The recent banning of Perlis State Mufti Dr Asri Zainul Abidin from speaking at ceramahs, or religious events within Kelantan, indicates a deep theological rift between two competing Islamic groups within Malaysia. Dr Asri, better known as Dr Maza has also been banned from speaking in Terengganu and Selangor previously.
In Malaysia today, there is a power struggle going on between the Muslim Brotherhood, by Sunnid Scholars led by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang, and the Wahabi-Salafists, led by Dr Maza in Perlis.
Malaysia’s Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood inspired the emergence of the Islamic Youth Movement, the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) during 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 the theology as a student and can be considered one of the spiritual leaders of the movement within the region today. Many PAS leaders also studied in Cairo, Egypt, and have adopted many of the Muslim Brotherhood ideas.
The Jama’at al-Ikhawan al-Muslim, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, is a global Sunni Islamist organization, founded in Egypt in 1928. Its objective is to develop state-based Islam, under the rule of Shariah law. This, unlike the Salafi movement, makes the Muslim Brotherhood a political organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood would view and address social issues from an Islamic perspective. Its primary focus is on social justice, the eradication of poverty, political freedom, and Islamic jurisprudence, within an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood is against personal ostentation, and promotes its view of social morality, such as segregation of the sexes in school environments.
Globally, the Muslim Brotherhood is going through its own divisions. Its unsure how this is affecting the movement within Malaysia.
The major influence of the Muslim Brotherhood is through the states they govern in Malaysia, namely Kelantan and Terengganu. Now, the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM) is headed by a PAS minister, Idris Ahmad. However, its questionable how much 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.
Over the last few decades, a minority of Malays have been adopting Salafi doctrines, which originate from Saudi Arabia. Salafism is a direct interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah, orientated around restoring a pure Islamic faith and practice emulating the time that the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, after his death practiced.
Salafism is not a homogenous theology. There are a number of sub-groups branching out from traditional Athari Salafism, which promotes followers remaining apolitical, so as to avoid the corruptive nature of politics, Tanzimi Salafism, which accepts involvement in politics and organizations, and various strands of Jihadi Salafism.
Dr Maza has developed a hybrid Salafism, where the centre of these teachings is the small conservative rural northern state of Perlis. The Perlis State Constitution states the official religion of Perlis shall be Al-Sunnah Waljamaah (follower of the Quran and Sunnah), in contrast to Sunni Islam in other states. Dr Maza and former chief minister Shahidan Kassim enthusiastically re-established Sunnah Perlis doctrine, regularly travelling across the country to preach.
The Salafi movement has spent enormous amounts of money and resources on developing social media as an outreach to college students, the youth in general, graduates, young professionals, academics, and other educated Malays. Sites on Facebook and YouTube have more than 1.2 million followers.
Dr Maza’s primary foundation is Petubuhan Yayasan Al-Qayyim Malaysia, and there are many other aligned groups including the International Khayr Ummah Foundation (IKAF), run by Dr Fathul Bari, a conservative supporter of UMNO. These organizations are partly funded by Saudi Arabia, where both Dr Maza and Shahidan Kassim have a close relationship with the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Saudis established a student scholarship program for study in Saudi Arabia, funded schools, and sent preachers and scholastic experts to Perlis. Other funds come from VVIPs, and corporate Zakat payments from the Perlis Malay Culture Department (MAIPs).
The major tool of Wahabi-Salafi influence is what is called the Alumni. According to Ulama Engku Ahmad Fadzil, the Alumni is made up of a group of graduates from both local, UK, Saudi Arabian, and Jordanian universities, who return home and join the civil service, armed forces, religious organizations, schools, and universities. Some enjoy prominent positions, where they now dominate Fatwa Councils, JAKIM, and state religious organizations.
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 the ideas of others. This group also protects the image of the movement, and according to an inside informant, every member of the Alumni is given an allowance of RM5,000 per month, increasing over time to propagate the faith, primarily funded by Saudi monies. This is in addition to the salaries they earn in their employment.
A divided Malaysian Ummah
The prime difference between the two Islamic groups, is that the Muslim Brotherhood advocates a political strategy to increase influence over the state, while the Wahabi-Salafists are targeting the institutions, and winning the hearts and minds of the youth across the country.
The power struggle between Wahabi-Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood is dividing the Malaysian Ummah. Kelantan and Terengganu are subject to the theology of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Perlis is very much becoming a Wahabi state, where even Imans who refused to follow Wahabi doctrines were dismissed.
As we saw with Dr Maza’s banning in Kelantan, clear demarcation lines are being drawn across Malaysia, according to theological belief. Rather than Malaysia growing closer together as one nation, the power struggle between the two theologies is developing large sectarian differences.
Competing diplomatically beyond Malaysia’s shores
Both groups are active outside of Malaysia.
The Najib Razak’s visit to see Hamas leaders, who are strongly aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza during his tenure as prime minister indicated Wisma Putra’s inept control over the nation’s diplomacy. Rather than a state visit to Palestine, it became a political visit. The congratulatory message by PAS information chief Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi to the Afghanistan Taliban on taking back Kabul on 18th August last year, drew international flak. Former prime minister Mahathir’s anti-semitic remarks during his visit to the US in 2019 made many think of Malaysia as a renegade state, out of step with much of the Arab world.
Dr Maza is funding the Saudi educated cleric Lutfi Japakiya, the leading Salafi reformist Muslim educator in Thailand today. Luftfi’s efforts are changing the nature of Malay ethno-identity among the younger generation within the Deep South, where there has been an insurgency over the last twenty years. MAIPs donated THB 20 million (US$61,180) from Zakat monies to fund the building of an Al Quran and Sunnah reading centre at Fatoni University. MAIPs has also donated substantial funds to provincial Islamic authorities within Southern Thailand for annual Salafi gatherings.
This has all been at the cost of freedom to practice Islam, the way millions of Malays have for hundreds of years. Malays are being discouraged to practice ‘Nusantara Islam’. Some aspects of Malay culture and dress are socially taboo or formally banned. Bahasa Malaysia has been Arabized. Traditional Malay dress have been frowned upon in general society.
Malays are being taught that any non-Muslim is a potential danger to their faith, as we are seeing with the narratives over the Bon Odori festival. Muslims are treated as they cannot be trusted to maintain their own faith in Islam. The power struggle between Wahabi-Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood has cost the Malay population freedom to practice Islam according to their own traditions.
Islam is no longer a religion about one’s own personal faith and spirituality before Allah. The practice of Islam must adhere to state norms and rules.
Through deliberate social engineering, today’s Malay youth have become one of the most conservative groups within the Islamic world today. The Undi 18 movement was expected by political pundits to deliver a mass boost to the opposition and secular political parties. The coming general election may show that this may not be the case.
In 2020, the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars described the Muslim Brotherhood as a deviant movement which doesn’t respect true Islam. They labelled the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, which led to condemnation from a host of Malaysian NGOs, which included ABIM, and IKRAM. A number of countries have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The former religious affairs minister under the Pakatan Harapan government, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a member of Amanah, claimed the Muslim Brotherhood is not a threat to Malaysia citing ABIM’s and IKRAM’s support of the movement.
Dr Maza and his Salafi vision have put the police Special Branch in a quandary, with deep, serious concerns about the festering of terrorism within the Perlis Salafi environment. There have reportedly been episodes of friction between the Royal Household and the police, where a Madrasah owned by the Royal household was closed down and seven Ustaz, 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 education minister under the now defunct Pakatan Harapan government, claimed this was divisive and polarizing. Abdul Hadi’s comments over the years have also shown a racist and exclusionist tendency.
There is a quiet struggle going on between the two theologies for influence within executive government, the civil service, academic and learning institutions, IKRAM, and mosques throughout the country.
These groups have changed the way Malays think. According to Engkau Ahmad Fadzil, this could split the Malay community deeply and continue to ignite inter-ethnic conflict within Malaysia. The Malaysian bureaucracy is infiltrated by people who are funded by a foreign power. This is a clear and present danger to Malaysian society.