Salafism and politics: A Malaysian case

Maszlee Malik*

Abstract: Amongst the unanticipated phenomenon of the Arab Spring is the emergence of the “political Salafis” through the active participation of the Salafi groups in the politics of some countries affected by the uprisings. However, in Malaysia, a group of Salafism preachers has preceded their brethren in Egypt. Malaysian salafis joined the ruling nationalist party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), in 2009. They justify their participation in UMNO by arguing that they are following the Salafi doctrine of “total obedience to the rulers” (Ta’at Wulat al-Umur), “the prohibition of rebelling against the rulers” (Tahrim al-Khuruj ‘ala al-Hukkam) and the doctrine of “necessity renders prohibited things permissible” (al-Darurat tubihu al-mahzurat). Though their participation in politics is due to political expediency, it has been beneficial for both the Salafis and the regime. This paper, applying the historical and descriptive method, examines those Salafists’ theological arguments and motivations.

Keywords: Salafism, Malaysia, Ulama Muda, Salafi doctrine, UMNO.


The term ‘Salaf’ literally means “that which preceeds”. However, in its religious-technical usage, the term ‘Salaf’, interchangeably called ‘Salafussoleh’ (the pious generations), refers to the first three generations of Muslims, namely the ‘Sahabah’ (companions of Prophet Muhammad, SAW), the Tabi’ien (the followers of the Sahabah) and the Tabi’ al-Tabi’ien (the followers of the Tabi’ien). However Salafism, as a method in understanding and practicing Islam, is the belief that the only right way to understand Islam is through following al-Qur’an and Sunnah as exemplified by the Salafussoleh. Those who adhere to such an approach are known as Salafiyun (Salafis).

The Salafists are not a monolithic group. According to Wiktorowicz (2006), the current Salafism adherents are divided into groups and thoughts based on their approaches. Three major groups of the global Salafists could be identified: the Athari Salafi (traditional Salafi), the Jihadi Salafi, and the tanzimi Salafi (movement-oriented Salafi). However, in Malaysia, the Salafi can be divided into three major trends: the moderate non-ideological Salafi, the hardliner athari Salafi who follow the thoughts of a prominent Saudi scholar, and a former professor in Islamic University of Medina, Syeikh Rabi’ al-Madkhali, and the Jihadi Salafi (Salafi Jihadi). This paper deals with the hardliner athari Salafi who are known for their adherence to conservatism, traditionalism, and Salafist approach. Their views are expressedd through Ulama Muda UMNO (ILMU).

The Ulama Muda UMNO is from the Atahri Salafi stream, with a strong inclination towards the Madkhali school of thought.1 This group and its associates are known for their ferocious attacks on Muslims who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam. They view these people as Ahli Bid’ah (innovators). They embrace the genuine Islam based on the Salafism method which implies their rejection of the non-Salafi and other streams of Salafism. ILMU and its associates are also known for their relentless condemnation of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups and termed these groups as khawarij. Athari salafis are hostile towards other Muslims, namely the traditionalists and has many enemies in the country and abroad.

This paper analyses the involvement of ILMU, as an Atahri Salafi stream, in Malaysia, and their involvement in the ruling party, UMNO. It examines the motivations, justifications and other factors related to their activities in the country. ILMU’s theological justification on their involvement in UMNO is that they act as an antidote to terrorism and the use of violence by some extremist Salafi groups. Of necessity, the study begins with a brief description of the position of Salafis and Salafism and theological arguments toward current democratic political process.

Salafism and politics: A theological argument

Athari Salafis have a long tradition of political quietism. Many Salafis believe that political participation is a heresy that corrupts Muslims and should be avoided (alAnani, Khalil, and Maszlee Malik. 2013). They hold a negative attitude towards democracy and political pluralism. Consequently, the Salafis did not have any political platforms and never concerned themselves with establishing a political order (Denouex, 2002: 56). In many fatwas, the Salafi masyaekh (references), pre-dominantly from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen, reject democracy for some reasons including the following:

a) Democracy is a “Western product” that glorifies reason (‘aql) as against revelation (nusus). According to the Salafis, the most dangerous challenge to pure Islam is the application of human intellect and logic to the divine sources. The method they called ‘uqlaniyah or “rationalism” is an innovation (bid’ah) to be avoided by Muslims. Democracy is also an innovation and likewise glorifies rationalism (alAnani, Khalil, and Maszlee Malik 2013: 71). Adopting democracy will nullify the Salafi principle of al-Wala wa al-Barra (loyalty to Muslims and disassociation from non-Muslims) which insists upon a total rejection of what is perceived as a “friendship or alliance” with non-Muslims (Gauvain, 2012: 8).

b) Democracy is man-made and is based upon majority choice and is contrary to Islamic concept of the sovereignty of Allah (SWT). It is, therefore, considered to be forbidden (haram) and in some occasions it might lead to shirk (association of God with other creatures).2 According to the Salafis, power must be derived entirely from God, as only He can issue the law.

c) Democracy requires political parties (tahazzub) which is rejected by the Salafis because it will disunite the Muslim ummah (nation) (Meijer, 2009: 28-29). They term those Islamic movements which accept democracy, with the Muslim Brotherhood at the top of the list, as hizbiyun (partisans), who are engaged in haram (prohibited) activities.3 Syaikh al-Albani, the most prominent Salafi scholar, stated that Muslims must not get involved in any parties including political parties because it is prohibited by many Salafi ulama. To him, followers of Salafism must not have any political affiliations.

d) The overwhelming discourse of the Salafis with regards to political matters is that, the people must be subservient to the rulers “in charge” and should not exhibit any form of opposition or civil disobedience towards them (al-Anbari. 2004: 62). Hence, in many places, the typical Athari Salafis would not interfere in the ruling affairs and politics of the state. In Saudi Arabia, where Salafism is dominant, this idea was very well articulated by Sheikh Rabi’ al-Madkhali, according to whom (Meijer: 49) Muslims should adhere to the principle that the Arab rulers have the legitimate right to act in the name of the Muslim Ummah as long as they maintain their basic adherence to Islam and the public call to prayer in the land.4 According to him, true Muslims will not oppose or rebel against their rulers even if they are unjust or impious, and that the Muslim masses have no rights to political participation (Meijer, 2011).

Athari Salafis who subcribe to Madkhali thoughts (also called the Madkhalis) consider those who take part in democratic activities, mainly the Muslim Brothers, as deviants from the right path of the Salafussoleh (Meijer, 2011: 380-86). Many Arab regimes, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have capitalized on Madkhali’s critiques and attitudes toward Islamic political movements using it to crush their opponents (Lacroix and Holoch, 2011: 212).

Salafis, therefore, enjoy the best possible relationship with the Arab governments. As long as the authorities are not politically challenged, the Salafi will continue to enjoy religious freedom and expand their base. However, political acquiescence does not mean that Salafis approve of the modern secular nation-state. They remain tied to the Shari’ah as the basis of the state. Most prominent Salafi scholars have forbidden people’s involvement in democratic politics, including voting. Salafi scholars teach that Muslim societies must first relearn the basic, correct beliefs of Islam: the proper understanding of God and His attributes, correct prayer, and personal interaction (Brown, 2010). This is where ILMU has initially drawn their position from, before they decided to be fully involved and active in the ruling party in Malaysia, UMNO.

Salafis and politics in Malaysia

Malaysian graduates from Saudi Arabian universities, upon their return, continue with their da’wah activities in the community using the same approach of other mainstream Salafism, which is the quietism approach. In many cases, they decided to stay away from politics in their missionary works, or working together with the government in things that do not contradict their belief (Personal Communication with Abdullah Yasin, Kuala Lumpur, March 17, 2014). Many of the graduates of Saudi Arabia then were attracted to ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia), since ABIM was seen and was acting as an open platform for Islamic preachers from different orientations. Partly, it has to do too with the close relation between Anwar Ibrahim, the iconic ABIM leader in the 1970s with World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) that was under the supervision of Saudi Arabian embassy in Malaysia. In the 1990’s, Anwar Ibrahim intensified the Islamization agenda in Malaysia, especially during his days as the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, with the support of many Islamists, especially those from his former group, ABIM (Personal Communication with Muhammad Nur Manuty (Former president of ABIM), June 1, 2013). Salafi preachers of those days, such as Abdullah Yasin, Safwan Badri, Husin Yee, Ismail Omar, Dr Sulaiman Nordin and other Perlis Sunnah group (ISLAH) took the opportunity to spread their da’wah works by aligning with the government’s Islamization project, and without any confrontation, especially with the mainstream religious authorities (Personal Communication with Abdullah Yasin, March 17, 2014 and with Rashid Idris, March 17, 2014).

Nevertheless, because of external factors, some salafis did not join UMNO though they refrained from attacking the ruling party. There were few Salafis who supported UMNO indirectly though they did not join the party. Perlis ISLAH group, for example, is known for being the supporter of Perlis UMNO. In fact, the group was known for having its roots in Perlis UMNO (Personal Communication with Md Sadik Md Ismail, former president of ISLAH, 25 August 2014). The famous Salafi preacher of the 70s and 80s from Kuala Pilah, Negeri Semblian, Hashim Ghani and his group from Maahad Ittiba’ Sunnah, were also known for their non-confrontational attitude and close relationship with the ruling UMNO party in the state (Personal Communication with Rashid Idris, former president of Pertubuhan al-Qayim Malaysia, 17 March 2014). Likewise, Ismail Omar, owner of Yayasan al-Haramain and Sekolah al-Kiblah (a Salafi-inclined school), who was famously known for his business-linkages with many religious and business figures from Saudi Arabia, was openly supportive of certain UMNO leaders (Personal Communication with Abdullah Kassim, former PA of Ismail Omar, 26 June 2014).

Similarly, there were few Salafi-inclined groups or individuals who joined the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) then at both national and grassroots levels. The example of those who made their name Abdul Hadi Awang (the current president), Haron Taib (former chief of Dewan Ulama) and Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the former Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of PAS-ruled state, Kelantan. Ustaz Latif in Johore Bahru, who was once heading the PAS headquarter in JB (Personal Communication with Hatta Selamat and with Rahmat Dasuki, 16 September 2015), and other Saudi graduates also chose to support PAS in its political struggle. However, these groups and individuals did not come with Salafist theological arguments in supporting the legitimacy of their involvement with PAS.

In the meantime, many Salafi preachers have chosen the path of quietism and non-involvement. They subscribed to the Salafi theological arguments on the prohibition of democracy (which they believe is part of the kufur (unIslamic system) and of establishing political party (tahazzub), which they believe is the source of disunity amongst Muslims. Rasul Dahri, Sulaiman Nordin and few others were amongst those who subscribed to this idea (Personal Communication with Rahmat Dasuki, 16 September 2015).

However, the unfortunate clash between the Traditionalist who were the mainstream and the Salafis became more ferocious in the early 2000s, when the security forces used the traditionalists to target some influential individuals whom they associate with the Salafism thus including them in a wanted potential terrorists list (Malik, 2013). Many Salafi preachers and associates were accused by the traditionalists as potential terrorists due to their Wahabi/Salafi tendency (Malaysian Insider, 2011). It was due to this witch-hunting trend that was instigated by the traditionalists that pushed a group of Salafis to publicly join UMNO by making the glamorous press-statement at Putra World Trade Centre in the presence of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak. A group of so called ‘40 ulama muda’ (forty young religious scholars) publicly declared their support for the ruling party, UMNO, as part of their means to enhance their calling for da’wah (missionary). The arrangement was claimed to be initiated by a minister in Prime Minister Department, Dr Shahidan Kassim, who was accused of supporting Salafism (Personal Communication with Dr Shahidan Kassim, Minister at PM Department, 26 July 2014).

Ulama Muda UMNO (ILMU)

ILMU or Ulama Muda Umno was established by United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to be an organization that will carry out da’wah to society or people in the community (Personal Communication with Fadhlan Othman, Chairperson of ILMU, 17 March 2014). ILMU claimed to have been given all the opportunities to speak and explain Islam and to give their comments on certain issues that happened to relate to Islam without any restraint or restriction from the government (Hussin & Zainuddin, 2010). In addition, with the establishment of this organization, UMNO expected that more a scholars or ulama’ will join their party.

Being under UMNO, the function of ILMU is to advise and strengthen political party units and to prove that UMNO is capable of championing issues on Islam, as well to become the guardian of Islam in the country. ILMU was joined by several persons such as Mohd. Fadhlan Othman, Fathul Bari Mat Jahya, Ahmad Tajudin Idris, Mohd Riduan Khairi, Mohd Radzi Othman, Fauzan Yahya, etc. (Hussin & Zainuddin, 2010). ILMU’s members mentioned that that the main purpose of their participation in the party is to stimulate the da’wah efforts of the party. Thus, it can be stated that they still wanted to maintain their religious and Salafi image despite their involvement in politics. When they were asked about their decision to choose UMNO instead of other Malay parties like PAS, which is considered more Islamic in Malaysia, they responded by stating that UMNO has approached them and provided them with more opportunities to perform da’wah.

Additionally, ILMU also justifies its involvement in UMNO based on Salafi theological arguments concerning politics, mainly, the doctrine of “total obedience to the rulers” (Ta’at Wulat al-Umur); “the prohibition of rebelling against the rulers” (Tahrim al-Khuruj ‘ala al-Hukkam); and the doctrine of “necessity renders prohibited things permissible” (al-Darurat tubihu al-mahzurat). These three major arguments were used to persuade ILMU members to get involved in UMNO as a political party. These doctrines also have been used to justify the involvement of some of the ILMU individuals in election and participating in the democratic process.

According to the doctrine of “total obedience to the rulers” (Ta’at Wulat al-Umur), Muslims are obliged to obey Muslim rulers unequivocally. Hence, according to this conviction, ILMU believes that all Muslims in Malaysia should give their allegiance to UMNO and not to oppose them. Any act of opposition to UMNO is equal to the act of rebellion against the legitimate Muslim leader or ‘Khuruj ‘ala al-Imam’, which is ‘haram’ (prohibited). ILMU and its associates, namely Rasul Dahri and Sulaiman Nordin announced that any act of oppositions, against the Muslim leaders (Hukkam) in Malaysia, referring to UMNO as the ruling party, is haram (prohibited). This led to their firm position in prohibiting any public comments and dissenting voices against the UMNO government. They repeatedly declared that any rally or demonstration against the ruling BN-UMNO government is “haram”. Muslims in general and scholars in particular, according to ILMU, must try to give advice discreetly to the rulers and not in public.

Moreover, Fathulbari insisted that the involvement of Muslims in a democratic process is based on committing a lesser evil (Ikhtiyar akhaf al-dhararayn). Should Muslims abandon politics, it will be taken by others, hence, the involvement is justified (Fathulbari, 2012). This very precedence is based on the Islamic legal maxim “necessity renders prohibited things permissible” (al-Darurat tubihu al-mahzurat). Based on this doctrine of “necessity” or darurah, ILMU justifies all the prohibited acts (according to its Salafi thoughts) committed by UMNO such as its involvement in general elections, its practice of democracy within the party, and its coalition with non-Muslim parties in BN.

However, ILMU’s position has been widely criticised due to its discrepancies. They have been accused of not being aware of the federal nature of the Malaysian political system. Thus, it has been pointed out that although UMNO is the ruling party at the federal level, it does not rule in opposition-ruled states such as Selangor, Kelantan and Pulau Pinang. Going by the Prophetic traditions ILMU leaders quoted, UMNO should have been declared haram for opposing the ruling party in those states. But ILMU has managed to justify the situation with its own interpretation that the prohibition is only applied at the federal level and not at the state level. Some critics also pointed out that in few states such as Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, the Salafi teaching is prohibited and considered as “deviant”. Should ILMU be consistent, they should not have entered the states and spread the Salafi thought as part of their loyalty and obedience towards Muslim rulers of those states. This is yet another instance of discrepancy in the policy of ILMU.

The existence of ILMU in UMNO has given a kind of religious justification to why UMNO should be supported by Muslims in Malaysia. They justified their political participation in UMNO as a means to strengthen the status of Islam in the government of Malaysia, through the domination of UMNO as the ruling party. They consider this approach as legitimate and noble. ILMU insists that their participation in the democratic system in Malaysia is due to the necessity to protect Islam that otherwise would be hijacked by the enemies of Islam. They suggest that there is no other choice within the limited reality framework of politics in contemporary Malaysia except to be part of the ruling party, which according to ILMU is part of the Salafi ‘aqidah of ‘Ta’at Waliyul amri’.

However, many views that ILMU is nothing but UMNO’s frontier to pin down the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat, especially PAS. ILMU has easy access to the media through which they justify UMNO and BN government’s decision, even on issues objected by majority of the people. They quote from Islamic text and the opinions of Salafi scholars from outside Malaysia to justify their act of supporting the government. For instance, ILMU chairman, Fadlan Mohd Othman. has issued a ruling that Muslims are prohibited to vote for the secular and Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the Malaysian 13th General Election because it is obviously against the command of Allah in Al-Qur’an.5 Fadhlan truly believes that DAP policies are against Islam. This exhibits how ILMU has been a religious frontier for UMNO against Pakatan Rakyat.

Impact of Salafi participation in Malaysian politics

Despite a wide coverage given to ILMU and their position in UMNO, the group has not made any significant impact on spreading their “Salafi theological” thoughts within UMNO. The mainstream religious discourse of UMNO remains with those of traditionalist. Even, some ILMU figures, like Fathulbari, has to compromise his Salafi approach by participating in certain religious ceremonies and rituals organized by UMNO members, which the Salafis often viewed as the unaccepted innovations (bid’ah) such as the mega concert on the commemoration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Maulidur Rasul) that has become a religious trend of UMNO people to attract masses. Fathulbari appeared in Baling, Kedah, along with other UMNO leaders in the concert. Many of ILMU members too have been invited and attended Maulidur Rasul and other traditional religious activities of UMNO. However, they justified their attendance on the basis of the doctrine of darurat.

ILMU’s theologically loaded statements against opposition parties benefited UMNO giving a boost to the party’s religious image. ILMU’s existence in UMNO has been considered as an antidote to Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and other Islamists supporting the oppositions. Using the doctrine of ‘al-Wala wa al-Barra’, ILMU has been engaged in DAP bashing and downgrading PAS religious credentials. ILMU even condemned opposition led rallies, such as Bersih 2 and Bersih 3, as “unIslamic.”

ILMU also used all the arguments/justifications and ‘al-Wala wal al-Barra’ (loyalty and disavowal) to break up the opposition PR coalition and to frighten the Malays away from DAP.

ILMU’s participation in UMNO too has been used by some of its leaders to gain a political mileage. Fathulbari, for example, has succeeded in climbing the political ladder in UMNO Youth wing representing the “religious voice” of UMNO. He has dominated media headlines and his religious credentials endeared him to UMNO loyalists such that he won the most votes in the UMNO Youth wing election. He has also been appointed as UMNO candidate for a state assembly member in Sanglang, Perlis during the Malaysian 13 General Election. However he lost in the election to PAS candidate, Mohd Shukri Ramli. Nonetheless, his involvement in the general election has opened a new chapter for ILMU, an involvement which earlier was declared un-Islamic.


Unlike many Salafi groups in the Arab region that emerged due to the Arab Spring, the involvement of Malaysian Salafis, the Athari Salafi group (ILMU), in the ruling party, UMNO, was due to certain political and security-oriented circumstances. ILMU has justified its participation in UMNO by resorting to Salafi theological arguments mainly the doctrine of “total obedience to the rulers” “the prohibition of rebelling against the rulers” and the doctrine of “necessity renders prohibited things permissible”.

However, the salafi involvement in democratic politics despite their rejection of democracy is due to political opportunities such participation provided. There seems to be no alternative, given the limited framework of politics in contemporary Malaysia, but to be a part of the democratic elected ruling party. For such, ILMU have to resort to UMNO in crystallizing their adherence to the doctrine of total obedience to the rulers. Nevertheless, ILMU’s involvement in the democratic partisan system and supporting the ruling party helped their da’wah (calling) for Salafism ideology. Additionally, their participation in democratic politics might be helpful in fighting extremism and terrorism and in bringing a non-violent conclusion to their radical arguments.

However, the political Salafi approach is also detrimental to societal and religious harmony, and strengthens the misuse of religious discourse to divide the community. Their doctrine of al-Wala wa al-Barra may lead to a further divide between Muslims and non-Muslims threatening harmonious relationship that exists among the multi-religious and multi-racial population in Malaysia. Their acceptance of democracy will somewhat mellow down their exclusivity mind-set. Their involvement in UMNO may perform the same function since UMNO is part of the national front which is composed of Muslim and non-Muslim parties.


Although they never made any claim of representing the Madkhalis in Malaysia, most of their thoughts and arguments are taken from Syeikh Rabi’ al-Madkhali (See Fathulbari, 2015).

2 One of the prominent Salafi preacher of Egypt, Muhammad Isma’il al Muqaddim stated that although Islam includes both the religion and the state, it also “refuses democracy entirely because of its contradiction with Islamic theology and culture” (See Muḥammad Isma’īl al Muqaddim, 2005).

3 In fatwas issued by Lajnah Fatawaa Daimah (permanent fatwa council) of Saudi Arabia led by Syeikh Abdul Aziz Ben Baz, the Kingdom Mufti by then, and signed by others like Abdul Razak Afifi, Abdullah Ghadiyan and Abdullah bin Qu’ud described that democracy is perceived as prohibited and impermissible (Fatwa no. 23/406).

4 This is due to the literal interpretation of Prophet Muhammad’s tradition which was recorded by Muslim from Salmah bin Yazid al-Ju’fi who asked the Prophet about unjust rulers who take people’s rights without any justification and imposing unjust laws upon them, in which the Prophet replied “You must listen and obey them, as they will bear their sins (for what they are doing), you will bear yours” (Narrated by Muslim, Hadith no. 1846); They also refer to another narration by Huzaifah bin al-Yaman, which also been recorded by Muslim where the Prophet was asked about tyrants that will emerge from his followers in the future, the Prophet then replied: “You must listen and obey the ruler, even if he lash your back and take your money. Listen and obey!” (Narrated by Muslim, hadith no. 1847)

5 He mentioned that voting for DAP in General election is not appropriate in Islam based on Surah al-Maidah verse 2: “Help you one another in Al-Birr and At-Taqwa (virtue, righteousness and piety); but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment.”


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*Dr. Maszlee Malik is an Assistant Professor, Department of Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh, International Islamic University Malaysia. E-mail:

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