Malaysia's two faces of literal Islam

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Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa   

The Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic and embedded therein are various spectrum of perspectives ranging from one extreme to the other. The new millennium is witnessing a contest between the various ideological groups representing differing interpretations of the religion of Islam. Irrespective of the multitudes of ideologies within Islamism, the main similarity shared is the political and ethical discourse intended to disarm the discourse of their opponents.

Bobby Sayyid has argued in A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism that the central aim of Islamism is to restore Islam’s place as the central reference point for all social, cultural, economic and political life in Muslim society. In a time when Islam is portrayed to be out-of-date and out-of-touch leading to the current state of phlegmatism among Muslims, it creates an avenue for the Islamists to put forward a system that had been marginalised and abandoned, yet remained positive and uncontaminated by the evils of modernity. And aided by the forces of globalisation, the Islamists are now battling for the hearts and minds of the people within their constituency.

This article intends to discuss only two groups of Islamists within the multitude of Islamist movements in our country. Despite sharing one commonality between them, namely the literal approach in understanding Islam, their views toward politics and governance are in exact total contrast. And due to the simplicity in their approach and methodology, they attract quite significant followers especially among young university students who are still trapped in idealism.


Though generally Malaysia boasts a tradition of inclusive and moderate Islam with a significant member of Islamic scholars especially from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) engaging themselves in a push for greater democracy, a vibrant civil society and respect for human rights.

There exist a rejectionist group known as Hizb-ut-Tahrir that considers democracy antithetical to Islam. This movement that promotes literal interpretation of Islam gains its strength from the young and naive university students. The main reason that makes Hizb-ut-Tahrir appealing to the young minds is the simplicity in its approach and methodology.

The main thrust of their manhaj or methodology is to promote establishment of the ‘Caliphate’. When the ‘Caliphate’ is established, then all other problems faced by the community at large will be solved.


Hizb-ut-Tahrir believes that democracy is an infidel system or Nizam-u-kufr that was marketed in the Muslim country by the blasphemous West. Democracy is said to have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. It contradicts the source of Islam, the ideology it emanates from, the foundation it is based on, and the ideas and system it has came up with.

Although the structure of organisation of Hizb-ut-Tahrir may not be clearly visible, and perhaps it is part of the manhaj to remain obscure and clandestine in nature; its radical rhetoric is appealing to the young and vibrant Muslim students that seek simple and uncomplicated solutions to the problems faced by the ummah.

The radicalisation of the tactics, approach and discourse of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in promoting the Islamic state agenda complete with Shari’ah laws and the establishment of a Caliphate is a shift towards a more exclusive and confrontational domain, especially when the discursive and political space for new movements was not there, being controlled by the more established Islamic party.

How Hizb-ut-Tahrir intends to achieve its agenda in a plural Malaysian society where Muslims form only a slight majority remains an enigma. But to the simple minds, such a question may not be considered of paramount importance, as much as whether Hizb-ut-Tahrir can help to deliver a new form of politics to Malaysia or whether the rise of Hizb-ut-Tahrir will mark a further degeneration of Malaysian politics.


The rigid and two-dimensional interpretation of Islam is not the sole-property of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but is shared in spirit by the Salafis, or derogatorily labelled as Wahhabis by the mainstream traditionalists. Adamant that the Qur’an and Hadith be read and understood literally and the world is understood in rigid black-and-white terms, they proposed for the replication of a community that existed during the seventh-century Madinah  or the community of as-salafus-salih (the pious predecessors) that existed during the first three-hundred years after the time of the Prophet.

While Hizb-ut-Tahrir propagates the establishment of the Caliphate as the ultimate solution, the salafis propose the replication of the community of as-salafus-salih as its main thrust. This period according to the salafis is the Golden Age of Islam and should be remembered as a period of ‘pure Islam’.

Appealing simplicity

This simplicity, as the case of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, is appealing to the young Muslims especially those from Islamic background since many books especially in Arabic that propagate this idea are made available by the main sponsors, the ostentatious Saudi government.

It is interesting to note that ‘pure Islam’ is never defined and whatever this undefined pure Islamic society may look like is a shared vision based in a shared history. An assumption is made as if the community of as-salafus-salih is a monolithic community and that there were no differences in opinions and approach; where in actual fact the community at that time were as diverse as we are in the twenty-first century.

But to the young and untrained minds, what was in the past, the history as envisioned by the salafi that became the model of his everyday life, will be the blueprints for future action. And in the salafi imagination then, the factor standing in the way of potential utopia is anything alien to their perceived Islam including modern system of governance.

In reconstructing the Golden Age of Islam, Salafism embarks on an imaginative project to create an intangible mythical past in its midst. In doing so, they invent what they do not know, improvise what they do but what no longer exists and demarcate what in the present fits into this imaginative landscape of ‘true Islam’.

The salafis were largely motivated by a desire not to let any practices deemed alien to the Islamic culture to interfere and possibly corrupting Muslim identity and unity. Similar to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, they perceived democracy as alien to Islam and advocated total rejection of any participation within a democratic process.

Link with ruling party

In tandem with many Saudi-based scholars, the salafis in Malaysia will blindly support the existing government, irrespective of whether the government is authoritarian or democratic. This is based on their false belief that it was the practice of as-salafus-salih; and any acts of opposition against the ruling government, although through democratic means, are deemed as unIslamic.

Hence, it is not a surprise then to notice such an intimate association between the salafis and certain leaders of the ruling party in Malaysia. It is more revealing when some salafi leaders themselves were given spaces in the tightly controlled mainstream media.

To the ruling government, this is the most convenient marriage that would ensure their perpetual grip on power. The only factor that is preventing the salafis from assuming greater role within the government agencies reciprocally is the strong opposition by the mainstream traditionalists that pervade almost the entire government machineries.

Possible contenders?

We have seen the two differing faces of literal Islam albeit briefly, namely the anti-establishment Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the pro-government salafis.

Islamism as propagated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir is seen as a direct political challenge on the state. This is simply due to the fact that they wish to present themselves and their party as a viable alternative to the present order.

Islamism according to the salafis on the other hand, is based on the mythic presumption with regard to the manhaj of the pious predecessors that prevent any opposing acts against the ruling government, though both viewed the current prevailing system as alien to their perceived Islam.

The growing influence of literal Islam is yet to effect any change in equilibrium of political Islam in Malaysia, but unless their manhaj and modus operandi are fully understood, they remain as possible contenders in determining the political discourse in the near future.