Striving to capture the state : official ulema in Indonesia and Malaysia




Saat, Norshahril

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This study examines the religious and political behaviour of Indonesian and Malaysian official ulema vis-a-vis their respective states. Official ulema are those Islamic religious scholars who serve in state-sponsored institutions. In Indonesia, the main official ulema institution is the MUI (Ulama Council of Indonesia); but for Malaysia, official ulema function in at least one of the following institutions: the JKF-MKI (National Fatwa Committee); JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia); and IKIM (Malaysian Institute for Islamic Understanding). The study looks at the state-ulema power dynamic, in particular, two processes. The first is "co-optation," which refers to states' attempts to neutralise ulema's influence. States invite ulema to participate in the religious bureaucracy and support their ideology and policies in return for rewards, status and recognition. The second is "capture," which refers to ulema capitalising on their position in state institutions to strengthen their authority, to gain access to important political and economic networks, to lobby their personal or groups' agenda, and to push through agendas that are not necessarily those of the state which co-opted them. There are two central questions in this study. First, as the Indonesian and Malaysia states strive to co-opt official ulema, in what ways have official ulema managed to capture parts of their respective states? Second, has the increase in political competition since the 1997 Asian financial crisis led to stronger or weaker capture by official ulema in both countries? In answering these questions, I engage with existing writings on Indonesian and Malaysian official ulema. These works have made two broad generalisations. First, official ulema are becoming more conservative and Islamist compared to their behaviour in the past. Second, they had been co-opted by the state during the authoritarian rules of Suharto and Mahathir, but MUI has been more assertive and powerful vis-a-vis their respective states in the competitive political environments after 1997. I argue that Suharto's and Mahathir's co-optation strategies shaped contemporary official ulema capture objectives. During the New Order period, MUI's role was limited to issuing fatwas and explaining national policies to the masses, and doing strictly what the government wanted. Since 1997, MUI wanted Indonesian laws to recognise its role in Islamic economics, halal certification, and public morality. In contrast, since the 1980s, the Mahathir government has entrusted Malaysian official ulema with these roles. The ulema had much wider scope for action and influence right from the start. However, since the Abdullah Badawi government (2003-2009) came to power, they have claimed exclusive rights to interpret the state's ideology; appeal for the right to define Islam; and seek to fulfil other material interests. I also contend that the Malaysian official ulema's capture of the state has proceeded much further than that of their Indonesian counterparts. Three modalities explain Malaysian ulema's relative success: they have a clear institutional role, a coherent ideology, and organisational unity. The absence of these factors in MUI-a reflection of its organisational fragmentation-impeded its capture of the state.






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