With the persecution of Shiite Muslims in Southeast Asia, Salafism represents a threat to peace in the region.
It is a fact that many acts of physical as well as verbal violence are perpetrated in the name of Islam. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify that the problem lies not in the religion of Islam itself but in certain orientations to be found among Muslims. One such orientation is that of Salafism.
While it is true that not all Salafists espouse intolerance and violence, it is also true that some individuals and groups do have highly intolerant views toward those who differ from them in terms of what they consider to be the right Islamic way of life.
This intolerance has sometimes translated into sectarian violence. In Indonesia, violence had been perpetrated against members of the minority Shiite sect, while in Malaysia, Shiites have been persecuted.
Islam: A Long History of Division
Sunnis and Shiites represent the two main divisions in Islam, the Sunnis being the majority. The split into Sunni and Shiite Islam took place during the first few centuries after the religion’s birth, and were due to different historical experiences and competing views about who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the young Muslim community after his death.
Extremism among Muslims had existed from the early days of Islam. The early Muslims had terms that described such extremism. An example is the concepts of ghuluw, often translated as zealotry. The roots of extremism today, however, can be traced to ideas that began to appear in the 18th century in Arabia. The founder of Wahhabism, a particular orientation within Salafism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, saw himself as returning the Arabs to the true monotheistic teachings of Islam.
In his time, the veneration of not only saints but also trees and other objects was common. These were all manifestations of unbelief (kufr) and polytheism (shirk), and ibn Abd al-Wahhab saw his role as rooting these practices out by emphasizing the unity of God, and returning the people to the true beliefs and practices of Islam. However, he enforced rules and punishments considered excessive by many Muslims. These included the public stoning to death of women accused of adultery.
The most important extremist orientation in Islam today is that of Salafism. Some of the traits of Salafism include: intolerance of others, particularly Muslims who disagree with their orientations — this sometimes amounts to the pronouncement of takfir or excommunication on such Muslims; overemphasis on rules and regulations at the expense of spirituality; forbidding beliefs and practices allowed by the majority of Muslims; non-contextual/non-historical interpretation of the Quran and hadith, or the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad; and literalism in the interpretation of texts. Salafism is generally understood to be a literalist, strict and puritanical approach to Islam.
Although Sunni consensus regards Shiism as a legitimate school of thought and jurisprudence in Islam, this has not prevented action against them. In August 2012, a deadly anti-Shiite rampage in Sampang on the Indonesian island of Madura turned houses into ashes and left Shiites dead and others homeless.
Some Salafists also advocate violent action against non-Muslims and certain Muslims. They erroneously refer to this action as jihad. However, it is the minority of Salafists who take this approach.
There are some Salafists who also direct their energies against certain sects or schools of thought within Islam. Take the example of a modern-day Salafist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and an al-Qaeda leader in the 2000s. In the following quotation, Zarqawi compares non-Muslims with Shiites, both described as enemies:
“[They are] the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom. We here are entering a battle on two levels. One, evident and open, is with an attacking enemy and patent infidelity. [Another is] a difficult, fierce battle with a crafty enemy who wears the garb of a friend, manifests agreement, and calls for comradeship, but harbors ill will and twists up peaks and crests …The unhurried observer and inquiring onlooker will realize that Shi’ism is the looming danger and the true challenge.”
Zarqawi goes on to say that Shiism has nothing in common with Islam.
Persecution of Shiite Muslims in Southeast Asia
The impact of such thinking is devastating. An example is the wave of violence and persecution of Shiites in Indonesia and Malaysia. Although Sunni consensus regards Shiism as a legitimate school of thought and jurisprudence in Islam, this has not prevented action against them. In August 2012, a deadly anti-Shiite rampage in Sampang on the Indonesian island of Madura turned houses into ashes and left Shiites dead and others homeless.
A Sunni leader, Rois al-Hukama of the Nahdlatul Ulama, was charged with having participated in the arson attacks and destruction of property. However, the Surabaya District Court of Indonesia acquitted him of the charges, citing a lack of evidence. At the same time, the Shiite community of Sampang were apparently forced to take an oath of allegiance to Islam as a condition for their return to their homes.
Over the last 30 years, the attitude of Malaysian authorities toward the Shiite had changed from acceptance to rejection and even persecution. In 1984, the Fatwa Committee of the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs declared that following Shiite schools of jurisprudence — that is, the Jafari and Zaidi schools — was acceptable in Malaysia. In 1996, this decision was revoked. It was followed by a series offatwas between 1998 and 2012 issued by various states in Malaysia that placed restrictions on the spread and practice of Shiism.
In the state of Selangor, Shiites have been arrested for practicing their rituals. In December 2010, approximately 200 Shiites, including some foreigners, were arrested by state religious authorities during a raid at a Shiite center.
Much of the struggle for Islam in this century will be that of the Sufis to reclaim Islam from the one-dimensional Salafism and other extremisms.
Under Section 16 of the Perak Criminal (Syariah) Enactment, 1992, it is an offence to possess items on Shiism, including books, audio-visual materials and posters. In early August 2013, two Shiites were arrested, followed by another six arrests in September of that year. The Perak Islamic Religious Department (JAIPk) enforcement chief, Ahmad Nizam Amiruddin, is reported to have said that the Shiite should be eradicated.
In March 2014, Perak state religious authorities arrested more than 100 people believed to be Shiite. The arrests were carried out while they were commemorating the birth of Zainab bint Ali, the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam, and the grand-daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
The position taken against Shiism in Indonesia and Malaysia is also found among Salafists and Wahhabis. It is in this sense that we can speak of the Salafization of Sunni Islam in the Malay world.
It is ironic that in Malaysia there is also a 2013 fatwa issued by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) that considers Wahhabism as inappropriate for the country. Nevertheless, state religious officials themselves have adopted an anti-Shiite position that does not differ from conventional Wahhabi or Salafist views.
A Truly Free Muslim World
These examples of extremism are to be contrasted to the tolerant and open tradition of Islam in the Malay world. Historically, Islam in the Malay world had been very accommodating to the cultural diversity of the region. This was in part due to the fact that it was through the Sufi tradition that Islam came to the region. Although the Malays did not compromise on the fundamentals of Islam, they were accepting of a variety of beliefs and practices often influenced by local customs known as adat.
The 15th century saints of Java, Sunan Drajat and Sunan Kalijaga are said to have used traditional Javanese art forms such as the wayang kulit and gamelan to convey the spiritual teachings of Sufism. Another example is Habib Alawi bin Tahir al-Haddad, the mufti of Johor from 1934-61. Habib Alawi is probably the most well-known mufti that Malaysia has ever had.
An indication of his openness is the fact that he granted permission (ijazah) to transmit hadith to a senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mar’ashi Najafi from Iran. This shows that Habib Alawi respected the Shiites. A leading Sunni scholar would not grant an ijazah to scholar of a sect that he regarded as deviant.
In a truly free Malaysia, adherents of all religious orientations, including Salafists, should not be made to feel threatened and unwelcome. There should be no talk of the eradication of a group on the grounds of its perspective. Differences should be addressed through polemics and intellectual argumentation.
It is important to educate the thinking public that it is not the religion of Islam, but certain minority orientations developed by Muslims that are extremist and that are responsible — at least in part — for intra-Muslim and inter-religious intolerance and violence that we witness today.
It is also important to state that it has become increasingly clear to scholars and activists alike that one of the main forces working against “religious” extremism in Muslim societies is that of the Sufi tradition of Islam.
The Sufi way is not an aspect or part of Islam, but is the core of Islam itself. In fact, Sufism is as old as Islam. Ali bin Uthman al-Hujwiri, the author of the first Persian treatise on Sufism, cites one Abu al-Hassan al-Bushanji, who says: “Sufism today is a name without reality, whereas it used to be a reality without a name.” Much of the struggle for Islam in this century will be that of the Sufis to reclaim Islam from the one-dimensional Salafism and other extremisms.
*[A version of this article was originally published by The Malay Mail.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.