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Malaysia’s deep Islamic state

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Soon after Mahathir Mohamed became Prime Minister in 1981, he embarked upon bringing Islam into Malaysia’s government. He opened an Islamic university, started an Islamic banking sector, strengthened Islamic jurisprudence and centralized Federal Islamic affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department.

Thirty-eight years later, that has created an unassailable Islamic bureaucracy that is independent of the executive branch, with their own sources of funds in addition to federal and state budget allocations. Elected governments, even under a new reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition that drove out the United Malays National Organization and the component parties of the Barisan Nasional, do not dare to cut down the size of the Islamic bureaucracy due to the potential political outcry that would follow from ultra-Malay-Islamic groups across the country.

This is a radical change from the country at its birth in 1957, when Tunku Abdul Rahman, who loved horse-racing and Scotch whiskey, was the head of state and entertainers like P Ramli dominated the movies whose audiences included miniskirted teenagers.


With or without Mahathir, the Islam resurgence began in the early 1980s where ethnic Malays, thrilled with the Islamic wave created by Ayatollah Khomeini that humiliated the west in Iran, were becoming much more religious, with Malay social codes becoming much more observant of Islam. More women began covering their heads, Arabized dress started becoming synonymous with Islam and the Malay language itself was becoming Arabized.

An astute Mahathir saw this being translated into growing support for the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS. So in 1982 Mahathir recruited the popular Anwar Ibrahim, who was president of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) into his party UMNO to strengthen his Islamic credentials. Anwar moved through the senior political ranks very quickly, becoming Youth & Sports Minister in 1983, Agriculture Minister in 1984, Education Minister in 1983, Finance Minister in 1991, and finally Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.

Mahathir was able to decimate PAS in the 1986, leaving them with only one parliamentary seat although PAS rebounded and wrested the Kelantan state government from UMNO in the 1990 general election and has ruled it since.

The Malaysian Constitution specifies that Islam is the official religion of the nation, although freedom of religion is also supposedly guaranteed. In addition, under the constitution, ethnic Malays cannot convert to any other religion unless the Sharia Court grants permission, which is unheard of. Islam is a matter for the states to regulate and each head of state, raja or sultan is also the leader of Islam. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong or king is the head of Islam in the Federal Territories and states which don’t have a royal head of state.

As Islam is a state responsibility, each state has a Multi Department which issues fatwas based on interpreting the Quran, Hadiths, and Sunna, maintains mosque operations, and identifies and controls the spread of deviant Islamic teachings. State Islamic Departments are responsible for family law, mosque maintenance, Sharia enforcement, education, and general Islamic affairs. Each state will also have an agency and Islamic foundations which invest in Islamic insurance, Islamic education, and the spending of Zakat monies. The operations of these business arms are substantial, and the control of Zakat monies creates massive outreach into the community.

Although each state government has an executive council member responsible for Islamic affairs, the Mufti and State Islamic Departments tend to run autonomously without political interference.


During Mahathir’s first tenure, the Division of Islamic Affairs was upgraded to the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM). With a Director-General in charge, JAKIM became responsible for Islamic affairs in all Federal Territories. JAKIM’s aim was to maintain the purity of Islam and Islamic teachings, coordinate law enforcement, and oversee Halal regulation. Within JAKIM is the National Fatwa Council made up of state Muftis and an additional five Islamic Scholars selected by the Conference of Rulers. Once a fatwa was approved by the Conference of Rulers and gazetted, it becomes legally binding within the Federal Territories.

Fatwa decisions are based upon the principle of collective decisions (Shura) of the Fatwa Council. They are opinions based upon the Islamic texts and advice given to the council. In effect, Fatwas cannot be challenged although there have been many cases of contradictory fatwas issued by various councils, where on occasion they have also been contradictory of the Federal Constitution.

JAKIM and the state religious departments have strong connections with the police. This relationship is outside the control of ministers and state executive councillors. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS), for instance,  conducted raids with the police in 2014 on the Malaysian Bible Society that were embarrassing for the then-opposition Pakatan state government in Selangor.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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