Rise of leadership by ulama in PAS (Part 1)

The concept of kepimpinan ulama (leadership by ulama), and the structure of the Majlis Syura Ulama, is central to the identity of post-1982 PAS.

However, this has been increasingly questioned internally in the recent years with the influx of highly-educated middle-class members in the aftermath of the sacking of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. This article traces the lay origin of the now sacred concept, as well as current woes.

That the ulama have played an important role in PAS since its inception is without question. Indeed, the party emerged from the ulama section of Umno.

Notably, Abdullah Fahim Ibrahim, a former head of the Umno religious department, and Ahmad Badawi – respectively the grandfather and father of Prime Minister and Umno president Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – were among PAS founders.

The scholars are important to PAS in part because they enhance its Islamic credentials. But their continued influence on the party can also be attributed to the early post-independence social structure of Malay-Muslim society.

The ulama have been a rare minority of educated persons with high social standing but not necessarily co-opted by the state. Many of them lived an ‘autonomous’ life outside state patronage, and thus could challenge the government through PAS.

Internal pressures

Yet, despite the long-term influence of the ulama in PAS, the notion of kepimpinan ulama only came into party lexicon in 1982, partly due to external developments. The Iranian revolution in 1979 galvanised Islamic movements all over the world, Malaysia included. Some party members visited Iran and returned with an aspiration for radical change in Malaysia.

The old PAS leadership was seen, especially in the eyes of young Islamists who were exposed to the dakwah (missionary) movement of 1970s, as too conciliatory in its approach towards the government.

Also, some PAS leaders were alarmed by the ascendance of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad government in July 1981 and its readiness to ‘absorb’ Islamic values into public administration. Some opined that only an unambiguous differentiation from Umno through articulating Islamic symbols and ideas could save PAS from being undercut by the then new Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the principle of kepimpinan ulama was a direct product of the intra-party conflict between the leadership of Asri Muda and the so-called ‘Young Turks’ from the late 1970s to 1983. Asri’s days as leader were numbered after the failed coalition experience with Barisan Nasional ended in November 1977 and the debacles of 1978 national and Kelantan state elections.

PAS won only two state seats in the Kelantan state election held in March 1978 and performed badly in the subsequent national election in July 1978 when it won only five parliamentary and 10 state seats.

Dissatisfaction turned into open challenge at the muktamar (general assembly) of April 1981. Asri stayed on as president when veteran leader Yusof Rawa decided at the last moment not to challenge his position, but he was isolated as the challengers dislodged all his loyalists in senior party positions.

Yusof defeated Asri’s close ally and incumbent deputy president Abu Bakar Omar. The two vice-presidents were Young Turks Fadzil Noor and Abdul Hadi Awang.

Pressures on Asri increased after the 1982 general election when PAS’ fortune was improved only modestly. It won five parliamentary seats, the number it had obtained in 1978 but won 18 state seats compared to 10 in the previous election.

Post-election, the Youth wing unprecedentedly held its muktamar earlier and separately where Asri was heavily criticised. Delegates proposed that PAS should adopt the principle of kepimpinan ulama – perhaps having in mind the revolutionary vanguard role of the ayatollahs in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Asri ‘resigns’

Matters came to a head at the1982 muktamar which led to the end of Asri’s 30-year relationship with PAS – 17 years at its helm as acting president or president – and the rise of a new ‘Young Turk’ leadership.

At the muktamar on Oct 23, delegates humiliated Asri by showing disapproval of his presidential address. Amidst the standard call of Allahu Akbar (God is Great) were noises of marakbar Asri (die, Asri). He skipped the following session and dispatched a letter – read by secretary-general Abu Bakar Omar – announcing his wish to “return the mandate” to the muktamar because of a ‘conspiracy’ to undermine his leadership.

According to Subky Latif, the move was not a notice of resignation, but meant to imply that a vote of confidence in his leadership was needed. The opportunity was, however, seized by Fadzil Noor, who immediately adjourned the muktamar and called for an emergency Central Committee meeting, in which he and the anti-Asri faction firmly held the numbers. The committee accepted Asri’s ‘resignation’ and appointed Yusof as acting president.

Asri was not satisfied at being removed unceremoniously and went on to campaign against the new leadership. He still had strong influence in the party, with four of the five PAS members of Parliament supporting him.

Nik Aziz Nik Mat was left the sole MP when Asri and his associates – nicknamed the ‘Group of 13′ – were suspended from PAS membership on Jan 30, 1983, and then resigned on Feb 24. He later established the Parti Hizbul Muslimin Malaysia as a platform to continue his political life.

The muktamar in May 1983 confirmed the Young Turks’ leadership – Yusof as president, Fadzil Noor as his deputy, Hadi Awang and Nakhaie Ahmad as elected vice-presidents. The muktamar also affirmed the principle of kepimpinan ulama and embarked on a process of rebuilding the party in a new and more radical image.

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