Mapping the Terrain: Politics and Cultures of Islamization of Knowledge in Malaysia

Alexander Horstmann


Georg Stauth
Politics and Cultures of Islamization in Southeast Asia: Indonesia and Malaysia in the Nineteen-nineties
Bielefeld / Transcript Verlag / 2002 

Mona Abaza
Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds
London / Routledge Curzon / 2002

Syed Hussein Alatas
Ke Mana dengan Islam
Kuala Lumpur / Utusan Publications & Distributors / 2002

Farish A. Noor
Terrorising the Truth: The Shaping of Contemporary Images of Islam and Muslims in Media, Politics and Culture
Kuala Lumpur / JUST / 1995

Farish A. Noor
“The Localisation of Islamist Discourse in the Tafsir of Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Murshid’ul Am of PAS”
In Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics, ed. Virginia Hooker and Norani Othman
Singapore / ISEAS / 2003

Farish A. Noor
The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History
Kuala Lumpur / Silverfishbooks / 2002

Chandra Muzaffar
Muslims, Dialogue, Terror 
Kuala Lumpur / JUST / 2003

Islam in Southeast Asia has always had the complex of the “late-comer.” Yet Islam has been deeply felt in Malaysia and Indonesia since at least the sixteenth century, and there has been a steady transfer of ideas and networks between the Islamic heartland in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Georg Stauth, in Politics and Cultures of Islamization, argues that scholars such as Clifford Geertz and Snouck Hurgronye have underplayed the deep influences of heartland Islam on localadat (custom) and have thus contributed to the dichotomization of adat and text-based, Shariah-orientated Islam. The author also criticizes the idea of a one-way distribution of ideas from the center to the periphery. Instead, he says, Islam has been appropriated and transformed in the local context. Far from simply absorbing Islamic concepts from the heartland, the peripheries of Islam are engaged in a process that uses and even instrumentalizes Islamic ideas for secular modernization. He notes that it is time to reconsider the universalistic cultural projects of Islamic fundamentalism or mysticism in relation to the diversity of local applications.

Stauth is concerned with the multiple and ambiguous effects of Islamization on institution building and on the rationalization and restructuring of Southeast Asian societies. He sets out to formulate a political sociology of Islam in Minangkabau, Java, Malaysia, and Singapore in comparative perspective. The association of Islam and the Asian Renaissance inspired him, as it has given new impetus to a non-western, non-European take-off to a successful modernity in Malaysia and in Singapore.

Yet tensions persist. One of them concerns the legitimating of Islam in an increasingly stratified and unequal society. Islam and the ulama stand for a just and good society, in which the Malay majority follows the precepts of Islam. The institutionalization of Islam in the nation-states of Malaysia and Indonesia has given rise to cultural projects of Islamic reconstruction. This tension and the accompanying cultural competition between centralizing nation-states and Muslim reformers escalated in the nineteen-nineties.

To understand this crucial process, Stauth analyses with brilliant clarity the manipulation of Islamization from above, the employment of intellectuals in the master plan, and the intellectual reconstruction of local Islamic traditions in the new Islamic think tanks. He also finds a fruitful solution to the Herculean task of tracing the making of Islamic localities by focusing on the ideas and agency of Muslim intellectuals who – according to Stauth – have mistakenly been termed “fundamentalists.” His long interviews with central Islamic actors are especially illuminating. The life histories and oeuvres of selected intellectuals show that Muslim intellectuals in Southeast Asia have found their own style and tradition.

Think Tanks and Platforms of State Islam

Prestigious institutions of Islamic education that form the core of the Islamization project were engineered by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to underline his ambition to make Malaysia a center of Islamic civilization, as well as to symbolize UMNO’s Islamic commitment. The think tank policy had the double effect of job creation and representation. Great figures of modernist Islamic thought were brought to Malaysia, forums were organized, and books published. Stauth notes that all these activities had formerly been organized on a smaller scale by ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or Malay Youth Movement), founded by Anwar Ibrahim. UMNO appropriated this representation from the grassroots movements, the final coup being the successful cooptation of Anwar into the project. Mahathir also sponsored the reinforcement of clerical, orthodox traditions. The government needed support to outflank the opposition Islamist party PAS (Parti Islam Semalaysia) on the interpretation of the Shariah and the application of hudud (criminal) laws. The Pusat Islam (Islamic Center) therefore hosted ulama who proposed measures of responding to the Shariah. These state-sponsored ulama acted as government counselors in social and legal matters.

The government aimed to propagate its notion of an Islamic center with the help of the internationalization of Islamic discourse. The networking of ideas took shape in a highly staged support of Islamic intellectuals and Orientalists. Academic exchange with the Middle East proliferated via schemes with Cairo’s al-Azhar University. The 1970s and 1980s saw the overwhelming influence of the American scholar, Ismail Faruqui, and of the writings of Fazlur Rahman. Students of Rahman and Leonard Binder became prominent figures in Malaysian Islam.

In March 1982, Mahathir announced the decision to establish an International Islamic University (IIU). Later, the Organization of Islamic Conference agreed to sponsor the university. Stauth argues that ideological sectarianism and political influence could be felt when a group of young Muslim scholars from abroad joined the university (p. 235). Many of these appointees were from the Middle East and South Asia.

The exclusive Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) was founded in 1987 as a post-graduate institute by Syed Naguib al-Attas, the former Dean of the Arts Faculty at the University of Malaya. Anwar Ibrahim, a former student and long-standing friend of al-Attas, was behind its financing and remained its sponsor until 1998.

Among the leading Islamic intellectuals in Malaysia, Syed Naguib al-Attas began his career as an army officer fighting communists. He then studied at the University of Malaya and McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and earned a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, as a philologist and specialist in Malay literature. It is interesting that al-Attas’ teachers were eminent Orientalists such as Martin Lings, Hamilton Gibb, Fazlur Rahman, Tashihiko Isuzu, A. J. Arberry, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, and Sir Richard Winstedt. Stauth calls him a proponent of an anti-western revaluation of Islamic values in relation to the reconstruction of Malay spirituality. Mona Abaza, in Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt, understands the project of ISTAC to be de-westernizing indigenous knowledge and countering traditional Orientalism (p. 90). 1

Originally planned as part of the International Islamic University, ISTAC became a think tank on its own, strongly identified with its director (Stauth: 228, Abaza: 89-90). Al-Attas insists that he has nothing to do with the IIU and its Islamization of knowledge project. Nevertheless, the degrees awarded by ISTAC carry the seal of both the IIU and ISTAC. In 1996, the academic staff of ISTAC consisted of nineteen members, including Iranian and Turkish academics who had studied at McGill and Chicago University under the supervision of Fazlur Rahman (Abaza: 92) and Sudanese nationals who held PhDs from the universities of Wisconsin-Madison, Leicester, Istanbul, and Temple. The students numbered sixty; the Institute accepts only a limited number of students (it is for the khasah, the few).

The Reconstruction of Islam in Malaysian Discourse

The incorporation of Islamic symbols and legal divides is an essential element in the state project of modernization and bumiputra emancipation. In this state-led project, Islamic intellectuals were placed in strategic positions and provided generous resources in the framework of the state machine. Established university professors like S. N. al-Attas became influential in stimulating revivalist discourses and creating closed student circles.

The militant Islamization campaign began after the post-election race riots of 1969. Anwar Ibrahim was at that time a charismatic student leader at the University of Malaya and a loyal student of al-Attas. His cooptation into UMNO was crucial in bringing about the convergence of Islamization and the state and in controlling the Islamic grassroots movements, especially the dahwa (missionary) movements that were heavily influenced by dahwa in Egypt, Pakistan, and America.

Anwar was born in 1947 in Penang. On August 6, 1971, he established ABIM. In 1974, he was arrested (along with many others) under the Internal Security Act (ISA), following student demonstrations protesting rural poverty. In 1982, he was co-opted as junior Minister in the Prime Minister’s office and, under Mahathir’s protection, became president of the UMNO youth movement of Malaysia. He was warned not to go to Kuala Lumpur by his closest friends, especially ABIM core members and PAS ulamas. From 1986, he was Minister of Education and the confidential partner of Mahathir. Before being purged from office, he was deputy president of UMNO and president of the International Islamic University. Anwar’s rise ended in prison as his model of an Islamized state challenged the institutional power base of the elites.

Islamization between Malaysia and Europe

S. N. al-Attas was educated in England and was deeply influenced by European Orientalists. As Abaza notes, al-Attas’ works, with their strong philological inclination, reflect traditional Orientalism. He retains great respect for Bertold Spuler (1911-1990). Yet Al-Attas, who is a product of Orientalism, maintains an anti-western discourse. In Abaza’s words, he has become an anti-Orientalist Orientalist. Al-Attas has accused some Dutch scholars from the Leiden school of magnifying Buddhism and Hinduism at the expense of Islam.

A variety of Middle Eastern sources of local Islamic reconstruction have been recognized. 2 Yet the influences on local diversity from the West have received much less attention. Stauth argues that the western “Kulturkritik” and western critics of modernity like Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers have had great influence upon intellectuals of the non-western world. Stauth writes: “The anti-Westernness of the Islamic ‘inner-worldliness’ often takes its stand within the legacy of Western ‘Kulturkritik.’ Muhammad Iqbal, Mawlana Mawdudi, Sayid Qutb and Malik Bennabi might be named as most influential thinkers in this respect.” Kulturkritik is indeed very relevant to the stand of S. N. al-Attas, as well as to the Islamic reconstruction of ideas in Malaysia. Stauth continues: “Basically, then, local foundations of Islamic reconstruction engage in a cross-civilizational discourse with the West… It is this paradox which is most striking. Al-Attas’ Islamic Kulturkritik stands for the development of Western philosophy and thought from within an Islamic perspective.”

S. N. al-Attas’ writings about Sufism became very significant in ABIM Islamic circles. Abaza argues that his endeavor provided Malay Sufism with a modern reading and Malay students with a tool of self-assertiveness. Al-Attas, in contrast to al-Faruqui, emphasizes the importance of Sufism in explaining the Islamization of the archipelago. His is a modern and conservative reading of Sufism that could be harmonized with modernist interpretations of Islam.

S. N. al-Attas took a leadership role in the etatist project of reconstructing Islam in the Asian Renaissance. He was in the forefront of organizing student circles at his home and in stimulating them to read modernist literature. After re-asserting Malaysian Islam against the Dutch Orientalists, al-Attas has turned in his latest writing to processes of modernization and secularization, again contrasting Malaysia to the West. ISTAC is the product of an al-Attas-Anwar teacher-student relationship and enjoyed political protection from Anwar Ibrahim. His is a highly institutionalized, etat-ized project of reconstructing Islam.

Islam and Secularism

Al-Attas’ Islam and Secularism makes extensive use of the western Kulturkritik to criticize western development and to present his case against the secular. 3 Al-Attas draws on Christian philosophers who were alarmed by the crisis represented by the decline of Christianity and the Christian way of life in the western world. Secularization for Al-Attas is synonymous with de-Islamization and has to do with “the infusion of alien concepts into the minds of Muslims.

He quotes Max Weber on the disenchantment of the world as well as Nietzsche’s Death of God. Van Nieuwenhuijze argues that al-Attas is in fact a follower of Nasr: “He envisages a revivified knowledge out of illumination. In so doing he assigns the rescuing role in the present quandary to what he calls existentialist mysticism rather than to the two hitherto dominant aspects of Islam, namely essentialist theology and philosophy.” Following Abaza, what is at stake is “a fight with the West over the sacred.” Nasr says: “Today modern man has lost the sense of wonder, which results from his loss of the sense of the sacred; to such a degree that he is hardly aware how miraculous is the mystery of intelligence, of human subjectivity as well as the power of objectivity and the possibility of knowing objectivity.”

Al-Attas’ reading of Malay mysticism revitalizes and rationalizes Islamic discourse. As Abaza notes, Al-Attas’ project of Islamizing Malay culture is certainly different from that of the founding father of the Islamization project, al-Faruqui, who was Shariah oriented, orthodox, dogmatic. Al-Attas is discoursing in a strictly Malaysian context, embedding his project in the de-westernizing of Malaysian politics. As Stauth argues, the project of S. N. Al-Attas lies in the historical reconstruction and reassertion of Islamization in the Malay peninsula.

In her important book, Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt, Mona Abaza explores intellectual traditions and intellectual cultures in two key countries of the contemporary Islamic world – Malaysia and Egypt – and more particularly two centers and capitals of Islamic coffee-house culture – Kuala Lumpur and Cairo. Abaza places the Islamization of knowledge venture in the context of the post-colonial debate, the questioning of western domination of knowledge, and Ismail Faruqui’s call for Muslim scholars and ulama to take up the task of reconstructing the sciences in terms that are Islamic, culturally authentic, and relevant to the needs of Muslims the world over (pp. 9, 23-24).

Working on Foucauldian premises of deconstructing intellectual discourse, Debates on Islam and Knowledge reads – as reviewer Farish Noor notes – as an archaeology of a vast intellectual program which itself was an archeology of sorts. In the face of the painful realities of western domination and military hegemony, the politics and cultures of Islamization are rooted in the Muslim psyche of crisis and dependency that has also motivated former Third-Worldist movements, including subaltern studies in the Indian subcontinent.

Although sympathetic to the subversion of Eurocentric and Orientalist scholarship, Abaza realizes that the project of Islamizing knowledge had been hijacked by political leaders who see it as a convenient vehicle to serve their own interests and regain lost territory in Islamic legitimation. The Malaysian government’s patronage of Syed Naguib al-Atas and ISTAC was, in her view, a case of “the refeudalization and institutionalisation of an Islam of power” that served the interests of the ruling elite (pp. 92-95).

Abaza, according to Farish Noor, looks more to the structures of power, control, and domination – as well as mechanisms for the construction and production of knowledge – than to the contents of the discourse itself. This is a path-breaking study, as Abaza explores the genealogy of the ideology, the Islamic networks, and the counter-secular responses. Her study maps the difficult and ambiguous terrain of the program and shows how it unfolds along the South-South axis.

Both works are concerned with the positioning of Muslim intellectuals in the unfolding power of a discourse. This discourse is intimately tied to the West and the western critique of culture. Stauth as well as Abaza show that the most influential thinkers spent much of their education in the West and engaged themselves with western literature. This is no contradiction. Through the fascinating insights of Muslim intellectuals, visions of the re-organization of Muslim society against the West and against the secular become clear. The main protagonists use the West to reject it.

Islam and Politics

Against the background of modernization in Muslim societies, much of the discourse of the Islamists appears as utopian thinking. Three local scholars have contributed to a sustained critique of the political instrumentalization of Islam in contemporary Malaysia – Syed Hussein Alatas, the founder of Malaysian sociology; Farish A. Noor, the enfant terrible of Malaysia; and Chandra Muzaffar, the political activist.

S. N. Al-Attas’ older brother, Syed Hussein Alatas is a liberal academic known as a founder of sociological investigation in Southeast Asia. In his youth, H. Alatas was influenced by the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and seems to have pursued a similar purpose of undermining the ideology of imperialism and Orientalism. He imagined an Islamic state as a philosophical base whose organization could be western, and used the journal Progressive Islam to develop Malaysian notions of the social sciences that would differ from the West. He distanced himself from the Weber thesis and developed his own concept of the development of capitalism in the Malay peninsula. Later, he criticized the Islamizers for Islamizing sociology in Malaysia and clashed with his brother and his brother’s connections with Anwar Ibrahim and government circles. This intervention cost him the vice chancellorship of the University of Malaya.

According to Abaza, Alatas’ early writing also reflected the concerns of young Indonesians who wanted to merge Islam with nationalism and who took Islam as a model of a just society that would provide welfare for the masses. Alatas told Abaza that he meant a form of Islamic philosophy would underlie a just government, rather than the political instrumentalization of the Islamic Shariah.

In The Myth of the Lazy Native, Alatas tackled the question of western biases in studying Asian societies before Edward Said’s Orientalism was published. In this landmark study, Alatas revealed how biased racial views equally affected Malay indigenous perceptions. Abaza notes that this work also challenged the views of Mahathir’s Social Darwinism, which obviously linked backwardness with race (p. 129). In his critique of the writings of UMNO (Revolusi Mental), Alatas reveals how the Malays reproduce in themselves stereotyped ideas about the backwardness of the Malays. 4

In his new book, Ke Mana dengan Islam, Alatas argues forcefully that Islam has been taken hostage for political purposes. He criticizes the bureaucratization and rationalization of Islam in UMNO’s institutions. Alatas was also the mentor of Chandra Muzaffar, who developed his own perspective on Islamic civilization, Islamic ethics, and Islamic concepts of justice. Both Alatas and Muzaffar are very skeptical about the Islamization of knowledge project, believing that the Islamizers stand for a totalitarian regime that suppresses any form of political freedom.

Farish Noor argues that the government has opened the bottle, released the jin, and is now competing in an Islamization race with PAS. The pressure to introduce Shariah and police the everyday life and sexual relations of Malaysian Muslims is rising. The Islamization project as outlined by Stauth and Abaza thus provides a convenient tool for interpreting Malaysia and the promotion of Islamist ideologies.

In The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History, Farish Noor opens the window to forgotten or suppressed Malaysian history that was rewritten to serve political interests. With Stauth, who argues that Syed Naguib Al-Attas reconstructs the early Islamization of Southeast Asia, and Abaza, who discusses Al-Attas’ role as a proponent of the Islamization project and his critical engagement with the secular West, Noor gives key importance to Al-Attas’ endeavor to manage a radical break with the past and his role as mentor to a generation of Islamic students and 1990s Malaysian elites.

The aim of ISTAC was to spearhead al-Attas’ own project of the Islamization of knowledge, which in turn is linked to his political project of creating a new class of Islamic leaders who conform to adab (ethics). Noor argues that al-Attas’ writings frame Islam in terms of a culturally specific, nostalgic past that is threatened by western secularization and the contamination of a pre-Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist past. In his second master narrative, Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, 5 al-Attas attempts to diminish the existence of a pre-Islamic history altogether. He sees the arrival of Islam as the final stage in the fulfillment of incomplete, imperfect Malay society and states that Hindu- and Buddhist-Malay culture “has not produced any philosopher of note.” Thus, Malay history only begins with the arrival of Islam.

According to S. N. al-Attas, western-directed secularization and the infiltration of Islamic culture by a pre-Islamic past has brought about a state of moral and epistemological confusion. For the agents of the Islamization project, Islam possesses a mission of salvation and is the sole religion with universalistic claims. As Noor notes, the ideas of al-Attas had enormous appeal for a whole generation of Malaysian students who were returning from their studies in the West disillusioned with the broken promises of Europe and uncomfortable in their own history.

The authors reviewed in this essay all map the terrain of the vast Islamization of knowledge project that has transformed Malaysian society and culture, the way history is conceived, and the relocation of Islam in that history. With Malaysians wondering if they will have to live in a full-blown Islamic state in the near future, the Islamization of knowledge project continues to shape the debate on Islam in Malaysia today.

Alexander Horstmann
Alexander Horstmann is Research Fellow in the Study Group 2003-2005: “Islam and Civilisation in Modern Society: The Positioning of Islam in the Perspective of Comparative Interaction,” directed by Georg Stauth, at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI), Essen.
He had the honor of discussing questions of political Islam with S. H. Alatas, Farish A. Noor, and Chandra Muzaffar in the summer of 2003.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia


  1. Al-Attas’ best known books are Some Aspects of Sufism as Understood and Practised among the Malays (Singapore: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963); The Oldest Known Malay Manuscript: A 16th Century Translation of the Aqai’d of al-Nasafi (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1988); and The Mysticism of Hamzah al FansuriA Commentary on Hujjat al-Siddiq of Nur al-Din al-Raniri (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970). As Abaza states, al-Attas’ early philological works on Fansuri and Raniri became crucial landmarks for Malay Sufism and Islam.
  2. William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (Yale: 1970); Fred R. von der Mehden, Two Worlds of Islam: Interaction between Southeast Asia and the Middle East (University of Florida Press, 1993).
  3. Kuala Lumpur: ABIM Publishers, 1978.
  4. See The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: Cass, 1977), Chapter 10, “Mental Revolution and Indolence of the Malays.”
  5. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1969.