the rise of muslim millenarianism in malaysia - The Rise of Muslim Millenarianism in Malaysia

Economic uncertainty and a fractured political landscape may be triggering a new wave of Islamic resurgence in Muslim-majority Malaysia. In the 1970s and 1980s, various strains of Islamist discourse penetrated civil society and the already identity-based political scene. During that period, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) declared the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) kafir, while the latter co-opted the Islamist youth activist Anwar Ibrahim into its ranks and expanded the country’s religious bureaucracy.

The recent trend of resurgence, however, seems to have manifested in the popularity of celebrity-turned-preacher influencers as well as the renewed prominence of sectarian polemics and eschatological narratives, particularly on social media. Given the restrictions on in-person religious activities imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religion has encroached further into the online sphere, particularly YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. Aside from videos featuring celebrity da’wah (proselytising/preaching), virtue-signaling, and debates between mainstream and Salafist preachers, social media accounts peddling millenarian ideas and conspiracy theories are garnering six- to seven-figure views per video and thousands of followers. For these content creators and their audience, Islam has become a frame with which to cope with the current climate of despair and hopelessness, by situating themselves in history – or in their minds, its end.

Millenarianism in Islam

Millenarian thinking, or the apocalyptic mode of thought, is neither new nor exclusive to Islam. Eschatological figures in Islam include parallels to Christianity such as Jesus, al-Dajjal (the Deceiver, or Antichrist), the al-Dabbah (the Beast), and Ya’juj and Ma’juj (Gog and Magog), as well as al-Mahdi (the Rightly-guided), a leader mentioned not in the Qur’an but by the two most authoritative hadith compilers, al-Bukhari and Muslim bin al-Hajjaj. In most Sunni Islamic traditions, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who will join forces with Jesus to defeat the Dajjal. While these eschatological resources only claim to foretell a vague timeline of future events, Muslim millenarians, like millenarians from other faiths and secular millenarians, seek to immanentize the coming of the “end.”

In “Mahdism in the Sunni Arab World Today” (1999), Timothy Furnish explained that the idea of the Mahdi in Islam has been used to rally support for armed struggle, moral purification, and civil disobedience. Many leaders and movements in Islamic history have claimed “Mahdi-hood” in order to bolster their legitimacy or justify their religio-political revolutions. Among them have been the 8th-century Abbasids, the 10th-century Fatimids, and the 12th-century Almohads, as well as, more recently, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, a leader of a terrorist group that seized the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in 1979. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaida (AQ) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) understand the power of eschatological narratives, using apocalyptic references as milestones for their activities, such as IS’ use of black flags and the capture of the Syrian town of Dabiq (where an end-times showdown between Muslims and “Roman” armies was prophesized), to attract new recruits and as a form of self-justification.

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The Malay-Muslim world, too, has had a fascination with millenarian ideas, which featured, for instance, in the 19th-century writings of Javanese Prince Diponegoro. The Prince understood his anti-colonial war against the Dutch as an eschatological struggle via the concepts of the Mahdi and its Javanese counterpart Ratu Adil (“just queen or prince”).

A Cause for Concern?

The belief in eschatological narratives does not necessarily lead to violence. As mentioned, eschatological narratives are found in core Islamic theological resources, which do not encourage Muslims to immanentize the last days, let alone to do so with violence. However, as AQ and IS have demonstrated, millenarian ideas can be misinterpreted or misused to irresponsible and violent ends. In the Malaysian context, the prevalence of such ideas in public discourse is therefore concerning.

First, millenarian ideas seem to be more popular and action-triggering among Malaysian Muslims. In a 2012 Pew Research Centre survey, 62 percent of Malaysians expected the Mahdi’s advent in their lifetimes, compared to 23 percent of Indonesians. The number of Malaysians who have gone to fight for IS is also six times larger than Indonesia, as a proportion of its Muslim population.

Aside from AQ or IS involvement, millenarian Muslims have had a record of posing threats to the Malaysian state. Some leaders of al-Ma’unah, a spiritual rebel group famous for its armed heist of army facilities in 2000, and Imam Samudra, who was found guilty for the 2002 Bali bombings, were once members of Darul Arqam, a movement that the government clamped down upon for unproven allegations of militancy, linking its messianic teachings with extremist violence. Claims to Mahdi-hood also spurred the 1980 Batu Pahat Police Station attack, the 2012 samurai sword incident at the Prime Minister’s Department complex, the 2013 claim to the Malaysian throne by the “Black Banner Group,” and the 2018 Ar Rayah smoke bomb threat in Melaka. In September 2021, a lady was arrested for deviant teachings and claims that a third World War would begin in Sabah and that she would lead a force to join the Mahdi in his struggle. In January of this year, Malaysian police have had to investigate a viral video claiming the imminent advent of the Mahdi in Sabah and encouraging viewers to purchase weapons in preparation.

Second, millenarianism may promote a dualist worldview that demarcates in- and out-groups along eschatological lines, which is particularly harmful to Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. In “Exemplary Dualism and Authoritarianism in Jonestown” (1989), Constance Jones argued that the millenarian symbolic universe regards certain outsiders as embodying demonic yet identifiable world historical forces. For instance, TikTok accounts related to the Pakistani Mahdi-claimant Muhammad Qasim and the Gerakan Akhir Zaman (GAZA) view pro-vaccine Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as associated with ridiculous global conspiracies – euphemisms used to associate something or someone with the Dajjal. More pernicious still, in October 2021, Malaysian preacher Syakir Nasoha used an end-times prophetic saying to vilify Hindus and Buddhists in Malaysia as enemies of Islam who were bent on destroying Malaysian Muslims.

Implications for Malaysia

Given the relative susceptibility of Malaysian Muslims to eschatological narratives and calls to action involving violence, the growing popularity of millenarian ideas in Malaysian public discourse should be of concern to both religious and internal security institutions. However, the Malaysian government will have to strike a balance by keeping an eye on the evolving millenarian milieu while avoiding overgeneralization and paranoid overreactions to the presence of deviant teachings.

As a start, Malaysian religious scholars could emphasize positive values and Islamic teachings in facing a world that is seemingly at its end. An authentic Hadith narration encourages Muslims to continue to do good: “If the Final Hour comes while you have a shoot of a plant in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.” They should also encourage their colleagues to rally Malaysian Muslims toward the goal of inter-religious harmony and social and economic progress rather than opiating laypersons with erroneous hallucinations of the end-times.