Salafi Ulama in UMNO: Political Convergence or Expediency?

By Osman, Mohamed Nawab Mohamed | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Salafi Ulama in UMNO: Political Convergence or Expediency?


Osman, Mohamed Nawab Mohamed, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent arrests of members of its Southeast Asian affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), have cast a negative light on the Salafi interpretation of Islam. Salafi ideology was alleged to have inspired JI members to carry out violent attacks against targets in the region. In Southeast Asia, Salafi scholars and groups came to be viewed with trepidation by governments because of their supposed ideological links with violent movements such as Laskar Jihad and JI. (1) In Malaysia, due to Salafi's puritan interpretation of Shariah (Islamic laws), and its uncompromising attitude in seeking the implementation of these laws, it has been categorized as extremist by the country's religious bureaucracy. Yet despite the Salafi's hardline stance on religion, the group has made inroads within the government. In fact today a group of younger Salafi ulama form the bulwark of the ruling United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) ulama wing (a wing comprising Muslim religious scholars). This seemingly contradictory position of the state vis-a-vis the Salafi ulama is the subject of enquiry of this paper.

This article argues that the Salafi ulama's involvement in UMNO is due both to a convergence of interest with UMNO and as a strategy to expand its influence at both the state and societal levels. The aim of this paper is threefold. First, to examine the beliefs of the Salafis and provide an historical background of the Salafi movement in Malaysia. Second, to identify key religious scholars with an inclination towards Salafism and examine their religious-political thinking and attitudes. In particular their views on issues such as the implementation of Islamic laws and Islamic governance in Malaysia is examined. Third, to analyse the factors that have encouraged Salafi ulama to render their support to UMNO and how the Salafi influence in UMNO is likely to affect future government policies related to Islam. The research for this paper is based mainly on primary sources including speeches by and interviews with Salafi ulama scholars. (2) This article contributes to the existing, but limited, scholarship on the contemporary Salafi movement in Malaysia. (3)

Understanding Salafism

In most of Southeast Asia, the term Wahhabi is used interchangeably with Salafi. While the two groups are similar in most aspects of their religious adherence, there are also important differences between the two. The Wahhabi orientation can be traced to the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), a fervent reader of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855), one of the founders of the four schools of jurisprudence that are dominant in Sunni Islam, and Taqi ad-Din Ahmad Ibn Al-Taimiyyah (1263-1328), a fourteenth-century scholar known for his strict puritan interpretation of Islam. (4) Al-Wahhab was perhaps best known for his role as the co-founder with Muhammad Ibn Saud (d 1765) of the first Saudi state, and who provided religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud's struggle to form a unitary state on the Arabian Peninsula. In return for his efforts, he was awarded control over the Saudi religious establishment. (5) Al-Wahhab argued that many Muslims at that time had deviated from the teachings of their pious ancestors [al-salaf al-salih) and adopted practices akin to the period of ignorance (jahiliyyah) which precedes Islam. In his view, these practices--such as the reverence of saints practised by Sufis and the doctrines espoused by Shiite Islam--ran counter to the teachings of Islam. However, Al-Wahhab was less clear about where he stood on theological issues. While in theory he was against the tradition of taqlid (blind imitation) of past practices of traditional scholars and advocated the establishment of ijtihad (open interpretation on religious matters), in practice he subscribed to the Hanbali School of jurisprudence which had a more literal reading of the Qur'an. (6) The religious teachings of Al-Wahhab received political support when Muhammad Ibnu Saud, chief of the prominent Ibn Saud tribe on the Arabian Peninsula, swore a traditional Muslim oath whereby he promised to work together with Al-Wahhab to establish a state run according to Islamic principles. …

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