Sometime in the 80s, I was sent to report on Al-Arqam, a religious sect that was later banned by the government in 1994 for religious deviations.
My assignment was to confirm whether a leadership crisis had occurred in the movement between Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad and one of his deputies.
As a reporter, I had the opportunity to cover Malay political parties and Muslim associations. But it was my first time covering a massive religious movement centred on a village in Sg Penchala.
It was said Al-Arqam had attracted over 60,000 people at the height of its popularity, drawing support and sympathy from low-income to middle-class Malays as well as college and university students from all over the country.
What I discovered in the few days’ stay in Sg Penchala was not so much its leadership crisis or even its deviant teachings, but its business and economic activities, which left me overwhelmed.
Al-Arqam had set up more than 50 food-based small- and medium-sized business units, manufacturing and selling halal food products in that spread-out village, apart from establishing scores of manufacturing factories in other states that employed thousands of poor and jobless Muslims.
Al-Arqam had a sad ending, mired in controversies and accusations, despite its prowess in business. Somehow, it found ways to operate overseas, including opening up halal restaurants under a new name, Global Ikhwan.
“Members” and sympathisers of the movement would agree that Al-Arqam left a legacy on how Muslims could and should conduct business according to the needs and wants of Muslims at that time. But deviationist beliefs, particularly that concerning Ashaari’s book titled Aurad, killed the movement.
It was during this time, circa 1980s, that Muslims the world over were reintroduced to ideas of Islamic resurgence and its many other names like revivalism, revitalisation, renewal or awakening through organisations like Abim and other Muslim NGOs.
But one Islamic movement that had caused concerns to the Malaysian government due to its pervading influence in many local universities was the Islamic Revolutionary Council (IRC), inspired by the 1978 Iranian Revolution that saw the return of fundamentalist Islam. Many returning UK/US-trained academicians equated the Iranian Revolution with Islamic resurgence that needed to be promoted in Malaysia.
One of the challenges I had writing about IRC was that believers thought the Iranian Revolution was the beginning of Islamic revival in that century. This belief became a firm conviction among these academicians although they knew there had long been animosity between the Shias and the Sunnis.
The influence of IRC caused grave concern to the Department of Islamic Development and muftis of the country.
Since the fall of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century, there had been many social and religious movements, mostly centred on Egypt. They brought about new ideas, some radical ones, throughout Muslim countries. These movements were vehicles to revive Islam in an attempt to weed out Western imperialism. Individuals like Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Muhammad Rashid Rida, Syeikh Muhammad Abduh were some of the key founding figures of Islamic Modernism.
But have Muslims moved in the same direction in this new millennia? I do not see it happening anytime soon. Muslims are being reminded time and again that Islam is in dire need of a true resurgence that unites Muslims in all areas to face new challenges in this new millennia.
C’est la vie.
The writer is a former NST journalist, now a film scriptwriter whose penchant is finding new food haunts in the country
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times