“Ideology and Utopia in Al Imam” by Fairoz Ahmad

“Ideology and Utopia in Al Imam”
Fairoz Ahmad


Al-Imam was the first reformist Islamic periodical to appear in Southeast Asia. Published on a monthly basis, it ran from July 1906 to December 1908. That the periodical appeared in Singapore instead of Malaysia or Indonesia was due to Singapore’s strategic position as “a hub in the movement of people and cultural-religious ideas” (Houben 2003:156) and Singapore’s position as a “major staging point of the Hajj” (Laffan 2003:161). Singapore has long enjoyed this position even prior to Raffles’ claim on the island. In the Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious Gift), written in 1885 and chronicling the history and rise of the Bugis aristocracy in the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, Singapore served as a ‘centralized’ meeting place for the various Bugis princes where they hatched various intrigues and plans. In early 20th century, however, Singapore’s strategic location in the Malaccan Straits meant that items like paper, ink, lithography and foreign periodicals (that served as the sources of new ideas) were easily available, and the island became the heart of Malay publishing in the 1900s to the 1920s (Hamedi 2002:2).

Photo from Alijah Gordon’s “The Real Cry of Sheikh Syed Al Hadi” reprinted from the page https://muhammadismailibrahim.wordpress.com/2014/04/

Although Al-Imam ran only from two and a half years, it was “a radical departure in the field of Malay publications” (Roff 1962:167). Not only did its articles reflect greater intellectual depth pertaining to Islam and society, the ideas that it introduced were ‘fresh’ and at times challenged the traditional religious hierarchy, who were routinely criticized for their lack of ‘progressiveness’. At the same time, efforts to make Malay society more competitive with the West were launched. Al-Imam sparked debates about Islamic reformism for the decades to come, helping to break the dominance of the traditional religious hierarchy in the region (Nafi 2004).

The founders of Al-Imam also helped to set up the Madrasah al-Iqbal al-Islamiyyah in Singapore in 1907. Al-Iqbal was the first madrasah in Singapore to follow a ‘reformist’ curriculum which twinned ‘Western’ knowledge with Islamic sciences. The spread of this system of ‘new education’[1] marked one of the greatest achievements of Al-Imam and the reformists. The “innovatory and potentially disruptive character of this teaching” caused this reformist group, Kaum Muda, to be entwined in conflict with the Kaum Tua, or the traditional religious hierarchy (Roff 1967:67).

Al-Imam has often been described as ‘Pan-Islamic’ as well as ‘reformist’ and ‘anti-colonial’. Many Islamic manuscripts in this period, (and till the present day), tend to be analyzed and classified in these terms. However, a careful study of Al-Imam suggests that the journal resists easy classification. While it had anti-colonial sentiments, it was at times explicit in its praise for the British colonial authorities. An approach that focuses on styles of thought and linked to the broader societal and trans-societal concerns of the time can provide a more nuanced understanding of such texts.

Styles of thought: Orientalism and reverse Orientalism

Photo from Alijah Gordon’s “The Real Cry of Sheikh Syed Al Hadi” reprinted from the page https://muhammadismailibrahim.wordpress.com/2014/04/

Al-Imam could be better understood by examining the journal from two related analytical concepts: Orientalism and reverse Orientalism. Orientalism, as a form of scholarship originated from the cultural contact between the Orient and the Occidental imperial powers, one marked by vast asymmetry in power structures. The asymmetry in power allowed the Occident to ‘imagine’ and ‘produce’ the Orient textually. The Orientalist lens tends to be paternal and at times antagonistic. Their subjects are portrayed as inferior or exotic, reinforcing justification for the imperial project.

Orientalist thinking is however not exclusive to the Occident. One need not be from the Occident to write texts that are ‘marked’ by Orientalism.[2] Reverse Orientalism occurs when the Orient appropriates the mode of thinking and categories from the Orientalists and reverses it such that the supposed superiority of the Orient, however defined, is asserted vis-à-vis the West. Reverse Orientalism represents the Orient as possessing elements superior to the Occident. Nevertheless, both approaches share the characteristic of being anti-humanistic systems of knowledge that seeks to dominate and subjugate rather than create emancipatory forms of thinking.

Orientalism in Al-Imam

The Orientalist worldview of Al-Imam is evident in its attributing of the oppression of the East to the backwardness of its people, in particular the Malays. The periodical criticized the Malays for their easy-going manners, laziness, tendency to gravitate towards leisure activities and their closed-minded attitude towards knowledge. This parallels the ontological bias in Occidental representations of Malay society as lazy and easy-going (Alatas 1977). In one article, Al-Imam cried out:

For the past 400 years, the Malays and Arabs have lived in [areas now called] High Street, Cross Street and the surrounding areas. But due to rent increases, they have now moved to Tanjung Pagar and Kampung Gelam. After being ordered by the governor, they now have to run to Kallang. And if the governor speaks again, we will probably run to the outlying islands and eventually to places where everyone else is naked [uncivilized]. And why did we lose our land? Because we are lazy and refuse to seek knowledge, such that we have forgotten what Islam is about. It is as if Islam is against the pursuit of wealth. Just look around us! The landlords are Chinese, the vegetable sellers are Chinese, the fishmongers are Chinese and the clothes-makers whom we buy our clothes from are Chinese. This is the biggest misfortune of all.[3]

Although the passage mentioned both Arabs and Malays, Al-Imam was directing its criticisms at the Malays as the small Arab population disproportionately then controlled vast areas of land. In 1885, 25% of Muslim-owned land real estate in Singapore belonged to the Arabs and by 1920, the figure hit 80% (Brown 2007:369).

The British colonial government in Singapore at this period was actively involved in acquiring large waqf land in prized urban areas and ‘compensating’ for them with land from rural areas. These waqf lands, endowed as religious trusts by wealthy Arab patriarchs in Singapore were also areas where most Malays resided. In 1905, one year before Al-Imam was set up, the British created the Mohammedan and Hindu Endowment Board with the authority to administer the large religious trusts. A British-friendly Muslim leadership, as well as infighting within Arab families facilitated the colonial office’s acquisition of prized land at key urban areas like High Street (Brown 2007:348). The result was a withdrawal of the Malays into less developed and rural areas where the new waqf land were located.

The Orientalist mindset here is clear in Al-Imam’s uncritical acceptance that the state of affairs was due to the inherent weaknesses of the Malays, although the relocation of the Malays into the rural areas was precipitated by colonial policies beyond their control. Al-Imam’s criticisms of the Malays were akin to what Roff has called an “orgy of self-vilification and self-condemnation” (1967:57).

Reverse Orientalism in Al-Imam

Although Western models of progress were highly visible, the periodical was also searching for ‘non-Western’ models in order to resist the colonialist and political implications of the former. Al-Imam’s admiration of Japan as an alternative model of modernity for Islamic countries stemmed from the Japanese ability to reach great heights while maintaining its culture and tradition. For Al-Imam, the West may be modern, but it was also decadent.

Al-Imam’s attitudes towards Japan were based on its vision of a resurgent Islamic East. Its call for a Japanese leadership of the East was also linked to the idea of a Japanese conversion to Islam. Al-Imam’s rationale for a Japanese conversion was partly based on a cyclical view of history.[4] In one particular article, it argued that the decline of Russia and the rise of Japan could be understood if one learnt from Ibn Khaldun, who had written that “adapun luas kerajaan itu menurut bagaimana luas ramai orangnya pada asal” (the strength and influence of a government depends on how many of its people stay true to the society’s original principles).

Ibn Khaldun was the 14th century Arab historian and social scientist whose most influential work was the Muqaddimah [Introduction to (History)] (1377), which laid out a general theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. According to Ibn Khaldun, history operates in cycles and civilizations rise and fall due to shifts in the level of asabiyyah (cohesion) in society (Issawi 1950). Al-Imam pointed out that the increasing attention paid by diverse religious leaders on Japan might lead to fragmentation and disunity if the Japanese converted to a multitude of religions. The only salvation and protection, the periodical continued, was a conversion to Islam for this guaranteed the solidarity of the Japanese people.

Al-Imam hence emphasized the solidarity with Japan that could be offered by all Muslim communities and nations, something which would be absent should they convert to Christianity since “Christianity remained a European religion which continued to make distinctions against non-European Christians”. Upon converting to Islam, Japan would immediately discover that their Muslims saudara (kin) in China would be equivalent to the number of Japanese citizens themselves. On top of this, the people of Japan would find kinship amongst the Muslims in Siam, Malay Peninsula and Netherlands East Indies: “for in Islam, all Muslims are brothers”.[5]

Such calls bring out the reverse Orientalism of Al-Imam. It was not enough for Japan to be modern and become the first Asian country to defeat the West; it had to be Islamized for it to be ‘fully qualified’ to lead the ‘East’. For the periodical, Islam was the key that could prevent Japan from weakening. In fact, Islam would strengthen Japan.

Such discourses are also evident in many of its articles, which highlighted that Islam “is the only and most effective medicine to cure all our ills”.[6] It often published articles from ‘figures of authority’ in which similar sentiments were reiterated.[7] Al-Imam quoted an English writer by the name of D.J. Corbett, who, in hypothesizing how the British Empire could align itself with Muslims to balance the might of the Russian empire, pointed out that “in Asia, there are two sources of strength for Islam – one is Afghanistan and the other is the Al-Sanusiah movement in Africa.”[8] Al-Imam used this article to explain to its readers how potentially powerful Islamic countries in the East could be if they were united.

Implications of Orientalism in reverse

Such imaginative geographies contain an ontological bias, but one that is reversed in favor of an East that is seen as possessing superior elements. The idea that the perfection of Islam would make Japan fully qualified to lead the East reveals the bias in the periodical. [I would just leave out the word. ‘Bias’ is enough–lysa] For Al-Imam, Islam and its repository of knowledge and values form the basis of all ‘truth’ and hence, the solution for all ills.

The reverse Orientalism of Al-Imam leads to inconsistent positions (Al Azm 2000:231). It supported the dictatorial and unpopular Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918). The over-arching theme of the periodical – Islam as the key for greatness – was ahistorical as it appealed to a period long elapsed in which the Ottoman Empire was able to exert great political power.[9] These instances are the corollary of a mode of thinking that privileges specific representations of Islam rather than the embodiment of the complexity and heterogeneity of the religion and its civilization – the Sultan was supported as the last remaining symbol of an Islam that was once strong and united. The Malays and traditional religious elites were chided because the way they practiced Islam did not congeal with the image of Islam that existed in the minds of the founders, the ‘kind’ of Islam that was taught to be ‘true’ and ‘correct’ by the Cairo reformers – Abduh and Rida. Al-Imam thus isolated Malay society from its culture and history, including the centuries-old roles played by traditional religious elites in Malay society.


Al-Imam has been traditionally depicted as a ‘reformist’ fountainhead in its efforts to modernize religious education as well in challenging traditional hierarchy. However, it also embodied the “human tendency” to create exclusionary and imaginative geographies (Said 1978), by setting up oppositions between ideas like East and West – terms that are vague and monolithic.

The fascination with binary oppositions and exclusionary geographies such as East and West that is reflected in Al-Imam slightly more than a hundred years ago continue to shape current public discourse.

We are now told that the centre of economic power will shift to ‘Asia’ as the ‘West’ suffers a period of insipid growth.  Muslims in Europe are increasingly viewed as exhibiting transnational loyalty to a greater (but vague) Islamic identity, thereby marking them as ‘apart’ and ‘different’ from Europeans. In this regard, there is a strong and urgent need for scholarship to illuminate interconnections and common patterns from a global perspective and move away from the more divisive Orientalist biases.

Fairoz Ahmad holds a Masters of Social Sciences (Sociology) from NUS. He had previously served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance. Fairoz is currently a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic and Executive Director of the award-winning non profit organization, Nusantara Development Initiatives, which empowers rural Indonesian women to end energy poverty.

[1] It is somewhat ironic that this system, which was not widely accepted for decades, is now considered by Singapore Muslim leaders as ‘progressive’ and a bulwark against extremist teachings after the September 11 attacks. See Onishi (2009).

[2]Said himself warned “the subjects and victims of Orientalism against the dangers and temptations of applying the readily available structures, styles and ontological biases of Orientalism upon themselves and upon others” (Al Azm 2000:231).

[3] ‘Menuntut ketinggian akan anak-anak negeri’ (Seeking aspirations from sons of the soil) in Al-Imam, Vol. 2, No. 1. July 1907.

[4]Salinan’ (Reproduction) in Al-Imam, Vol. 2, No. 6, December 1907.

[5] ‘Islam dan Jepun (Islam and Japan) in Al-Imam, Vol. 1, No. 2, July 1906.

[6]Seelok-elok pekerjaan itu barang yang bersangatan hajat umat kepadaNya’ (No matter how well one does a duty, one should still seek supplication from God) in Al-Imam, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1906.

[7] See, for example, ‘Islam di dalam alam’ (Islam in the world) in Al-Imam, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1906.

[8]Salinan (Reproduction) in Al-Imam, Vol. 2, No. 6, December 1907.

[9] During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued to hold an inflated sense of admiration and hopes for Southeast Asian Muslims, although it was already in a state of decay due to “16th century connections, when Turkey was indeed a Power for the infidels to reckon with” (Reid 1967:268).