The majority of Malaysia’s Muslims follow the Shafi’I Sunni madhhab. However, a small but rapidly growing minority of malaysians are adopting Salafi leanings, where the centre of Salafi Islam lies in the tiny northern state of Perlis.
Salafism is a direct interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah aimed at restoring Islamic faith and practices back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers after his death. Ritually, this means that saying “Bismillah” before reciting the Al-Fatihah in prayer, reciting the Do’a Qunut in Subur prayers, Zikir or chanting after prayers, reciting the Surah Yaseen on Thursday evenings, and praying 20 raka’at at Tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan are not practiced.
Salafism is far from being a homogenous grouping. Major sub-groupings include the traditional Athari Salafism, which believes in remaining apolitical (quietness) so as to avoid the corruptive nature of politics, Tanzimi Salafism which accepts the involvement in politics and organizations, and various strands of Jihadi Salafism. In Malaysia, a hybrid-Salafism is developing.
When students came back home in the 1920s from Saudi Arabia, they became critical of Malay customs and the practice of Shafi’I Sunni Islam. These students referred to as the Kaum Muda challenged the older ulama, and with the support of the then Raja Perlis reverted directly to the doctrines of the Quran and Sunnah, without any particular adherence to any madhhub or school of Islamic thought. This became known as Sunnah Perlis.
The Kaum Muda built up a close and symbiotic relationship with the then Raja Perlis and became powerful within the state controlling both Madrasas or religious schools, and the state religious institutions. Article 5(1) of the Perlis State Constitution reflects this, where it states the official religion of Perlis shall be the Muslim religion Al Sunnah Waljamaah (follower of the Quran and Sunnah).
Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, popularly known as Dr Maza, was a graduate from Jordan, who was seen to have liberal views on contentious religious issues such as khalwat raids, sound levels of mosque speakers, yoga, henna, and singing at weddings. The young charismatic ulama was seen as someone with a contemporary approach to Islam.
Dr Maza was appointed as Malaysia’s youngest ever mufti in the state of Perlis in 2006. Together with the then chief minister Shahidan Kassim, they went about enthusiastically re-establishing the doctrine of Sunnah Perlis within the state, and regularly travelled across the country together preaching their doctrine. Both Dr Maza and Shahidan had a very close relationship with the Islamic Consul at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Saudis gave them special treatment and established student scholarship programs for study in Saudi Arabia, fund schools, and send preachers and ulama to Perlis.
Dr Maza left the position of the Mufti of Perlis in 2008 to become an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). However, he returned to the position of Mufti in 2015, where he began to further develop and embed his movement.
Education was a major focus, where the mission was to develop strong Salafi leaning values within the next generation. There are a number of primary and secondary state, and privately-owned Islamic schools within Perlis. Dr Maza personally established one primary school with a unique syllabus, which the son of the Raja Muda (Prince) of Perlis attended for a short period. This school, along with a number of other Salafi leaning schools receive the bulk of their operating fund from the Perlis Islamic Affairs and Malay Culture Department (MAIPs). MAIPs also owns the Perlis Islamic University College (KUIPs), where its CEO Dr Mohd Mizan Mohd Aslam was sacked for not supporting a Salafi agenda within the institution and replaced with a strong Dr Maza ally Dr Mohd Radzi Othman.
There are a number of madrasas in Perlis primarily aimed at educating both local and foreign teenagers. One madrasa was raided and shut down by the police Special Branch and anti-terrorism squad, acting on intelligence that a Yemeni-based terrorist group was setting up a centre to promote Salafi Jihadi teachings. This reportedly caused some friction between the Royal Household and the police.
The Salafi movement has spent enormous time and resources on developing social media as an out-reach to college students, the youth in general, graduates, young professionals, academics, and the older educated Malays. The sites on Facebook and YouTube include DrMAZA.com, with more than 1.1 million followers on Facebook, Promedia TAJDID, Persatuan Al-Islah Perlis, Al-Ahkami.net, Al-Fikrah.net, Ahl e-Hadith TV, and DarulKautsar Live.
Many of these sites are operated by foundations, primarily focused on proselytization. The primary foundation established by Dr Maza is Petubuhan Yayasan Al-Qayyim Malaysia. There are numerous others run by other aligned groups, including the International Khayr Ummah Foundation (IKAF), run by Dr Fathul Bari, conservative, supporter of UMNO and partly funded by Saudi Arabian sources.
The major annual event in Perlis is Perkampungan Sunnah (Sunnah Village Series), a Salafi speakers festival held before every Ramadan in mosques around Perlis. With an accompanying exhibition, national internet broadcasts, and other activities, this event brings the national Salafi movement together each year.
Another tool of influence is what is called the alumni. According to Ulama Engku Ahmad Fadzil, the alumni is made up of graduates from local and Middle Eastern universities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as UK graduates, who return home and join the civil service, armed forces, religious organizations, schools, and universities, some of whom now enjoy prominent positions. They dominate the Fatwa Councils, JAKIM, and some state religious administrations. Many within the alumni are highly intelligent, articulate, well educated, well connected, and don’t necessarily disclose their true beliefs and inclinations in the interests of exerting influence over other peoples’ ideas. This group also protects the image of the movement. According to a MAIPs insider, every member of the alumni is given a dakwah allowance of RM5,000 per month, increasing over time, which is in addition to the salaries they earn in their employment, primarily funded by Saudi monies.
The damage can be seen in the Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UNIMAP) example, where the Vice Chancellor Dr Badlishah Ahmad is a close confident of Dr Maza, could not see any wrong in the university ethnic relations exam question stating that the fugitive preacher Zakir Naik, is an Islamic icon, along with the racial slur against ethnic Indians in another question, bringing massive public outrage.
There are three major sources of money funding the above activities. The use of Saudi money along with donations from VVIPS like Shahidan Kassim have been mentioned. The third source is Zakat funds from MAIPs.
A source within MAIPs told Asia Sentinel that Perlis is offering corporate entities a 50 percent rebate on all Zakat payments to Perlis. Other states offer a 30 percent rebate for corporations as representatives to distribute Zakat back to those who are entitled to receive Zakat payments. This is good for the corporations as it helps fulfil their CSR requirements, create community relationships, and boost goodwill.
According to the Syariah, there is nothing wrong with using Zakat funds for the above activities. Surah Al-Tawbah 9:60 allows Zakat to be paid to the poor, needy, Zakat collectors, preaching activities, recent converts to Islam, helping those in debt, those fighting jihad by either the pen or sword, and stranded travellers with worthy goals. However, what the MAIPS insider told the Asia Sentinel was that there are no audit trails inside the organizations that receive Zakat, there is favouritism towards Salafi leaning organizations over Shafi’I Sunni leaning organizations, and there are no controls over whether Zakat payments are being used for political purposes.
Former education minister Maszlee Malik calls the movement Asrism, others call it Mazaism, the new madhhab. Others claim the ideas portrayed are Salafi-Asri ideals, rather than Islamic ideals. Many would agree with his comment that Malaysia needs a dictator like Saddam Hussein, and there should be focus on public, rather than private sins. To others, Dr Maza goes against the ways many of the Malay elite think. He developed a public groundswell of support when he was arrested by the Selangor Islamic authorities back in 2009 for preaching without a license.
Dr Maza’s firm belief is Malaysia is not yet his view of Darul Islam (an Islamic state). For him, this means an Islamic Utopia. This is not directly political, nor is it intended to be necessarily organizational. The movement is about changing attitudes, which will lead to his Islamic utopia.
However, not being directly politically involved doesn’t mean Dr Maza is not seeking power and influence within government. In this direction Dr Maza is very much a Mensheviki, seeking power from within the bureaucracy through the alumni. Criticism here has nothing to do with religion. The fact that the alumni are funded by a foreign power with the aim to influence, which is a direct threat to Malaysia’s national security.
Dr Maza showed his ruthlessness in getting his people into religious positions through the abrupt sacking of 25 Imans from mosques around Perlis. Some of those sacked claimed it was because they weren’t following Sunnah Perlis practices, which lead to protests and the firebombing of Dr Maza’s official car.
Dr Maza is an admirer and supporter of the fugitive preacher Zakir Naik. Police banned Zakir Niak from speaking at an event last year in Perlis organized by Dr Maza, raising friction between Perlis religious authorities, the Royal Household and police.
Dr Maza is redefining the concept of racism away from the Ketuanan Melayu, Malay supremacy concept, towards a Kafir Harbi concept that even Dr Maza’s comrade Maszlee Malik claimed was divisive and polarizing back in 2016. Dr Maza’s comments that Malaysia is for the Malays angered Sabah and Sarawakians, cow poem on Facebook angered ethnic Indians, and comments about vernacular schools has angered the Chinese community.
Dr Maza’s new racism is alarming. His theology is evolving in new directions, where he is spilling over into political comment, rather than keeping to spiritual issues. Pressure is being put on the Perlis chief minister Azlan Man to pass a bill to appoint Dr Maza Mufti for life, thus setting up a theocracy in Perlis.
Dr Maza and his Salafi vision puts the Special Branch in a quandary. There is a constitutional catch-22. According to the Special Branch, there are deep and serious concerns about the festering of terrorism within the Perlis Salafi environment. However, The Perlis State Constitution states the official religion of Perlis shall be the Muslim religion Al Sunnah Waljamaah. The Perlis ruler is the rightful head of Islam and the police have an obligation to stop any potential terrorism. There have already been a couple of episodes of friction between the Royal Household and police. One concerned person within the palace sees that Dr Maza is using the Royal Household for his own ends. A question here is should the Special Branch, abide by the constitution, and stay out, or continue to shift out terrorism, and protect the Royal Household.
There are many in Perlis unhappy about the imposition of Salafi-Mazaism upon them. Zakat monies are being used unaccountably to spread this theology across the country. This is already having effects upon how Malays think and according to Engku Ahmad Fadzil this could split the Malay community deeply and continue to ignite inter-ethnic conflict within Malaysia. Finally, the Malaysian bureaucracy is infiltrated by people who are being paid to influence by a foreign power. This is a clear and present danger to Malaysian sovereignty.
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