The One-Dimensional Malay: The Homogenisation of Malay Identity in the Revisionist Writing of History in Malaysia By Dr. Farish A Noor (Dr. Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor) Visiting Fellow International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Leiden, The Netherlands ([email protected]) Abstract The paper will look at the ways in which the pre-Islamic past of the Malays have been reinterpreted and recast as a result of the process of Islamist resurgence in Malaysia. Central to our argument will be the thesis that Malay history has been effectively re-written for the sake of securing a number of political (as opposed to academic) objectives. The approach will be that of discourse analysis (rather than textual analysis) and this will not be a study of textbooks and historical documents, though they will inevitably be part of the study as well. Our intention is to explain how notions of identity and difference, categories of mutuality and belonging are constructed discursively. We will attempt to identify the primary actors involved in this revisionist project, their aims and agendas and the interests that are being served in the process. The paper ends with a call for a more nuanced and multifarious approach to the question of Malay identity, one that recognises the porousness of identity categories and the boundaries that shape such identities in the first place.

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The One-Dimensional Malay:The Homogenisation of Malay Identity in the

Revisionist Writing of History in Malaysia


Dr. Farish A Noor (Dr. Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor)Visiting Fellow

International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)Leiden, The Netherlands([email protected])


The paper will look at the ways in which the pre-Islamic past of the Malays have been reinterpreted and recast as a result of the process of Islamist resurgence in Malaysia. Central to our argument will be the thesis that Malay history has been effectively re-written for the sake of securing a number of political (as opposed to academic) objectives. The approach will be that of discourse analysis (rather than textual analysis) and this will not be a study of textbooks and historical documents, though they will inevitably be part of the study as well. Our intention is to explain how notions of identity and difference, categories of mutuality and belonging are constructed discursively. We will attempt to identify the primary actors involved in this revisionist project, their aims and agendas and the interests that are being served in the process. The paper ends with a call for a more nuanced and multifarious approach to the question of Malay identity, one that recognises the porousness of identity categories and the boundaries that shape such identities in the first place.

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I. Introduction

‘New history begins while the older ones continue to flourish. Conflict might occur and the attempt to marginalize the old might be taken, but the old refuses to budge’.

Taufik Abdullah,The Formation of Political Tradition

in the Malay World

The writing of history, as we all know by now, has never been an objective or neutral enterprise. History is more often than not the narrative of the victor over the vanquished and a discourse of Sameness where the Other is relegated to the margins.

The Other is question may be those who have been defeated after a conflict of one kind or another. Post-war Europe’s history of itself has been marked by its concerted condemnation of the Germany and her Axis allies, and this has been at a cost as well: the atrocities and double-standards of the other allied powers (Britain and France in particular) have been conveniently left out of the picture and relegated to silence. Britain and France’s own record as imperial powers with colonies that spanned the globe, and the abuses that took place within those colonies, have hardly ever mentioned. Even less has been said about the rise of the United States of America at that time, which was already showing signs of wanting to become a major global hegemon in the wake of a war that they were sure to win.

Likewise, a plethora of feminist critiques have argued (convincingly) that history is not free from gender biases as well. History, in this respect, is fundamentally a history of men and not women, and the efforts and labours of women in the process of human development and progress have been pushed into the background as ‘Man’ assumes the privileged role of the universal standard against which rationality, agency and identity are measured.

In the context of a post-colonial society like Malaysia’s, the writing of history is fraught with just as many dangerous pitfalls and obstacles. Many post-colonial narratives have tried to do a number of things at the same time: To string together an array of historical threads in order to create a unified and inclusive national story that can serve as a reference point for the new society as a whole; to serve as a narrative that explains the logic of defeat and reconciliation (while often obscuring the fact that there was a great deal of collaboration with the colonial powers as well); and to foreground elements that were relegated to the margins by the discourse of the colonial power itself. In the case of Malaysia, the writing of the nation’s post-colonial history has also been coloured by other needs and agendas- not least of which was the desire to re-write the history of the country and her people in terms that were relevant to the immediate circumstances of the present. History is therefore always politically correct, and never so at the same time.

Our concern here is to look at how the discourse of Malaysian history has been re-written with a certain view of the past, present and future. Our thesis is that with the advent of an ‘Islamisation from below’ that took off from the 1970s onwards, Malaysia’s history has become a highly contested discursive terrain where the struggle to define Malay history and Malayness itself was fought. Those of the Islamist tendency began to impose a new definition of Malay identity which conflated it with Islam and being Muslim. The immediate effect of this move was to relegate to the outside the pre-Islamic past of the Malays and to introduce a radical break or rupture between the pre-Islamic past of the Malays and the Islamic/Muslim reality of the present. The pre-Islamic past of the Malays therefore became, in effect, the Other to the Malay-Muslim of the here and now. Just how and why this came about will be the main subject of this paper. Our aim is to examine how certain concepts (in this case Islam) were elevated (via a number of discursive strategies and narrative devices) to the status of a transcendental signifier (to borrow Derrida’s term) that escapes the play of meaning/signification so as to create a closed and totalised discourse that forecloses any possibility of


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alternative interpretations/readings of the past. But we begin with an unlikely encounter that took place in a remote (and now forgotten) inn somewhere in the murky English countryside, of all places.

II. A stranger comes a-calling: How the Malay from nowhere spooked the English Opium Eater

‘That Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. Every night, through his means, I have been transported into Asiatic scenery... the seat of awful dreams and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would have a dim, reverential feeling about it. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, above all their mythologies- is so impressive that to me that the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual... Man is a weed in those regions.’

Thomas de Quincey,Confessions of an English Opium Eater

For the universal fraternity of drug fiends, decadents and university drop-outs who make up the vast army of the world's unwashed and debauched, Thomas de Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'1 has to be one of the greatest works of literature to grace their mouldy shelves. Indeed, when the book first came out it was heralded as a classic of its time- for both the best and worst of reasons.

The Confessions of Thomas de Quincey still reads like a rambling narrative of a deranged madman driven to the peaks of ecstasy and the depths of despair. Written in the earlier half of the 19th century (while Europe was slowly coming to terms with its first truly European war, occasioned by Napoleon's dreams of Empire), de Quincey's book was a testimony to a lost generation of European youth who already realised that the myth of European civilisation was nothing more than an illusion underpinned by oppression, violence and the horrors of everyday life.

More so than any other book it its time, it also captured the multifarious shades of the opium addict’s sordid and lonely existence. De Quincey himself was a drop-out of the highest order. Kicked out of university (without even a show-cause letter) because of his debilitating habit that was slowly eating up both his sanity and his health, he was forced to send himself into a wretched exile in the dingier quarters of London and later to other lonelier towns that dotted the English isle.

De Quincey's confessions reveal the true portrait of the opium addict, long before the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg ever put their fevered imaginings down in writing. But the Confessions of Thomas de Quincey also happens to be one of the most erudite and accomplished works of English literature ever. The narrative, jumbled and confused though it may seem, is a treasure trove of historical facts and vignettes about life in England and Europe at the time. Where else would you get a commentary on Ecclesiastes, a critique of Grotius, a critical commentary on the virtues of Renaissance art, a multi-sided debate on the virtues of traditional Islamic historiography vis-à-vis orthodox Christianity, a discourse of the true nature of tragedy and a treatise on humankind's lot, all interspersed between vivid and explicit descriptions of the ecstasy and anguish of drug addiction? No mere junkie was our man de Quincey.

De Quincey's laudatory paeans to the pleasures (and subsequent pains) of opium should therefore be read against this backdrop of social, political and cultural upheaval taking place in England and Europe at the time.

1 Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Folio Society, London. 1948.


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Opium was for de Quincey the only poison-remedy to the ills of a society driven base and corrupt by itself. It was the asylum of the lonely and the oppressed, the downtrodden and the marginalized. False though its promises may be, it was the only escape for many. In his deranged wanderings and fantasies, de Quincey could at least find momentary refuge from a world that was evil, degraded and corrupted from what it once was. It was the final equaliser that brought high and low, rich and poor down to the same level of the basest humanity. (Today we have Karaoke instead, which equalises both the gifted and the criminally untalented in a medium of universal mediocrity.) Cold comfort for one who was thoroughly sickened by life in a sick world.

Enter the Malay from Nowhere

Now one of the most amazing encounters in the Confessions of Thomas de Quincey takes place at a lonely and desolate inn that he was living in while on his nomadic travels across the English countryside. In his own words:

'One day a Malay knocked on my door. What business could a Malay have to transact among the recesses of the English mountains was not my business to conjecture, but possibly he was on the road to Seaport, about forty miles distant'.

This mysterious Malay (whose name we never learn) happened to chance upon the same inn that de Quincey was staying in that night. The inhabitants of the inn were just as surprised as de Quincey, and all were in a state of panic, not knowing how to greet this extraordinary stranger. The servant girl, 'who had never seen an Asiatic before', was dumbfounded by the sight of the solitary Malay who spoke no English. (Needless to say, her knowledge of Malay was hardly any better). As the crowd stared at the Malay (who only stared back), it was left to de Quincey to break the ice.

De Quincey himself admits that his only knowledge of the Oriental languages were the Arabic word for barley and the Turkish word for opium. Not much help under the circumstances, but at least he had to courage and common sense to realise that what stood before him was a human being with ordinary human wants and needs. He therefore saw to it that the Malay was given food and a place to sleep for the night- while the rest of the inhabitants of the inn slept, no doubt, with their loaded muskets close at hand.

When it became clear that the Malay had had his rest and was about to leave, de Quincey offered him a parting gift in the form of a lump of opium. What happened next is best recounted by the author himself:

'I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity (of opium) was enough to kill some half-dozen dragoons, together with their horses, supposing neither bipeds nor quadrupeds were trained opium-eaters. I felt some alarm for the poor fellow, but what could be done? I had given him the opium in pure compassion for his solitary life, since, if he had travelled on foot all the way from London, it must have been at least three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any other human being... The mischief, if any, was done. He took his leave and for some days I was anxious; but, as I never heard of any Malay being found dead on any part of the slender road between Grasmere and Whitehaven, I became satisfied that he was familiar with opium.'

Malays were tougher fellows (or chronic addicts) those days, obviously.

Now de Quincey's encounter with the mysterious unnamed Malay from nowhere has to be one of the more curious vignettes found anywhere in English literature. From this one encounter alone we learn so much about the Malay world then. That the Malay was travelling by foot on his own across England is proof of the fact that the Malays were really an international people who were used to


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travelling abroad. (Yet another salvo to be fired against the Orientalist school that claimed that the Malays were really a sedentary people). That he could have made the journey on his own also shows that he was an independent free agent who was free to exercise his own will. He was not stopped or prevented from travelling and staying wherever he wanted, and he travelled with all the confidence and bravado of a man with his own sense of purpose, identity and destiny. Who this Malay might have been, we will probably never know- but one fact remains: He did cause a stir in that little inn tucked in between the cold and soggy hills of England.

The Return of the Repressed

Now the rest of de Quincey's narrative plods along at its own inebriated pace. His bouts of rabid addiction, anxiety, fear, depression and moral collapse take their toll and as the days wear on his health deteriorates further and further. His days grow shorter as his nights grow longer, and in the darkest hours of the night he is tormented by nightmares and visions of paradise. The stage is set for de Quincey's next encounter with the Malay from nowhere...

Later in the text, de Quincey recalls a particularly troubling and powerful dream he has, where he sees a vision of the mysterious Malay once again:

'This Malay,- partly from the picaresque exhibition he assisted to frame, partly from the anxiety I connected with his image for some days,- fastened afterwards upon my fancy and that upon my dreams, bringing with him other Malays worse than himself who ran am-muck at me, and led me into a world of nocturnal troubles... That Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. Every night, through his means, I have been transported into Asiatic scenery... Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful dreams and associations. As the cradle of the human race, if on no other ground, it would have a dim, reverential feeling about it... The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, above all their mythologies- is so impressive that to me that the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual... Man is a weed in those regions. The vast empires, also into which the peoples of Asia have always been cast, give a further sublimity to the feelings associated with oriental names and images...'

The author goes on to describe the strange and fascinating images that were conjured up by the Malay in his dreams. His mind wandered to wondrous landscapes, filled with the most exotic forms of jungle growth, huge and wonderful temples, beautiful idols and strange customs. The Malay served as the trigger which unleashed a flood of images that literally overwhelmed the dreamer himself: De Quincey was blown over by images of Shiva, Vishnu, spirits, Gods and demons. He felt himself crushed by the weight of Asia in its entirety.

De Quincey, had, in other words, experienced what has been terms the return of the repressed. In his nightmares we witness the encounter with the modern European subject and the exotic Asian other. The unnamed and unknown Malay stands before the Englishman and makes him feel puny and 'weed-like'. De Quincey admits that he could only have a 'dim, reverential feeling' about Asia and what it represents. The Malay, on the other hand, embodies a huge culture and civilisation, and interestingly, the Malay for him is also the inheritor of all the cultures and civilisations of Asia. He is, for de Quincey, the embodiment of the great cultures and civilisations of India, Southeast Asia and China. He is at once primordial and timeless- he carries with him a history that spans four millennia (while Europe was then merely an infant civilisation barely learning to crawl and already too drugged up to walk properly). The Malay, in short, was Asia embodied, with all its past, its depth, its hidden mysteries and unknown horrors. But for us in Malaysia today, Thomas de Quincey's encounter with the mysterious Malay from nowhere is of special importance as well. For what the encounter reveals (and this is really underscored in de Quincey's paranoid and nerve-wrecking nightmares) is the antiquity of the Malays.


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The Malays, for de Quincey, were among the oldest people of the world. It is clear that for him the Malay is someone whose history pre-dates that of Europe's.

Today, Malaysia is also grappling with its past. Like de Quincey, we too are overwhelmed by our history and the politics of writing that history. We dream of placing ourselves at the forefront of the developing world, and of presenting Malaysia as the one country that encapsulates and accommodates all the cultural variants of Asia. For this to happen, we need to learn a lesson or two from the unknown (and forgotten) Malay of the past. But before that process can even get off the ground, the least that we have to do is to let this Other Malay speak for himself.

III. Strangers to Ourselves: How the Malay was taught not to recognise himself

‘Then a new era began for them. Little by little they lost their ancient traditions, the memory of their past. They forgot their writings, their songs, their poems, their laws; in order to learn by rote alien teachings they did not understand. They went into decline, belittling themselves in their own eyes. They became ashamed of what was their own and their nation’s in order to admire whatever was foreign and unintelligible. Their spirit became dejected and they surrendered.’

Jose Rizal,Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos (1889)

We have, in a sense, become strangers to ourselves- to borrow the phrase made famous by Julia Kristeva2.

In her work, Kristeva looks at how our notions of identity and difference are founded upon a logic of oppositional dialectics which invariably draws upon the Other (as a basis for difference) while exteriorising it at the same time. Working through the ideas of Lacan, Derrida and Nietzsche, she has elaborated at length about how the excluded (though sometimes sanctified) Other has always been a constitutive component of the Self. Working through the framework of psychoanalysis and discourse analysis, she problematises the politics of identity construction and has tried to bring to the surface the dimension of power and force that is always at work behind the scenes in the process of identity-formation. Her conclusions are simple and direct: Identities are always relational, but the relationship between the Self and the Other is never a neutral one that is free from the dictates of power, force and violence. The Other may be summoned to serve as a counterpoint to the Self, but the entry of the Other is always, as Edward Said has argued, a disabling one which relegates it to an inferior station within the register of the Self. This observation will serve as the first thesis to our argument here.

In the specific context of the Malay-Muslim experience, one can see this process of identity formation and reformation taking place as early as the 19th century. (Obviously we are not suggesting that such strategies were not at work before that, but one has to limit the scope of one’s analysis somewhere).

The question of what is a Malay, and more specifically what is a Malay-Muslim, really began to take off with the emergence of the Malay-Muslim modernist and reformist movement of the late 19 th

century. In many ways the debate over the question of Malay-Muslim identity (which later developed into an essentialist discourse in its own right) was sparked off by the encounter between three apparently irreconcilable forces: Malay traditionalism, Islamic reformism and Western colonialism.

2 Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves. (Translated by Leon S. Roudiez). Columbia University Press, Columbia. 1994.


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Western colonial rule drastically challenged the worldview of the Malays and forced upon them the agenda for change. What made matters worse for the self-esteem of the Malay-Muslim peoples was the fact that these foreign infidels had actually defeated them by using techniques, skills and technologies that were alien to them. The British and Dutch had introduced new modes of production, transport, agriculture and warfare, which were hitherto unknown to the Malays. As the process of colonisation progressed, the Malay world was opened up, studied, categorised and finally quarantined within the coloniser’s order of knowledge. Raffles, Brooke, Hurgronje, Swettenham, Clifford and other colonial administrators took to the task of regulating and compartmentalising the Malay world within their own ethnocentric and eurocentric world view which necessarily placed the native as well as his culture, beliefs and symbols on an inferior, subjugated register3.

Colonial rule reconfigured the world of the colonised in every respect. The religiopolitical environment of the Malays was dissected into two categories: the rational and governable realm of the State and the other, darker world of Malay beliefs and religion. This epistemic arrest of the Malay world ensured that every element was neatly labelled and placed within its own appointed space, and a location was found for all. Within this colonial orientalist order of knowledge a strictly policed hierarchy of differences was established. The Malay world was relegated to the past while the colonial order of the present was located in the present (and projected far into the future). Being relegated to the past also meant that Malay history was submitted to an inferior station within the colonial register for Malayness was now equated with all that was antiquated, redundant, retrogressive and obscure instead.

But it wasn’t just the modernising Europeans who were bent on marginalizing Malay tradition to the footnotes of history: the Malay-Muslim reformers and modernists played their part as well. The emergence of modern schools of Islamic thought came about thanks to the integration of the Malay kingdoms within the global current of pan-Islamism. The modernist trend within Islamic thought manifested itself in the form of modern reformist and revivalist movements that borrowed extensively from the tradition of Modernity in the West while also rejecting that system of belief and values at the same time. In the end it became almost an inverted mirror image of the Modern tradition itself.

By the 19th century, the Malay world was in closer contact with the rest of the Islamic world than ever before.4 The modernist and reformist trends of Islam within the Malay world were very much inspired by the developments elsewhere in the Muslim world such as the emergence of the conservative Wahabbi and Deobandi5 traditions and the modernists schools of al-Azhar and Aligarh. The new Muslim revivalists’ (Mujaddid) plans for the revival (tajdid) of Islam was often linked to the goals of purifying it of pre-Islamic elements that were regarded as khurafat (un-Islamic) or syirik (idolatrous). Consequently new Malay-Muslim scholars like Sheikh Nuruddin al-Raniri, Sheikh Buchara al-Jauhari, Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi6, Shaykh Mohammad Tahir

3 The colonial administrator Hugh Clifford’s own view of the cultural backwardness of the Malay race was typical of the common prejudices and perceptions held by many colonial scholars and administrators of the late 19th century. In his writings, he clearly presents an image of the Malays as being not only backward, but also living in a past age that was centuries behind that of the colonial present: ‘One cannot but sympathise with the Malays, who are suddenly and violently translated from the point to which they had attained in the natural development of their race, and are now required to live up to the standards of a people who are six centuries ahead of them’. Hugh Clifford, In Court and Kampong (1896). Pg. 74. 4 This is not to suggest that the earlier generations of Muslim missionaries and mystics were out of touch with the rest of the Islamic world and the developments there. Malay Sufi teachers like Hamzah Fansuri were educated at Mecca and other centres of Islamic teaching. But by the end of the 19th century (and particularly after the opening of the Suez canal), many more Malays were traveling to the Arab world and back, thus exposing their own societies to new ideas and developments in the Arab world.5 The Deobandi school refers to the Wahhabi-influenced ideas developed at the Dar-ul Ulum seminary at the town of Deoband in India. It produced some of the most prominent conservative reformists and revivalists of Islam who were worried about the influence of Hindu culture and practices in contemporary Muslim life in India by the late 19th century.


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Jalaluddin7, Haji Abbas Mohammad Tahar and Shaykh Mohammad Salim Al-Kalili emerged to challenge the forces of the status quo made up of the traditional Kerajaan establishment as well as the secular modern colonial regimes installed by the British and the Dutch in Malaya and the East Indies.8

These modern Islamic thinkers and the movements they led were particularly concerned about the plight of the Malay peoples, whom they regarded as victims of the twin evils of modern colonialism as well as traditionalist obscurantism.9 In their crusade to uplift the Malays and drag them into the modern age, they fired their polemical broadsides in both directions, against the ‘secular evils’ of modern colonialism as well as the ancient evils of the pagan pre-Islamic traditions that were still evident in contemporary Malay-Muslim culture.

Anxious to prove that Islam was a rational creed that was compatible with the claims of modern science and instrumentalist rationality, the Malay-Muslim modernists were keen to relegate their pre-Islamic past to an inferior, secondary position vis-à-vis their Islamic present as well. At the hands of reformers and modernists like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, the history of the Malays was hastily re-written

6 Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi was born on 22 November 1867 in Malacca. His mother was Malay while his father, Syed Ahmad ibn Hasan ibn Saqaf al-Hady al-Ba’alawi, was a Peranakan Arab of Hadrami descent. In his youth he was adopted by Raja Ali Kelana of the Sultanate of Riau and was brought up along with the princes in the royal household. He travelled widely to the Arab countries and studied in Mecca, Beirut and Cairo. At Al-Azhar he came under the influence of the Egyptian reformist thinker Muhammad Abduh. Back in Malaya he came under the influence of the Sumatran Shaikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari who exposed him to the reformist ideas of Abduh and Rashid Rida. Along with Shaikh Mohamad Tahir, Sheikh Mohamad Salim al-Kalili and Haji Abbas Mohamad Tahar he started the reformist magazine Al-Imam in 1906 in Singapore. Between 1909 to 1915 he served as an attorney at the Shariah court of Johor Bharu. But in 1915 he decided to leave the post in order to return to Malacca and open a Madrasah there (along with Haji Abu Bakar Ahmad), which came to be known as the Madrasah Al-Hadi. In 1919, he moved to Penang in order to open another Madrasah, the Madrasah Al-Mashoor. One of the teachers at the Madrasah al-Mashoor was Sheikh Mohamad Tahir. The Madrasah al-Mashhor was perhaps one of the most famous of the radical ‘reformist’ Madrasahs of the colonial era. Along with other radical new reformist Madrasahs like the Madrasah Al-Hadi of Malacca, Madrasah al-Ikbal al-Islamiyyah of Singapore and Madrasah Ma’ahad Ihya al-Sharif of Gunung Semanggul, the Madrasah al-Mashoor was instrumental in the education of young reformist Muslim thinkers and activists. [See: Elijah Gordon, (ed.) The Real Cry of Syed Sheikh al-Hady. 1999. William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1967.]7 Sheikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari was originally from Minangkabau, Sumatra. He was born at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra in 1869. Orphaned as a child, he was later sent him to study in Mecca. After twelve years of study in Mecca, Sheikh Mohamad went to Cairo and studied astronomy (al-falak) at the famous University of al-Azhar in 1893. During the four years he spent there he was exposed to the teachings of the famous Islamic reformist Muhammad Abduh and in time he developed a friendship with the disciple of Abduh, Muhamad Rashid Rida. When Rida launched his journal al-Manar in 1898, Sheikh Mohamad contributed to it as well. After receiving his diploma at al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamad Tahir returned to teach in Mecca for two years before going back to Southeast Asia. He settled in Singapore and became part of the active circle of Malay and Peranakan Muslim reformers over there. In 1906 he started the reformist magazine Al-Imam in Singapore along with Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi. Between 1909 to 1911 he held several positions at the Shariah courts of Johor and Perak. Because of his modernist outlook and reformist tendencies, Sheikh Mohamad was regarded as dangerous by the conservative Ulama. Despite these setbacks, he took active part in teaching activities and taught at the Madrasah Al-Mashoor that was set up by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in Penang. In 1927 he was arrested by the Dutch while travelling in Sumatra on the grounds that he was suspected of working with the Communists. He died in 1957. (See: William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1967.)8 This new generation of Malay-Muslim reformists managed to spread their ideas deep into the Malay world through new modes of communication such as the vernacular press. In 1876 the newspaper Jawi Peranakan was launched in Singapore by a number of prominent Indian-Muslims. In 1906 another Muslim paper, Al-Imam, was launched in Singapore as well. Al-Imam was started by a number of prominent Malay-Muslim reformers such as Shaykh Mohammad Tahir Jalaluddin, Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi, Haji Abbas Mohammad Tahar and Shaykh Mohammad Salim Al-Kalili.9 The Muslim papers like Jawi Peranakan and Al-Imam in particular were concerned about the corrupting and weakening influence of pre-Islamic rites and rituals in Malay society, which they argued had kept the Malay-Muslims behind in the race for development.


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and the arrival of Islam was re-presented as a radical break from the past which reconfigured the Malay world anew.

The Malay-Muslim reformers loathed the pre-Islamic past not because it was so different from the world of the present, but because it was so much alike. Thus their focus was directed towards introducing and maintaining the sartorial and behavioural distinctions between the Malay-Muslims of the present and his Hindu-Buddhist ancestor of the past. To them the private space of Muslim life was more often than not an esoteric realm (khalwat or khas) where the Muslim’s psyche and spirituality (batin) was most in danger of contamination from dubious elements from the occult or pre-Islamic past. Their modernist and reformist agendas ensured that the policing of discursive, behavioural and sartorial frontiers remained a paramount objective in their work. Fearful of returning to the days when the discursive economies of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism co-mingled and interpenetrated with promiscuous ease, they were desperately concerned to rid Malay Islam of the traces of pagan pre-Islamic influences.10

While the new modernist and reformist Ulama and Imams were issuing their fatwa du jour against all that was un-Islamic, they created the popular impression that many of the traditional elements of Malay culture were obstacles to the fulfilment and completion of the Islamic project. The generation of modern Malay-Muslim thinkers and scholars of the late 19 th century who made up the Kaum Muda11 (Younger generation) of Malay-Muslim nationalists and activists attacked many cultural practices such as the traditional Malay wedding ceremony (bersanding), the hair-shaving ceremony (cukur rambut) for babies, the burial rites of Malays and the Malay practice of puja laut12 as being pagan or Hindu in origin.

It was clear that by the end of the 19 th century, the eclectic local genius of the Malay peoples was outshone by the waves of new ideas, trends, values and lifestyle that crept in from abroad. Malay society became increasingly fragmented, as there emerged new social classes and constituencies that were shaped by modern ideas and values that came either from the school of secular modernist thought or from the modernist Islamic movements. Caught in the middle and rendered powerless through economic, political and military pressure, the traditionalist elite was left with little to do but to focus their attention on areas such as traditional customs and practices, social rituals and the reproduction of a cultural identity deemed more and more outdated and stigmatised by the modern social movements (both colonial and Islamist). As this local genius was eclipsed, modernisation via imitation became the order of the day. The Malay world had finally been hegemonically incorporated into the modern global mainstream, and the Malay mind colonised at last.

Disavowing the Past: The Rewriting of Malaysian history in the post-colonial era

10 In this respect, the predominant mindset of these modern Islamic movements (like the Sarekat Islam) was a world apart from the early Muslim missionaries and mystics like Hamzah Fansuri, Abdul-Rauf Singkel and Shamsul-din Pasai of the 16th and 17th centuries. While earlier generations of Sufi thinkers were able to adapt the symbols of the Hindu past to the discursive terrain of their own Islamic cosmology, the Muslim modernists of the 19th-20th century proved to be less open minded and flexible when dealing with the symbols and symptoms of the pre-Islamic past. 11 The generation of younger Malay-Muslim activists and nationalists known as the Kaum Muda were made up mostly of the urban-based Malay and Indian Muslim traders, teachers, religious scholars and Hajis who were based in the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Melacca and Penang. As such, for much of the 19th century they actually lived as colonial subjects under British colonial rule. Their resentment towards living under the rule of a non-Muslim power was aggravated by the realisation that life in the Malay-Muslim Sultanates was much worse. In particular, they were incensed by the corrupt and wanton ways of the Malay rulers and nobles and felt that many of their courtly practices and culture were responsible for the decline of the Malay-Muslim powers in the archipelago. Consequently, their political agenda was to modernise the Malays so that they could compete with the non-Malays in the colonial settlements. But this could only be achieved, they felt, if the pre-Islamic courtly culture of the Kerajaan could be eradicated first.12 Puja Laut refers to the ceremony of paying homage to the Goddess of the Sea. It was openly practiced by many Malay fishermen communities up to the 1960s.


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The problematic relationship between past and present- or more specifically the Malay of the past and the Malay of the present- remained unresolved up to the mid-20th century. The emergence of Malay-Muslim nationalist and anti-colonial movements was a phenomenon that could only be located within the context of Modernity, yet many of these organisations drew heavily from the wellsprings of the past as well. Malay politics was invariably an amalgam of various, and at times conflicting, elements- traditionalism, Islam and (secular) Modernity. The net result was the creation of political movements like UMNO13 and PAS14, both of which were straddling a number of discursive frontiers at the same time.

Malaya (later Malaysia, from 1963) gained its independence in 1957- more than a decade after Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines- and its own history has been somewhat different. The conservative-nationalist UMNO party was in power at the head of the Perikatan (Alliance) coalition and the royalist-turned-politician Tunku Abdul Rahman was the country’s first Prime Minister. While the other leaders of Southeast Asia (most notably Achmad Sukarno of Indonesia) were denouncing the West and accusing European and American powers of trying to destabilise and topple the newly-emerging forces (‘Nefos’) of the East, the Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was busy trying to secure Malaysia’s entry into the Commonwealth and other Western-dominated military and economic alliances.

13 The United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) was formed in 1946 after a Pan-Malayan Congress that brought together all the major Malay-Muslim political groupings of the country. The Congress included representatives of the conservative, leftist, nationalist and Islamist camps, but the leftists soon left the movement altogether. UMNO was formed in the same year and it remains the most dominant party in Malaysia today, with more than two and a half million members. It was formed in 1946 as a conglomeration of Malay nationalist organisations. UMNO’s ideological stand remains right of centre, with strong neofeudal and conservative-traditionalist elements in the party’s culture. UMNO has also been at the head of the ruling alliance which has been in power in the country since independence was granted in 1957. At first the Alliance (Perikatan) was made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Assembly (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). In 1974 the Alliance was disbanded and replaced with the National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition that included UMNO, MCA, MIC and others parties such as Gerakan, PPP, SUPP, Berjasa, and even the Islamic party PAS (which joined the coalition between 1973 to 1978).14 The nucleus of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) lay in the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the conservative-nationalist Malay party, UMNO. By the early 1950s, the Ulama and religious leaders within UMNO felt that the time had come for them to break away from the nationalist organisation and form a party of their own. This was due to the conduct and poor leadership shown by the UMNO leaders themselves like Dato’ Onn Jaafar. In 1951, PAS was formed under the leadership of Haji Fuad Hassan, who was the head of the UMNO bureau of religious affairs. By 1956 the party members felt that their party needed a new leader with greater vision and political commitment. The radical nationalist and Islamist thinker Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy was then invited to take over as president of PAS at its fifth conference in December 1956. Between 1956 to 1969, the combined leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin and Dr. Zulkiflee Muhammad (the party’s vice-president) managed to broaden the political base of PAS and open it up to the rest of the Muslim world. Both men were veteran activists who had studied abroad. Dr. Burhanuddin had studied at Aligarh while Dr. Zulkiflee at al-Azhar. During the elections of 1959, 1964 and 1969, PAS managed to do quite well and it came to power in the state of Kelantan. In 1969 Dr. Burhanuddin passed away after being put under detention without trial by the Malaysian government. PAS then came under the leadership of Mohamad Asri Muda, who was a staunch defender of Malay rights and privileges. Between 1970 to 1982, Asri Muda brought PAS into the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and out again (1973-1978). The period of Asri Muda’s leadership was highly controversial one. The president himself was involved in a number of major corruption scandals and later accused of abusing his power within the party. In 1982, Asri Muda was forced to step down by a new generation of Islamist Ulama who had infiltrated the party from ABIM. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the radicalisation of PAS as its new leaders began to confront the UMNO-led coalition government and the state apparatus on the grounds that the latter were ‘secular’, ‘unIslamic’ and working in league with Western and Zionist interests. In 1990 PAS regained control of the state of Kelantan, and in 1999 it won control of Trengganu as well.


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At that point in Malaya’s early history, the country’s links to the ‘mother-country’ Britain 15 and the West was strong indeed. Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman spoke of the ‘special relationship’ between Malaya and Britain (though the image of post-war Europe, and Britain in particular, was a highly ambivalent one at this stage in Malaysia). It was not an accident that while the Malayan flag was being raised for the first time in Kuala Lumpur another was being hoisted in front of Malaya House in Trafalgar Square, London. The national anthem, Negaraku (My Homeland) was also played and sung in both countries for the first time. The Federation of Malaya inherited the system of Parliamentary Democracy from Westminster along with a Constitutional Monarch as its head of state, something which the leadership of UMNO in particular were keen to install.

Malaya’s leaders were overly enamoured by the West at that time. Europe’s seemingly miraculous recovery in the wake of the Second World War (financed to a considerable extent by the Marshall Plan of the United States) was a source of inspiration for many of the leaders of Asia and the Muslim world, and Malaya was not an exception to the rule. It was at this time that the political and business elite of Malaya (like many other parts of the Muslim world) looked to the West for guidance and instruction on how to get their economies and governments in order. The relationship between Malaya and Britain (and the West in general) was therefore predicated on a chain of equivalences16 (to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s phrase) which equated Europe with everything that was good under the sun.

From the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Malaya’s political elite saw Europe and America as the shining beacons of instrumentalist rationality, material development, economic progress, universalism, cosmopolitanism and human rights. Europe was, for the leaders of the newly-independent countries in Asia and the Muslim world, the birthplace of the renaissance and the Enlightenment. It was home to Adam Smith, Newton, Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and Einstein (though the latter had migrated to the United States by then).

It was clear that at that stage of Malayan-European relations, the Western world was still able to mesmerise the political elite of the newly-independent country. The very idea of Europe, apparently rock-solid as it stood on its universalist foundations, still possessed considerable hegemonic power over the rest of the world. And it was precisely this hegemonic dominance that allowed the West to relegate Asia and the Muslim world to the periphery, as Hall and Gieben (1992) have argued.17 The mapping of the world according to the Eurocentric imaginary effectively created neatly

15 Post-war Britain was experiencing a second coming of sorts then. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (‘Super Mac’ as he was called) had managed to disentangle the country from its colonial past with such finesse and elegance that his own Tory party seemed reconciled with it. The Welfare State, which was put in place by Clement Atlee (with the help of Beveridge and Rab Butler) was also up and running. For ordinary Malayans, the mother-country seemed to embody all that was worthy of emulation. They spoke of the free health and education services in glowing terms, painting an image of Britain as the land of milk, honey, subsidised housing, central heating and free dental check-ups. Malayans were also impressed by Britain’s election process (the first elections in Malaya were only held in 1955) and the freedom of expression enjoyed by the vocal press in the country (at a time when Malayans were still technically living in a state of National Emergency and open political discussion was illegal in many cases.)16 The term ‘chain of equivalences’ is taken from the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Laclau and Mouffe have argued that such chains of equivalences are formed when there are attempts to instrumentally link together disparate elements and ideas for specific (political) ends. Thus, the idea of the West can be linked to other unrelated concepts like ‘civilisation’, ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ via the adept and skillful manipulation of language for political purposes. This does not, however, mean that there is any natural connection between these terms and concepts, and it obviously follows that each chain of equivalences is an unnatural, non-essential construct that can only be maintained through certain hegemonic practices. Nonetheless, Laclau and Mouffe have argued that such practice is indeed commonplace in political activity in general and the struggle to define, create, break and disarticulate different chains of equivalences is part and parcel of the struggle for hegemony in political life. See: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso press, London. 1985.17 See: Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. In Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben (eds), The Formation of Modernity. Polity Press, Cambridge. 1992.


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compartmentalised distinctions between the developed and under-developed, civilised and un-civilised, enlightened and obscurantist, progressive and backward. Needless to say, ‘Europe’ was linked to the first range of categories while the rest were lumped with the other.

For a whole generation of Malaya’s postcolonial elite, the West was the model that was to be emulated. The break with the past was seen as the way to get the country on the road to development and progress, and the ways of the past were seen as obstacles to this development. Tradition and history were seen as cumbersome baggage that needed to be discarded at the earliest opportunity.

Cognisant of the new political realities that stood before the newly independent state, Malaya’s leaders began to formulate their foreign, domestic and education policies accordingly. Under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaya spent more on education that any other country in Southeast Asia (a trend that persists till today) and the government was keen to send the best and brightest among the youth to the West to study. Malaya began sending thousands of young Malay-Muslim students to study abroad in Britain and the United States- both of which were Anglophone countries while the former was particularly favoured for its academic system which was compatible to that of Malaya’s. Malayan students were sent to study in both arts and sciences, and Britain was the favourite destination for those who wanted to enter the Malayan civil service.

But while Malaya’s elite were busy playing court with the political and business elite in Europe, other shifts and changes were taking place on the international scene that would later alter the popular perception of the West in the eyes of the Malayans back home.

Popular though they were, the Tunku’s parties could not go on forever. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, newly-independent Malaya found itself being rapidly out-manoeuvred on the international level by other more aggressively anti-Western countries and leaders like Indonesia’s Sukarno and India’s Nehru. Malaya’s close relationship with Britain (which was underpinned by its dependency on the West for capital investment as well as military assistance) made it appear as the dark horse in the stable of the newly-independent countries that were in the non-aligned movement. The anglophile and eurocentric proclivities of Malaya’s leaders and ruling elite also singled them out at the numerous South-South conferences where every Third World leader was expected to pepper his speeches with barbed invectives directed towards the evil forces of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism that were hovering above the Southern nations like predatory vultures.

The 1960s witnessed the emergence of popular anti-colonial and anti-Western movements the world over, and the influence of their movements, their ideas and their leaders could be felt everywhere in Malaysia. It was during this time that the leadership of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), then under the capable guidance of its most sophisticated and vocal president Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, began to attack the Malaysian government for its dependency on European and American powers. In his speeches, Dr. Burhanuddin (who was a fervent admirer and follower of Sukarno in his youth) condemned the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman and the UMNO-led government for their betrayal of Malay-Muslim interests and for their willingness to bend over backwards to meet the demands and conditions imposed by the West. Dr. Burhanuddin cited the example of Muslim countries (like Egypt under Gammel Nasser18 and Indonesia under Sukarno) that had defied the will of the capitalists of

18 The Aligarh-educated Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy was not a product of traditional conservative Islamic education like the rest of the Ulama who led the Islamist party. He envisaged an Islamic state that was both modern and dynamic, openly in competition with the more dominant and powerful liberal-capitalist economies of Europe and the United States. Rather than the cherished dream of the Prophet’s community of Medinah or the ‘golden age’ of the Caliphate, Dr. Burhanuddin turned to Sukarno’s Indonesia and Gammel Nasser’s Egypt for examples of modern, progressive Islamism at work. In defence of this view of Islam as an ideological alternative and political model, he had argued thus: ‘Those who naively say that PAS is a party of Pak Lebai (village elders) should look around them or turn to the middle east. Whether or not PAS is competent in its role in the struggle for national liberation, the Middle East provides the answers. And Abdel Gammel Nasser provides the example… The role of Egypt under the leadership of Colonel Nasser provides the unchallengeable example of the triumph of Islamic nationalism against international imperialism’ (from his acceptance speech as the third


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Europe and America by nationalising the major industries of their respective countries and introducing the fundamental structures of a welfare state.

It was during this period that the political mood in the country began to take a radical turn. PAS, under Dr. Burhanuddin, had been transformed into a radical Leftist-Islamist party that was vehemently opposed to all forms of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism. The leaders of PAS injected into their followers and supporters a new level of political awareness that made them see the struggle of Asians and Muslims worldwide as their own. The growing radicalism of Islamist leaders in Malaya in the 1960s was slowly growing and reaching out to new constituencies and groupings. In time, this would lead to the emergence of a second generation of Malay-Muslim students, activists and intellectuals who would shake the foundations of the state from below, while burying the past as well in the process.

Kaum Muda Revisited: The second wave of Islamisation from below

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, another chain of equivalences was being created thanks to the incessant critiques against the (pro-Western) establishment in general by the radical Islamist opposition leaders in Malaysia and the rest of the non-Western world.

Disappointed and disillusioned by what they saw as the government’s slavish intellectual dependency on the West, a new generation of Malay-Muslim students, activists and intellectuals began to formulate their own Islamist alternative to the model of development propagated by the state. It is hardly a coincidence that the second wave of Islamisation from below came from the university campuses of the country. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the emergence of new counter-culture groupings like the Darul Arqam19 movement of Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad, the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM)20 that was led by Anwar Ibrahim, Razali Nawawi and Siddiq Fadhil and

President of PAS in December 1956).19 The Darul Arqam Movement was formed by Ustaz Ashaari Muhamad in 1968. It began as a study group among Muslim scholars and reformers, many of whom were university lecturers, academics and students. In time it evolved into a Sufi-inspired alternative lifestyle movement that was very much centred around the personality of its founder. Its activities were based at the Madinah Al Arqam Saiyyidina Abu Bakar As-Siddiq, Sungai Pencala near the capital Kuala Lumpur. The movement’s aim was to create an alternative model of an ideal Islamic society that was organised and managed according to the standards and norms set by the Prophet Muhammad himself and his sahabat (companions). The movement grew in size until its membership expanded to tens of thousands. Its followers dressed and lived according to Ustaz Ashaari’s interpretation of the sunnah. The men wore green robes and turbans while the women wore black hijab all the time. The movement practised Purdah (seclusion) and its female members were kept out of public view as much as possible. They set up cooperative movements, self-help groups and links with other Islamic movements in the country and beyond. At one stage in its development Darul Arqam was even accused of being an organisation secretly funded by the Saudi government in its effort to eradicate Shia influence in the Malay archipelago. Such controversies helped to boost the group’s image and appeal even more. By the 1970s, Ustaz Ashaari was widely regarded as one of the most powerful, influential (if not controversial) Ulama in the country. In the years to come it would attract a number of prominent followers like Tamrin Ghaffar (son of the future Deputy Prime Minister Ghaffar Baba) and the famous writer Shahnon Ahmad. [For a detailed analysis of the Darul Arqam movement, see: Chandra (1987), Jomo and Shabery Cheek (1992) and Husin Mutalib (1993).]20 The Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM- Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement) was formed by a number of Malay university student activists from the National Association of Muslim Students led by Razali Nawawi, Anwar Ibrahim and Siddiq Fadhil on 6 August 1971. As it developed the movement became centred around the charismatic and dominant personality of Anwar Ibrahim who took over as the movement’s second president in 1974. (Prompting the Malaysian academic Jomo K. Sundaram to refer to ABIM as the ‘Anwar Bin Ibrahim Movement’.) As the president of ABIM and the MBM (Majlis Belia Malaysia- Malaysian Youth Council) Anwar Ibrahim soon made his impact felt in Malay-Muslim circles by championing a number of controversial causes. One of his first public confrontations with authority came when he challenged the Cabinet Minister for Youth and Sports Ali Haji Ahmad over the latter’s suggestion that Malaysian students who were being sent overseas for further studies should be issued with condoms so that they would not contract any venereal diseases while abroad. Anwar and the other leaders of ABIM argued that such a move was tantamount to encouraging


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the Islamic Representative Council (IRC)21 which had infiltrated the student body both at home and abroad.

The rank and file of these organisations were made up of young Islamist students and intellectuals (many of whom had been sent abroad for further studies) who had been exposed to the ideas of Islamist thinkers like the Egyptian Islamist Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Ikhwan’ul Muslimin) and the Pakistani Islamist Ab’ul Al’aa Maudoodi (founder of the Jama’at-e Islami). A number of them had also made contact with some of the more prominent Islamist intellectuals who were now based in the West like Ismail Ragi Faruqi22, Tahar Jabir al-Alwani23 and Kurshid Ahmad24 who were proposing a radically different Islamic solution to the problems of the modern subject living in the modern age.

Malay-Muslim students to engage in free sex, and as a result of the public outrage caused the government was forced to back down. Soon the movement was championing a number of other causes which ranged from the status of the Malay language to the role of the United States in Southeast Asia. ABIM’s aim was to spearhead the struggle for Islamic reform and revival in the country, and to work towards ‘Islamisation from within’. On the campuses of the country, ABIM’s impact was clear for all to see: the members of the organisation were among the few who did not smoke and who dressed according to Islamic standards of decency and modesty. The young men who joined ABIM were also reminded not to be in close contact with women, and to avoid shaking hands with them. They also encouraged their parents and the elders around them to follow their example. In time the policing of sartorial and behavioural norms became one of the defining features of the ABIM movement. The movement sponsored a number of religious pondoks and madrasahs all over the country, such as the Madrasah Sri ABIM at Kuala Ketil, Kedah and the Ma’ahad Tarbiyyah Ismamiah at Pokok Sena. It also established its own private school called Yayasan Anda (which was partly financed by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), a regional council representing the more established Protestant Churches in the Asian region) .21 The Islamic Representative Council (IRC) began to show itself on the (British and Malaysian) campus scene by the late 1970s. During the early stages of Islamist student activism between 1969 to 1976 the Muslim student movements in the local campuses were dominated by Malay-Muslim students from the arts faculties. This situation only began to change in by the mid-1970s when the leadership of the local and international university student movements fell into the hands of Malay-Muslim scholars from the science stream, who were more rigid and militant in their approach. These students eventually formed the Islamic Representative Council which adopted a more covert approach to their activities. The IRC organised itself in the form of cells which then penetrated into the local campuses and other existing organisations in order to spread their Islamic message from within. Shamsul Baharuddin (1997) notes that: ‘Because this organisation was born outside the Malaysian socio-political milieu and was informed mainly by sectarian Islamist groups based in the Middle East and South Asia, its focus was more on religion for religion’s sake than religion for society’s sake. The IRC saw ABIM’s brand of Islam as too ‘spicy’ and impure (re. tolerant of heterogeneity), unlike theirs which was more true to the original and pure (re. demanding total response). The IRC group adopted the educational approach or tarbiyyah, through the formation and spread of small cells among the students. The denounced the Malaysian government as un-Islamic and accused it of upholding a secular and infidel system of rule. Recruiting from among the science students, the IRC adopted what could be seen as a black-and-white approach to Islam. In their view one either practiced Islam in a complete way or was an infidel; one either fought for Islam or was irreligious, if a member of an Islamic group one had to be a full-time dakwah activist, and not merely a sympathizer.’ (Shamsul A. B, 1997. Pg. 215.) For a further discussion of the IRC and its activities, see Shamsul A. Baharuddin, Identity Construction, National Formation and Islamic Revivalism in Islam in an Era of Nation States, (Eds. Robert Hefner and Patricia Horvatich), University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii. 1997. pp. 215-216.22 The American-Arab Islamist intellectual and activist Ismail Ragi Faruqi was originally born in Palestine. In his youth he first studied at the French Catholic School, College des Freres St. Joseph. He then proceeded to the American University of Beirut, where he obtained his B.A. in 1941. In 1945 he worked for the Palestinian government and was made the governor of Galilee. But in 1948, Faruqi and his family were forced to leave his home country after the creation of Israel and the war between Israeli and Arab forces. The family fled to Lebanon, but Faruqi traveled to America to further his studies. He received two Masters degrees from Indiana University and Harvard. In 1952 he gained his Ph.d from Indiana University in the field of Philosophy. But Faruqi’s longing to return to his Arab roots took him back to the Middle East and between 1954 to 1958 he studied Islamic studies at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Upon his return to the United States he became a fellow at the Faculty of Divinity at McGill University (1959-1961) and he took up the study of Christianity and Judaism. In 1964 he obtained a full time post at the Department of Religious Studies at Syracuse University. Finally in 1968 he moved on to Temple University to take up the post of professor of Islamic Studies and the


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The emergence of movements like Darul Arqam, ABIM and the IRC in the country was symptomatic of the changes taking place in Malay-Muslim society as a whole. Thanks to the Islamisation race between UMNO and PAS which had begun in the 1960s, Islamic influences had penetrated even deeper into the political, economic and cultural environment of the Malays in the country. The inflation of Islamic discourse in Malay-Muslim society meant that Malay politics had begun to shift to a more Islamist discursive register. The 1970s was a time that witnessed not only the development of new Islamic movements in the country but also the first signs of popular Islamic resurgence that came in the form of Islamic dress, social norms, modes of communication and Islamic literature. 25 Ironically, it was the contestation between PAS and UMNO that helped to create these new Islamist movements.

History of Religions. Two main concerns dominated his life and work: The first was his obsession with Islam and Arab culture, the second was his continued attempt to engage with Christianity and Judaism in order to show that both religions had deviated from their proper paths. For Faruqi, Islam and Arabism were intimately and essentially linked. He argued that the Quranic revelations were meant primarily for the Arabs and that Arabic culture was essentially the spirit of the Quran made manifest. Arabism (Urubah) was for him central to Islam itself and there could be no understanding of Islam without looking at it through an Arab-centric perspective. He wrote a number of books on this topic, such as Urubah and Religion, Urubah and Art, Urubah and Society and Urubah and Man. For him, Arab culture was the medium and vehicle through which the essence of Islam was communicated and spread. Faruqi’s other concern was to show that both the Christians and Jews had deviated from the original teachings and examples laid out by the Prophets. In order to do this he post-rationalized both religions and viewed them from a Quranic perspective. His engagement with Jews and Christians were therefore part of an effort to bring them back to their faiths, albeit through the mediation of Islam. Faruqi was also an activist-oriented scholar who wanted to create a following and a base of supporters. In order to achieve this he formed a number of student and academic networks of which he was the president or founder. These included the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), the North American Islamic Trust and the Islamic Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion. In 1981 he created the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia, along with Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman, Tahar Jabir al-Alwani and Jamal Barzinji. The IIIT project was meant to lead the way for what became to be known as the ‘Islamisation of Knowledge’ project. The founders wished to radically reinvent the epistemology, phenomenology and ethics of Muslim civilisation so that Muslims could become modernised without being westernised. Faruqi also had an enormous impact on Muslim students who were studying in the West at the time. He was the leader and patron to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of America. He is also said to have had an impact on Malaysian students studying in Europe and the United States. Faruqi influenced the Malaysian Islamist student activist Anwar Ibrahim to enter the world of Malaysian politics and it was thanks to his advice that Anwar left his organisation ABIM and joined the UMNO party in 1982. Ismail Ragi Faruqi’s career was cut short when he and his wife Lois Lamya Faruqi were killed on 24 May 1986 by a deranged Muslim convert.23 The Iraqi scholar Dr. Tahar Jabir al-Alwani was originally a professor at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. In the 1980s he migrated to the United States and became a close friend and collaborator with the Palestinian-born scholar Ismail Ragi Faruqi. Al-Alwani and Faruqi jointly worked together on a number of projects which eventually culminated in the formation of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) in 1981. This came after the first International Conference on Islamic Knowledge that was held in Switzerland in 1977. Under the auspices of the IIIT, al-Alwani and Faruqi led what came to be known as the ‘Islamisation of Thought’ or ‘Islamisation of Social Sciences’ project. Their aim was to reconstruct knowledge and all the major academic disciplines anew under the guidance of religious sanction. The IIIT project was met with a positive response from a number of Muslim states, including Malaysia. Soon after the International Islamic University (UIA) was formed in Malaysia (in 1983) and a number of prominent Malaysian politicians like Anwar Ibrahim took up al-Alwani’s and Faruqi’s concerns. After the assassination of Faruqi in May 1986, al-Alwani was left to lead the project and direct its activities into the future. He remains an important and influential thinker in contemporary Islamist circles and enjoys a wide following particularly amongst Muslim students studying in the West.24 The Indian-born British Islamist scholar and economist Khurshid Ahmad was born in Delhi, India, in 1932. His father, Nazir Ahmad, was a businessman based in Delhi and who enjoyed close connections with some of the leading Indian Muslim figures then. He was actively involved in the Muslim League and he became the counsellor to the League in Delhi. When India and Pakistan went their separate ways, Khurshid Ahmad’s family migrated northwards to Pakistan. They first settled in Lahore and it was here that Khurshid first made contact with Maulana Ab’ul Al’aa Maudoodi who had formed the Jama’at-e Islami (JI) in 1941. From Lahore the


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ABIM’s aim was to spearhead the struggle for Islamic reform and revival in the country, and to work towards ‘Islamisation from within’. The movement sponsored a number of religious pondoks and madrasahs all over the country, such as the Madrasah Sri ABIM at Kuala Ketil, Kedah and the Ma’ahad Tarbiyyah Ismamiah at Pokok Sena. It also established its own private school called Yayasan Anda (which was partly financed by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), a regional council representing the more established Protestant Churches in the Asian region) . Like Darul Arqam, ABIM sought to create an Islamic society instead of trying to build an Islamic state. Groups such as these were trying to reinvent Malay society so that the Malay subject could be transform into an Islamic subject (homo islamicus) in no uncertain terms. ABIM’s leaders condemned Secularism per se and other western ideologies that they regarded as antithetical to Islam, and called for the control and purification of Muslim culture in the interest of creating a healthy Islamic society.

On the campuses of the country, ABIM and IRC’s impact was clear for all to see: The members of the organisation were among the few who did not smoke and who dressed according to Islamic standards of decency and modesty. The young men who joined ABIM and IRC were also reminded not to be in close contact with women, and to avoid shaking hands with them. The leaders of ABIM were particularly concerned about the need to introduce gender segregation in the universities, and the policing of sexual behaviour among the students soon became a matter of prime concern for them. 26 They also encouraged their parents and the elders around them to follow their example. In time the

family moved to Karachi and Khurshid enrolled at the Government College of Commerce and Economics. He began to study economics and also became involved in the activities of the Jama’at. Later, under the influence of Zafar Ishaque al-Ansari and his brother Khurram Ahmad, Khurshid joined the student wing of the JI known as the Islami Jami’at-i Tulaba (IJT). While at university he also became actively involved in student politics and between 1953 to 1955 he headed the All-Pakistan Islamic Student Association (APISA). While engaged in these activities he continued to study both economics and Islamic studies and finally ended up teaching economics at the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at Urdu College and in the Department of Economics at Karachi University. He became a full member of the JI and ultimately worked in its Department of Foreign Relations. In 1966, he moved to Britain where he engaged in da’wa (missionary) activities on behalf of the Jama’at. He also helped to organise the Executive Council of the Islamic Council of Europe. Khurshid Ahmad also continued in his work as an educator while in Britain. Between 1969 to 1972 he was a research scholar at the University of Leicester and he later established the Islamic Foundation in the same city. The Islamic Foundation was, from the outset, closely linked to the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan and its network of Islamist organisations. Through the work of the foundation and his teaching activities, Khurshid has managed to gain a huge following among Muslim students studying in the West and in Britain in particular. He has also gained the support of many Muslim governments and economists who share his view of an Islamic economic system that is based on moral injunctions and which tries to address the failings of both the liberal-capitalist and communist systems of the West. In 1978 he was persuaded to return to Pakistan after the fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the rise of the dictator General Zia ‘ul Haq. Along with a few other members of the Jama’at, Khurshid served as a minister under the government of Zia (in the Department of Planning, Development and Statistics). He left Pakistan again and returned to Britain after it became apparent that Zia was merely using Islam as a discourse of legitimation and that he had no intention of allowing the Jama’at to come to power. In 1986 he became the president of the International Association of Islamic Economists. In 1988 he was awarded by the Islamic Development Bank for his work in the field of Islamic economics. In 1990 he was bestowed the King Faizal award by the government of Saudi Arabia for his services to Islam. 25 Ungku Maimunah Mohd Tahir has examined the development of Malay ‘Islamic’ popular literature that began to appear in the country in the 1970s. She argues that the 1970s witnessed the birth of a new genre of Malay literature known as ‘sastera Islam’ (Islamic literature) which dealt with issues relation to religion and popular culture. She argues that ‘in giving literary expression to this new philosophy, the writers were apt to highlight the questions of morality and salvation, seeing individual crisis of morality as the root cause of social ills and its redress as the panacea for social chaos’. (pg. 79). Among the foremost proponents of this new form of sastera Islam was the Malay writer Shahnon Ahmad. In their writings the authors present the problems facing contemporary Malay society in clear-cut dialectical terms: The evils of modern life are contrasted to the purity of Islam and true Muslims. Among the most common themes that were found in their writings were the theme of conversion (usually of Christians to Islam), redemption and salvation (for deviant Muslims) and the rejection of Western values as secular, materialist and immoral. (See: Ungku Maimunah Mohd Tahir, Morality and Salvation in Malaysia’s Islamic Literature of the 70s and 80s. In Akademika 47. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Bangi. July 1994.).


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policing of sartorial and behavioural norms became one of the defining features of the new Islamist movements.27

IV. From Malay Subject to Homo Islamicus: The Erasure of the Pre-Islamic Past During the Era of Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia

The production of history is an enterprise that takes place in a discursive terrain that is forever shifting and contested. The site of discursivity itself, as we all know by now, can never be fully sutured or closed in any way, and intertextuality is the order of the day in the incessant war between the disciplines.

Intertextuality also happens to be the framework within which the battle for meaning was fought in the struggle to reinvent Malay history during the 1970s and 1980s. The three cardinal ‘coordinates of dialogue’ (to borrow another of Kristeva’s phrases) then were: The advocates of the new revisionist reading of Malay identity, history and culture; their intended audience (the Malay community at large, which was always in need of being ‘saved’ by someone for whatever reason); and the ever present exterior text that would serve as the counterpoint to the new history to be told.

The struggle to invent the Malays took place on practically all levels of society. On the political level the two main Malay-Muslim parties, UMNO and PAS, were battling for the hearts and minds of the Malay public as a whole. The leaders of both parties were equally convinced that their view of the future was correct and that their interpretation of the problems of the past were equally valid. What was interesting was the fact that while UMNO and PAS’s vision of the future were radically different (UMNO was looking forward to a Malaysia that was industrialised, modern and integrated into the world economy while PAS was aiming to create an Islamic state ruled by a theocratic leadership), they both shared a common contempt and loathing for the past which served as a counterpoint to the present. The leaders of UMNO and PAS both regarded the pre-Islamic Malay past as an age of darkness that was contaminated by superstition, idolatry and paganism. In the writings of UMNO’s new leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the Malay past was littered with obstacles to the progress of the Malays in the present. While for the Deoband-educated spiritual leader (Murshid’ul Am) of PAS Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the past was strewn with traces of moral decadence, irreligion and evil that had to be fought against.28 As the political leadership of the country engaged in a prolonged conflict 26 As the president of ABIM and the MBM (Majlis Belia Malaysia- Malaysian Youth Council) Anwar Ibrahim soon made his impact felt in Malay-Muslim circles by championing a number of controversial causes. One of his first public confrontations with authority came when he challenged the Cabinet Minister for Youth and Sports Ali Haji Ahmad over the latter’s suggestion that Malaysian students who were being sent overseas for further studies should be issued with condoms so that they would not contract any venereal diseases while abroad. Anwar and the other leaders of ABIM argued that such a move was tantamount to encouraging Malay-Muslim students to engage in free sex, and as a result of the public outrage caused the Minister in question was forced to back down. (Tamadun, November 1998. Pg. 6.) 27 For a detailed account of the other social changes that took place in Malaysia’s campuses and society at large thanks to the activism of ABIM, see C. N. Al-Afghani, Rakyat Makin Mantang, Corak Memali Enterprise, Memali, Kedah, 1999. Pp. 9-11. 28 The second spiritual leader (Murshid’ul Am) of PAS, Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, was himself the product of the ultra-conservative Deobandi school of thought that was based in Northern India. Since its formation in the late-19th century, the Deobandi school was known for its conservative rulings in matters of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and for the production of conservative Ulama. The dominant aspect of Deobandi thinking that was clearly evident in Nik Aziz’s style of leadership was the desire to purify Islam and Muslim culture from elements which are regarded as un-Islamic (khurafat), heretical (shirk), innovative (bid’ah) and deviationist (ajaran sesat). As soon as he returned to Malaysia (in the 1950s), Nik Aziz announced his arrival in no uncertain terms by declaring that many of the traditional practices sanctioned by the older generation of traditional Alim were in fact un-Islamic. The traditional Ulama, he argued, were wrong because their scriptural knowledge rested on old books (kitab kuning) that were faulty or badly translated. He insisted that only a thorough-going campaign to eliminate and remove all these elements from Malay society could transform them into true Muslims. Nik Aziz immediately found himself in confrontation with the older generation of Alim Ulama who had sanctioned many traditional Malay customary practices. These practices, such as traditional songs, the


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over the identity of the Malays as a whole, other sections of Malay-Muslim society were brought into the fray.

In the colleges and universities of the country, Islamist students, academics and intellectuals began the work of dismantling earlier accounts of Malay history on the grounds that so much of it was tainted by Western orientalist biases. (Which was true, in any case.) Postcolonial Malaysia’s history had to be saved from the corrupting influence of the colonial mindset which had configured the Malays as a race of lazy, backward and ignorant natives. Critiques such as these came from the pens of postcolonial critics like Syed Hussein Alattas.

But the task of recovering Malay history was also undertaken by those who sought to invest it with a host of new essentialist values and understandings. In time this became the objective of those of the Islamist tendency who wished to review and rewrite the past of the Malays according to distinctly Islamic lines. While the UMNO-led government of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was deriding the Malay past for its economic and political backwardness, the Islamists of the 1980s were more concerned to paint an Islamic gloss on everything Malay instead.

It was during this time (1970s to 1980s) that we see Malay history being radically re-written by those of the Islamist tendency themselves. In the departments of History, Politics, Islamic and Malay studies, the history of the Malay race was being reinterpreted and reinvented by those who felt that the pre-Islamic past had nothing to offer to the Malay-Muslim of the present. The leaders of groups like Darul Arqam, ABIM, IRC were of the opinion that the past was a different country populated by heathens and infidels and that these aliens bore no relation whatsoever (or rather should not) to the Malay-Muslim of the present whom they sought to convert to their cause.

Malay history was written with a decidedly Islamist slant that invariably presented Malay identity through an Islamic lens. The Islamic elements of Malay culture and history were backdated as far as possible, while the enormous cultural and civilisational heritage of the pre-Islamic Malays were sidelined or diminished. The search for Islamic roots and origins was carried out with vigour, despite the fact that the earliest traces of Islam in the archipelago did not (and could not) sustain the claim that the creed had arrived as a complete and immaculate totality.

The revisionist writing of Malay history was therefore a political enterprise (and adventure) in many respects. Many of the earlier attempts at such revision proved to be cavalier at best, counter-productive at worst. But in time there emerged an Islamist intellectual and scholar whose work and ideas represents this symbolic rupture with the past at its best: Syed Naquib al-Attas.

All that the Malay isn’t: The exteriorisation of the pre-Islamic Other in the reversed Orientalism of Syed Naguib al-Attas

‘The coming of Islam, seen from the perspective of modern times, was the most momentous event in the history of the (Malay) Archipelago’

Syed Naguib Al-Attas,Preliminary Statement on a

General Theory of Islamization

More so than any other scholar in Malaysia, it was Syed Naquib al-Attas 29 who managed to occasion a radical break with the past. By doing so he became the mentor, spokesman and ideologue for an

shadow-puppet (wayang) performance and dances like the Manora, were attacked by Nik Aziz on the grounds that they were contaminated by un-Islamic and pagan influences. This brought him into conflict with the traditional Ulama of the establishment. In the years to come, Nik Aziz’s polemics against un-Islamic customs and practices would embrace a host of contaminating evils ranging from pre-Islamic Hindu, Hellenic, Persian and animist beliefs to the scourge of modern secular ideologies like Communism and Capitalism.


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entire generation of young Islamist activists, students and intellectuals who were preoccupied with the task of creating the new homo islamicus from the ashes of the Malay of yesterday.

The rise to prominence of Syed Naquib al-Attas can be linked to the resurgence of political Islam in the local universities and colleges of Malaysia. Himself the product of Eton, Sandhurst and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, al-Attas also happened to be the mentor to the ABIM movement and its leader Anwar Ibrahim30. His most influential book was ‘Islam and Secularism’- which was first published by ABIM in 1978 (the same year that Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in the West) and it became the standard reference for an entire generation of middle-class professionals, politicians, students and teachers in the country.

By the year 1991 al-Attas had risen to become one of the most influential Islamist thinkers in the country, thanks in part to his close relationship with his ex-student-turned-UMNO politician, Anwar Ibrahim. For his part in the Islamisation effort, al-Attas was given the chance to found and direct the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC).31

29 Syed Naquib al-Attas is perhaps one of the most influential (if not controversial) Islamist thinkers in Malaysia today. His influence extends well beyond the confines of academia and he has played an important role in the cultivation of the Islamic elite in the country. He comes from one of the most famous aristocratic families in the south and is of mixed Malay-Arabic stock. In his youth he studied in England, first at Eton and then at Sandhurst Military Academy and later at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His early academic researches were into the fields of Malay Sufism and literature. His fame was assured when he published his two-volume dissertation The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri (1965, published 1970). He later developed much of his educational philosophy with this Sufi influence clearly apparent in his work. He also prides himself as a designer, calligrapher and artist. He was given the opportunity to create The International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) in 1991 and in 1993 he was awarded the Al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Philosophy by the Malaysian government (The award was presented by none other than his own student-turned-politician Anwar Ibrahim, who was then a Minister in the Cabinet). He was awarded the membership of the Royal Jordanian Academy in 1994 and honoured with an honorary doctorate from the University of Khartoum in 1995. In Malaysian academic circles, Naquib al-Attas was known as the Malaysian proponent of the ‘Islamisation of knowledge’ project, now a major international effort which he claims credit for. In high-level social and political circles he was well received thanks to his mixed Malay-Arabic ancestry, his aristocratic background and his intimate links to the early founders of the dominant Malay conservative UMNO party. He was, in short, clearly an establishment figure and his institute (ISTAC) was firmly located at the centre of the government’s network of Islamic research and academic institutes. From his interest in Sufism al-Attas developed a complex philosophy of Islamic education which laid great emphasis on the role of order and scriptural authority. Critical observers have suggested that this may explain both the appeal of al-Attas to the Malaysian political establishment as well as his following among a legion of enamoured Malay-Muslim scholars and student-activists, all of which contributes further to the cult of personality surrounding the man. (See: Mona Abaza, ‘Rethinking the Social Knowledge of Islam: Critical Explorations in the Islamisation of Knowledge Debate between Malaysia and Egypt’. Unpublished Doctoral thesis for the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Berlin, 1998. Esp. Chapter 6, pp. 85-107.)30 Chandra Muzaffar has noted that ‘within the country the person who had the greatest influence on Anwar Ibrahim in his ABIM years was Syed Naquib al-Attas, then professor of Malay Studies at the National University of Malaysia.’ (Chandra, 1987. pg. 54, n.23). The anti-secularism rhetoric of al-Attas was taken up by the leaders of ABIM with gusto. Chandra noted that ‘ABIM criticised secularism and other western ideologies as antithetical to the ideal of an Islamic state. Secularism, for ABIM, is an ideology that restricts the concept of existence to ‘this world’ and the ‘here and now’. …As a consequence of this, secularism, as an ABIM leader once argued, has resulted in a modern society ‘inflicted by such diseases as hedonism, materialism, individualism, utilitarianism, permissiveness, relativistic values and anomie’. Such a view of Secularism is found in the works of al-Attas as well, such as his ‘Islam and Secularism’. (Chandra, 1987, pg. 48)31 The International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) was officially opened in 1991. It was, from the very beginning, the brainchild of its founder-director, Syed Naquib al-Attas. Anwar Ibrahim, the ex-president of ABIM, was the first Chairman of ISTAC. In its early years, ISTAC received much support and patronage from the Malaysian government, both in terms of financial assistance as well as publicity and the endorsement of its activities by the government. In the preface of the second edition (1993) of his book ‘Islam and Secularism’, al-Attas outlines the mandate and agenda of his institute: ‘Among its most important aims and objectives are to conceptualise, clarify, elaborate scientific and epistemological problems encountered by


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The philosophy of Syed Naquib al-Attas can be summarised as follows: Like Khomeini, al-Attas regards Islam as a complete, totalised, exclusive and unique system of belief and thought. It is, for him, the sole religion which possesses a ‘salvatic mission’ and the only one with truly universalistic claims.32 Islam has therefore nothing to learn from other belief and value systems, and Muslims must reject the relativisation of values and beliefs which has become en vogue of late thanks to the scourge of Western secularism.

The writings of al-Attas work within a defensive and reactionary logic which sees Islam as a religion with singular purpose that is at the same time under threat from two contaminating elements: Secular Modernity (which represents the external Other) and the pre-Islamic past (which is the enemy from within). In his writings, al-Attas frames Islam in terms of a nostalgic politics of authenticity which seeks to return it to its pure and pristine past, free from the contaminating influence of both.

Al-Attas’s critique of Secular Moderntiy takes the form of an oppositional dialectic which invariably presents Islam and Secularism in oppositional terms. For al-Attas Secularism is a Western and eurocentric belief and value system which confines human existence to the level of the profane, material and physical world. It has been one of the tools used by the West in its war against Islam and its effort to ‘de-Islamize’ Muslim intellectuals.33 Western secularism leads in turn to the promotion of secular (Western) sciences and knowledge such as biology, physics, anthropology and the humanist sciences.34 It promotes humanism and positivism as the benchmarks of epistemological certainty and Truth. These ‘lesser’ or ‘lower’ knowledges then contribute to what al-Attas calls the ‘levelling’ of the (Muslim) mind, which creates the impression that all knowledge and truth is relative, contingent, historically and culturally specific and arbitrary.35

Muslims in this modern age; to provide an Islamic response to the intellectual and cultural challenges of the modern world and various schools of thought, religion and ideology; to formulate an Islamic philosophy of education; including the definitions, aims and objectives of Islamic education, to formulate an Islamic philosophy of science’. (pg. xiii). In short, the aim of ISTAC was to spearhead al-Attas’s own project of the Islamisation of knowledge which in turn is intimately linked to his political project of the revival of the spirit of Islam through the creation of a new class of intellectually competent and knowledgeable Islamic leaders who conform to the rules of adab and the social and political hierarchies al-Attas regards as essentially Islamic. Al-Attas was given a lot of freedom in designing ISTAC, down to its architectural details. The main building which houses the library, conference hall and research units was designed by him and reflect strong Hispano-Moorish styles and features.32 Al-Attas argues that of the three main Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), it is Islam that possesses a ‘salvatic impulse’ to save the rest of humanity. Judaism, and to a lesser extent, Christianity, are fundamentally tribal religions limited to a select people while the message of Islam is open to all. (Ironically, al-Attas later goes on to attack what he calls the de-Arabisation of Islam by secular Muslims, pg. 127). Likewise, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and other Chinese beliefs are not guided by salvatic missionary impulses. These are also nation-based collective belief systems for him. (pp. 98-99).33 Al-Attas, 1978. Pg. 16 and also: pp. 124-126.34 Al-Attas condemns the pervasive spread of secularism among Muslim intellectuals via the humanist sciences that they have learnt from their western teachers thus: ‘The secular scholars and intellectuals among the Muslims derive their aspirations mainly from the West. Ideologically they belong to the same line of modernist ‘reformers’… The secular scholars and intellectuals among us refuse to listen and pay attention (to Islamic teachers) but hang instead upon every word taught by their western masters in the various branches of the knowledge of the sciences, particularly in that branch known as the human sciences.’ (pp. 124-125). Elsewhere he attacks these various schools of humanist knowledge as being fundamentally limited, inferior and antithetical to the spirit and philosophy of Islam: ‘In deislamizing the Muslims, the Western administrators and colonial theorists have first severed the pedagogical link between the Holy Qur’an and the local language by establishing a system of secular education. At the higher levels linguistics and anthropology are introduced as the methodological tools for the study of language and culture, and Western values, models and Orientalist scholarship and philology for the study of literature and history.’ (pg. 126). These humanistic sciences, for al-Attas, are all mainly directed towards humanising the outlook of Muslims and to desacralise their religion and worldview so that they in turn adopt a secular outlook on life as well. 35 Al-Attas, pg. 129.


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The effect of Western-inspired and Western-directed secularisation is that it has brought about a state of total moral and epistemological confusion in the Muslim world. Muslims no longer lived in a God-centred universe as soon as they receive their knowledge (and doctorates) from the West. They have become confused about their true purpose in life, their obligations and priorities as well as the social and cultural hierarchies that once governed the universe of Muslims the world over.36 While great men of learning once governed Muslim society, Muslims are now being ruled by technocrats and politicians instead. And worse of all, while at one time savants of scholarly vision and purpose (like Naquib al-Attas himself, presumably) once enjoyed the status of illuminati and guides to rulers and peasants alike, this coveted role has now been handed over to lesser academics schooled in Western political science, economics and other such vulgar disciplines of the bazaar. It is hardly a surprise that the homesick Malaysian Muslim students who were longing for a return to the pristine golden age of Islam found a welcoming port in the Utopian writings of al-Attas.

Al-Attas’s attack on ‘secular’ and ‘Europeanised’ (re: Western trained or educated) intellectuals and political leaders in the Muslim world falls back on his own (Western) military training37 and employs the metaphors of battlefields and troop movements. In his polemic against these insidious ‘agents of Western secularism’, al-Attas only stops short of calling them heretics in the eyes of Islam:

‘They have all become conscious or unconscious agents of Western culture and civilisation, and in this capacity they represent what we have identified as the external sources of our Muslim dilemma. But their existence among us as part of the community creates for us the situation where what was once regarded as the external has now moved in methodically and systematically to become internal. In their present condition they pose as the external menace which has become a grave internal problem, for intellectually, dar al-harb has advanced within dar-al-Islam; they have become the enemy within’.38 (italics ours).

But while the ‘Westernised’ or ‘secularised’ Muslim was an easy target to deal with, al-Attas finds it more difficult to handle the Malay of the past whose identity he cannot recognise and whose name he cannot even mention. One is reminded of a curious encounter between a certain Thomas de Quincey and the Malay from nowhere…

Convinced as he is by Islam’s ‘salvatic mission’ and unity of purpose, al-Attas is at a loss to explain the transition and transformation of the Malay world with the coming of Islam. Like many Islamist thinkers and scholars in the country, he finds it hard to reconcile the ideal vision of Islam as a pure, authentic and totalised discursive system with the reality of eclecticism and syncretism that took place during the first few centuries of Islam’s arrival and which exist till this very day. (One does not have to look very far for traces of the pre-Islamic past in the experience of lived Islam in the Malay world. The very word ‘sembahyang’ (prayer/to pray) literally means to offer homage (sembah) to Hyang (the Primal ancestor of pagan times). One cannot help but wonder if the Malay-Muslims of today are aware of how close they are to the margins of their own faith and the Other in their daily rituals.)

The problem faced by al-Attas and the Islamists is that they cannot simply deny or reject the pre-Islamic past in the same way that they rejected the advances of Secular Modernity. While the latter could be dismissed as an external element that was alien to Islam, the pre-Islamic past was clearly

36 Al-Attas contends that ‘In respect of the individual, the confusion in knowledge (caused by secularism) creates in him an overweening sort of individualism: he thinks himself the equal of others who are in reality superior to him, and cultivates the immanent arrogance and obstinacy and tends to reject authority’. (pg. 108)37 It must be remembered that Syed Naquib al-Attas was actually trained at the Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain. He later received the King’s commission and served in the Royal Malay Regiment of the Malayan armed forces and took part in the military campaign against the communists during the Emergency of 1948-1960.38 Al-Attas, pg. 128.


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something that had existed prior to Islam’s coming into being itself. What is more, in the context of the Malay archipelago it was impossible to deny the fact that long before the word of Allah had arrived to the shores of Nusantara, the call of Shiva and Vishnu was already heard. (The earliest trace of Islam in the Malay Peninsula, for instance, is the famous 14 th century Trengganu stone which bears an inscription in Jawi script. While this has been used time and again as a reference point to mark the arrival of Islam in the Malay world, few have cared to point out that the inscription itself does not mention the word ‘Allah’ but rather refers to God as ‘Dewata Mulia Raya’- a phrase that is totally Sanskrit in origin.)

The solution that al-Attas finds to the problem lies in a different discursive strategy altogether. While in the case of his rejection of Secularism he posits the view that Secular Modernity is alien to Islam, in the case of the pre-Islamic past al-Attas attempts to diminish the influence of the pre-Islamic Other altogether. This becomes the central argument in his other equally influential work, the Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago(1963).39

In his Preliminary Statement al-Attas presents an image of the pre-Islamic Malay world as an incomplete universe. Malay identity may have been nominally identified with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and cultural practices at the time, but al-Attas contends that pre-Islamic Malay subject was an incomplete subject whose rational faculties were not fully developed and whose potentialities were not fully realised. The picture that he draws of the pre-Islamic past is one where social, cultural and political development was, at best, lopsided and partial.

The reason for this lopsided development of the Malay subject, al-Attas insists, lies in the fact that the Malay experience of Hinduism itself was an incomplete one. For him, the pre-Islamic Malay world was one that was bereft of philosophical thinking and enquiry. As al-Attas argues: ‘In the Hindu-Malay translations of Hindu-Indian religious literature such as the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita depicting the life of Arjuna, and the Bharatayuddha... the philosophical expositions, so important in the original, suffered great neglect’.40 Even when Hinduism did made in-roads into the world of the Kerajaan, al-Attas insists that ‘it was aesthetic and ritualistic Hinduism that was recognised and accepted; the scientific, with its emphasis on rational and intellectual elements was rejected. ...and even when accepted had first to be sifted through the sieve of art so that the worldview presented was that envisioned by poets rather than philosophers’.41

For al-Attas the Hindu-Buddhist past of the Malays was therefore a fractured, uneven and incomplete one. ‘Hinduism’, he argues, was only ‘a superstructure maintained by the ruling group above an indifferent community. The community’s participation in Hinduism was a necessary influence from above; the (Hindu) religion was imposed upon the community by the authority of the ruling group’.42

Al-Attas argues that the elite monopolisation of Hindu-Buddhist discourse had actually kept it inert and static, as court patronage of these religious discourses invariably eschewed any attempts at radical (and potentially revolutionary) thinking. The net result, as he points out, is that:

‘neither the Hindu-Malay nor the Buddhist-Malay, as far as we know, have produced any thinker or philosopher of note’.43

39 Syed Naquib al-Attas, Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1963.40 al-Attas (1963), pg. 3.41 ibid. pg. 20.42 ibid. pg. 2.43 ibid, pg. 4


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By positing the thesis that the pre-Islamic Malay world was in a state of intellectual crisis, al-Attas is also preparing the way for the solution of his own riddle. If Malay identity was not complete, who and what would help it achieve its full completion. The answer, for him, was Islam.

Al-Attas’ theory of Islamisation is one which sees the arrival of Islam as the final stage to the full development of Malay society. It is with the arrival of Islam, he argues, that Malay identity is fully constituted and the Malay becomes a rational subject. In the Preliminary Statement al-Attas argues that within the Sufi interpretation of Islam, ‘the essence of Man is that he is rational and rationality is the connection between him and reality. It is these concepts and that of the spiritual equality between man and man that gave the ordinary man a sense of worth and nobility denied to him in pre-Islamic times’.44

The arrival of Islam- the totalised system of belief with its own ‘salvatic mission’- therefore marks the completion of Malay identity. Whereas in the pre-Islamic era the Malays were not fully constituted subjects (who had no past as they were not themselves rational agents of history), Malay history only begins to take off with the arrival of Islam. By foregrounding Islam’s concern with rational enquiry and critical thinking (while playing down Hinduism’s concern with the same), al-Attas has effectively redefined and relocated the criteria for human subjectivity, agency and identity in the process. Via this neat discursive strategy he has tried to relocate the starting point where Malay history begins and ends, and in accordance with his own political and ideological agenda those boundaries happen to coincide with the arrival and consolidation of Islam in the Malay archipelago. One thing that cannot be denied is the fact that Syed Naquib al-Attas was, and remains, one of the most articulate and intelligent Islamist ideologues that the country has produced. Whether his narrative holds water is another question altogether.

In time the ideas of al-Attas have become part of the ‘official Islam’ that is promoted by the Malaysian state, and his beliefs continue to filter down to the level of the leaders of Malaysian political parties and student movements. More so than any leader produced by PAS, UMNO, ABIM or the IRC, it is Syed Naquib al-Attas, the state’s own resident Islamist scholar and educationalist, who has singularly marked the confrontational boundary line between Islam and the Other and by doing so shaped popular opinions and attitudes towards the pre-Islamic past.

The ideas of al-Attas may have had an enormous appeal for a whole generation of Malaysian Muslim youth who were returning from their studies abroad, disillusioned with the broken promises of the West and uncomfortable with the thought of seeking refuge in their own history. Al-Attas offered them a new refuge in the form of an Islam couched in terms of a discourse of purity and authenticity. He had, after all, overturned the violent hierarchies of classical Orientalist discourse (something he learnt while at SOAS, presumably) against the very same people who produced it. While Western Orientalists had configured non-Europeans in terms of what they lacked (rationality, modernity, progress), al-Attas had done the reverse by characterising the West in terms of what it lacked (and what Islam possessed in abundance), namely order, discipline, morality, tradition, honoured customs, purity and spirituality. By repositioning Islam at the centre of an Islamocentric worldview the way he did, al-Attas had placed both Secular Modernity and the pre-Islamic past at the margins of a new (Islamist) world order whose star was on the rise. For thousands of young Malay-Muslim students, al-Attas’s grand project of reconstructing Islamic knowledge anew (complete with an epistemology and genealogy it could call its own) seemed to be the antidote to the social ills of the West as well as the ‘shameful decadence’ of their own past.

It was the ideas of al-Attas that served as the justification and rationale for the rewriting of Malay history all over again. That this was even possible at all was due, in part, to his claim that the break with the past and the external world had been accomplished long ago with the arrival of Islam to the shores of the Malay world itself. For al-Attas also argues that proof of the radical impact of Islam on the worldview of the Malay peoples can best be found in the radical changes that occurred in the

44 ibid, pg. 6.


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Malay language itself, and the paradigm shifts that took place in the discourses contained therein. For him it is in language ‘that the revolutionary changes in worldview effecting other changes would be preserved and reflected; for language is the silent yet ever present witness whose words and vocabulary still hold captive the thoughts and feelings of centuries’.45

Yet despite the impressive discursive arabesques that he weaves through his narratives, even al-Attas cannot alter the fact that the traces of the repressed past remain stubbornly present in the here-and-now. Like the Malay from nowhere who haunted de Quincey in his dreams, al-Attas’s own grand narrative cannot radically exteriorise the pre-Islamic past which it draws upon as its constitutive Other, and this is precisely where the entire Islamist project encounters its own internal crisis.

For the weakness of the Islamist project lies in the fact that it’s ‘salvatic mission’ and universalist claims requires the obliteration of the Other while at the same time conjuring it up time and again as its own counterpoint. The Islamist al-Attas needs presents Islam and Islamic history as total, absolute, pure and authentic- yet continually draws upon the threat of the pre-Islamic other in order to give his grand narrative its internal coherence and unity of purpose. It denies the Other while calling him back, just to have him dismissed again. Yet without this other Malaysia, cluttered with the pre-Islamic past and traces of alterity, al-Attas’s grand narrative would not even have the shape and form that he wishes it to have. Islamism therefore requires the Other and seeks to lose it at the same time. The tension between these two impossible demands that can never be reconciled makes it impossible for the Islamist project to be fully constituted itself. The discursive arabesques of al-Attas meander on and on endlessly, but never come to a neat and final end. The Islamist project remains an incomplete one, its goal differed infinitely and the final destination- its homecoming to the perfect Islamic state- postponed ad infinitum.

V. Conclusion: Homesickness and homecoming

The real question we have been trying to ask here is how and why we need to have a coherent, unified, totalised history of the Malay people in the first place. If Malay history is to be written at all, does it have to refer to any Malay located in any particular point in time? Or would it not be possible (or better) to think of Malay history as a discourse that recounts the story of its particular subject while problematising it at the same time? Rather than see Malay history as a narrative that provides us with only answers, could we not see it as one which also raises more questions as well?

This is not to suggest that we are partial to the calls for extreme relativism, or that we advocate a multiple, fractured and splintered approach to ‘histories’ rather than History per se. We would insist that the rejection of a totalised and unified History does not necessarily open up the floodgates to multiple and infinite narratives for their own sake. Such demands for specific and unique histories are themselves often problematic, as particularist demands tend to be couched in terms of universals in the first place.

But rather what we are calling for is the recognition of the fact that History, and the writing of history, is always a narrative process that is bound by the vicissitudes of discursive activity and intertextuality. History is inevitably a contested space that can only remain open and forever contestable. Rather than trying to impose a unified centre which arrests this flow of discursivity (which often happens when history becomes aligned with specific agendas and political projects), we call for an acceptance- even celebration- of the productive ambiguities that lie at the heart of any historical writing.46

45 Al-Attas, pg 22.46 Such ‘productive ambiguities’ would also play a role in the development of any democratic culture, both within the civil and academic space. As William E. Connolly has argued: ‘a viable democratic culture would embody a productive ambiguity at its very centre. Its role as an instrument of governance and mobiliser of collective action would be balanced and countered by its logic as a medium for the periodic disruption and


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In the specific case of Malaysia, this may open up the way for a more serious and sensitive reading of the pre-Malay past, one which allows us in the present to come to terms with our constitutive Other of the past without necessarily having to relegate the Malay from nowhere to the lower register of the bizarre, obscure, pagan, alien or un-Islamic. The least we can do at this stage is to recognise the Malay from the past as a subject endowed with the same rational agency, free will, identity and rights as we claim for ourselves. S/he stands mute before us, but the face of the Other nonetheless compels us to act in an ethical way and to exercise our own inescapable moral responsibility towards the Other as Levinas has argued.

Lest it be forgotten, Malay culture and history is so deep, so rich and so vast only because the Malays of the past were themselves the inheritors of the traditions from all of Asia. Today those of the Islamist tendency want to erase this pre-Islamic past, claiming that Malay civilisation only came into being with the coming of Islam. Some of them who are even more short-sighted and close-minded have gone one step further, claiming that it was Islam that made the Malays civilised (as if we were all savage animals before that!). That such prejudice can rear its ugly head at all is already a shame for all of us who call ourselves Malays. But for such puerile nonsense to creep into the hallowed halls of academia makes a mockery of the educational system of the country, and reduces our history to nothing.

Thomas de Quincey’s earlier encounter with the unnamed and unknown Malay of the past should therefore remind us of what we were and what we have lost. Malay civilisation, like all civilisations, is a hybrid amalgam of many civilisations. We were Hindus and Buddhists before, and before that we were pagan animists who lived at peace with nature. The coming of the great religions- Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam- and the arrival of new modernist schools of thought should not be seen as distinct episodes that keep our histories apart. Instead they should be seen as layers of civilisational acculturation that have added depth to our collective sense of identity, who we were, who we are and who we want to be in the future. Thomas de Quincey may have been unnerved by the arrival of the unknown Malay who triggered the return of the repressed in him. (Such things do happen after a bad trip) But we need not fear our past and the unknown. We would be able to face the future with much greater confidence if we could admit our own internal heterogeneity and complexity, rather than continually trying to deny the past and to homogenise the present into one flat, monolithic discourse of sameness.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian academic and human rights activist. He has taught at the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, University of Malaya and the Institute for Islamic Studies, Freie Universitat of Berlin. He was also the Secretary-General for the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian-based NGO which campaigns for global justice and human rights couched in terms of local traditional and religious discourses. Author of 'Terrorising the Truth: The Demonisation of the Image of Islam and Muslims in Global Media and Political Discourse’ (Just World Trust, Penang. 1998), he is at present a visiting fellow at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), Leiden, the Netherlands.


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