(part 1 of 3)

What hope is there for ‘Progressive Islam’ today?

In the wake of 11 September and in the present state of global crisis and insecurity, there has been much talk of the emergence of ‘progressive Islam’ as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Progressive Islam has been instrumentalised and deployed by a range of actors and agents according to a range of political and ideological ends. In countries like Turkey and Pakistan, progressive Islam is seen as the final bulwark against the rising tide of religious exclusivism and militancy, keeping the doors of rational interpretation (ijtihad) open and serving as the ultimate defence against obscurantism and fanaticism. In other countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, progressive Islam has been harnessed as both a political force and ideological justification for developmental policies that often have little to do with the agenda of democratisation. In Iran, progressive Islam is seen as the means to maintain the momentum of the Iranian revolution, bringing it to its logical apotheosis and crytalising in a form of popular reformist democracy. In all this cases, the term progressive Islam itself remains open and contestable, for understandable reasons.

The ambiguous status of ‘Progressive Islam’ means that it has been presented as both the proof of the failure of political Islamism worldwide as well as the latest stage in the evolution of normative Islam in the postmodern world today. It has received both praise and condemnation by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and critical assessments of the progressive Islamic project have been offered on a number of registers: political, discursive, religious/theological.

What we would like to do here is to assess the challenges and prospects of progressive Islam in one part of the world that has been most closely associated with it: Southeast Asia. Our intention is to look at the phenomenon of progressive Islam from both a historical and discursive viewpoint, analysing the variable political, ideological and geostrategic factors that have shaped and directed its development and contents; as well as attempting a close reading of the discourse of progressive Islam itself in order to raise fundamental questions about what it attempts to do, can do and cannot be expected to do.

Can there be such a thing as ‘progressive Islam’ in the difficult times we live in? What are the political, cultural, historical, economic and theological factors that shape the form and content of this discourse and guide its workings? What are the challenges and prospects of this latest wave of Islamist thought?

Our contention is that the term ‘progressive Islam’ is itself highly normative, descriptive, prescriptive and ideological in content and form. Progressive Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia emerged at a time when the discursive content and normative expression of Islam and political Islam (Islamism) were themselves being openly contested by political agents and actors with clearly defined political goals. In that respect, the politicisation of Progressive Islam today at the hands of transnational media agencies, academic and political institutions is neither new nor an aberration. Being itself open and vulnerable to the plasticity of discourse, the normative expression of Islam has always been contested for political reasons and in turn has been politicised as well. This will be our first thesis.

Our second thesis is that the main problem facing the entire progressive Islamic project is that it is a prime example of top-down social engineering, where the discourse of Islam has been wrestled and defined by statist intellectuals, bureaucrats, technocrats and securocrats. The re-invention of Islam as a discourse compatible with development and commerce has been the main feature of the progressive Islam project in Southeast Asia thus far, with the stated goal of turning Islam and its normative expression into a collective work ethic for the nation as a whole. Islam here has been roped into the process of nation-building, but this in turn exposes Islam to a host of other variable factors and difficulties that are linked to the developmental process and the logic of governmentality.

Finally, we need to consider the long-term prospects of the project of progressive Islam itself. Coming at a time when the relationship between Islam and its constitutive Other – most notably the ambiguous ‘West’ – is at an all-time low, one wonders how and if the project of progressive Islam itself will not be dashed on the hard rocks of realpolitik. Living as we do at a time when the notion of Pax Americana and the American Empire no longer seem like outdated and unreal leftist slogans, can there be a third voice that straddles the ever-shrinking third space between Islam and the West? At a time when the world is being cut apart thanks to the monochromatic oppositional dialectics of the likes of George W. Bush (“You are with us or against us”), can progressive Islam serve as the much-needed bridge-builder between cultures and peoples?

Nothing ‘new’ about it

‘Progressive Islam’ may seem like a trendy catchphrase in the media today, though it ought to be remembered that the modern phenomenon of political Islam or Islamism – here understood as the conscious and deliberate attempt to use the discourse of normative Islam as a means for social and political mobilisation – is neither new nor unique.

Southeast Asia’s experiment with political Islam or Islamism began way back to the late 19th century, coming at a time when Muslims the world over felt the desperate need to organise and mobilise themselves against threats – both real and imagined – coming from within and without the community.

In the Malay-Muslim parts of the Malay archipelago, the common sense of anxiety and apprehension about the future of Muslims, and by extension Islam itself, was first expressed by the constituency known as the Kaum Muda (lit. ‘Younger Generation’) of Islamist reformists, activists and political leaders at the turn of the 20th century.

Long before the contemporary Islamists of today organised themselves and formed political movements of their own, the pace of reform and political mobilisation was speeded up thanks to the efforts of a generation of progressive Malay-Muslim thinkers who looked abroad to countries like Japan and Turkey for answers and solutions to their own predicament as colonised subjects living under foreign imperial rule.(1) Apart from looking to positive examples of developed Asian nations like Japan, the Malay and
Peranakan Muslim reformers of the Malay archipelago also turned to other cosmopolitan Muslim leaders and intellectuals like Jamaluddin al-Afgani and Muhammad Abduh (and later Abul Al’aa Maudoodi and even Soekarno and Gemmel Nasser) as their role models.

Following the example that had been set by the Muslim reformers of the Western Muslim world, the Malay and Peranakan Muslim reformers of the archipelago paved the way for the development of modernist and reformist Islamic seminaries (madrasahs) and the emergence of a vernacular Islamist press. Through such instruments like the vernacular Islamist press the bonds of the Muslim Ummah were effectively strengthened and the Malay-Muslim world brought even closer within the orbit of radical reformist thinking that was being developed elsewhere. The Malay-Muslims began to realise that they were not alone and that the plight of the Muslim Ummah was a universal one.(2)

The developments in Malay-Muslim world were not isolated to British Malaya alone: In the neighbouring Dutch East Indies, a number of important Indonesian Islamist movements also came to the fore. In 1908, the Budi Otomo (Noble Endeavour) movement was formed by Dr. Waidin Sudira Usada along with a group of prominent Javanese intellectuals, merchants and community leaders. Shortly after, the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Co-operative) movement was formed by Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto (the future father-in-law of Soekarno) and Haji Agoes Salim in 1911. The Sarekat Dagang Islam was, from the very beginning, a modern reformist organisation that catered for the
interests of the Indonesian Muslim community exclusively. It sought to develop the economic and social well-being of Muslims in the East Indies, and within a few years it opened up branches in the Malay Peninsula as well.

In 1912, the Muhammadijah, a modernist and reformist Muslim organisation was founded under the leadership of Kyai Haji Dahlan. The conservative-traditionalists followed suit by forming their own organisation, the Nahdatul Ulama in 1926 under the leadership of Kyai Haji Asyari of Surabaya.

Developments in British Malaya mirrored the rapid socio-cultural changes that were taking place in neighbouring Indonesia. The Muslims of the peninsula became increasingly agitated about their own fate in the near future. The challenge of genuine social reform and political mobilisation was seized by the new generation of Malay reformers and modernists who came to be known as the Kaum Muda (Younger generation).

The Kaum Muda reformers were mostly Malay and Peranakan Muslims who had grown up in the British colonial settlements of Penang, Melacca and Singapore. The inheritors of a different intellectual tradition that went back to the time of the modernist writer and educationalist Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, they viewed the condition of the Malays in the Malay sultanates from a radically different perspective. Unlike the native subjects of the Malay kingdoms, these urban-based Malay and Peranakan Muslims did not live
under the influence of courtly protocols or traditional adat (customary) law. They were shaped instead by the values and lifestyle of a modern, cosmopolitan mercantile community where economic and political success was the key to survival.

Among the more important and influential figures of the Kaum Muda were the Sumatran-born Sheikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari and the Melaccan-born Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi. Both of them were regarded as representatives of the Kaum Muda generation and they were very much attracted to the reformist and modernist ideas that were en vogue in the Muslim world at the time. Following in the footsteps of Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh were countless other Muslim modernists and reformists who began to write and speak about the need for educational and social reform in the Muslim world from Baghdad to Bukhara, Morocco to Malaya.

Like the other important and influential reformers of the Malay world then, men like Sheikh Muhamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari had travelled to the Arab lands and had received education in Mecca and Al-Azhar university in Cairo. (3) The spread of modernist ideas was facilitated by the advances in modern transport and communications, brought about thanks to the opening of the Suez canal which helped Malay and Indonesian Muslims travel to and from the holy hand with greater ease and frequency. (By then the journey from Singapore to Cairo took only two weeks). Along with a number of other prominent Malay-Muslim reformers like Sheikh Muhammad Basyuni Imran (4) of Sambas, these reform-minded Islamists studied with Malay-Muslim Ulama and Scholars who were already based in Mecca (like Sheikh Umar al-Sumbawi, Sheikh Uthman al-Sarawaki and Sheikh Ahmad Khatib of Minangkabau) as well as modern reformist thinkers like the Egyptian scholar and disciple of Abduh, Rashid Rida himself.

It was through the educational efforts of Sheikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin that the modernist ideas and methods of the newer generation of Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida were introduced to the Malay-Muslims of the peninsula. On 23 July 1906 Sheikh Mohamad Tahir established his own reformist magazine Al-Imam (The Leader) that was modelled on the reformist publication Al-Manar (The Beacon) that was published by Rashid Rida in Cairo. Like the other reformers of the time, Sheikh Mohamad Tahir condemned many of the traditional practices and institutions of the Muslim world on the grounds that they were essentially un-Islamic and were remnants of the pre-Islamic past. In particular he singled out the lifestyle and values of the ruling elite (which he regarded as being morally corrupt, decadent and unjust) as well as the teaching methods of the conservative Ulama (which he argued was out of date and counter-productive) as the main reasons why the Muslim Ummah had sunk to the low state that it had found itself. Sheikh Mohamad Tahir’s work was taken up by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi who was both a prolific writer and founder of numerous modern reformist Madrasahs all over the peninsula. (5)

During his lifetime Syed Sheikh al-Hadi was regarded as the ‘Khalifa Kaum Muda’ by his conservative-traditionalist critics. He was particularly interested in reforming the institution of the Madrasah and Pondok, for he believed that modern Islamic education was the key to solving many (if not all) of the problems that the Muslims were facing at the time. The reform of the Islamic educational system meant, for al-Hadi, the reform of the Muslim mind itself. Along with modern subjects like history and science, he also
wanted to create a new generation of young Muslims who would be able to address the social, economic and political challenges they faced around them with confidence and determination. He set up numerous Madrasahs, including the Madrasah al-Iqbal al Islamiyyah in Singapore, the Madrasah Al-Hadi in Melacca and the Madrasah al-Mashoor al-Islamiyyah in Penang. Syed Sheikh al-Hadi was aided in this task by other Malay-Muslim reformers like Haji Abbas Mohamad Tahar and the Acehnese Sheikh Mohamad Salim al-Kalali, as well as prominent Arab and Indian Muslim reformers like Shaykh Abu Jabir Abdullah al-Ghadamisi.

Led by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, the new generation of Kaum Muda reformers began to introduce a whole new outlook and set of values to the Malays of the peninsula that challenged some of the most basic understandings and beliefs concerning the conduct and practice of Islam in their lives. They attacked the traditional modes of religious teaching that were being practised by the conservative Ulama in the Malay states. The traditional customs and values of the Malay royal courts were also condemned on the grounds that they were essentially feudalistic, corrupt and un-Islamic.

The main instruments of the reformers were their network of reformist madrasahs and the progressive journals, magazines and newspapers that they published themselves. Among the more popular and influential of the journals were Al-Imam (published by Sheikh Mohamad Tahir and Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in Singapore), Al-Ikhwan (published by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in Penang), Seruan Azhar (which was published by Kesatuan Jamiah al-Khairiah (Malay Students Association of Al-Azhar, Cairo), Pilihan Timur (which was published by Indonesian students at Al-Azhar in Cairo) and the teachers’ magazine, Majalah Guru. While the traditional establishment looked on in horror, the reformers began to collect around them a number of young followers who would later on take on the cause of reform and modernisation in the Malay world. In response to the tide of change from abroad, the Ulama of the Malay states and courts issued countless fatawa against the reformers themselves and their teachings. The Muftis and Sheikh’ul Islam of the Malay states condemned the ideas and teachings of the reformers on the grounds that they were irreligious, kafir and/or influenced by Wahhabi and Kadiani (Qadiani)

If one were to try to identify the origins and roots of the progressive Islamist project in the Malay archipelago, it should begin with this generation of modernist-reformist thinkers, activists and Ulama. For it was here, during the period of intense political, discursive and at times physical conflict between the Kaum Muda reformists and the Kaum Tua traditionalists that we find the terms pembaharuan (renewal), nahda (rebirth, renaissance) and modernisme (modernity) being introduced into the discursive economy of normative Islam for the first time.

The entry of these new terms into the hemeneutic economy of Islamism brought about a radical change in the way that Islam itself was understood and perceived by the Malay-Muslims. Renewal meant a shift from the old to the new, and the rethinking and reconceptualisation of all things (normatively) Islamic and a rejection of antiquated and outdated elements deemed no longer relevant or necessary. This rupture in the discursive economy of Islamism meant that the way was open for the drawing of new chains of equivalences: In the eyes of the modernists-reformists, ‘true’ Islam had to be equated with modernisation, material and economic progress and development, and the spirit of rationalism and critical enquiry. Related to this was a secondary chain of equivalences that equated ‘Old Islam’ with traditionalism, obscurantism, the occult, economic stagnation and under-development in the most comprehensive sense.

Dependent liminal constituency

Another important characteristic of the Kaum Muda modernist-reformists was that they lived and worked in the British Crown Colonies of Singapore, Melacca and Penang, which were all governed under British secular law and not traditional Islamic and adat laws as was the case in the Malay Sultanates. The reformist-modernists realised the precarious position they themselves occupied: Most of them had the ambiguous status of British colonial subjects and were forced to seek protection and help from their British (and in the Indonesian case, Dutch) colonial rulers: In the Malay states of the Peninsula they would have suffered the persecution of the traditional Ulama and royal houses, and their writings were often banned. This was, and remains, an important factor that explains the marginal status of the reformists themselves till today, as we shall see later.

The stage was set for the confrontation between the forces of ‘progressive’ Islam and traditional, ‘regressive’ Islam. The Malay archipelago has been the scene of this low-level discursive conflict, and the battle for the soul of Islam itself has been fought on the ever-shifting terrain of the hearts and minds of the Malay-Muslims of the archipelago ever since. Though they may not themselves realise it, the present-day generation of progressive Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia owe an immense debt of gratitude to their ideological forefathers who opened the way for the rise of progressive, modernist Islam which remains on the discursive terrain till today.


(1)  Admiration for the Japanese was a key factor in the mobilisation of the
Malay-Muslims of the archipelago. By the end of the 19th century, Japan was
one of the few countries in Asia that seemed able to take on the challenge
posed by the industrialised countries of the West. The Meiji reforms had
shown that an Asian nation was able to imitate and learn from the West while
maintaining its own sense of cultural identity, history and specific values.
By 1895 Japan had established its reputation as a co-colonising nation after
her occupation of Farmosa after the Sino-Japanese war. When Japan chose to
ally itself with Britain in 1902, its status was enhanced even further.
Japan’s importation of Western arms and military technology (primarily from
Britain and Germany) helped it to defeat the Russians in the naval battle of
Tsushima in 1905. Japan’s victory over the Russians at Tsushima was
particularly welcomed by the Muslims who regarded Imperial Russia as an
enemy to the Ottoman Porte and the Muslim world as a whole. The
Malay-Muslims of the archipelago were therefore particularly keen to see
Japan take on a leading role in the region. Several Malay-Muslim leaders
were willing to work with the Japanese government and in 1908 the reformist
journal al-Imam even predicted the rise of Japan in Southeast Asia and the
fall of the Dutch colony of the East Indies.

(2)  Anxiety over the fate of the Muslim Ummah was apparent in the
Malay-Muslim press by the end of the 19th century. The developments in East
Europe and the Balkans were of particular concern for the Malay-Muslims who
believed that the Ottoman Empire was being systematically carved up by the
Western powers that were bent on destroying the most powerful Muslim power
in the world. Vernacular Malay papers like Neraca (The Scales) and Tunas
Melayu (The Budding Malay) described the Balkan war as the ‘new Crusade’
against Islam with the Ottoman Porte as its main target. Neraca also gave
extensive coverage to the war effort of the Ottomans in North Africa at the

(3)  Sheikh Mohamad Tahir Jalaludin al-Azhari was originally from
Minangkabau, Sumatra. He was born at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra in 1869.
After twelve years of study in Mecca, Sheikh Mohamad went to Cairo and
studied astronomy (al-falak) at the famous University of Al-Azhar in 1893.
During the four years he spent there he was exposed to the teachings of the
famous Islamic reformist Muhammad Abduh and in time he developed a
friendship with the disciple of Abduh, Muhamad Rashid Rida. When Rida
launched his journal al-Manar in 1898, Sheikh Mohamad contributed to it as
well. After receiving his diploma at al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamad Tahir returned
to teach in Mecca for two years before going back to Southeast Asia. He
settled in Singapore and became part of the active circle of Malay and
Peranakan Muslim reformers over there. In 1906 he started the reformist
magazine Al-Imam in Singapore along with Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi. Between
1909 to 1911 he held several positions at the Shariah courts of Johor and
Perak. When Sultan Idris Shah of Perak travelled to London, Sheikh Mohamad
accompanied him on the visit. Between 1914 to 1918 he taught at the
religious schools of Johor and became the inspector of religious schools in
the state. Because of his modernist outlook and reformist tendencies, Sheikh
Mohamad was regarded as dangerous by the conservative Ulama. When he applied
for the post of the Mufti of Johor he was turned down by the Mentri Besar
(Chief Minister) who was wary of his modernist ideas. He was also passed
over by Sultan Iskander of Perak when he applied for the post of
Shaikh’ul-Islam in the state. Despite these setbacks, he took active part in
teaching activities and taught at the Madrasah Al-Mashoor that was set up by
Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in Penang. While teaching at the Madrasah al-Mashoor,
one of Sheikh Tahir’s students was the young Burhanuddin al-Helmy who would
later on become the third president of PAS. In 1927 he was arrested by the
Dutch while travelling in Sumatra on the grounds that he was suspected of
working with the Communists. He died in 1957.

(4)  Sheikh Muhammad Basyuni Imran was born in 1885 in the kingdom of Sambas
in West Borneo. His family served as Ulama to the court of Sambas and his
father Muhammad Imran was the Maharaja Imam (Great Imam) of the state. After
being taught by his own father, Muhammad Basyuni was sent to Mecca for
further education when he was 17 years old. While in Mecca he studied with
other Malay teachers like Sheikh Umar al-Sumbawi, Sheikh Uthman al-Sarawaki
and Sheikh Ahmad Khatib of Minangkabau. In 1906 he returned to Sambas, and
began to subscribe to the reformist journal al-Manar that was being
published in Cairo’s al-Azhar university. Attracted to the reformist ideas
of Rashid Rida, Sheikh Muhammad travelled to Cairo and enrolled as a student
of Rashid Rida at this Madrasah Dar al-Da’wa wal-Irshad. He returned to
Sambas in 1913 and took up his father’s position as Maharaja Imam of the
state. He then opened his own reformist school, the Madrasah Sultaniyyah of
Sambas. Sheikh Muhammad continued to propagate the ideas of Muhammad Abduh
and Rashid Rida at his Madrasah, and he translated many of their works into
Malay. Many of his own writings were published in Penang and Singapore. He
also continued to contribute to the magazine al-Manar.  In the 1940s, he
took part in the political activities of the Masjumi party, but the economic
and political development of Sambas was much slower than other parts of the
country after Indonesia achieved its independence in 1945. Sheikh Muhammad
Basyuni Imran passed away in 1953.

(5)  Syed Sheikh Ahmad al-Hadi was born on 22 November 1867 in Kampung Hulu,
Melacca. His mother was Malay while his father, Syed Ahmad ibn Hasan ibn
Saqaf al-Hady al-Ba’alawi, was a Peranakan Arab of Hadrami descent. In his
youth he was adopted by Raja Ali Kelana of the Sultanate of Riau and was
brought up along with the princes in the royal household. There he studied
theology and Arabic at the Madrasah of Raja Ali Haji. He was one of the
founders of the Persekutuan Rashidiyyah, a Muslim study circle that was
active in Melacca and Singapore in the 1890s. He travelled widely to the
Arab countries and studied in Mecca, Beirut and Cairo. At Al-Azhar he came
under the influence of the Egyptian reformist thinker Muhammad Abduh.  Back
in Malaya he came under the influence of the Sumatran Shaikh Mohamad Tahir
Jalaludin al-Azhari who exposed him to the reformist ideas of Abduh and
Rashid Rida. Along with Shaikh Mohamad Tahir, Sheikh Mohamad Salim al-Kalili
and Haji Abbas Mohamad Tahar he started the reformist magazine Al-Imam in
1906 in Singapore. On 4 February 1908 he opened the Madrasah al-Iqbal
al-Islamiyyah in Singapore. Between 1909 to 1915 he served as an attorney at
the Shariah court of Johor Bharu. But in 1915 he decided to leave the post
in order to return to Melacca and open a Madrasah there (along with Haji Abu
Bakar Ahmad), which came to be known as the Madrasah Al-Hadi. However the
Malays of Melacca were not happy with his teachings which they regarded as
too radical and controversial at the time. In 1919, he moved to Penang in
order to open another Madrasah, the Madrasah Al-Mashoor. One of the teachers
at the Madrasah al-Mashoor was Sheikh Mohamad Tahir. The Madrasah al-Mashhor
was perhaps one of the most famous of the radical ‘reformist’ Madrasahs of
the colonial era. Along with other radical new reformist Madrasahs like the
Madrasah Al-Hadi of Melaka, Madrasah al-Ikbal al-Islamiyyah of Singapore and
Madrasah Ma’ahad Ihya al-Sharif of Gunung Semanggul, the Madrasah al-Mashoor
was instrumental in the education of young reformist Muslim thinkers and
activists. In 1927, Syed Sheikh al-Hadi left the teaching profession and
opened the Jelutong Press in Penang which became one of the leading
reformist publishing houses in the land. The Jelutong Press published Syed
Sheikh al-Hadi’s translation of the Quranic exegesis (tafsir) of Muhammad
Abduh as well as a host of other important reformist articles and books. In
1926, Syed Sheikh al-Hadi then launched the monthly journal al-Ikhwan and in
1928 he launched the daily newspaper Saudara. One of the writers for Saudara
was Abdul Rahim Kajai. Syed Sheikh al-Hadi finally passed away on 20
February 1934. [See: Alijah Gordon, (ed.) The Real Cry of Syed Sheikh
al-Hady. 1999. William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 1967.]



Dr. Farish A. Noor (Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor)
Centre for Modern Orient Studies, 33 Kirchweg, 14129 Berlin, Germany