PAS, under the leadership of Hadi Awang, has championed Sunni-Shi’a conciliation. But it is highly uncertain whether this will remain true under the younger generation of PAS leaders.
A dominant view of Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) since 2002, is that he espoused Salafi-Wahhabi Islam given his education from the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. The apparent rigidity in his views was reflected in his infamous ‘Amanat Haji Hadi’– what was in effect a fatwa with political considerations – in which he dismissed UMNO as a secular party. However, there is another side to his political-ideological views, as evident from the party’s relationship with other international Islamic movements.
It is not difficult to see that PAS, under Hadi Awang’s leadership, has prioritised Sunni-Shi’a conciliation and Islamic revivalism in its external relations. Notwithstanding its own conservative Sunni-Shafii doctrinal roots, PAS has chosen to be on good terms with Iran, and has distanced itself from Salafi and Wahhabi-led powers and movements. It is noteworthy that Salafism-Wahhabism detests Shi’ism and this is reflected in the Gulf countries’ relations with Iran. At the ‘International Seminar on Sunni-Shi’a Conciliation in the Context of Islamic Revivalism’ held in 1993, Hadi Awang stressed that “the Islamic revolution in Iran must be seen as a manifestation of a universal revival of Islam and not as a revival of a single sect.” He further stressed that disputes between Sunnis and Shi’as should be avoided so that the two major sects in Islam can be brought together for the benefit of the “rise of the Muslim umma.”
This statement was crucial because it later became a key principle for PAS’s relations with the Shi’a community. Later in 2013, at the height of the Najib Razak administration’s stigmatisation of the local Shi’a community, Hadi Awang rejected any attempt to stir Sunni-Shi’a animosity and questioned the stigmatisation of a group which has been around for more than a thousand years: “is it because of its Shi’a beliefs, or because of Iranian technological advances which threaten the West and Israel?” This indicated that he was always ready to defend his good relations with Iran – including a visit to the country in 2016 – despite prejudice towards them and allegations that the country sided with Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict.
In a short write-up from 2016, Hadi Awang slammed the problem of sectarianism within Islam and called out Muslims who contributed to the problem. He took a strong stance against ulama issuing fatwa inciting Sunni and Shi’a to fight against each other. He also took issue with Muslims freely exploiting the issue of takfiri (to excommunicate someone from Islam) because of the existence of “nonsensical” differences over creed.
PAS under Hadi Awang has refused to cooperate with any Salafi movements, and has chosen to pursue conciliation with Shi’as and Iran in order to fight what he referred to as interference from big powers and Islam’s enemies.
Hadi Awang was not alone. The head of the PAS Ulama Council at the time, Datuk Dr Mahfodz Mohamad, welcomed his views and explained that “Shi’ism is part of Islam.” Despite the barrage of criticism against him, including from mainstream religious figures such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the Mufti of Perlis, Hadi Awang held firm. He fully believed that there should be no sectarianism among Muslims, and that there should always be efforts to foster Sunni-Shi’a relations despite their differences which ultimately stemmed from a “political issue.” In a lecture given in Malaysia in 2017, he said that “there was no point in discussing who was more eligible to become the caliph. They are all no longer around.”
The prioritisation of Muslim conciliation for the sake of Islamic revivalism became the cornerstone of PAS’s external relations with the Muslim world. In a Facebook post from 20 November 2017, Hadi Awang summarised why PAS chose to be close to Turkey and Iran, stating that Turkey had become more Islamic instead of secular, while Iran had moved towards a more democratic system in the form of Wilayah Al-Faqih (guardianship of the jurist). He dismissed the Arab countries for being dictatorial and led by Salafis, and called upon Sunnis and Shi’as to resolve their differences.
PAS under Hadi Awang has refused to cooperate with any Salafi movements, and has chosen to pursue conciliation with Shi’as and Iran in order to fight what he referred to as interference from big powers and Islam’s enemies. Should Hadi Awang leave the scene, his departure will leave a deep void in this matter. Apart from their lack of authority in the international arena and their seeming lack of knowledge, the stance of various senior PAS leaders on sectarian issues among Muslims is unclear. The idea of Sunni-Shi’a conciliation may not be appealing to younger PAS leaders who seem to be inclined towards Salafism, unlike Hadi Awang.
Moreover, the PAS leadership is now a part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s administration, which seems to be making the effort to warm up Malaysia’s currently cold relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, it is an open secret that some PN ministers are inclined towards Salafism, and this does not bode well for their approach towards domestic sectarian issues.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.