Confluence of Islam and modernity in Malaysia

Economics Nilanjan Hajra
Islam and modernity
Petronas Twin Towers at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. © Shirley Hu |

One of the worst canards about Islam is that Islam and modernity do not go hand in hand. In this piece, we will briefly examine how Malaysia exposes the untenability of such canards. True, there are several economically poor backward Muslim nations across the globe. However, numerous researches have established that such underdevelopment has nothing to do with Islam. It happens because of various factors, including long legacies of colonialism, political mismanagement, and social corruption. Far from being a hindrance to development, Islam fosters economic growth. And it offers a wonderful model of progress to heterogeneous societies.

Since its independence from British colonialism in 1957, Malaysia steadily maintained a healthy GDP growth rate of 6.5 percent per annum. Its industrialised market economy is the third-largest in Southeast Asia and 33rd largest in the world. Not only economically vibrant, but Malaysia’s peaceful and friendly society also reflects its economic prosperity. In 2012 Forbes Online ranked Malaysia as one of the 10 most friendly countries in the world. UNWTO listed it as the ninth most visited nation in the globe. And as per the Globe Shopper Index, 2012, Kuala Lumpur is the fourth best shopping city in the whole world. And 61.3 percent of the nation’s population are Muslims. Clearly, Malaysia is a dazzling example of how Islam and modernity can go hand in hand.

A brief history of Islam and Modernity in Malaysia 

In prehistoric times human beings inhabited the region over 40 thousand years ago. It grew as a trading country slowly as traders from China and India arrived and built coastal towns between 100 and 300 CE. The Langkasuka kingdom arose around the second century CE in the northern Malay Peninsula. And the kingdom lasted till the 15th century. Islam became popular in the region around the 14th century.

European colonisers arrived in the Malaysian region in the early 16th century. And by the turn of the 20th century, Britain established indirect rule over the ‘Unfederated Malay States’. In 1948 the Federation of Malaya was formed, restoring the autonomy of the rulers of the Malayan states under British protection. Finally, on August 31, 1957, Malaya became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1963 Malaya joined North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore forming to become Malaysia. And In 1965 Singapore was excluded from the federation, leading to the formation of present-day Malaysia.

Islam and economic growth in Malaysia 

As stated before, Islam came to Malaysia through Sufi preachers, and Arab and Indian traders around the 14th century. At present Malay Muslims are largely Sunnis from the Shifi’i school. Islam is Malaysia’s official religion, heads of the state have all been Muslims, and aspects of the Sharia are included in administrative laws. Indeed, according to one researcher, Mahmud Bin Ahmad, Naval Postgraduate School, California, “Based on Muslim tradition, Malaysia is fit to be called Dar al-Islam, as Islam plays a dominant role”.

Over the years this Dar al-Islam has proved that Islam promotes growth. Researchers have shown, leaders of this nation have successfully ensured the inclusiveness of Islam in fostering economic development. Despite being an Islamic nation, Malaysia has adopted western as well as Japanese, and Korean models of a free-market economy. “At the same time,” writes Ahmed, “Malaysia promotes an Islamic economic system as part of the Shari’a implementation, which covers interest-free banking, Zakat, and the Islamic family and social system.” In brief Malaysian leaders have adhered to pragmatic policies to ensure that Islam and modernity could both be achieved ensuring peace and prosperity.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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