhoods) among the Malays was fostered by Ṣūfī-oriented Muslim preachers and scholars and reflected in the preeminent position of the twelfth-century scholar al-Ghazālī's thought in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Because of the unifying thrust of al-Ghazālī'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), taṣawwūf, and kalām (theology) were integrated.

What formal education existed for the Malay community during the early part of the nineteenth century was purely Islamic religious, centered on the reading and memorization of the Qurʿān and the learning of basic religious rituals such as prayer, fasting, zakāt, and the ḥajj. 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.

British Colonial Period.

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 (Malacca) in 1824— remained free from British interference until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Pangkor Agreement 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 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 infidel 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 jihād 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 reform (iṣlāḥ) 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 Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muḥammad ʿAbduh at the close of the nineteenth century; others were earlier exposed to the puritanical teachings of the Wahhābī movement. The leader of the Malay reformist movement, Shaykh Ṭāhir Jalāl al-Dīn (1869–1957), a student of ʿAbduh, founded al-imām 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 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 ʿulamāʿ (scholars) were accustomed to some religious practices regarded by the reformists as bidʿah (unlawful innovation), and they tolerated some degree of accommodation with local traditions that were perceived by the reformists as khurāfāt (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 (ijtihād) with direct reference to the Qurʿān and the sunnah and less reliance on a single madhhab (legal school) 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, did not seriously alter the position of Islam among the Malays. The Islamic reformist spirit was suppressed while Malay nationalist sentiments gathered 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 ʿulamāʿ 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 an Islamic state in British Malaya was 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, according to the 2000 census, was 23.27 million compared to 18.38 million in 1991. Malaysia is multiethnic and multireligious and is characterized by an almost complete identification of religion with ethnicity. The Muslim portion, comprising mainly ethnic Malays, increased from 58.6 percent in 1991 to 60.4 percent in 2000. The ethnic Chinese are mainly Buddhists (19.2 percent) and the ethnic Indians Hindus (6.3 percent). The Christians (9.1 percent) come mainly from the indigenous Kadazans of Sabah and the Ibans of Sarawak, although like Islam, Christianity has followers among all of the country's ethnic groups except the Malays.

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 of the 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 secular 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 other 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 daʿwah (Islamic proselytization) movement outside it.


The assertive and generally antiestablishment daʿwah 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 1971). 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 youth-led daʿwah 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 life, the intensity of religious life was simultaneously emphasized by daʿwah 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 daʿwah on the multiracial nation and its own political strength. One of the central government's responses was to initiate its own daʿwah-oriented institutions and activities under the aegis of the Islamic Centre and in cooperation with government-linked Muslim missionary organizations. The Ministry of Education was also progressively improving 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 daʿwah movement, with its call for Islamic alternatives, continued to influence the Malay community as well as the state authorities. It reached a high point in 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 project received his immediate attention.

The Mahathir Administration.

After a decade of Islamic resurgence, affecting both religion and politics in the Malay community, Mahathir was deeply aware of its long-term implications for UMNO and its legitimacy in the view of the Malays, whose Islamic consciousness was clearly on the rise. PAS, which had been forced to leave the National Front coalition government in 1977, continued to insist on the full implementation of the sharīʿah and the establishment of an Islamic state in Malaysia. When PAS asserted that UMNO was a secular party without Islamic credentials, Mahathir took steps to nurture the Islamic identity of his own party.

He brought into UMNO Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic leader of ABIM and an articulate spokesman of nonpartisan daʿwah in the 1970s. His wooing of Anwar and ABIM was a strategy calculated to strengthen the Islamic credentials of his government and to “out-Islam” PAS in its Islamic challenge. With the help of Anwar, Mahathir largely succeeded in both. The creation of the Islamic Bank and the establishment of the International Islamic University in 1983, followed by 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.

The creation of these institutions was in line with the Mahathir administration's new program known as the “Islamization Policy.” This program was intended, in both the short and long terms, to transform the Malay mind and attitudes to meet the requirements of both Islam and modernity, to inculcate in the people Islamic values in economic development and in the government machinery, and to create a national administration guided by Islam. In the domain of law, he declared that “Islamic laws are for Muslims and meant for their personal laws, but laws of the nation, although not Islamically-based can be used as long as they do not come into conflict with Islamic principles.” In line with his Islamization policy and with this stand on Islamic law, Mahathir established the Sharīʿah and Civil Technical Committee with the objectives of upgrading the status of sharīʿah courts and ensuring all laws of the country will be in conformity with Islam.

Most important to Mahathir, however, was Malaysia's economic development, which is the legacy of his rule that is best remembered and most widely acknowledged. His political aim was “to make Islam in Malaysia synonymous with economic progress and modernization.” Under his twenty-two year rule, Malaysia witnessed the most significant Islamic and economic transformations in its history. Malaysia today is the seventeenth largest trading nation in the world. With economic progress and independence, Malaysia under Mahathir was free to pursue an independent foreign policy that was openly critical of Western powers. From its architectural feat of building the tallest twin towers in the world to its political feat of championing global Muslim interests in international forums, Mahathir's Malaysia had succeeded in attracting attention from the worldwide Muslim ummah.

In 1998, however, Mahathir faced the biggest crisis of his political career following a political feud he had with Anwar, his heir apparent. Mahathir fired Anwar from both the government and the UMNO for alleged immorality, but Anwar insisted from the beginning that his dismissal and the subsequent court trials on charges of corruption and sodomy were politically motivated. While Anwar was critical of corruption in high places, Mahathir seemed to be tolerating it. In 1999 Anwar was found guilty on both charges, resulting in his total imprisonment of fifteen years. He had served six of his fifteen years’ sentence when he was released on September 2, 2004, upon his acquittal of the sodomy charge by the Federal Court.

Into the Twenty-first Century.

Mahathir voluntarily resigned as prime minister on October 1, 2003. He was Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister and one of the best-known political leaders of the Islamic world. He was succeeded by Abdullah Badawi who has been seen to be moving away from his predecessor's policies, especially after the strong mandate he received from the electorate in the March 2004 general elections. There is reason to believe that Islam will continue to be the most powerful and most influential ideological force in Malaysia's post-Mahathir political life. The face of political Islam, however, appears to be changing. Abdullah's Islam hadhari (civilizational Islam) is presented as a new approach to the development and governance of Islam, deemphasizing the idea of the Islamic state, thus rejecting both Mahathir's “Islamic state” and PAS's version of it, and emphasizing “civilizational” development of Islam instead.

Islam hadhari's ten principles stress healthy spiritual development, good governance, mastery of knowledge, economic development, better quality of life, protection of the rights of minority groups and women, cultural and moral integrity, environmental protection, and strong national defense. Unlike the reception of Mahathir's Islamization policy, Islam hadhari has generated more controversy in the Muslim community than among the non-Muslims.

Malaysia's biggest challenge in the new century is to maintain interethnic and interreligious peace in the light of new religious, political, social, and economic developments. New Islamic assertiveness in the public sphere and concern over mixed marriages that lead to conversions to Islam and apostasy are examples of contemporary issues that strain interreligious relations. It remains to be seen how Islam hadhari can claim to be more successful than the previous Islam policies in dealing with Malaysia's ethnic and religious pluralism.



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