M.A.R. Habib

Liberal Studies Program: Fall 2005 Lecture and Colloquium Series
October 26, 2005

Islam was introduced into South East Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand) by travelling merchants and Sufis from the late 13th. through the 15th. centuries. Muslims became the majority in these areas. SE Asian civilisation was based upon irrigated rice cultivation, rearing of animals and metallurgy; the native cultures, existing in the form of petty kingdoms, were strongly influenced by cotact with Hindu cultures. Underlying the spread of Islam to SE Asia was the trade between this region and India; the most pronounced influence was from Southern India, which perhaps explains why Malaysian and Indonesian Islam is based upon the Shafi’i school of Islamic law.

A number of factors played an important role in the acceptance of Islam by this entire region. First was the Muslim merchants who married into local ruling families and assisted local commercial enterprises. An important and overlapping role was played by Sufi missionaries, who were not only teachers founding schools but traders and politicians, and who communicated Islam in a form compatible with indigenous beliefs and practices such as saint worship and veneration of saints as healers. Finally, Islam furnished an ideology of individual worth, and brotherhood based on faith rather than kinship, which promoted some solidarity in peasant and merchanmt communities. Islam may have helped to create an integrated community to replace small village-scale communities.

In the early fifteenth century, a local ruler called Iskander was defeated by Javanese rivals and fled his native state of Palembang. He founded Malacca and converted to Islam. Thereafter Malacca became a centre of trade with India, Java and China; and Malacca became a platform for the spread of Islamic influence throughout SE Asia. By the end of the fifteenth century, Islam had sread through the Malay kingdoms of Pahang, Kedah and Patani and into Sumatra in Indonesia, as well as into Borneo and the Philippines.

The spread of Islam was hardly interrupted, and perhaps stimulated, by Portugese imperial interests. The Portugese conquered Malacca in 1511 and soon therefatre other key towns and ports with a view to controlling trade in the region. Muslim teachers and missionaries fled from Malacca to Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas and Borneo. There followed a large-scale struggle between the Muslims and the Portugese, which was further disprupted by the entry of the Dutch who came to the region for pepper. They defeated the Portugese in various engagements and captured Malacca in 1619. The Dutch established hegemony in the region, effectively controlling Aceh and the whole of Sumatra., as well as obtaining trading monopolies in the Moluccas and Macassar., and terrirtorial control in Java. Once again, European political supremacy led to a consolidation of Islam as an expression of inigenous cultural identity and political resistance. Aceh, a centre of resistance to both the Portugese and the Dutch, saw an influx of Ottoman and Mughal scholars and the promulgation of ties to the international Islamic community of scholars. Prominnet Sufis such as Hamza Fansuri (d. 1600) imported the teachings of the Spanish mystical philosopher Ibn al;’Arabi; so the main form of Islam to reach this region was an emphasis on mystical unity with God, which was receptive to folk-culture versions of Islam. At the end of the eighteenth century the works of the Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali were translated into Malay, so that Achenese Islam came to encompass both mystical and reformist tendencies.

As in Aceh, Islam in Malaysia was closely integrated with village life and the state. There were two parallel forms of authority: the billage headsman was responsible for arbitrarting disputes, collecting taxes, organising labour and healing; the imam in the mosque organised worship and taught in the local school. Islam was prominent in rituals and festivals which became indices of solidarity. Alongside Islam survived non-Islamic rituals and practices, belief in spirits, saints and shrines; the Sultans of the various Malay states had both Muslim and Hindu titles. But there was no Muslim judicial system, nor was Islam integral to the political structure.

Between 1824 and 1874 the Dutch anned Aceh, much of Sumatra, as well as the Moluccas and Borneo. By 1911 they had complete control of the Indies. Britain entered into competition with the other imperial powers in 1786 when they made an agreement with the Sultan of Kedah to use Penang Island as a naval and commercial base. Eventually, Penang was annexed by the British and the Dutch colonies including Malacca were turned over to Britain in 1795 (for use in the Holland’s war against France). In 1810 Britain took control of Java and in 1819 established a base at Singapore. By 1824 the British had established control of over both India and much of Malaya. The opening of Malaya’s tin mines brought a large influx of Chinese and Indian labourers into the country, so that the Malays eventuall comprised only about half of the population. By 1896 the British had brought Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negri Sembilan into a federation of Malay states; by 1914 both these statyes and the unfederated states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelanatan, Trengganu and Johor, were subject to a British advisor, with a centralised government, a civil service, a court system and railways. The sultans of the various states were merely symbolic rulers; real power was in the hands of district and village chiefs. There was no state control of religious affairs not any hierarchichal organisation among the ‘ulama. Islam was organised only on a village scale around teachers and holy men. Islam was but one element of a more complex social and religious identity, but it was a common factor in Malay-Indonesian societies.

It was not till the late nineteenth century that British and Dutch domination of SE Asia resulted in significant transformations in political and economic structure: the main responses to imperialism came from the ‘ulama, Sufi teachers, new adminstrators and intellectuals, Muslim reformers and military leaders. The consolidation of the British Empire in Malaya in the early twentieth century entailed the formation of centralised states and a capitalist economy based on materials such as tin, rubber, palm oil, sugar and coffee. These economicand political changes changes had a transformative effect upon religious life in Malaya. Previously, the Sultans were the primary religious figureheads but in practice they had little to do with the actual administration of Islamic law, education and public worship. It was essentiall the ‘ulema who presided over these activities. All of this was changed by the nature of British domination, which divested Malay Sultans of authority in all matters except those pertaining to religion and culture. The sultans accordingly tried to increase their power in these realms: in the latter nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, there occurred an increasingly centralised admninistration of religious life:religious judges or qadis were appointed, a Religious Council was created in 1915 with full authority over religious courts and village mosques, and in general provided state leadership over religious thought and practice. A reformist and modernist movement known as Kaum Muda was originated, which preached pan-Islamic and pan-Malayan unity and anti-colonialism. The origins of Malayan independence were prepared in 1946 with British proposals for a Malayn union of federated and unfederated Malay states, as well as Singapore, Malacca and Penang. These proposals, entailed setting up a central government and giving the Chinese and Indian communities access to political power. In response to this potential threat, the Malay aristocracy in 1946 formed the United Malay National Organisation. The Britush modified their proposals in 1948 in favourt of a federation which preserved the separate Malay states as well as guaranteed the supremacy of Malay interests.

This federation was attacked by the Malayan Communist Party; this provoked UMNO to form an alliance with the Malayan Chinese and Indian Associations, and in 1957 the independent state of Malaya was formed with the support of Malay officials, Chinese merchants and Indian intellectuals. The new constitution established the dominance of Malays in education and the state apparatus, and the dominance of the Chinese in the economy. So, although the Chinese and Indians were part of the ruling coalition of a secular party, Malays received preferential treatment in the distribution of scholarships, licenses in certain business and positions in public service. In 1963 the federation of Malaya was extended to North Borneo and Singapore, and renamed Malaysia. Singapore withdrew in 1965. Islam was the official religion but freedom of worship was guaranteed. Previously, religious life had been administered at the state level, and most Malay states had maintained a department of religious affairs, which was involved in construction of mosques and enforcing moral and criminal codes. After independence, the federal government acquired a role in religious affairs. Schools were required to offer Islamic instruction when there was a minimum number of Malay students.

Certain forces tended to reinforce the affiliation of Malay identity with Islam. The first Islamic opposition party, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP), arose in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu where, in 1959, it defeated the alliance coalition and built up an Islamic administration, strengthened the offices of the religious qadi and mufti, and suppressed immoral activities as well as other religious groups. In response to the growth of the Islamic Party, the UMNO recruited religious leaders and adopted a more overtly Islamic position; this move threatened its coalition with the Chinese and Indian groups. The situation between the three ethnic groups eventually degenerated into race riots in 1969. An emergency regime was set up, and a new economic policy was initiated, focused on the expansion of governmental enterprises, financed by foreign capital and export earnings from petroleum, rubber, timber and palm oil. In 1972 the PMIP, under the new name of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), was drawn into the national coalition.

Also fuelling Islamic consciousness were the growth of the student population and new dakwah (missionary and educational) movements, comprising white-collar workers, teachers and students. The Islamic revival was expressed in the activities of three dakwah groups. The first was the Malay Muslim Youth League (ABIM) founded in 1971 and led by Anwar Ibrahim, which called for the Islamisation of the individual, the family, the ummah and the state. A Second group Darul Arqam sponsored co-operatives and workshops and stressed independence through economic activity such as agriculture and small-scale manufacturing. A third movement, the tabligh, appealed to the educated.

These groups threatened the delicate ethnic balance of Malaysia. Since 1981 the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad has constrained the more radical Muslim elements, arresting people suspecting of promoting ethnic strife and regulated publications. It attempted to co-opt some of the dakwah or missionary groups. In 1982 Anwar Ibrahim took a place in the UMNO, and the government declared its aim of absorbing Islamic values. But the state also supported a secular nationalist movement, Bumiputera (“Sons of the Earth”), which tried to cultivate an ethnic Malay consciousness committed to technical and economic modernisation. Mahathir proclaimed that Malaysia had an Islamic economy, with an Islamic Bank and Islamic insurance companies. He increased support for Muslim schools and broadcasting, created an Islamic University, and raised the status of qadis to equal that of civil court judges. His regime also brought much prosperity, moving the basis of the economy from tin, rubber and palm oil to microchips and industrial products. There is a modern infrastructure of roads, dams, airports and mass transport. Mahathir gave strong support to Arab interests, the PLO and the mujahiddin resistance in Afghanistan. So Malaysia is attempting to find a balance between the demands for an Islamic state, the pressures of the world economy and the needs of a multi-ethnic society.

In October 2003 Dr. Mahathir resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by Abdullah Badawi who in the following year won a landslide victory in the general election. It was Badawi who, on various occasions, articulated a vision of what he called “Islam hadhari.” He himself translated this term as “civilisational Islam.” The Arabic noun hadarah refers to sedentary urban life, and so the adjective hadari means “civilised” as opposed to nomadic desert life which is called badawah; this opposition derives from the fourteenth century North African Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun, who saw urban and nomadic life, hadarah and badawah, as the two basic forms of human society.11 So, what does Prime Minister Badawi intend in his program of Islam hadhari or civilisational Islam? In several speeches he has put forward ten principles of Islam hadhari:

  1. Faith in Allah and piety;
  2. A just and trustworthy government;
  3. A free and independent people;
  4. A vigorous pursuit and mastery of knowledge;
  5. Balanced and comprehensive economic development;
  6. A good quality of life for the people;
  7. Protection of the rights of minority groups and women;
  8. Cultural and moral integrity;
  9. Safeguarding natural resources and the environment;
  10. Strong defence capabilities

Although these ten principles have been widely regarded as effectively summarising the notion of Islam hadhari, I remain somewhat sceptical as to their explanatory power. For one thing, as my colleague Carl Ernst points out to me, it is not clear how the first of these principles, faith in Allah and piety relate to the other nine which are typically standard policy objectives of most nation states.

I think we will attain a better understanding of Islam hadhari by looking at its various motivations as given by Abdullah Badawi, and then perhaps returning to examine the principles which might genuinely have a foundation in the tradition of Islamic thought and prophetic example (i.e. the principles relating to just government, pursuit of knowledge, protection of minority rights and moral integrity).

Typically, in his speeches, Badawi prefaces his formulations of Islam hadhari by referring to the cultural and intellectual heights achieved by Islamic civilisation during the eighth through the eleventh centuries. It was in this era, he says, that schools and universities flourished throughout the Islamic realms, and that the “seeds of a questioning and self-critical culture began to take root.” While acknowledging that the Crusades plunged the Muslim world into deep crisis, he traces the decline of the Muslim world to the time when it fell under the European colonial yoke. He notes that only 5 of the 57 countries in the world with Muslim majorities have high ratings in terms ofeconomic development and per capita income. However, while he attributes considerable blame to Western foreign policies for this condition, he also sees much of the Muslim world as culpable inasmuch as it is ridden by corruption, inept government, poor management and illiteracy. These circumstances comprise one of the underlying motivations of Islam hadhari, a motivation which comprehends the desire for both economic success and answerable government.

A further motivation lies in the was that Islam is portrayed in the media — which is a largely sensationalist and ignorant media — as a religion of fanatics and terrorists. Such distortions of Islam based upon ignorance are of course nothing new; they go back many centuries, through Voltaire, Bacon amd many others to Dante, who presented Muhammad as a schismatic; Dante of course knew neither Greek nor Arabic; Badawi cites Ernest Renan’s description of Islam as a religion that “is the complete negation of Europe…the complete disdain of science, the suppression of civil society.” Badawi suggests that these popular sentiments are driven by a media that focuses almost exclusively on extremist discourse, and treats Islam as a monolithic religion. The nuances of debate within the Islamic world, he remarks, are totally ignored.

Given these circumstances, the first priority of the Muslim world, according to Badawi, is better governance. He acknowledges that this can be learned from all corners of the world; but we should not overlook the doctrines within Islam that are still applicable to modern needs. He sees the IZslamic commitment to good governance as embodied in the Qur’an, which stresses the nedd for a ruler to be trustworthy and just in his dealings with people (an-Nisa’, 58). Good and accountable government was also demonstrated in the conduct of the prophet Muhammad as a lawgiver, administrator, judge and military commander, as well as the example of his companions such as Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, the first Khalifah. Another Islamic source of emphasis on good and accountable governance is found in the Shari’ah or tradition of Islamic law as it has evolved through the centuries. Early Islamic jurisprudence attached great importance to equality before the law and the rule of law. A long tradition of Islamic thought including figures such as al-Farabi, al-Ghazzali and Ibn Khaldun has espoused the principles of honesty, justice, love of the people, especially the poor, and a readiness to seek counsel from the learned as attributes of good leadership.

Another vital principle in Islam, dating as far back as the fourth Khalifah Ali Ibn Abi Talib is the independence of the judiciary; equally vital is the principle of public accountability, as found in the example fo the prophet and the second Khalifah Umar al-Katthab. There is a hadith (one of the syaings of the prophet) that views differences of interpretation within the ummah or Muslim community as a sign of divine blessing. Drawing upon this tradition of both governmental accountability and discursive openness, Badawi suggests that we must encourage reform and renewal in Islamic thought; we must open up discursive spaces in the Muslim world and directly challenge the extremist doctrines with which Islam has fallen into synonymity. Mulsim political leaders, scholars and intellectuals must have the courage to encourage, and not stifle, voices of moderation and reason. Islam muct not be ossified by blind imitation of traditional thought and opinion by literalist doctrines and atavistic notions of an ideal past.

Hence Badawi calls for the relevance of contemporary ijtihad. He defines ijtihad as “the effort a Muslim jurist or scholar makes in order to deduce a law or opinion, which is not self-evident, from the sources of the Shari’ah.” He points out that the problems of contemporary Mulsim societies are not the problems of the 6th. century. Islamic thought can not be isolated from massive changes in political systems, economy and science. He urges that the Shari’ah must be viewed not merely as a set of laws and prohibitions based on exclusively literal interpretations but a system of values. Badawi invokes al-Ghazzali’s identification of five main objectives of Shari’ah, namely life, intellect, faith, property and progeny. Other thinkers have added elements such as justice and economic development. Badawi stresses the need to focus on a more fundamental notion of religion which will free us from “excessive literalism and legalism.” This more enlightened attitude to Shari’ah, which has recourse to the notion of ijtihad, of independent reasoning and contemporary need, will rekindle a tradition of reason and intellectual inquiry, “which will in turn lead to a culture of learning among Muslims.” He quotes the nineteenth century Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh as saying that the Qur’an enjoins intellectual inquiry upon Muslims and actually forbids them to be “slavishly credulous.”

As far as the particular situation in Malaysia is concerned, Badawi sees his policy as advocating a path of moderation, one which presents an alternative vision of Islam to that propagated by PAS, the Islamic opposition party; in other speeches, he emphasises that Islam hadhari is not a new religion (as the oppositionists would claim) but a return of the Muslim ummah to the fundamentals of Islam as embodies in the Qur’an and the sunnah or example of the prophet. He holds that the compulsion to act out of religious motivation can “be directed towards good, towards progress, towards development.” Islam hadhari, he insists, is an approach that values substance over form; it is an approach that is compatible with modernity.

Badawi offers three practical ways in which Malayisa might use its intended image of an Islamic role model: firstly, to establish Malaysia as a centre for conflict resolution; to promote vastly increased commerce between Muslim nations; and to “offer Malaysia as the focal point for promoting a more open and diverse Islamic discourse. Our universities will work together with institutions around the world…to promote a critical dialogue…Malaysia will invite scholars of Islam from all over the world to initiate the process of intellectual reform and renewal.”

These are, theoreticall, the prime objectives of Islam hadhari. But clearly, the path of Islam hadhari is driven by certain immediate political exigencies: is meant to harmonise with the economic demands of a changing world; it serves the political purpose of undermining public support for the Islamic Party, as well as of attempting to reassure Malaysia’s Chines and India constituents that they will not be left out of the political and economic program. It subserves the need to encourage Malays to become more educated and to be economically more competetive. It also attempts to define Malaysia’s role as Chair of the the countries of the Islamic Conference. As far as relations with the West go, Badaw states that a change of foreign policy is required over the issues of Iraq and Palestine, that aggressive Western policies can only play into the hands of so-called Islamic extremists; such aggressive policies will mean that the moderates — on both sides — will lose out, and will incur the lable of apologists or even apostates.

Returning to the ten principles, then, what appears to underlie most of them, is an emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, as laid down by the Qur’an and sunnah; Badawi rejects any distinction between sacred and secular knowledge, and suggests that knowledge can be obtained from the West as well as from sources deep within Islamic tradition; it is the emphasis on knowledge that underlies possible changes to the education system, both religious and secular; that underlies eceonomic growth and advancement, both individually for Malays and for the nation as a whole; that will turn way the “green tide” of fundamentalist religiosity and political Islam; that will dispel ethnic anxiety in a multicultural society; that will be the foundation of effective and morally responsible government; that will allow the Shari’ah to be reinterpreted according to the needs of the modern world; and to foster a more informed dialogue both within Islam and between Islam and the West.

Those who are sceptical about Badawi’s program sometimes point to it as a merely political agenda; they see it possibly encouraging an exaltation of science and technology at the expense of the humanities; and they often doubt that it will produce changes other tha those already necessitated by economic imperatives. What I see as encouraging about his terminology is his repeated warnings against the culture of literalism, a culture which is responsible for the active propagation of ignorance in the Islamic world. This insight might open the doors for a profounder and more extensive reading of the Qur’an. The Qur’an itself states that Allah (S) speaks in parables: perhaps we should re-examine the notion of literal meaning. It is presumptuous for us to pretend that we can understand easily the Word of God; rather, we might acknowledge that the Word of God is infinitely rich and infinitely profound, that it will repay profound study and extensive inquiry. The sad truth is that many Muslims read the Arabic of the Qur’an without understanding it; this may apply to the majority of Muslims, who comprise around one billion people. It could change the nature and practice of Islam radically if these people were given access to an understanding of the Holy text. In fact, the reading and re-reading of the Qur’an, in the light of the accumulated knowledge of the past and present, both Eastern and Western, is one of the most important tasks confronting the twenty-first century. Badawi’s initiative, if pursued seriously, might be a first step in replacing the culture of literalism with a culture of learning.