Defining Islamic Revivalism: An Agenda Of Change Based On Muslim Cosmopolitanism - ABIM
angkatan belia islam malaysia (abim)
muslim youth movement of malaysia

Defining Islamic Revivalism: An Agenda Of Change Based On Muslim Cosmopolitanism


The world today is beset by bitter social challenges – the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, soaring prices of basic necessities, the climate crisis, natural disasters, political instability and various armed conflicts. These challenges seem to be multiplying at a dizzying pace. Before we can catch our breath to address one issue thoroughly, another seems to appear on the horizon.

In rising to meet these challenges, we must all keep moving forward, and be ever more prepared to face all obstacles. For Muslims in particular, the revival and change that we want to lead must be made based on a mould that is inclusive and beneficial to all. Malaysia has gone through waves of Islamic Revivalism, beginning from the early 1970s. This mass movement had a clear goal: to realise Islam as a complete way of life.

This awareness seeks the formation of a Muslim society based on pure, moral, and visionary personality traits. Such a society meets our need for a sense of identity, clothing our community in an identity that is confident, principled, and ready to strive for a way out of darkness. The adoption of the tudung, or ‘mini telekong’ among Muslim women is one such success – a clear manifestation of identity.

This aspect of Islamic revivalism enhanced the spiritual strength of  society, and has been part of the thought processes that drive nation-building. For so long, the nation had been silenced by nonsensical colonial myths that weaken the identity of native peoples through various negative labels, as well as the separation of religious values ​​from life. This wave of Islamic awareness in the 1970s breathed new life and empowered locals to develop themselves, their families, and their country – leaving behind the darkness of the past.

The events of 13 May 1969 were among the casualties of colonial occupation. The momentum of Islamic awareness then occurred at the right time to appear as an initiative and solution to put the country on a balanced and stable track. This was explained by Prof Mohammad Hashim Kamali in the Journal of Islamic Civilizational Renewal, published by IAIS Malaysia:

“In the context of Malaysia, the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), that emerged in 1971, drew much of its motivation from a combination of both tajdid and islah, that called for spiritual and moral transformation of individuals and visualized a more equitable and just society.”

This moment in our nation’s history was marked by the agenda of refinement and the reform of society’s thinking. In particular it focuses on the compatibility of Islam with the affairs of daily life and the construction of human civilization. The fruits of this ripe transformation should inspire us to study together to improve weaknesses and present the idea of ​​nahdah (revivialism) and islah (reform) more freshly.

Based on current and future realities, there is a need to map the reform agenda based on today’s context, taking into consideration history, local factors, and past movements for change. ABIM itself appears as part of the continuum of ongoing reform and change through the ups and downs of Islamic civilisation. Kuntowijoyo’s Prophetic Social Science says that:

“In that regard, I once said that what we need now are the prophetic social sciences, which not only explains and changes social phenomena, but also give clues in which direction the transformation is done, for what, and by whom? Prophetic social science thus does not simply change for the sake of change, but changes based on certain ethical and prophetic ideals. In this sense, prophetic social science deliberately ascertains its values ​​from the ideals of change that society desires”.

In this sense, the history of reform is not an empty story, or mere entertainment. It is instead an instrument that informs the thought process of all of ABIM and the umah as a whole. This awareness will lift us up and show that ABIM is not rising from a vacuum to drive a movement for renewal and reform. In fact, our movement has gone through and is informed by a great deal of interaction and bridge-building.

Although we have been through many trials and tribulations in this journey of reform, this is no obstacle for us to interact with a history that is full of wisdom and teachings. ABIM’s presence today is one that is consistent with the movement for change, and a continuation as well as an acceleration on the journey of societal reform. This awareness leads us to forge the idealism of reform with cosmopolitan nuances. This is achieved by fostering an inclusive culture and forming a mould of openness by interactions, interacting, learning, and exchanges across regional, cultural, racial, religious and ethnic boundaries.

This is what is defined as a cosmological view, which according to Prof Azyumardi Azra is to see mankind in the world as a universal community. This paradigm should be paired with an attitude of moderation, openness, and camaraderie, as these are basic pre-requisites to healing and change in society. Prof Dr Syed Khairudin Al-Junied in his book Hamka & Islam: Cosmopolitan Reform In The Malay World, also highlighted the concept of ‘cosmopolitan reform’ as a way of thinking by seeing the world as one of universal solidarity. This is based on the aspirations of change by Haji Abdul Malik Bin Abdul Karim Amrullah (Hamka).

Cosmopolitan reform has been formulated as a distinctive idea in reconstructing religious understanding in a way that embraces justice, inclusivity, and diversity. However, this agenda may be hampered when the discourse of the Islamic revival itself is sometimes misunderstood as the construction of religious values ​​that are exclusive and view universality with suspicion.

This misunderstanding was corrected by Prof Emeritus Dr. Osman Bakar who denied the superficiality of the claims of thinkers like Samuel Huntington who tried to deny Islamic universality when he wrote:

“If many Westerners like those who embrace Huntingtonian perspectives fail to see the universalistic face of Islam but highlight instead its particularistic face, then the fault partly lies with the Muslims. For many of them, religious revival means more of asserting and exhibiting Islam’s particularism. There is very little emphasis from them on Islam’s universalism. Furthermore, both through their words and deeds they have often demonstrated an indiscriminate rejection of all that is Western, something that is contrary to Islam’s universal doctrines”.

At the same time, Muslims who profess exclusivity and particularism are in fact trapped within the framework of Samuel Huntington’s claim, who says that Modern Western civilization is the birth center of the idea of ​​universal civilization and ​​universal values. On the other hand, Huntington’s claim is an embodiment of the doctrine of “pretentious universalism” which is a way to coerce other parts of the world to accept Western values ​​that are obscured in the name of universalism.

“The crux of this critique is that Western cultural imperialism is something that is real and it is its goal to impose the particularistic traits of modern Western civilization on the rest of the world in the name of the pursuit of universal values, culture, and civilization or the pursuit of universalism. This pretentious universalism is likely to be, and in fact has been opposed by other non-Western civilizations, whether it pertains to politics, culture, art or social ethos.”

In fact, in the history of human civilization, Islam has actually pioneered the identity of the cosmos. Adam Mez’s writings in the book The Renaissance of Islam acknowledges how Islamic civilization accepts diversity and embraces it as an identity based on universalism as opposed to the West which is still stuck with the dominance of only one interpretation of religious ideology. Mez explains:

“What distinguished the Muslim Empire from Christian medieval Europe is the fact that within the borders of the former, unlike the latter, lived a large number of peoples of other faiths than Islam”.

Prof Osman Bakar’s clarification should correct our understanding as movers of Islamic movements regarding how the rise of Islam and the ummah must be inclusive because the benefits must be felt by all human beings. Thus, the foundations of naḥḍah (revivalism), i.e. the construction of Islāḥ (reformist) thought in cosmopolitan nuances, should be extended by standing on a vision of enlightenment that is not stuck in a stagnant, frozen nest. This effort should broaden its spectrum by appreciating the diversity of community life.

Islāḥ nurtures us to be responsible in navigating it based on principles of moderation to balance differences and find ways to develop social thinking in line with the demands of the times. In pursuing nahdah, we must seek to be inclusive and benefit all parties. It is not meant to be exclusive or only benefit any one group of people. Faced with the global challenges mentioned earlier, it is imperative for us to ground our nation-building efforts in this inclusive mould of Islamic revivalism.

ABIM is thus optimistic about navigating this journey based on the ideas and aspirations of Bangsa Malaysia as a unification solution and a model for collaborative nation-building. The idea of ​​Bangsa Malaysia is not an idea that dissolves the identity of ethnic and racial diversity that has existed for so long in Malaysia, but the formation of a people’s identity based on agreed values.

As discussed in the ABIM Policy Speech in conjunction with the 50th ABIM Annual General Meeting, “A Vision for A Muslim Cosmopolitan Reform Movement: Building Bonds to Rise Together”, this idea is based on the three loyalties of Bangsa Malaysia:

First, loyalty to the responsibility of empowering society collectively; second, loyalty to defend the dignity of all citizens; and third, loyalty to life that guarantees the sustainability of future generations.

These three loyalties are a translation of the three values ​​that are at the core of ABIM’s commitment in the agenda of expanding reform – cosmopolitan in the mission of nation-building.*

  • * Muhammad Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz, President, Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM).