The Pillars of Mahathir's Islam: Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Florida Atlantic University]On: 18 November 2014, At: 20:36Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    The Pillars of Mahathir's Islam:Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim inthe Modern WorldSven Alexander Schottmann aa La Trobe UniversityPublished online: 17 Aug 2011.

    To cite this article: Sven Alexander Schottmann (2011) The Pillars of Mahathir's Islam: MahathirMohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World, Asian Studies Review, 35:3, 355-372, DOI:10.1080/10357823.2011.602663

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  • The Pillars of Mahathirs Islam:Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslimin the Modern World

    SVEN ALEXANDER SCHOTTMANN*

    La Trobe University

    Abstract: Unlike his bourgeois economic nationalism or diplomatic posturing onbehalf of the developing world, Mahathir Mohamads encounter with Islamremains a largely understudied aspect of his 22-year rule of Malaysia (19812003). There is a marked reluctance to take seriously his pronouncements onIslam and engage with his representations of what being-Muslim should entail inthe modern world. This essay takes the view that Islam, in fact, represents asignificant component of the former Malaysian prime ministers politicalrepertoire, and that an analysis of what may be described as MahathirsIslam can provide a compelling alternative account of his momentouspremiership. It argues that while Mahathirs engagement with Islam was fraughtwith contradictions and has produced a number of negative consequences thataffect Malaysian society as a whole, his discourse also contained the ingredientsof what Bellah and Hammond (1980) have famously described as civil religion.Mahathirs public representations of Islam in particular, his championing of theindividually responsible believer and interpretation of the message to the ProphetMuhammad as a this-worldly and pro-active theology of progress can thusprovide religious validation to the cosmopolitanism of the street that has helpedunderwrite the social peace of multi-religious Malaysia.

    Keywords: Malaysia, Islam, politics, modernity, secularism, democracy, Muslimleadership, Mahathir Bin Mohamad

    Malaysias former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is seldomconsidered a luminary of late twentieth-century Muslim thought. Few students ofIslamic politics have included him in their lists of progressive, modernist orliberal Muslims engaged in the thoroughgoing reform processes currently under

    *Correspondence Address: Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Kingsbury Drive, Bundoora, VIC

    3086. Email: s.schottmann@latrobe.edu.au

    Asian Studies ReviewSeptember 2011, Vol. 35, pp. 355372

    ISSN 1035-7823 print/ISSN 1467-8403 online/11/030355-18 2011 Asian Studies Association of AustraliaDOI: 10.1080/10357823.2011.602663

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  • way across Muslim societies (e.g. Esposito and Voll, 2001; Kurzman, 2002).Conversely, most political science-type analyses of the legacy of one of Asiaslongest-ruling elected leaders (19812003) have drawn our attention to everythingexcept his articulation of Islam and being-Muslim. While Mahathirs bourgeoiseconomic nationalism, increasingly strident anti-Western outbursts, alleged social-Darwinism or culturally-argued authoritarianism have been quite well examined,his actual contribution to the Malaysian governments articulation of the role to beplayed by Islam in a modern or modernising society such as Malaysia remainscomparatively understudied. The scholarship of, among many others, HussinMutalib (1993), Khoo Boo Teik (2003), Patricia Martinez (2004), Meredith Weiss(2004), Ooi Kee Beng (2006), Michael Peletz (2005) and Joseph Liow (2009) affordsexcellent insights into the wider socio-cultural, economic and political contextswithin which Mahathirs engagement with Islam was set, but few of them have thusfar taken at face value Malaysias former prime ministers public religious discourse.

    This essay argues that what Mahathir presented as the proper understanding ofour religion (e.g. Mahathir, 2000) was more than just a key component of hispolitical rhetoric. Because his representations of correctly understood Islam socentrally underpinned the governments Islamic policies of the 1980s and 1990s,looking at Mahathirs articulations of religion may indeed help provide freshinsights into Malaysian politics during these decades of pivotal change. Theseinsights may be particularly relevant due to the potential long-term impactof Mahathirs religious discourse, which appeared to have albeit largelyinadvertently underscored some very democratic qualities of Islam and of themodern-day believer. In doing so, Mahathir may have helped to strengthen thecapacity of Islam as a facilitator rather than a hinderer of any future politicalliberalisation and democratisation processes (see Schottmann, 2011). The fact thatMahathirs insistence on Islams quintessentially democratic nature and hisunderscoring of its practical and this-worldly qualities was in large part self-servingand necessary to establish himself as a legitimate commentator on Islam should notdistract us from the potential long-term significance of the former prime ministersengagement with the religion.

    This essay contends that it is possible to conceive of Mahathirs publicpronouncements on religion as Mahathirs Islam:1 a relatively coherent discoursethat emphasises pragmatic and rationalist interpretations of the teachings of theProphet Muhammad. Mahathirs Islam insisted that individual Muslims had theright to engage in rationalistic re-readings of the sources of Islamic law. Everysufficiently literate Muslim (and not just the religiously-trained ulama) thus had thecapacity to gain insights into the hikma or wisdom behind Gods revelation, enablingthem to reinterpret the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition and the works of theclassical scholars in light of the changing exigencies of time and space (e.g.Mahathir, 1984a; Mahathir, 1996a). Mahathirs Islam not only incorporated hisassessment of the grim situation facing the Muslim world, but also proposed a rangeof solutions and corrective measures that the faithful of the present day shouldadopt.

    This essay aims to provide a hitherto neglected Islamic account of the Mahathirpremiership. It seeks to take the Malaysian premier seriously as a late twentieth-century Muslim social agent engaged in a meaningful conversation with the

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  • precepts of his faith. It does so through a textual analysis of a wide range ofpreviously largely unexamined primary data, including many of the speechesMahathir made during his two decades as prime minister, as well as his considerabletrack record of publications.2 I am also able to rely on information I gathered intwo interviews that I conducted with Mahathir in 2008: one in Putrajaya in Mayand one in Melbourne in October. I use this range of sources to develop a clearerpicture of the religious discourse that Mahathir sought to present to his listeners,viewers and readers throughout the 1980s, the 1990s and the first decade of the newmillennium.

    I believe it is vital to take seriously, and on its own terms, what the man who wasthe centre of Malaysian politics for more than two decades said about Islam. Theobjective is not to revisit essentialist debates on Islam or to suggest that Mahathirsideas on the relationship between Islam and society were understood in a somehowisomorphic fashion by the 25 million or so Malaysians (nearly half of whom, ofcourse, were non-Muslims). I am also certainly not under the illusion that his publicdiscourse was not carefully calibrated for impact: he was clearly driven by the needto respond to the electoral inroads made by Malaysias Islamist opposition and indoing so demonstrate his own credentials as a Muslim leader. Rather, I aim toprovide a survey of the role that Mahathir had assigned to religion within the over-arching framework of his political project. I seek to examine at greater depthMahathirs argument that Islam was not an obstacle to progress, and his argumentthat when properly understood Islam even compelled its adherents to work hardand seek Gods pleasure by advancing materially the Muslim umma (community,nation).

    A Theology of Progress

    Mahathirs public discourse on religion fell into four broad fields, in the followingdescending order of importance: 1) the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as athis-worldly manual encouraging material success; 2) the inapplicability of thesecular principle to Islam; 3) the range of virtues and behaviours Muslims shouldadopt; and 4) a depiction of a suitably contemporary practice and observance ofIslam. All four themes can be found in basic form even in some of his writings fromthe mid-1960s. It is only after the late 1970s, however, that Mahathirs Islambecame a major component of his political discourse. The presence accorded toIslam in Mahathirs speeches and writings grew over time and culminated in his 2001declaration that Malaysia was an Islamic not a secular state. By the early 1980s,however, most of Mahathirs arguments on the complementariness of Islam andmodern society were already clearly developed (e.g. Mahathir, 1983a; Mahathir,1984b). Even if the increasing prominence of religion was driven by strategicconsiderations, its long-term presence means that it is not unreasonable to supposethat Mahathir was earnest in his assertion that Islam should have a role to playin the modern world, and that it therefore makes sense to take seriously hispronouncements on the subject.

    Mahathirs public engagement with Islam was dominated by the representationshe made of the essential compatibility between Islam and material progress. Whathe called the jihad of the Muslims leading the Malaysian government (Mahathir,

    Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World 357

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  • 2000) may have become more emphatic as his premiership progressed commensurate with the rise of his Islamist opposition. But even though Mahathirwas clearly driven by the need to contain the opposition, long before the late 1990swhen the Islamist PAS (Parti Islam Semalaysia/All-Malaysian Islamic Party) wasable to regularly gain a majority of the ethnic Malay vote at the federal level (seeFunston, 2006, p. 138), Mahathir had insisted that the jihad of development wasnot only meritorious, but a divine duty for Muslims, something wajib ormandatory under Islamic law (Mahathir, 1983b). Development was thus not only anoble struggle, but the exemplification of faith in action. My argument is thatMahathirs condensation of the message of the Prophet Muhammad into atheology of progress3 went beyond adding a religious veneer to an ostensiblysecular development policy. What one is able to observe instead is distinctive: thepositing of Islam as a divinely-inspired injunction for the advancement of societythrough development.

    Mahathirs engagement with Islam revolved around one simple question: whatwent wrong? How could one explain the dramatic and seemingly final decline ofIslamic civilisation over the past two to three centuries, especially when Muslimsliked to think of the brilliant successes of the first 500 years of Islamic history asmanifestations of Gods favour to the People of Muhammad? What conclusionsshould Muslims thus draw from the far from satisfactory conditions of the present,marked by fratricidal wars between Muslims (Mahathir, 1986a), the suppressionof Muslims at the hands of their enemies (Mahathir, 1994a), and perhaps forMahathir most importantly of all, the embarrassing poverty of Muslims which, as hesuggested, many non-Muslims had begun to attribute to Islam itself? (Mahathir,1987a). What had Muslims done, or not done, to warrant such a drastic fall fromgrace? What could help account for the loss of military and political power that sawthe establishment, formally or informally, of European control over virtually allMuslim lands? What factors had led to the destruction of once vibrant commerceand networks of trade, the loss of artisanal skills and the atrophy of intellectualinquiry?

    Our rightful share of the bounties of Allah

    In Mahathirs analysis, present-day backwardness4 made it incumbent uponMuslims to seek ways out of this misery. They were duty-bound to live up to theexpectations of their faith by seeking their rightful share of the bounties of Allah(Mahathir, 1994b), and to work hard to reconnect to the golden ages of Muslimcommerce, arts and science. In doing so, they would return to what he described as acorrect understanding of Islam (Mahathir, 1996a). The primary audience for hisdevelopment discourse was the new Malay-Muslim middle class sprouting on theurban peripheries of Kuala Lumpur and other larger Malaysian towns since themid-1970s.5 These New Economic Policy (NEP)-induced New Malays wouldfinally realise the century-old vision of Malay nationalists for kemajuan (progress)and pembangunan (development), able to fill the vast lacuna between the traditionalMalay agriculturalists and the educated elite in which Malays are not to be found(Mahathir, 1970, pp. 5859). At the core of Mahathirs theology of progress laythe almost messianic instruction to the Melayu Baru or New Malays to equip

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  • themselves with the mindset, attitude and skills required to prosper in the modernage (Mahathir, 1983b).

    Mahathir frequently stated that Islam not only permitted Muslims to progressmaterially and amass worldly wealth, but that prospering on this earth was in facttheir religious duty.

    It cannot be denied that the businesses and companies in this country, andthroughout the world in fact, are not owned by Muslims. The truth is thatbecause of their negligence, Muslims are very weak economically. Themanifold natural resources which the Lord has bestowed upon the Muslimshave not produced any strength for them, because they are more drawn toactivities that do not strengthen their position in this world (Mahathir, 1983b).

    It was precisely in the applied field of economics thatMuslims,Mahathir suggested,had failed to understand their religion as the dynamic way of life that it was meantto be. He had identified this problem from very early on in his premiership, telling, forexample, his audience at the launch of the Takaful Islamic insurance scheme thatmany Muslims had gone to great lengths to study their religions injunctions onprayers, fasting and tithing, but had remained oblivious to the equally large need toapply the principles and ideals of the sharia to the modern economy:

    Muslims all over the world have failed to apply the laws of Islam in the field ofmuamalah (human interaction). This failure is most evident in the financialsystem. This failure does not stem from our ignorance of the laws . . . but from afailure to implement them. It is clear that [finance, management and accounting]all have a close link with the practice of Islam, but Islamic societies willnever succeed and be whole again (tidak akan berjaya dan sempurna) if Muslims,apart from worshipping Allah, have no other skills (Mahathir, 1985a).

    Fardhu kifayah: The way forward

    In order to obtain religious validation for his argument, Mahathir turned to a basicconcept of Islamic law: fard al-kifaya, or in its Malay version, fardhu kifayah.Conventionally, fardhu kifayah has been understood as communal responsibilitiessuch as enjoining good and forbidding evil, or the limited range of religious dutiesthat, when carried out by a single believer, expiated the entire community from thesin of not having carried out this obligation. The most significant contribution of theMahathir government to contemporary Islamic thought may have been the recastingof fardhu kifayah as the conceptual basis of its Islamically articulated developmentdiscourse. If fardhu kifayah was previously understood to be the religious dutiesfalling to some Muslims6 (i.e. becoming the prayer leaders or washing the corpse ofa deceased Muslim), Mahathir reinterpreted it as the communal duty of all Muslimsto bring the community forward materially, declaring material development to bethe communal religious duty of Muslims:

    Let us provide our service to society, and let us make a success of the effort toimprove the conditions of Muslims (memperbaiki nasib umat). Remember, in

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  • Islam, even though we have carried out our fardhu ain, (individual religiousobligations) we are not free from sin until fardhu kifayah has been taken careof by any one member of society. But fardhu kifayah is not for other peoplealone to carry out. If everyone waits for someone else, nobody will perform it.And then all of us will be in sin (Mahathir, 1984c).

    Mahathir regularly stated that Islam could help inspire Malaysias socioeconomicand cultural transformations, precisely because of what he portrayed as thereligions role in the successes of earlier Muslim generations. He argued that if theignorant Arabs, upon embracing Islam [had been] able to build a great civilisationwithin a short space of time (Mahathir, 2004), present-day Muslims would be ableto do the same by returning to correct understandings of Islam. The early Arabs,in fact, played an important role in Mahathirs articulation of Islams transforma-tive capacities. Not only did the ever-didactic prime minister see parallels in howIslam was able to engender socio-political unity among the hitherto hopelesslyfeuding Arabs; he also sought to demonstrate how properly understood Islam(in his view, the emphasis on communal duty, hard work and individual discipline)had helped transform Arab society from pre-Islamic savagery, ignorance andamorality to being at the centre of a dynamic civilisation.

    The lesson, Mahathir averred, was that present-day Malays, and Muslims moregenerally, could bring about a reversal of fortune in their own lifetime. They couldhelp bring about a renaissance of Islamic civilisation by returning to the properlyunderstood Islam of the Prophets time and the so-called golden age of the classicalMuslim world. Mahathir made regular mention of medieval scholar-theologianssuch as al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, al-Farabi and al-Khwarzimi as Muslimswho had truly understood the message of the Prophet Muhammad (Mahathir,1986b, pp. 2425). Underlying this was his assertion that properly understoodIslam meant that Muslims should not differentiate qualitatively worldly andreligious knowledge, and that no Muslim could be satisfied by learning only one atthe exclusion of the other. Imam Ghazali was alim and so was Ibn Sina, Mahathir(1986b, p. 98) wrote in The Challenge, referring to two eleventh-century luminariesof Islamic thought the former a theologian-philosopher, the latter a polymathbetter known in the West as Avicenna. Both are Muslims and none can say thatIbn Sina is less Muslim than al-Ghazali. Such measurements and comparisons haveno meaning and no place in Islam (Mahathir, 1986b, p. 99).

    Al-Din: The Union of the Sacred and Profane

    The this-worldly focus of Mahathirs Islam or his essentially anti-secularargument that Muslims could not in good faith distinguish between the sacredand the profane (i.e. between the archetypes of the theologian Ghazali and thephilosopher-physician Ibn Sina) may appear rather this-worldly and un-spiritual. Itis important, however, to point out that many Muslims underscore that Islam forthem is not merely a pathway to heaven, but a way of life. While the everyday livesof the worlds 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be explained by reference to Islam alone,Islam is undoubtedly an extremely important dimension of the life of individualMuslims and Muslim societies, and common Muslim insistence on the character of

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  • Islam as an all-encompassing way of life should not be taken lightly (Bijlefeld, 1984,pp. 22021). It was in such a vein that Mahathir told his audience at the tenthanniversary celebrations of the International Islamic University that:

    We believe in life after death and in the rewards and punishments which will bemeted out then. But Islam, more than any other religion, is about life beforedeath. That is why Islam is a way of life. That is the only way that Islam can bea way of life (Mahathir, 1993a).

    Muslims, Mahathir argued, had never been content with deferring the establishmentof the Kingdom of God to a distant future. Their religion did not conceive of man,the universe and nature as inherently evil, or of the material world as a realm ofdarkness (e.g. Mahathir, 1993b). Even if life in this dunia (the present world) was atest for believers (and when more so than in present times, when Islamic civilisationas a whole seemed to have fallen from grace), he could find in the teachings ofthe Prophet Muhammad no justification for asceticism, quietism, fatalism, or anyturning away from the world in the hope of attaining justice in the akhirat(hereafter).

    Mahathir was adamant: as a way of life, rather than a mere religion, Islamcould not be secularised. Unlike for Westerners, whose tradition he saw as havingbeen shaped by church-state antagonism from the beginnings of Christianity,secularism would remain an untenable principle for Muslims:

    Islam is al-Din or a way of life. This way of life covers everything done in thelifetime of a Muslim . . . Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are partof the Islamic way of life. Government, education, defence, health,communications and transport, places of worship and creature comforts:everything to do with human life is part of the Muslim way of life (Mahathir,2002a).

    Mahathirs definition of the term secularism, simply, was the assumption that lifecould be divided into the sacred/spiritual/private realm that may or may not includereligion, and the profane/temporal/public sphere from which religion should as faras possible be excluded. He often suggested that this concept had emerged fromthe particular circumstances and historical experiences of Western Europe, but thatit was inapplicable, inappropriate, and in the final instance, incomprehensible toMuslims:

    [The] separation of state from the church . . . may be possible in the Christiancontext. It is not possible in the Muslim world. Islam is a way of life and a wayof life cannot be compartmentalised into spiritual and material. Everythingthat a person does is part of a way of life. Certainly the system of governmentof a country and its development is a part of the way of life (Mahathir, 2003a).

    Faced with the conviction of many supporters of the Islamist opposition party PASthat science, education, workplace relations, the media landscape and the whole ofpresent-day Malaysia were all secular (among many Malaysian Muslims a byword

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  • for immorality or lack of religious observance), Mahathir countered that it wasactually un-Islamic to differentiate between religious and secular endeavours, forexample in the field of education, because Islamic studies and secular subjectssuch as science or medicine were inseparably intertwined:7

    Some are influenced by PAS that Malay Muslim children should only pursueIslamic studies . . . When it is explained that other forms of knowledge are justas important in Islam and in fact compulsory to acquire . . . and demanded byIslam as stated in Surah al-Ghaasyiyah [sic], Verses 1720, which mean Andthe Sky, how is it raised high? And at the Mountains, how they are fixed firm?And at the earth, how it is spread out?, . . . PAS and its supporters still accusethose who refer to these verses as secularists who place importance of theaffairs of this world and not of the hereafter (Mahathir, 2001a).

    Divisions between the sacred and the profane were not recognised by Islam,Mahathir insisted. Islam encompassed all aspects of life: work, contemplation, andeven leisure would thus all be part of the unceasing act of worship that is theexistence of Gods creation. Islam, he argued, even demanded from its adherentsa certain amount of worldliness. As a complete way of life, Islam does not onlydecide on matters of belief, creed or faith (aqida). It also decides on andsystematically orders all aspects of a believers life and death. Everything a Muslimdoes is subject to the rules of his religion (Mahathir, 1986b, p. 28).

    Mahathir claimed to be in agreement with those voices in Malaysian Muslimsociety that asserted that a thorough application of Islams rejection of theindividuation of life-spheres into the sacred and the profane could not but lead tothe establishment of some kind of Islamic order. It is worth noting, however, thatalmost every reference to an Islamic state in his speeches and interviews is followedby statements to the effect that the rights of non-Muslims in a Muslim-majority stateare inviolable8 and that they must be safeguarded:

    Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists were included in theIslamic state as ummahs on par with the ummah of the Muslims. The Islamicsystem was their guarantor and protector, whose duty, as defined by its ownconstitution, was to enable each group to live in accordance with its ownreligion, society and culture, and to perpetuate itself through generations inperfect freedom. The Islamic state thus enables those of different religions andcultures to live harmoniously and in peace with one another. This is a uniquephenomenon on earth and history knows no parallel (Mahathir, 1983c).

    Foreshadowing the observations to be made in the following section, MahathirsIslamic state was, at the conceptual level at least, the religiously argued embrace ofpluralism and tolerance.9 Most importantly, however, this argument was presentedthrough Islamic dogma and Islamic history, and not by reference to the principles ofsecular humanism, or the structures and institutions of the postwar internationalsecurity architecture that many Malaysian Muslims had begun to link with a failureto safeguard Muslim interests, some even with an outright antagonism to theirreligion and cultures.

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  • Mahathirs Islam as Civil Religion?

    The link between Mahathirs religious discourse and the possible emergence of Islamin Malaysia as a cultural and socio-political force facilitating democratisation andliberalisation is tenuous. Nonetheless, his emphasis on the religions individuallyliberating and transformative properties may have helped to strengthen argumentsfor civility in the public sphere qua Islam. At a conceptual level at least, Mahathirscorrectly understood Islam is able to provide an Islamically argued underwritingfor a Malaysian convivencia.10 As this and the following section seek to show,even the particular type of Muslim consciousness that Mahathir advocated mayplausibly pave the way for the embrace of pluralism and democracy qua Islam. Thatneither this, nor a true convivencia, has thus far eventuated in Malaysia is the resultprimarily of the governments authoritarianism rather than its religious policiesand/or its Islamic discourse.

    Mahathirs Islam was not an enthusiastic embrace of an open society and a freepress, of lifestyle pluralism, or even a thorough application of the principles ofliberal democracy and all that it would entail. His insistence that every Muslim, andnot just the religiously trained, had the right to speak for their religion was politicallyastute: it undermined the traditional bearers of authority in Malay Islam andconcentrated power in the hands of the secular states executive (Weiss, 2004; Liow,2009). Nonetheless, and perhaps even inadvertently, Mahathir appears to havefacilitated a certain democratisation and social levelling of Islam even as many othercivic spaces were closing or clamped down. This opening, in turn, has enhanced thecapacity of Malaysian Muslims to formulate critiques of the prevailing authoritarian-ism qua Islam. There is a strong Islamic current in Malaysias Reformasi movement;young Malaysians for whom the Mahathir governments representations of the idealMuslim as proactive, communally focused, this-worldly, courageous and caringindividuals have turned Islam into the primarymedium through which to express theiraspirations for a more inclusive, more democratic and more just Malaysia. There wereserious democratic deficits and shortcomings to Mahathirs representations of Islam at least from the perspective of the liberal-minded Western observer in suchproblematic aspects as declaring members of the Ahmadiyya movement apostatesfrom Islam or proscribing the practice of Shii Islam among local Muslims.Nonetheless, even if inadvertently, Mahathir may have helped prepare the groundfor the emergence of Islam as a civil religion in Malaysia.

    Bellah and Hammond (1980) describe civil religion as endowing the individualwith the moeurs of dignity, individual responsibility and autonomy that deTocqueville, more than a century earlier, had famously identified as the factorsthat made communal and democratic life possible in North America. Mahathirsdepiction and perhaps even idealisation of the Prophetic community of Medina asan egalitarian and meritocratic proto-democracy (Mahathir, 1998) stressed thevery notions of involvement and participation that are central to democraticconsolidation. He also, for example, regularly underscored the religious duty ofMalay-Muslims to deal with one another and with their non-Muslim compatriots injustice and fairness (Mahathir, 1993c).

    It is in these small but significant ways that Mahathirs religious discourse mayhelp to support the eventual emergence of Islam as civil religion in Malaysia. His

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  • public articulations of how Muslims should carry themselves not only lent supportto the governments social engineering programs, but also encouraged greatercivility in the public sphere. Perhaps the strongest example of the potential ofMahathirs Islam to become civil religion is the theoretical theologicalvalidation it provided to the cosmopolitanism of the street and the everydayinstances of mutual understanding that still characterise everyday life in multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia. Apart from highlighting the ProphetMuhammads reputed tolerance and equanimity in dealing with Jews, Christiansand polytheistic Arabs, Mahathir also regularly highlighted those verses of theQuran that call for accommodation and dialogue (e.g. Mahathir, 1983c; Mahathir,1999a).

    Mahathirs Islam may not have been the warm-hearted embrace of pluralismHefner (2000, pp. 1420) was able to observe among some Muslim actors in post-Reformasi Indonesia. Mahathirs turn towards Islam, in particular, did little torelieve the countrys non-Muslim minorities feelings of alienation from a state thatappeared to distance itself from its original multicultural premise. For instance,many non-Muslims remain very uneasy about the implications of Mahathirsstatement that Malaysia already was an Islamic state. Some of the actual effects ofMalaysias four decade long march towards desecularisation (Kessler, 2004),including the Islamisation of educational curricula, difficulties in obtaining zoningpermits for churches or temples, or the bitter legal dispute over whether non-Muslims had the right to refer to their godhead as Allah, have intensified the fearsof non-Malays over the erosion of their civic and political rights.

    Nonetheless, through its conscious reference to the pluralistic and tolerant spiritof the Quran and the Sunnah (Mahathir, 1996b) and its description of cordialMuslim/non-Muslim relations throughout history (Mahathir, 2003b), the primeministers discourse provided validation for a civil state and civility in the publicsphere both from Islams founding sources as well as from the precedent of Islamichistory. Malaysia, of course, remains a long way from realising the full civilpotential of Islam, and Mahathirs representations of Islam seldom lived up to theirown rhetoric. Conceptually, however, Mahathirs emphasis on the full dignity of allthe children of Adam (Mahathir, 1999b) and the need for the individualsawareness of their ethical responsibility to the community as a whole (Mahathir,2001b) can help to produce not a subject but a citizen imbued with a publicspiritedness, a willingness to sacrifice his own interest for the common good (Bellahand Hammond, 1980, p. 9). Such men and women are the very raw material of thecivitas.

    The Islam of Mahathirs Islam

    There was a fourth broad field that could be made out in Mahathirs articulation ofproperly understood Islam namely, his representations of religiosity itself, or ofthe ways in which modern-day Muslims should interpret, practise and live theirfaith. After having examined his depiction of Islam as a religion encouraging successin the material world, his insistence that Muslims could not, in good faith, separatereligious from secular life-spheres, and the range of virtues he suggested theyshould adopt, looking at the representations he made of the actual practice of Islam

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  • will help to complete our understanding of Mahathirs Islam. His articulations ofdevotion, piety and religious observance have in fact remained under-studied facetsof his political discourse as a whole, and few students of Malaysian politics havepursued this lead. Yet, as this section seeks to demonstrate, identifying thecornerstones of the practice and observance of Islam he preached to the MelayuBaru or New Malays can provide additional nuances to our understanding ofMahathirs engagement with Islam.

    Putting forward the argument of many modernist11 Muslims that a large numberof fellow-believers had mistaken form for function in their interpretation of religion,the faith-type and spirituality Mahathir was prescribing to the Melayu Baru seemedto reflect in large part what I describe elsewhere as his modernist-influenced Anglo-Mohamedan sobriety (Schottmann, 2010). The actual practice of Islam thatMahathir was advocating was thus as impatient with pemikiran kolot (old-fashioned thinking: read, traditionalist Islamic piety) (Mahathir, 1984b) as it waswith indolence. Although comparisons with Protestantism are automaticallyproblematised by the theological gulf between Islam and Christianity, the actualIslam of Mahathirs Islam indeed paralleled the emphasis of reformistChristianity on industriousness, honesty, self-denial, discipline, thrift, diligence,and, above all, individual piety.

    Practical religion

    A case can be made for the intellectual influence of the early twentieth-centuryMuslim modernist movement that Mahathir had encountered during his youth onhis public discourse as Malaysian prime minister (see Schottmann, 2010). Thisinfluence is particularly evident in the representations he made of religiousobservance. Like the modernists half a century before him, Mahathir emphasisedthe direct and autonomous link between every Muslim and God (free from humanintercession), and the wide-ranging interpretative freedoms that came with thisautonomy. The path of the modernists to God, using aql or ratiocination, seemed tohold greater appeal for him than either the Sufis intuitive or esoteric path towardsgnosis or the traditionalists loyalty and obedience to the scholars:

    The Islamic religion taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad, peace beupon Him, greatly emphasises the human intellect (akal fikiran manusia) whichAllah has bestowed upon mankind. The Quran time and again reiterates thefavour that is intellect: Dont you think?, Why dont you use yourintellect? All of this confirms the value and worth of the human mind(Mahathir, 1985b).

    In a characteristically modernist mould, Mahathir argued that the teachings of theProphet Muhammad were not a straightjacket that should constrain the twentieth-century Muslim through literalist readings, but a moral-ethical guide whose dynamicspirit meant it could be applied to the changing exigencies of time and space. Withtheir God-given intellect the one thing that sets us apart from animals(Mahathir, 1993b) believers could thus determine, Mahathir argued, the correctruling on whatever novel situation they faced, navigating the challenges of modern

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  • life while at the same time preserving the sanctity of Gods commandments(Mahathir, 1984a). Mahathir argued that the permissibility under Islamic law of, forexample, commerce and the converse prohibition of usurious interest could helpinform the tenets of an Islamic theory of economics, Islamic finance and Islamicfinancial systems (Mahathir, 2002b). Similarly, the example set by the ProphetMuhammad in running the affairs of Medinas plural population could help present-day Muslim managers to determine leadership style and techniques, as Mahathir(1987b) told delegates at an Islamic Management seminar in the mid-1980s.

    A penchant for such practical religion seems to have been a constant in howMahathir interpreted Islam in general, but in the religiosity he preached to theMelayu Baru in particular. His preferred methodology of interpreting the textualsources of this, in his own words, really simple religion (Mahathir, 2008) serves asthe best indication of this penchant. Martinez (2003) has pointed to Mahathirspropensity for tafsir bi-l-rai (exegesis based on rational interpretation), whereasamongst those schooled in the religious sciences, tafsir bi-l-rai has always been seenas the less learned opposite to the more conventional method of tafsir bi-l-mathur.The latter form of exegesis privileges the canonical commentaries, and takes intoaccount the grammatical intricacies of the original Arabic.

    The defining quality of Mahathirs Islam can thus be described as the ability ofevery sufficiently literate believer to comprehend the divine will through direct accessto the primary sources of Islamic law and in this way achieve an unmediatedcommunication between themselves and their Creator. It goes without saying thattafsir bi-l-rai, on the other hand, of course also freed the believer from the dictate ofthe religious scholars, which seems to have been an ardent desire of the individualist,perhaps even protestant-type personal faith that Mahathir (who himself hadvery little religious training) was preaching to Malaysias increasingly urban andmiddle-class Muslim public. While political motivations were the driving forcesbehind Mahathirs turn to Islam, there is little doubt that this understanding ofreligion was personally more agreeable to him than the conservatism of the largelyrural ulama.

    Kessler (2004, p. 22) has pointed to the incongruity of Mahathirs overall distrustof individualism and his highly personalistic religiosity, since in religious matters anindividualist is exactly what Mahathir was. Mahathir asserted that an individualbelievers conscience, based on a firm knowledge of the teachings of Islam andrational thought, rather than the opinion of any scholar, represented the highestform of Muslim-consciousness, of truly understanding the teachings of the ProphetMuhammad. Similarly, in criticising Muslims for emphasising fardhu ain (individualreligious duties) over the communal duties of fardhu kifayah, Mahathir appeared tosuggest that the individual contemplating Allahs word preferably in translationfrom the Arabic (Mahathir, 1996a) if they were unable to understand the languageof the Quran was the most worthwhile act of worship.

    While Mahathir seemed to advocate a thorough rethinking of the mutaghayyir(open and changeable) aspects of Islamic law covering muamalat (social dealings),and on many occasions questioned the prerogative of the ulama, present or past, tointerpret scripture in absolute terms (e.g. in Islam there is no intermediary betweenthe believer and God, and no one is infallible [Mahathir, 1984d]), there was a limitto how far he thought Muslims could go. His notable lack of enthusiasm for the

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  • liberal fiqh represented, for example, by Indonesias so-called neo-modernistscholars (see Barton, 1997), stemmed from the fact that he was a modernist in theconventional Western sense that is, he embraced reason, science, positivism andempiricism. But he would remain a lifelong opponent of post-modernism and evenneo-modernism, being opposed to their multiplicities of narratives and relativisationof absolutes (e.g. Mahathir, 2008). Revealing the chasm between modernists andneo-modernists in contemporary Islamic thought, Mahathir often suggested thatthere were some aspects of religion that must remain closed to reinterpretation: Thecollapse of religion in the West should serve as a warning to us. If we are too liberalin our interpretation of Islam, it too can collapse (Mahathir, 1993a).

    Taking Stock

    This essay has sought to examine at greater depth the representations Malaysiasformer prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has made of Islam. Although extantscholarship has generally focused on Mahathirs economic policies and his vision forMalaysias transformation into an advanced, industrialised society, I have sought toshow that his articulation of being-Muslim in the modern world comes together in arelatively coherent discourse that might be termed Mahathirs Islam. Theserepresentations of Islam must, in turn, be taken seriously and on their own terms asa vital political component of his 22-year rule. Elaborated in a large number ofspeeches as well as many publications and interviews, Mahathirs Islam containednot only the prime ministers assessment of the grim situation facing the Muslimumma, but also a range of solutions and corrective measures that Muslims shouldadopt. What emerges from my analysis of his speeches, interviews and writings isthat our understanding of the Mahathir legacy would be poorer if it failed to factorin Islam. This becomes particularly pertinent in light of my observation thatMahathir even if inadvertently helped to create the preconditions for MalaysianIslam to emerge as a force for democracy, pluralism and a more open society.

    Clearly not all was well with Mahathirs Islam. Some of the most significantshortcomings of his discourse as well as his governments actual policies arose fromthe inability or unwillingness to distinguish more carefully Islam from Malayness.12

    Similarly, while his conception of religion as the highest ethical standard could resultin the emergence of Islam as Malaysias civil religion, such liberal attitudes clearlydid not extend to other areas of his politics. Mahathirs representations of Islam asan egalitarian and individually liberating religion did not prevent him fromimplementing some very repressive legislation and coming down hard on detractors.The eventual democratisation of Malaysian politics may be a possible outcome ofhis curiously democratic religious discourse, but Mahathir himself never suggestedthat liberal readings of Islam should translate into political openings or a morevigorous oppositional politics. While he was adamant that religion should bedemocratic and individually liberating, there was no commensurate willingness tosubject politics to a similarly democratic reading probably the most disappointingimplication of Mahathirs engagement with the faith.

    Despite its manifest political objectives, I would argue that Mahathirs Islamshould be seen as something more substantial and original than the mereappeasement of Islamist opponents. Although Mahathirs engagement with Islam

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  • was at a basic level driven by political objectives, the representations he made ofIslam as a theology of progress predated the emergence of PAS as a realcompetitor for the Malay vote at the federal level. By the early 1980s, Mahathir hadbegun regularly stating that Islam was uniquely suited to fulfilling the requirementsof modern man and modernising societies: only Islam and its universal values cangive hope to human society (Mahathir, 1983c). Mahathir would seldom afterwardsbe as adamant about the Islamic solution as he was in this 1983 speech, but hismessage stayed on course for the next 20 years. He thus stated in 2003, near the endof his premiership, that in whatever age and environment, Islam is always thesame. It is always able to become a religion that is suitable [for the changingconditions] and that is capable of constructing a glorious civilisation (Mahathir,2003c).

    Consistently since the early 1980s, but in scattered references even as early as themid-1970s, Mahathir has argued that Islam, while not the only solution to the manyproblems of the Muslim world as his Islamist opponents were arguing, should bepart of the multi-layered response to these problems. Islam itself, Mahathir argued,was certainly not the problem. The problem, if anything, was to be found in thefaulty interpretations of the divine message among other Muslims, and their failureto correctly understand the precepts of their religion.

    Acknowledgments

    I wish to acknowledge my gratitude for the suggestions and comments made byDavid Templeman and Dennis Walker at the Monash Asia Institute, MonashUniversity, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for the Asian Studies Review.None of them can, however, be saddled with responsibility for the content of thisessay.

    Notes

    1. When I described his representations of Islam as Mahathirs Islam, Mahathir rejected this on

    the grounds of tokok-tambah, a Malay term that translates as adding unnecessarily. Mahathir

    clearly believed that his representations of Islam conformed to Sunni orthodoxy. I observed a

    similar concern for maintaining the outward appearance of the dogmatic unity of the umma or

    community of the faithful among many other Malaysian Muslims, a result, perhaps, of the social

    cohesion that Islam has been able to engender among the otherwise ethnically, geographically

    and socioeconomically highly differentiated Malays of modern-day Malaysia. It may also be the

    result of their numerically small majority status officially Malays make up less than 55 per cent

    of the population. On the other hand, while Malaysian Islam is of course not a singular,

    monolithic phenomenon, it is not marked by the deep fissures of Islam in neighbouring

    Indonesia, or among South Asian Muslims.

    2. Except where an official English-language translation has been provided (for example, M.

    Mahathir (2001a), Melayu mudah lupa, Presidential Address to the Annual General Assembly of

    the United Malays National Organisation, Kuala Lumpur, 21 June, translated as Malays forget

    easily by the Prime Ministers Department), all English-language translations of Mahathirs

    Malay-language speeches are my own.

    3. Theology is a problematic term, as there is properly no such thing as Islamic theology in a

    Christian sense. Islam begins and ends with tawhid (the absolute unicity of God), and there is no

    cognate term to theology in Muslim languages such as Arabic or Malay. Fiqh, meaning

    jurisprudence, is often used as the equivalent of theology in Muslim contexts (e.g. Djohan,

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  • 2000). Indeed, fiqh more accurately represents the sense I am trying to convey here i.e. the

    justification of an argument based on evidence drawn from Islams sacred founding texts. For

    reasons of diction, however, this essay will retain the English term theology of progress when

    discussing Mahathirs fiqh kemajuan.

    4. Mahathir recognised that a small number of Muslim-majority states, in particular the oil-rich

    kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, had become fabulously wealthy after the oil boom of the 1970s.

    Nonetheless, he was frequently dismissive of their wasting of wealth (e.g. Mahathir, 1983c;

    Mahathir, 1984a) on superficial trappings of modernity. Without a real change in mindsets and

    attitudes, Mahathir argued, the new-found wealth of these very few Muslims stood the danger of

    disappearing as quickly as it had come. When I interviewed him in Putrajaya in May 2008,

    Mahathir suggested that lasting wealth had to be earned by the sweat of the brow. It cant be

    something that falls into the lap from heaven (Schottmann, 2008a).

    5. In response to the devastating inter-communal clashes of May 1969, seen as resulting in part

    from continued Malay socioeconomic marginalisation, the Malaysian government introduced

    the New Economic Policy, designed to uplift indigenous bumiputera communities through

    preferential access to education, housing, employment, government loans and public contracts.

    See Gomez and Jomo (1999) for an assessment of the NEP.

    6. Although this was not a radical departure from convention, Indonesian-Malaysian Muslim texts

    do not generally evince a tenacious insistence that material development was the communal

    religious duty of Muslims (see Hooker, 2000). Some leaders of the nascent nationalist movement

    of the interwar years, for example, had described the fight against British colonial rule as a

    fardhu kifayah falling to all Malays (see Mustapha, 2005, p. 132), while Muhammad Natsir,

    a modernist Muslim Indonesian nationalist, is known to have linked fardhu kifayah to the spirit

    of gotong-royong [mutual aid] and social conscience (see Kurzman, 2002, p. 65). None of them,

    however, explicitly linked Islam to economic growth.

    7. Although a medical doctor by training, Mahathir publicly insisted that as Islam was true, no

    true science could challenge the truthfulness of its divine teachings. It is, however, impossible

    to establish whether such statements reflected his own opinion or whether they were largely

    intended for public consumption. Mahathir underwent a spiritual challenge in the 1950s and

    1960s, but turned towards greater personal observance of Islams injunctions later in life (see

    Schottmann, 2010). I believe, however, that religion and science need not be in opposition, in

    competition. Science is good at explaining how things happen, but it simply cannot provide an

    answer for why, Mahathir told me. When my faith is being assailed, I just repeat that science

    tells us how, but it cannot tell us why (Schottmann, 2008a).

    8. This was of course not consistently the case; nor do pre-modern notions of the protection of

    religious minorities reflect present-day norms of minority rights, pluralism and citizenship. But

    Mahathir was making a political point and was not engaged in historical polemics.

    9. Although Islamisation has produced a number of highly problematic effects for the countrys

    non-Muslim minorities (e.g. difficulties in obtaining building permits for church or temple

    construction, or the increasing religious content of the national education curriculum), problems

    arising from an actual lack of religious freedoms have tended to affect Malaysian Muslims more

    than non-Muslims, with the obvious exception of converts from Islam or the non-Muslim kin of

    deceased converts to Islam, particularly where such conversion is disputed (see Farish, 2008). It

    seems reasonable to surmise that while Malaysias Islamisation more immediately affects the

    lives of Muslims, its overall effects have left non-Muslims feeling increasingly uncomfortable and

    vulnerable.

    10. Mahathir (perhaps taking the cue from Anwar, who had written at length on Andalusias

    Muslim-Jewish-Christian convivencia in his 1996 book The Asian Renaissance), made frequent

    mention of the inspiration that Andalusia could afford to present-day Muslims (e.g. Mahathir,

    2003b). Andalusia was of personal interest to Mahathir, but also reverberates strongly in both

    modernist and Islamist literature.

    11. Modernist here refers to the Muslim worlds modernist movement of the late nineteenth and

    early twentieth centuries.

    12. Malay identity in Malaysia is centrally defined by adherence to Islam, and being Malay is

    assumed and asserted to automatically mean being-Muslim. The reverse also holds true, of

    course, and an overwhelming majority of Muslims in Malaysia identify themselves as Malay.

    Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World 369

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    Mahathir Mohamad on Being-Muslim in the Modern World 371

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