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Singapore, Salafīyah in

Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir
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Singapore, Salafīyah in

The topic of the historical origins and the evolution of the Salafīyah movement in Singapore has not been given its due attention in the academic setting. The movement’s roots as well as its continued development are as diverse as the range of theories that explain the arrival of Islam to the island state. In truth, the influence of Salafīyah in Singapore is an amalgamation of the religious conversations among the global and regional leaders in Islamic reformist thought. This can be attributed to the various nodes of Islamic influence, namely, the Arab world, North Africa, and Asia. Hence, the stimulus of Salafī thought in Singapore can be attributed to the impact of the works of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. A.H. 240 / 855 C.E.), Ibn Taymīyah (d. A.H. 728 / 1328 C.E.), Ibn al-Qayyim (1292–1350), as well as intellectuals from the al-Azhar University of Cairo, such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905), Jamal-al-Din Afghānī (1839–1897), and Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935) and Indonesian religious scholars such as Hasan bin Ahmad (1887–1958).Despite the diverse influences of Salafīyah thought, in principle, the Salafīs (followers of the forefathers of Islam) call for a return to a more authentic version of Islam and consider that certain modified practices and beliefs that have developed over the centuries are spurious and should be done away with. The Salafīs view the first three generations starting from the coming of Prophet Muḥammad as a model for future Muslims. This belief is based on several sources in the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, and is canonized, for example, in the narration of the Prophet Muḥammad reported in the Sahih al-Bukhari: “The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e., the next generation).”

Colonial Singapore

The genesis of the Salafīyah movement in Singapore can be traced to the Kaum Muda–Kaum Tua debates in the early twentieth century. The Malay term kaum can be taken to mean “family,” “community,” or “people.” Muda means “young,” and tua means “old.” More than just a literal signification of age, the terms connote an ideational conflict, with the Kaum Muda reformists seeking a return to a pristine Islam and reconciliation with modernity, and the Kaum Tua traditionalists in favor of the status quo. The reformists, such as Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hady and Syekh Muḥammad Tahir Jalaluddin, were influenced by the teachings of scholars they met during their travels to Mecca and the Arab world, as well as their indirect participation in a movement started by Muḥammad ʿAbduh and the circle associated with the journal Al-Manar in Cairo. In fact, Syekh Muḥammad Tahir was a close friend of Rashīd Riḍā, who was a student and close associate of Muḥammad ʿAbduh.

The beliefs of the Kaum Muda were deemed seditious due to their criticisms of the syncretism of the Malay ʿādāt (customs) and the idea of taqlīd (blind acceptance of intermediate authority). In particular, the Kaum Muda’s claim that taqlīd was in conflict with Islam, a denial of “equality of all men before God,” was a direct denunciation of the existing social, political, and religious order. These led to swift reprisals against the group, with the regional muftis condemning such “new” ideas as kāfir (disbelief), barring the group leaders from speaking in mosques, and prohibiting the group’s publications. The Kaum Muda hence retreated to the Straits Settlement states, including Singapore, which as part of British Colonial Possessions, did not have a Council of Religion.

In 1907 the Kaum Muda established the first modern madrasah (religious school), known as Madrasah al-Iqbal, in Singapore. It was, arguably, a “modern” institution because of its similarity to the concept, structure, and organization of national schools in later years. It offered primary education (ibtidai), secondary education (thanawi), and higher education (aliyy). In addition, the Madrasah al-Iqbal curriculum included reading and writing, Arabic grammar and composition, the reading of the Qurʾān, essay writing, ethics, worship and rituals, geography, history, mathematics, English, and town planning. Its founder, Sheikh Ahmad al-Hady, abandoned the memorization method of study and initiated student-centered activities such as debates and rhetoric. Expectedly Madrasah al-Iqbal was vilified by the Muslim public in Singapore, who in the main subscribed to a traditional form of authority. Their rejection also reflected the majority attitude of Singapore Muslims toward reformism in that period. Madrasah al-Iqbal closed in 1908.

The closure, however, did not lead to the demise of reformist ideas. The newer breeds of madrasah that emerged in later years retained several features introduced by the Islamic reformist movement of the Kaum Muda, such as its systematic curriculum, modern learning methods, and provision of facilities such as chairs and tables for students. “By no means all the new madrasah were in any sense Kaum Muda but a significant proportion of the teachers were” (Roff, 1994, p. 77).

It is pertinent to note the sociohistorical context in which these new madrasahs had flourished. First, they were in large part a response to the fear of “Christianization.” In the nineteenth century, Christian missionary bodies were actively establishing schools, aimed at providing “a general education and a better standard of moral life based on the tenets of Christianity” (Wong and Yee, 1980, p. 4). Even in the government-sponsored Malay vernacular schools where Qurʾānic lessons were conducted, the Christian Bible was also used as a schoolbook. This led to protests from Muslim parents. Besides this fear of Christianization, the development of secular education in the Straits Settlements also made Muslim parents doubt the adequacy of prevailing schools. Skepticism of secular education and fear of foreign or even Christian bias both encouraged emphasis upon Islamic education. Hence, the development of the madrasah was prompted by the absence of education on Islam in government-sponsored educational institutions, the growth of secular schools (both vernacular and English), and the aggressive activities of Christian missionaries.

Although the Kaum Muda ushered in a “new” type of Muslim education system in Singapore by incorporating Islam and modern secular knowledge in its curriculum, the novelty did not touch the Islamic concept of knowledge, since Islam does not differentiate between worldly science and doctrines of faith. The reformist schooling was new to the Malays due to its organized system of instruction as well as the inclusion of nonreligious subjects in the curriculum. The traditional Muslim educational systems such as the Qurʾānic schools and pondok, by contrast, focused primarily on Islam as religion, detached from the daily affairs of life. W. R. Roff argues that “in the last analysis, the perfection and the purification of Islam was for the Kaum Muda not simply an end in itself but a means for the acceleration and direction of social and economic change for the betterment of Malay society, a process held to be retarded by traditional Islam as practiced in the states” (1994, p. 78).

Independent Singapore

The Salafīyah movement in Singapore underwent a process of consolidation and institutionalization in the late 1950s. In 1957 a number of students from Madrasah Raudatil Atfal together with students of Ustaz Abdul Rahman Harun, Ustaz Rijal Abdullah, and Ustaz Amir Esa decided to formally organize the Salafī movement in Singapore. On 7 June 1989 their association was formally registered as a welfare organization. The name Muhammadiyah was chosen in ideological solidarity with its Indonesian counterpart, which had been founded in 1912 by Ahmad Dahlan. From its inception Muhammadiyah has been doing dakwah (missionary) work through its numerous educational and welfare activities. The 1980s and 1990s were described as a renaissance for Islam in Singapore and for the Muhammadiyah organization in particular. Islamic conferences, camps, workshops, and publications flourished in the city-state, and the organization’s membership increased significantly amid a growing public consciousness that the Salafī movement was not a deviation from Islam.

The 1970s were marked by a process that has been described by the American theologian Harvey Cox as “a tidal change in human spirituality.” For Muslims the goal shifted from modernizing Islam to Islamizing modernity, amid calls in Muslim-majority states to return to Islamic ways according to sacred law. This global Islamic resurgence included Southeast Asia. A steady flow of students pursuing Islamic studies between Singapore and the Arab world ensured the continuity of the Salafī movement in modern Singapore. The recruitment and training of religious elites was never a state monopoly in Singapore. The process of ʿulamāʾ education was carried out in numerous centers—locally and in faraway lands where pilgrims studied with renowned scholars. The existence of multiple centers of education created the potential for rival religious authorities in the Muslim community. This decentralization also meant that ideological unanimity was rare. It was common for “center-periphery” tensions to develop among scholars, most frequently between those in service of state authority and those at the subaltern margins.

The fact of diversity was recognized by the umbrella body of local religious teachers, the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Teachers Association (PERGAS). The organization made a three-pronged observation on the Salafīyah movement in Singapore—first, that Salafīyah has been a part of the Muslim community both locally and globally for a long time; second, that there is diversity within the Salafīyah movement in Singapore; and third, that no one group (Salafīs or secularists) has a monopoly on extremism. An interview with two members from the religious elites revealed that within PERGAS, there is no one ideology or orientation. The religious elites in contemporary Singapore are of various orientations and leanings. One local Islamic scholar argued that a proliferation of views benefits both the religious elites and PERGAS. Diversity is to their advantage not only socially but politically and strategically as well. Differences help to ensure that Muslim organizations cannot be easily co-opted or fall under the social control of non-Muslims or the state. Nevertheless, PERGAS acknowledges that the early twenty-first century has seen a renewed tendency to view the Salafīs negatively.

The Salafīyah “Threat” post–Sept 11

The statement below by Singapore’s first prime minister encapsulates the contemporary understanding and management of the Salafīyah movement in Singapore:

"It’s the surge of Wahhabism and the oil money that funds it. The Saudis have been building mosques all over the Muslim world and to the mosques, they send their preachers. Here, we build our mosques and we don’t need their preachers. Our situation is less severe. If they send their preachers, then they will preach Wahhabism, which sets out to be very exclusive and looks back to the past, to the 7th century. We got MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) to agree: no foreign preachers. That is always a worry, but they can go to Batam or Johor Bahru and hear all the rousing speeches from fiery mullahs. Some are still going to Medina to study. If they go to Jordan, it’s not too bad because that’s more in consonance with the modern world. The Jordanians want their Muslims to be part of the modern world. The Saudis want their Muslims to be part of original Islam. That way the royal family stays on top. (Lee Kuan Yew, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, 2011, pp. 234–235)"

Two points can be gleaned from this quotation. The first relates to the popular understanding of Islamic social movements in Singapore. It is evident from the various national discourses that Salafīyah is often conflated with Wahhabism and that Saudi oil money has facilitated the spread of strict Wahhābī ideas to Southeast Asia. There is a fear that these ideas are being used as a political tool. This danger is compounded by the fact that many political commentators, media observers, and academicians continue to conflate Salafīyah with Wahhabism in strategizing the post 9/11 “war against terror.” The second point involves the methods employed to curb the spread of Salafī thought. An approach of “management of religion” is deployed, visible through an array of state disciplinary apparatus and community policing initiatives. These range from the sanctioning of foreign preachers to educating of local Islamic scholars, along with the top brass of government statutory boards, in the more “modern” Arab countries as well as in the West.

The perpetuation of the misconceptions surrounding Salafī thought in Singapore today and the generally negative perception of the movement are fueled by the lack of vibrant, free discussion among Muslims on the various orientations in Islam. There is a perception that such discussion will result in heterogeneity of religious practices leading to divisions within the community, hence tarnishing the image of Islam. This fear is intertwined with the ambiguity of Singapore’s “boundaries” regarding race, language, and religion. These uncertainties have led to self-censorship and an ultracautious approach to sensitive topics on the part of the Salafī. More effervescent and open discussion between different Islamic schools of thought in Singapore will inevitably reveal more commonalities than discrepancies in both ideas and practice.

Muslims in Singapore have, over many decades, been exposed to reformist Islamic thought, to a large extent through the global and regional Islamic resurgence. Contemporary local Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), the Muslim Missionary Society (Jamiyah), Muslim Theological Association of Singapore (Pertapis), Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), the Muslim Converts Association (Darul Arqam), and PERGAS have all played overlapping and symbiotic roles in the Islamization of the city-state’s populace. The idea of returning to the Qurʾān and sunnah as the primary source of religious authority, the need to reconcile everyday life with the sharīʿah, the notion of Islam as a complete way of life and as an extension, the concept of ʿibādah as all-encompassing, as well as embracing one’s religious rituals and other worldly activities—these concepts are not foreign to local organizations and Muslim leaders. Since the 1970s, a number of distinctive prohibitions—such as the labeling of the wearing of tangkals (mystic charms) as shirk (idolatry) and the prohibition of supplications through shrines of religious people—can be considered to be “Salafī” in nature. These understandings have become part and parcel of mainstream Islam and the everyday practices of Singapore’s Muslims. Therefore, it is highly problematic to isolate Salafī thought in Singapore today. It has become part and parcel of the religious discourses of ordinary Muslims in Singapore.


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