NOTE: This article originally appeared in the 21st October, 2000 issue of Malaysia Kini
The Other Malaysia:
Of Mortal Ulama and Belly Buttons.
By Farish A. Noor.
By now news of the remarks made by PAS's Murshid'ul Am (Spiritual Adviser) Tuan
Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat has probably made its rounds all over the country. The
controversy that followed lay in his claim that women who dressed in T-shirts,
short skirts, jeans or other 'provocative' clothes that exposed their belly
buttons had only themselves to blame if they became the victims of rape and
abuse by men. Sadly, Nik Aziz's thesis was proven to be shallow and faulty as
always by the most unfortunate turn of events- namely, the rape and murder of a
young Malay-Muslim woman who was dressed in what could only be described as
'proper' Muslim attire for women.
But this article isn't about the merits or faults of Nik Aziz's position on
women and dress. Others have written about the contradictions that exist in his
line of argument- which happens to be quite close to that of other senior
politicians in the ruling party of the country, including none other than the
spokesman for 'progressive' Islam, the Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed
himself. We are not concerned about the who is the better between the two, or
which one between them is the most conservative and reactionary.
The real question that this article attempts to address is that of Nik Aziz and
the position of the Ulama themselves, and what role they have to play (or if
they have one at all) in the process of trying to bring about progressive change
in this blessed hypocritical society of ours.
In the wake of Nik Aziz's foot-in-the-mouth gaffe, many among the 'liberal'
opposition of this country came speedily to his defence. We were told, among
other things, that Nik Aziz's words were taken out of context, that he was
deliberately misquoted, that the ruling BN parties and the mainstream media were
mainly focusing on the issue in order to slander PAS, that the whole affair was
misunderstood by all. In the midst of all this, one was given the impression
that Nik Aziz was the poor innocent victim of yet another nasty conspiracy
hatched by the powers-that-be, or- even more sinister yet- some unseen cabal of
closet secularists who were bent on destroying the good name of Islam and the
Ulama in particular. (Never mind the fact that the Ulama have proven more than
capable of giving themselves a bad name on their own). The only break from this
tide of nauseating apologia came from the Women's Wing of the Islamic Party
(Muslimat PAS) who were at least honest enough to tell non-Muslims to mind their
own business and to let Muslim men dictate how Muslim women should live. At
least they found the courage to be openly exclusivist and dogmatic, without
having to apologise for it.
The fact that so much goodwill could be spent trying to salvage the reputation
and credibility of a conservative Ulama, and to present an image of the Ulama as
a class of liberal progressives, makes one wonder if any politician- from the
ruling parties or the alternative front- can be trusted at all. It almost seems
that in order to maintain the fragile instrumental coalition that is the Barisan
Alternative (Alternative Front), some of the leaders of the BA are willing to
cut cards with the Devil (perhaps not the wisest turn of phrase, but never mind)
and get into a working coalition with parties that hold political views and
ideological positions radically different from their own.
But lest we forget the simple facts of politics and history, and begin to
indulge in some post-modernist orgy of radical self-reinvention, we need to
remind ourselves of some simple facts. The Ulama, we need to remember, do not
represent a democratic constituency in the first place. Indeed, as an
institution, the Ulama class as it has evolved today happens to be the closet
that Islam has come to forming a clergy of its own (while it is not meant to
have one) and it also happens to be a class of functionaries whose function and
practice are not exactly democratic, open and accountable by any stretch of the
This is not to say that the Ulama have not played a positive role in the course
of Islamic history. Quite the opposite in fact. During the period of decline
when the Islamic dynasties came under pressure from external threats, it was the
Ulama who helped to preserve the corpus of Islamic teaching and learning,
thereby making it available to the present generation of Muslims today. Many an
Ulama had died for the cause of Islam, and many an Ulama had also given his life
to serve the needs of universal justice, truth and human dignity.
But it cannot be denied that for the past two hundred years at least, the Ulama
have grown increasingly powerful and their influence in Muslim society has also
grown considerably stronger. Thanks to the dislocating effects of colonisation,
rapid modernisation, the inherent inequalities of uneven development and the
emergence of highly repressive political systems in many contemporary Muslim
societies, the politically-marginalised Ulama have come to be seen as the
defenders of the poor and downtrodden masses instead.
While some of the Ulama deserved to be praised for their efforts in defending
the rights of fellow Muslims, we must never overlook the fact that they also
happen to occupy a liminal but powerful station in Muslim society. Their
marginal position as the head of the community of the faithful grants them
enormous power and charismatic influence over their followers, which none of
these other liberal opposition politicians can ever hope to gain for themselves.
Their reliance on a religio-political discourse based on a theocentric final
moral vocabulary also gives them the power to declare what is right and what is
wrong, who are 'pure, true' Muslims and who are not. Thus while the Ulama may
not have as much political power as the governments they oppose, they happen to
possess another form of power which is just as real- if not more- than political
The other aspect of the Ulama that is often overlooked by the liberals and other
progressives who support them for tactical reasons is that they belong to a
class of functionaries who have their own rules of mutuality and association.
Entry to the Ulama class is not open to all- Obviously there is no room for
non-Muslims. But then again there have hardly been any Muslim women who were
allowed to enter this selective grouping as well. And those who do come in are
effectively screened and sifted first, through a complex educational process
which ensures that the Ulama who emerges at the end is the final product of his
specific school of thought.
This is clearly the case with Tuan Guru Nik Aziz himself, who is a product of
Ulama training through and through.
The first Chief Minister and second Murshid'ul Am of PAS Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik
Mat traces his lineage all the way back to the rulers of Kelantan, Patani and
Langkasuka, which includes Maharaja Srimat Trailokyaraja Maulibhushana Warma
Dewa, Raja Surendra, Raja Bharubhasa (Sultan Mahmud of Langkasuka), Sultan
Iskandar Shah (the first Sultan of Kelantan), Sultan Mansur Shah, Raja Abdul
Rahman, Raja Abdullah, Raja Mohammad and Raja Banjar. His father was Raja
Mohammad II, also known as Ustaz Nik Mat Alim Raja Banjar, who was one of the
most prominent Ulama in Kelantan at the time.
Nik Aziz was brought up in a prestigious and conservative religious household
from the very beginning. His father Ustaz Nik Mat Alim had his own religious
school, the Sekolah Agama Darul Anwar and he was well known for his curious
habits and daily rituals. (One of which was to carry an umbrella with him
wherever he went, in case he might encounter any women along the way. In such
situations the umbrella served as a useful hijab (veil) between him and them).
Nik Mat Alim also objected to the fact that his son was forced to wear short
trousers to school when he was undergoing his primary (state) education. After
having spent only three months in the state government school, Nik Aziz's father
decided to send him to a traditional pondok school instead, which had been set
up by the famous Ulama and religious leader Tok Kenali at Kubang Kerian. Nik
Aziz later studied at another traditional pondok school in Trengganu, that was
run by Tuan Guru Haji Abbas of Besut.
In 1952, Nik Aziz travelled to India to study at the Dar'ul Ulum Deoband
seminary, otherwise known as the Deobandi College of Islam. The Deobandi
college's founders were Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, who
both came from prominent Ulama families. They had both studied under the Murshid
Haji Imdadullah and Mamluk Ali of Delhi college and were influenced by the ideas
of Islamic revivalists like Shah Wali 'Ullah and Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi. The two
other co-founders of the Deobandi college were Maulana Zulfiqar Ali and Maulana
Fazl-ur Rahman. Being strict adherents of Islamic orthodoxy, the
Wahhabi-inspired founders and teachers of the Deobandi school were thoroughly
anti-Mutazilite (rationalist) in their outlook. For them the philosophical and
rationalist approach of the modernist school was dangerously close to the
positivistic trends of the West, which they labelled as nechari (naturalist) and
materialist. They preferred instead the approach of the Asharites, who argued
that the crisis in the Muslim world was due to the lack of faith among Muslims
It was here at the Deobandi school that Nik Aziz first underwent formal
religious education at the hands of the Deoband Ulama and Shaikh al-Hadith like
Maulana Husain Ahmad al-Madani, who taught him that Islam was in need of
purification and that the task of safeguarding the interests of Muslims fell
unto the Ulama. The Deobandi school was known for its emphasis on the role of
the Ulama class. It had created a reputation for itself thanks to its intensive
mode of teaching and its closed academic atmosphere which helped to bring the
students closer together, thereby creating strong Ulama-murid networks. Unlike
the Aligarh college of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (where the third President of PAS,
Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy had studied), the Deobandi school did not believe in
the creation of a Muslim political elite. Instead, it focused its attention and
energy on the creating of a class of Ulama who would serve as teachers and
leaders to their communities. Among the prestigious fraternity of the Deobandi
school were men like Maulana Abu'l A'la Maudoodi, the founder of the Jama'ati
Islami of India (and Pakistan) and Qazi Husain Ahmad, who took over as the third
Emir of the Jama'at in 1987.
After completing his studies at Deoband in 1957, Nik Aziz travelled to Lahore,
Pakistan to study tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur'an. He then travelled to Egypt to
study at the university of Al-Azhar in Cairo, where he first read Arabic and
then Islamic law and jurisprudence (fiqh). In Cairo he also became acquainted
with the writing and work of other famous Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna
and Sayyid Qutb and movements such as the Ikhwan'ul Muslimun. He finally
graduated with a degree in Law in the year 1962, after studying abroad for a
total of twelve years.
The ideas and beliefs of Nik Aziz were very much shaped by his educational
experiences abroad. The Deobandi school, for instance, taught the values of
self-reliance and independence among its students. But the lessons drawn from
his experience at Deoband and Al-Azhar also convinced Nik Aziz that the
salvation of the Muslims depended on the spiritual guidance they received. The
Deobandi school, shaped as it was by its Ulama and Ashraf culture, argued that
Muslims should be guided only by the Alim Ulama (the knowledgeable), and that
society would be best governed when it is led by the spiritually inclined. Nik
Aziz reflected these values in both his personal beliefs as well as his
From this period, Nik Aziz began to lecture his followers and constituents about
their religious as well as socio-political obligations. In the curriculum and
co-curriculum programme he developed for his fellow teachers and students, he
stressed the importance of the role of the Alim Ulama as the 'spiritual guides'
to the community who would care for both the material as well as spiritual well
being of the awamm (masses). For Nik Aziz, religious education was a means to
create a class of spiritually-inclined and knowledgeable leaders (alim ulama)
who would safeguard the welfare and concerns of Muslims and see to it that the
law of the Shariah would reign supreme in the land.
The other aspect of Deobandi thinking that was clearly evident in Nik Aziz's
style of leadership is the desire to purify Islam and Muslim culture from
elements which are regarded as un-Islamic (khurafat), heretical (shirk),
innovative (bid'ah) and deviant (ajaran sesat). As soon as he returned to
Malaysia, Nik Aziz announced his arrival in no uncertain terms by declaring that
many of the traditional practices sanctioned by the older generation of
traditional Alim were in fact un-Islamic. This brought him into conflict with
the traditional Ulama of the establishment. In the years to come, Nik Aziz's
polemics against un-Islamic customs and practices would embrace a host of
contaminating evils ranging from pre-Islamic Hindu, Hellenic, Persian and
animist beliefs to the scourge of modern secular ideologies like Communism and
Within PAS itself, Nik Aziz's reputation as the 'Tuan Guru' (respected teacher)
grew rapidly. By the 80s his position within the party's Dewan Ulama ensured
that he was in the right place to offer comments and criticisms on the conduct
of the party leaders and the membership. After he took command of the Dewan
Ulama, Nik Aziz sought to build up its importance as the party's 'inner chamber'
of consultation and arbitration. Together with the president Haji Yusuf Rawa, he
sought to strengthen the credibility and influence of the Ulama leadership of
the party through the Dewan which continued to issue judgements that sanctioned
the policies undertaken by the political leadership of the party.
Taking into account the biographical details and historical background of Nik
Aziz, one could only conclude that the man is very much the product of his own
conservative and orthodox education. Nothing that the Murshid'ul Am of PAS has
said or done has gone contrary to the teachings of his highly conservative and
exclusivist school of Islamic thought. So for Nik Aziz to condemn women who
dress 'immorally' and for him to claim that they deserve to get raped if they
continue to do so is perfectly normal and consistent with the man and his
beliefs. The problem arises then liberals begin to reinvent the personality of
Nik Aziz to suit their own ideological ends instead.
The Ulama class are not, have never been and will never be a force for
progressive change in the Muslim world. That would be a betrayal of their
function and duties in society and it would, in fact, spell the end for the
Ulama class itself. For the real purpose of the Ulama is to protect and conserve
what they see as the purity and sanctity of Islam- which in turn explains why
their view of the world is so much shaped by the dialectical opposition between
'Good Muslims' and 'Evil Enemies'; 'pure Islam' and 'un-Islamic evils'.
Those who seek to form alliances with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party must at
least be honest enough to recognise that they are dealing with a party whose
ideology is rooted in a religio-political discourse of absolutes. This is a
party of honest, if hardline and non-negotiable convictions. We cannot continue
to delude ourselves and others by claiming that somehow this party can suddenly
transform itself into a liberal-democratic movement that embraces pluralism
without limits. PAS has limits, and the limits of PAS's politics are set by the
Ulama- chief of whom happens to be Nik Aziz himself.
And in the final analysis it must be remembered that Ulama are themselves
mortal. Like all human beings they are shaped and guided by their convictions-
though some of these convictions may be repulsive to some of us. But they cannot
be expected to perform functions, to take up positions or to say things that go
against their principles. Accept them for what they are- as conservative,
dogmatic and orthodox pedagogues- instead of turning them into things that they
are not. One cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and one cannot make a
progressive liberal democrat out of an Ulama.