Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

In late 2013, the specter of Shi‘a-inspired violence in Malaysia was consistently raised in the country’s state-controlled media and in a series of nationwide seminars on thetheme of “facing the Shi‘a virus.” Vocal demands were made during the course of the ruling party United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) general assembly to outlaw Shi‘ism on account of its deviant characteristics, thus effectively excommunicating Shi‘ites and other heterodox Muslims from the house of Islam. The “Islam” mentioned in Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution as “the religion of the federation” was to be limited in scope to include only orthodox Sunnis—a proposal whose exclusivism has been sanctioned by state-connected legal pundits.[1] Accusations were leveled against leaders of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS: Islamic Party of Malaysia), in particular its Deputy President, Mohamad Sabu, for allegedly espousing Shi‘ism.[2] When an enforcement officer of the Islamic Religious Department of the state of Pahang was gunned down in front of his home in November 2013, the Malay vernacular press instantly identified local Shi’as as the most probable culprits,[3] only to be embarrassed later by the police’s discovery that the murder was carried out instead by a shadowy cult called the Tuhan Harun (Harun the God) group.[4]

This was not the first time that institutions organically related to the Malaysian state had stirred tension in relation to a plausible Shi‘ite-Sunni confrontation in Sunni-dominated Malaysia. Ever since the triumph of Iranian Shi’a revolutionaries against the despotic rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the Malaysian government has been wary of the dangers of the revolution being exported across its borders. As the revolution took place amid a “reflowering of Malaysian Islam”[5] characterized by the proliferation of independent dakwah (propagation) organizations, the Malaysian government kept close tabs on elements in the dakwah movement suspected of being fascinated with revolutionary Iran and harboring hopes for the replication of its ideals in Malaysia. Iran’s revolutionary government, bent on winning the support of resurgent Muslims worldwide, sponsored select Islamists for religio-educational trips to Iran. Among Malaysian figures who visited Iran were then-President of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM: Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) and future Deputy Prime Minister (1994–1998) Anwar Ibrahim; Ashaari Muhammad, leader of the Sufi-revivalist movement Darul Arqam; and a host of PAS leaders, some of whom did indeed adopt Iranian revolutionary vocabulary and concepts and consented to the sending of graduates of PAS-linked madrasahs (religious schools) to Iran for further studies. Such developments prompted Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to speak out against alleged attempts by radical Islamists to install a “government by mullahs.”[6]

In 1984, Mohamad Sabu and two other leaders of PAS Youth—the chapter said to be most enamored by the Iranian revolution—were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). At the time, PAS and UMNO had been engaged in mutual accusations of infidelity (kafir-mengkafir) stemming from the so-called Amanat Haji Hadi—a communiqué delivered in April 1981 by Haji Abdul Hadi Awang, then a young firebrand who has been PAS President since 2003. The Amanat Haji Hadi, said to have condoned the shedding of UMNO members’ blood as a jihad (holy war), was faulted by the government for inciting PAS followers to resist the arrest of their local leader Ibrahim Mahmood (aka Ibrahim Libya) in Kampung Memali, Kedah, on 19 November 1985—an episode that tragically ended with fourteen villagers and four policemen perishing in the ensuing armed showdown. The official explanation of the Memali tragedy heaped blame on Amanat Haji Hadi’s alleged advocacy of a militant uprising against UMNO, further insinuating that the recalcitrant PAS supporters had been involved in a Middle Eastern-inspired movement to overthrow the government by force.[7] Links with Iran, however, have never been proven. PAS has all along maintained that Ibrahim Libya was the victim of the heavy-handedness of the powers that be and had in fact died as a martyr despite being officially branded a deviant “religious extremist.”[8]

The Memali tragedy is the closest we get to a case of actual violence involving loss of lives pitting Malaysia’s Sunni Muslim establishment against a supposedly Shi‘a-inspired adversary. Anti-Shi‘a crackdowns have intermittently resurfaced, for example in 1997 when ten Shi’ites were arrested under the ISA for allegedly spreading Shi‘ism, and in December 2010 when the Islamic Religious Department of Selangor (JAIS: Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor) raided a local Shi‘a community center in Gombak, taking into custody 200 Shi‘ites including Iranians, Pakistanis, and Indonesians who were in the midst of a religious function.[9] In both of these high profile cases and subsequent state-orchestrated harassment of Shi’ites, no evidence of resistance on the part of the local Shi‘ites has ever surfaced. More often than not, they meekly submit to the religious authorities to be charged in the shari‘a courts for propagating false doctrines,[10] and any rumbling of their discontent is made known through memoranda communicated to politically impartial parties such as the Yang diPertuan Agong (King), the international media, and human rights organizations.[11]  

The state has continued to stigmatize the Shi‘i community in Malaysia, treating Shi‘ism as a recent addition to rather than an embedded unit in the world of Malaysian Islam. The narrative conveyed to the Malay-Muslim masses is that Shi‘ism arrived in Malaysia only after and as a consequence of Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.[12] But official mouthpieces of Malaysian Islam appear to display contradictions and ambivalence in pin-pointing exactly what it is about Shi‘ism and the Shi‘ites that really worries the authorities. In March 2011, for example, Jamil Khir Baharom—the official responsible for Islamic affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department—went on the record saying that not all forms of Shi‘ism were contradictory to Sunni Islam, and as such Malaysian Shi‘ites were allowed to practice their beliefs. However, his announcement maintained that Shi‘ites were still constitutionally prohibited from spreading their faith, thus rendering their religious rights parallel with those of non-Muslims.[13] Slightly more than two years later, however, in the wake of anti-Shi’a diatribes strewn during the UMNO General Assembly and the Home Ministry’s declaration of the Shi‘a Association of Malaysia as an illegal body, Othman Mustapha, Director of the Department of the Advancement of Islam of Malaysia (JAKIM: Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia)—the hub of Malaysia’s Islamic officialdom—delivered a blanket judgment that all branches of Shi‘ism deviated from Sunni Islam, and thus violated Malaysia’s religious laws.[14]

The growing population of Malay Shi‘ites, estimated to number anywhere between 40,000 and one million,[15] warrants alarm insofar as the long-term political fortunes of UMNO and the National Front (BN: Barisan Nasional) coalition it heads are concerned. The past two general elections in 2008 and 2013 have seen a massive erosion of support for BN, especially from Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities—so much so that UMNO’s stranglehold over Malay-Muslims has become ever more pivotal toward maintaining BN hegemony. By re-orienting its discourse to the right of the political spectrum, offering ever more ethnocentric solutions to Malaysia’s socio-political-cum-economic predicament, the UMNO-led ruling establishment hopes to secure whatever it can salvage of Malay-Muslim votes. But to the largely rural-based Malay-Muslims—the backbone of UMNO support, which delivered a parliamentary majority and thus the federal government to BN in 2013 despite losing the popular vote to the opposition People’s Pact (PR: Pakatan Rakyat) coalition—religion, understood in its traditional mold, has always been more important than politics as a factor powerful enough to sway them from voting against UMNO. Hence, within the past year or so, UMNO has been painstakingly trying to maintain its appeal among Malay-Muslim constituents by depicting itself as the sole party able and willing to protect their interests, which invariably include that of defending the sanctity of Islam.[16] By contrast, PAS, which has been making inroads into urban and ethnically mixed constituencies by virtue of its participation in PR, is widely depicted in the mainstream media as having sold out to non-Muslim interests. The party’s tolerance of traces of Shi‘ism among its members is perceived as yet further proof of its effective abandonment of the Islamic ideals for which it was once so well-known.

From the occasional pronouncements of Malay-Muslim politicians aligned to the ruling establishment, it is nonetheless evident that political rather than overtly religious considerations predominate among the Malaysian state’s concerns over locally bred Shi‘ism. Home Minister Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, for example, justified the proscription of Shi‘ism among Malay-Muslims with the following words: “In Islam, we cannot have another mazhab (sect) because it will cause disunity among the Muslim community. I am looking at this from the security point of view. I do not want what has happened (civil war) in other countries to occur in Malaysia.”[17] Similar statements connecting the banning of Shi‘ism with the issue of fragile Malay-Muslim unity were also given by former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and by Dr. Farid Mohd Shahran, a senior fellow at the state-funded Institute of Islamic Understanding of Malaysia (IKIM: Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia).[18] While identifying Malaysia’s ruling politicians as being culpable of prioritizing politics over religion in instituting punitive action against a religious minority, it must be said that such an attitude is commonplace among many Sunni nationalist governments. In the case of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak (1981–2011), for example, it was the uncertain political loyalty of its Shi‘a minority, rather than the maintenance of religious purity per se, that determined the government’s prevailing attitudes toward Shi‘i citizens.[19]  

The latest anti-Shi‘a hullabaloo in Malaysia, purposely created by a government embattled by its own political incompetence and desperation to secure whatever vestige of support it still commands from the country’s Malay-Muslim majority, is replete with ironies. First, the rich tapestry of Malaysian Islam, and for that matter Southeast Asian Islam more broadly, contains more than a few historical antecedents that can be traced to Shi‘ism. As recognized by prominent Malay nationalist-cum-ex-President of PAS Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy and “old school” historians such as Marrison and Fatimi, Shi‘ite presence was evident in the region’s Muslim landscape since Islam’s early arrival, garbed in Sufism and spanning a period between the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries.[20] Hence, Shi‘i influences in Malay culture and literature are not uncommon, the lack of recognition from religious authorities notwithstanding. In fact, the oldest Malay hikayat (epic), Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, which became compulsory reading for Malay warriors in Malacca fighting the advance of Portuguese colonial troops in 1511, was arguably based on Shi‘i folklore.[21] In Penang, the earliest British colonial post which is today a thriving tourist island at the north of Peninsular Malaysia, musical performances called boria, whose provenance lies in Shi‘i festivities commemorating the slaying of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) grandson Husain, has been immortalized as a distinctive cultural emblem of local Malay-Muslims.[22] If the legacy of Shi‘ites in Malaysia is to be erased altogether, part of Malay-Muslim cultural heritage, enmeshed as it is with mystical imprints left by Sufism, will be inevitably affected as well.  

Second, arguments put forward by organs of the state in opposing Shi‘ism in Malaysia have concentrated almost entirely on the doctrines and agendas of global Shi‘ism as reputedly masterminded from West Asia.[23] No allowance is made that the more extreme positions found in Middle Eastern Shi‘ism could be moderated by permitting Shi‘ism to enter Malaysia and become internalized in the Malay-Muslim milieu. After all, a perennial strength of Malaysian Islam has always been its capacity to accommodate mores from a variety of civilizational traditions without necessarily compromising fundamental elements of a Sunni-defined Islamic landscape. Such accommodative ability has been identified by pioneering Western scholarship of the region as indicative of the prevailing syncretism in Islam as practiced in the Malay-Indonesian world. Recent studies reveal that Malaysian Shi‘ites have preserved their beliefs and culture by not only adhering to the age-old Shi‘i practice of taqiyyah (dissimulation), but by also abandoning rituals which would be deemed abominable in Malay-Muslim culture such as the qama zanni (self-flagellation) ritual commonly practiced by Central Asian Shi‘ites during street processions.[24] In addition, aspersions against some companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are absent from Malay-Islamic literature with a decidedly Shi‘i pedigree, although such works maintain Shi‘i characteristics that are conceptually acceptable to Sunnis, such as apocalyptic notions of the ‘Just King’ (the Malay version of the promised messianic figure Imam al-Mahdi).[25] Yet, anti-Shi‘a expletives spewed by the voices of official Islam in Malaysia too often fall into the reductionist tendency of generalizing Shi‘ism and Shi‘ites into monolithic categories. One of the most common accusations against Malaysian Shi‘ites, as found in state-sponsored anti-Shi‘a discourse, is their alleged predisposition toward violence and anti-state subversive activities, in supposed collaboration with their Middle Eastern sectarian brethren.[26]  

Third, the Malaysian government’s repressive attitudes toward Malaysian Shi‘ites, when viewed alongside its tolerance of—and even respect for—non-Malaysian Shi‘ism, smacks of glaring hypocrisy.[27] Among practitioners of foreign Shi‘ism in Malaysia are Iranian post-graduates who make up one of the largest contingents of foreign students in local universities and increasing numbers of expatriate residents.[28] Yet, as long as they steer clear from local politics, their religious beliefs have rarely caused them trouble with the authorities. It is puzzling if the government expects there to be no mingling whatsoever between Shi‘ites who are non-citizens and Malaysian Shi‘ites once the former enters the country. Boosted financially, congregationally, and spiritually by the presence of economically buoyant coreligionists from the Middle East, Malay-Muslim Shi‘ites have understandably been more assertive in recent years. Many in the expatriate Iranian community have expressed their happiness at being able to settle down in Malaysia and contribute to the ummah from Malaysian shores.[29] While not all of them are necessarily devout—let alone radical—Shi‘ites, it is naïve to altogether dismiss points of convergence between local and expatriate Shi‘ites, at least during major religious occasions. The government has welcomed these Shi‘i visitors with open arms, in line with its aim of making Malaysia an enviable hub for tourism, hence contributing to the expansion of Malaysia’s own Shi‘i community through inter-marriages and greater inter-connectivity; however, a large part of the problems it currently encounters in the face of a purported Shi‘i menace is of its own making. Home Ministry officials, for example, have unearthed cases of Malay Shi‘i teachers being under the payroll of “a certain Middle Eastern country” to engage in nationwide dissemination of Shi‘i teachings.[30] If the Malaysian state aspires to be strictly and staunchly Sunni while at the same time projecting itself as a moderate nation that embraces globalization, it should refrain from oppressing and vilifying Shi‘ites who figure from among its own indigenous Malay-Muslim citizenry. Instead, it should engage them intellectually, socially and perhaps even religiously as part of dakwah, in sync with the lofty spirit of Malaysia as championed by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

[1] Shamrahayu A. Aziz, “Perlembagaan larang sebar doktrin Syiah” [The Constitution forbids spreading Shi’a doctrine], Berita Harian, 6 August 2013; “Recognise only Sunni Islam as Official Religion, says Umno Youth,” MSN News, 4 December 2013,…; “Amend Federal Constitution so only Sunnis are Recognised as Muslims, Suggests Penang Umno Delegate,” The Star Online, 7 December 2013,…

[2] Rahimy Rahim and Rashvinjeet S. Bedi, “Zahid Hamidi green lights Jakim action against 'PAS number 2' for alleged Syiah connections,” The Star Online, 7 December 2013,; “Syiah issue: Mat Sabu faces Grade A evidence,” The Star Online, 16 December 2013,…

[3] Hafiz Abbas, “Komplot bunuh penggempur Syiah” [Murder plot of Shi’a raiders], Kosmo, 11 November 2013.

[4] Farik Zolkepli, Razak Ahmad, Simon Khoo, Nik Naizi Husin, and Niezam Abdullah, “Cult members believed behind Ahmad Rafli’s assassination,” The Star Online, 12 November 2013,…

[5] The earliest comprehensive study of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia by Canadian anthropologist Judith A. Nagata was entitled The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam: Modern Religious Radicals and their Roots (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984).

[6] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Islam and Violence in Malaysia, Working Paper Series No. 123 (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 2007), 6-8.

[7] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Islam and Violence in Malaysia, 10-14.

[8] “PAS: Ibrahim Libya not a Deviant,” The Star Online, 14 November 2013,…

[9] “Malaysia Shiites Protest at Discrimination following Arrests,” MSN News, 28 December 2010,; Mohd Faizal Musa, “Malaysian Shi’ites Lonely Struggle,” Pensee, vol. 75, no. 12 (2013), 350.

[10] Mohd. Asron Mustapha, “Ajaran Syiah ancaman serius” [Shi’a teaching a serious threat], Utusan Malaysia, 25 May 2011; “Jais Nabs Four Suspected Members of Deviant Cult,” The Star, 26 May 2011; Shamsul Kamal Amarudin, “Dua pengikut Syiah didakwa” [Two Shi’ites charged], Berita Harian, 21 August 2013.

[11] “MEMORANDUM Majlis Syiah Malaysia Kepada Yang diPertuan Agong Malaysia” [The Shi‘a Council of Malaysia’s memorandum to the Yang diPertuan Agong],, 6 June 2011;…; Dr. Mohd Faizal Musa, “Tahukah Heiner Bielefeldt Apa Berlaku di Malaysia?” [Does Heiner Bielefeldt Know What Happened in Malaysia?], Projek Dialog, 31 January 2013,…

[12] Mohd Faizal Musa, “The Malaysian Shi’a: A Preliminary Study of Their History, Oppression, and Denied Rights,” Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, vol. VI, no. 4 (2013), p. 423.

[13] “Penyebaran fahaman Syiah dilarang” [Dissemination of Shi‘a faith prohibited], Utusan Malaysia, 10 March 2011; “Malaysia larang sebar Syiah” [Malaysia disallows spreading Shi‘ism], Berita Harian, 10 March 2011.

[14] “All Syiah Teachings in Malaysia Deviate from True Islamic Faith, Says Jakim,” The Star Online, 15 December 2013,…

[15] G. Manimaran, “Pegawai Jakim: Wahabi  dan Syiah sumber ancaman utama, perlu dibendung” [JAKIM officer: Wahabis and Shi’ites main threats, heed to be curbed], The Malaysian Insider, 31 July 2011,…; Patrick Lee, “Malaysian Shiites face growing persecution,” Free Malaysia Today,  14 January 2012,…; “Pengikut Syiah di Malaysia cecah 250,000” [Shi‘a followers in Malaysia reach 250,000], Berita Harian, 6 August 2013.

[16] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Political Islam and Islamist Politics in Malaysia, Trends in Southeast Asia monograph series, No. 2 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), 15-21. 

[17] Lee Yen Mun, “Zahid Hamidi stands firm on ‘PAS number two’ Syiah statement,” The Star Online, 9 December 2013,…

[18] Mohd Faizal Musa, “The Malaysian Shi’a: A Preliminary Study of Their History, Oppression, and Denied Rights”, p. 414; “Islam akan berpecah, jika Syiah bertapak,” Sinar Harian, 2 September 2013; Razak Ahmad, “Reason behind ban on Syiah teachings,” The Star Online, 16 December 2013,…

[19] Christoph Marcinkowski, “Selected Historical Facets of the Presence of Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia,” The Muslim World, vol. 99, no. 2 (2009), 382–383.

[20] Burhanuddin Al-Helmi, Simposium Tasawuf dan Tarikat [Sufism and Tariqah Symposium] (Ipoh: Pustaka Muda, 2005), 35; G.E. Marrison, “Persian Influences in Malay Life (1280–1650),” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 28, no. 1 (1955), 64-65, 69; S.Q. Fatimi, Islam Comes to Malaysia, ed. Shirle Gordon (Singapore: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963), 47.

[21] Lode Brakel, “On the Origins of the Malay Hikayat,” Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2 (1979), 1–33; Marcinkowski, “Selected Historical Facets of the Presence of Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia,” 394–395; Mohd Faizal Musa, “Malaysian Shi’ites Lonely Struggle,” 343–344.

[22] Christoph Marcinkowski, “Aspects of Shi‘ism in Contemporary Southeast Asia,” The Muslim World, vol. 98, no. 1 (2008), 38.

[23] Examples are material freely distributed during the “Facing the Shi‘a virus” seminar at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, attended by the present author on 13 October 2013, co-organized by the Mutiara Foundation, the Penang Regional Development Authority (PERDA) and the Mufti Office of Penang. They are, a book: Datuk Wan Zahidi bin Wan Teh and Syeikh Mahmood Sa’ad Nasih, Mengenal Hakikat Syiah [Knowing the Reality of Shi‘ism] (Putrajaya: Pejabat Mufti Wilayah Persekutuan, 2013); and two working papers: Mohd Hamidi Ismail, Konsep Imam dan Imamah Syiah dan Percanggahannya Dari Islam [The Concept of Imam and the Shi’a Imamate and their Contradictions with Islam], and Mohd Fauzi Hamat and Mohd Sobri Ellias, Pengenalan Ajaran Syiah dan Percanggahannya Dengan Ahl Al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah [An Introduction to Shi’a Teachings and Their Contradictions with Sunnism].   

[24] Mohd Faizal Musa, “Malaysian Shi‘ites Lonely Struggle”, 338; Mohd Faizal Musa, “Axiology of Pilgrimage: Malaysian Shi‘ites Ziyarat in Iran and Iraq,” Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, vol. 10, no. 1 (2013), 70-71.

[25] Marcinkowski, “Selected Historical Facets of the Presence of Shi‘ism in Southeast Asia,” 392–393.

[26] Marcinkowski, “Aspects of Shi’ism in Contemporary Southeast Asia,” 42–44, 47; Patrick Lee, “Malaysian Shiites Face Growing Persecution”; “All Syiah Teachings in Malaysia Deviate from True Islamic Faith, says Jakim.”

[27] Patrick Lee, “Malaysian Shiites Face Growing Persecution.”

[28] Navid Fozi, “The Iranian Diaspora in Malaysia: Emergent Pluralism,” The Middle East-Asia Project, 10 July 2013,; Christoph Marcinkowski, “The Iranian Shi‘i Diaspora in Malaysia,” The Middle East-Asia Project, 15 July 2013,

[29] See for example interviews published by The Middle East-Asia Project: Pegah Jahangiri, “Iranians in Malaysia: Batik Artist Pegah Jahangiri,” 19 July 2013,…; Alireza Salehi Nejad, “Iranians in Malaysia: Businessman Alireza Salehi Nejad,” 25 July 2013,…; Asghar Yaghoubi, “Iranians in Malaysia: Artist Asghar Yaghoubi and His ‘Journey Within’,” 26 July 2013,….

[30] Haneesyah Bariah Baharin, “Ustaz dibayar sebar ajaran Syiah” [Religious Teacher Paid to Spread Shi’a Teaching], Berita Harian, 6 September 2013.

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