Perlis State Mufti Dr. Asri Zainul Abidin’s recent ban on speaking at ceramahs, or religious events within Kelantan, points to a deep theological rift between two competing Islamic groups in Malaysia. Dr. Asri better known as Dr. Maza has also been forbidden to speak to Terengganu and Selangor before.
In Malaysia today, there is a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood, by Sunni scholars led by the chairman of the Islam Se-Malaysia Party (PAS), Abdul Hadi Awang, and the Wahhabi-Salafists, led by Dr. Maza in Perlis.
Malaysian Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood inspired the emergence of the Islamic youth movement, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) in the 1970s and 1980s. The Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) was also deeply influenced by the theology of the movement . PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang was deeply influenced by theology as a student and can be considered today as one of the spiritual leaders of the movement in the region. Many PAS leaders also studied in Cairo, Egypt, and adopted many ideas from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Jama’at al-Ikhawan al-Muslim, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, is a global Sunni Islamist organization, founded in Egypt in 1928. Its goal is to develop state Islam under the Sharia regime. This, unlike the Salafist movement, makes the Muslim Brotherhood a political organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood would view and deal with social issues from an Islamic point of view. Its main objective is social justice, poverty eradication, political freedom and Islamic jurisprudence, within an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood is against personal ostentation and promotes their view of social morality, such as gender segregation in schools.
Overall, the Muslim Brotherhood is going through its own divisions. It is unclear how this affects the movement in Malaysia.
The major influence of the Muslim Brotherhood is through the states they govern in Malaysia, namely Kelantan and Terengganu. Today, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) is headed by a PAS minister, Idris Ahmad. However, one wonders what authority he really has over the organization with the Sultan of Selangor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, being placed in charge of JAKIM by the Council of Rulers.
Growth of Wahhabi-Salafism
In recent decades, a minority of Malays have adopted Salafist doctrines, originating in Saudi Arabia. Salafism is a straightforward interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah, geared towards restoring pure Islamic faith and practice emulating the era that the Prophet Muhammad and his first followers, after his death, practiced.
Salafism is not a homogeneous theology. There are a number of subgroups from traditional Athari Salafism, which encourages followers to remain apolitical, in order to avoid the corrupt nature of politics, Tanzimi Salafism, which accepts involvement in politics and organizations, and various currents of jihadist Salafism.
Dr. Maza has developed a hybrid Salafism, where the center of these teachings is the small, conservative rural northern state of Perlis. The Perlis State Constitution states that the official religion of Perlis will be Al-Sunnah Waljamaah (follower of Quran and Sunnah), unlike Sunni Islam in other states. Dr. Maza and former Chief Minister Shahidan Kassim enthusiastically revived the Sunnah Perlis doctrine, regularly traveling across the country to preach.
The Salafist movement has spent huge sums of money and resources developing social media to raise awareness among students, youth in general, graduates, young professionals, academics and other educated Malays. Sites on Facebook and YouTube have over 1.2 million subscribers.
Dr. Maza’s main foundation is Petubuhan Yayasan Al-Qayyim Malaysia, and there are many other aligned groups, including the International Khayr Ummah Foundation (IKAF), headed by Dr. Fathul Bari, a conservative UMNO supporter. These organizations are partly funded by Saudi Arabia, where Dr. Maza and Shahidan Kassim have a close relationship with the Saudi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Saudis established a scholarship program for students in Saudi Arabia, funded schools, and sent preachers and school experts to Perlis. Other funds come from VVIPs and corporate Zakat payments from the Perlis Malay Culture Department (MAIP).
The major tool of Wahhabi-Salafi influence is the so-called Alumni. According to Ulama Engku Ahmad Fadzil, the alumni are made up of a group of graduates from local, British, Saudi and Jordanian universities, who return home and join the civil service, armed forces, religious organizations, schools and universities. Some hold prominent positions, where they now dominate fatwa councils, JAKIM and state religious organizations.
Many of the elders are highly intelligent, articulate, well-educated, well-connected, and do not necessarily divulge their true beliefs and inclinations for the purpose of influencing the ideas of others. This group also protects the image of the movement and, according to an insider, each member of the elders receives a stipend of RM5,000 per month, increasing over time to spread the faith, mostly funded by Saudi money. This is in addition to the wages they earn in the course of their employment.
A Divided Malaysian Ummah
The main difference between the two Islamic groups is that the Muslim Brotherhood advocates a political strategy to increase their influence over the state, while the Wahhabi-Salafists target institutions and win the hearts and minds of young people across the country.
The power struggle between Wahhabi-Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood divides the Malaysian Ummah. Kelantan and Terengganu are subject to the theology of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Perlis is becoming a Wahhabi state, where even Imams who refused to follow Wahhabi doctrines have been expelled.
As we saw with Dr Maza’s ban in Kelantan, clear lines of demarcation are drawn across Malaysia, according to theological belief. Rather than Malaysia growing closer as a nation, the power struggle between the two theologies develops large sectarian differences.
Diplomatic competition beyond Malaysia’s shores
Both groups are active outside of Malaysia.
Najib Razak’s visit to see the leadership of Hamas, which is heavily aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza during his tenure as prime minister, indicated Wisma Putra’s inept control over national diplomacy. Rather than a state visit to Palestine, it has become a political visit. PAS Information Chief Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi’s congratulatory message to the Afghan Taliban on the recapture of Kabul on 18e August last year drew international criticism. Anti-Semitic remarks by former Prime Minister Mahathir during his visit to the United States in 2019 made Malaysia seem like a renegade state, out of step with much of the Arab world.
Dr. Maza funds Saudi-educated cleric Lutfi Japakiya, the leading Salafist reformist Muslim educator in Thailand today. Luftfi’s efforts are changing the nature of Malay ethno-identity among the younger generation in the Deep South, where there has been an insurgency for the past two decades. MAIPs donated 20 million THB (61,180 USD) from Zakat money to fund the construction of a Quran and Sunnah Reading Center at Fatoni University. MAIPs has also donated substantial funds to provincial Islamic authorities in southern Thailand for annual Salafist gatherings.
All of this came at the cost of the freedom to practice Islam, as millions of Malays have done for hundreds of years. Malays are discouraged from practicing ‘Nusantara Islam’. Certain aspects of Malay culture and dress are socially taboo or strictly prohibited. Bahasa Malaysia has been Arabized. Traditional Malay clothing has been frowned upon in mainstream society.
Malays are taught that any non-Muslim is a potential danger to their faith, as we see with stories about the Bon Odori festival. Muslims are treated like they cannot be trusted to maintain their own faith in Islam. The power struggle between Wahhabi-Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood has cost the Malay population the freedom to practice Islam according to their own traditions.
Islam is no longer a religion about personal faith and spirituality before Allah. The practice of Islam must respect the norms and rules of the State.
Through deliberate social engineering, today’s Malay youth have become one of the most conservative groups in the Islamic world today. Political pundits expected the Undi 18 movement to give a massive boost to the opposition and secular political parties. The next general election could show that this may not be the case.
In 2020, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars described the Muslim Brotherhood as a deviant movement that does not respect true Islam. They branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist movement, which led to condemnation from a host of Malaysian NGOs, including ABIM and IKRAM. A number of countries have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Former Minister of Religious Affairs under the Pakatan Harapan government, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a member of Amanah, claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood did not pose a threat to Malaysia, citing the support of ABIM and IKRAM to the movement.
Dr. Maza and his Salafist outlook has put the special branch of the police in a dilemma, with deep and serious concerns about the spread of terrorism in the Perlis Salafi environment. There were reportedly episodes of friction between the royal household and the police, where a madrassah belonging to the royal household was closed and seven oustaz, or religious teachers, were arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
According to alarmed critics, Dr Maza is redefining the concept of racism away from Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, towards a Kafir Harbi concept – that non-Muslims have no rights, including the right to live. Even Dr Maza’s comrade, Maszlee Malik, the former minister of education in the now defunct Pakatan Harapan government, said it was divisive and polarizing. Abdul Hadi’s comments over the years have also shown a racist and exclusionist streak.
There is a quiet struggle between the two theologies for influence in executive government, the civil service, academic and learning institutions, IKRAM and mosques throughout the country.
These groups changed the way of thinking of the Malays. According to Engkau Ahmad Fadzil, this could deeply divide the Malay community and continue to trigger inter-ethnic conflict in Malaysia. The Malaysian bureaucracy is infiltrated by people funded by a foreign power. This is a clear and present danger to Malaysian society.
Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here