Wednesday 21 January 2009
Among the believers
AL-ARQAM Di Sebalik Tabir by Ann Wan Seng (Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 2005, 178 pages)
The chili sauce did come to mind, I admit. Back when I was a university student, robed, turbanned and bearded Malay gentlemen would peddle it to us, together with a few other halal provisions. We were many miles from home, but these Al-Arqam goods were just as potent in bringing back the memories, alongside the Sheila Majid CDs that we had –- but that these robed guys probably didn’t play in their vans.
This book, unfortunately, doesn’t have the recipe for that sauce. But it does give a broad overview of one of the most remarkable social phenomena that Malaysia saw in the last few decades; and who is to say that its time is really up?
Al-Arqam started in 1968 as a religious study group in Datuk Keramat. By the early 1990s, there were 10,000 full-time members who could be instantly recognised by their attire. Their women were always in severe black purdah, leaving only a slit for the eyes, and their sudden emergence helped create the modern ghost known as hantu kum-kum.
This spooky creature is also absent from this book, but its mere existence showed that Al-Arqam did manage to penetrate our consciousness to a great degree. Judging from the popularity of their publications in particular, there were probably hundreds and thousands of supporters.
You didn’t have to fill out a membership form to join, but there was a vetting process. Its many thriving settlements or communes, including the biggest in Sungai Penchala, received all kinds of visitors. Although most wanted to brush up on religious knowledge, it’s fair to say that some just wanted to get inspired by the Arqam business model.
Ann Wan Seng, a Muslim convert who is also the author of bestsellers such as Rahsia Bisnes Orang Cina, admires both the spiritual zeal and entrepreneurial spirit of Al-Arqam. He brilliantly posits that Islamic revivalism among the Malays had much to do with economic jealousy and insecurity in the face of ethnic Chinese success. As explanations go, it’s more persuasive that simply dredging up Khomeini. It also proves, as if any proof were needed, that Islam has always been a discourse that is socially and temporally contingent.
The rise of Al-Arqam chronologically parallels the new bumiputera class as aided by MARA and ITM (now UiTM). What made Arqam even more remarkable was that it didn’t need government funding or bailouts. Its self-sustaining methods were less corrupt and wasteful. Despite their ‘retro’ (ahem) dress-sense, its members were progressive and often professional. They probably had more female doctors per capita than the rest of Malay society – although you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart, unless you were very adept at differentiating eyes.
Unlike punier movements like the ‘tea-pot kingdom’ of the recent past. Al-Arqam existed very much in the public realm. Its success also gave the lie to the then-dominant UMNO’s raison d’etre – namely, that Malays needed this party to get ahead in life.
Rather than become a confrontational force, this book shows that Al-Arqam craftily made attempts to cosy up to government leaders to ensure survival. But this was not enough: the movement was banned in 1994 and there came a spate of ISA arrests against its leaders.
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for some time. The excessive veneration accorded its leader Ashaari Muhammad (his followers took him as an ‘assistant’ to the coming Messiah, who was able to converse with the Prophet Muhammad) also made it easier to dismiss it as a loony cult with probably all kinds of crazy ideas to take over the country. (The Home Ministry’s innuendo about plans for armed insurgency has never been proven).
And if you want to be a conspiracist: Al-Arqam’s model simply pointed to the relative failure of the government’s bloated religious bureaucracy. And that is why ‘action’ needed to be taken.
Although a bit on the slim side, this book is non-judgmental enough to give due credit to Al-Arqam for helping us see that it’s possible for people to inhabit alternative spaces. We could have actually learned something from them, although the leaders’ polygamous habits would not have endeared them to liberals.
Despite the ban, alarm bells are periodically rung in the media about an imminent ‘revival’, especially through the channel of Ashaari’s business empire Rufaqa.
There’s actually a Rufaqa mini-market near my apartment! I used to shop there but I am sad to report the service is slow and the carrots limp. Perhaps the new breed isn’t as gung-ho? Millennial, messianic movements ain’t what they used to be.
(Malay Mail, 21 January)