Islamic Studies PAS
Joseph Liow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0199


The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), was formed in 1951 when members of the religious bureau of the United Malays National Organization, UMNO, broke away from the main party. Today, it is the second largest political party in Malaysia, where ethnic Malay-Muslims—its main support base—constitute more than 50 percent of the population and where most political parties continue to be organized along ethnic lines. Since its formation, PAS has centered its political struggle on its objective to emphasize Islamic principles and values to governance and politics in Malaysia. Because of its promotion of adherence to Islamic law and strictures, PAS has often been described as a proponent of the Islamic state. Periodic declarations of intent by party leaders to that effect further reinforce such perceptions even though, strictly speaking, the Islamic state is not mentioned in the party constitution. Despite the involvement of party members and former members in acts of political violence on several occasions, PAS itself has eschewed militancy and extremism since its formation, and it has been fully committed to achieving its political objectives through the mainstream electoral process. Prior to 1999 the popularity and influence of PAS was mostly confined to the northern states on the Malaysian Peninsula such as Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah, where its agenda of a more Islamic form of governance with an emphasis on Sharia and social welfare resonated with many within these Malay-Muslim majority states. In 1999, however, the party’s complexion changed, as did its fortunes. PAS capitalized on widespread Malay-Muslim unhappiness with the government’s treatment of popular former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and went on to win twenty-seven parliamentary seats, two state legislatures, and 15 percent of the popular vote in its best-ever electoral performance. It did so by downplaying its emphasis on Islamic law and instead campaigned on a platform of democratization, social justice, and welfare policies. At the 2008 election, PAS was part of an opposition coalition that managed to deny the incumbent its hitherto customary two-thirds parliamentary majority. Since that watershed election, PAS has continued working to transform its image from fundamentalist Islamists to that of conservative Muslim democrats as it seeks to further its appeal to Malaysia’s sizeable non-Muslim minority. It has done so by playing down the rhetoric of the Islamic state, supporting minority rights (including non-Muslim rights), and stressing a political agenda based on justice and welfare. Nevertheless, these attempts at transforming the party have not gone unchallenged. Notably, party conservatives have decried the dilution of the Islamist agenda in the quest for a higher national profile and footprint. This has given rise to acrimonious debates within the party over questions of political strategy and tactical objectives.

General Overviews

Growing scholarly interest in political Islam has been reflected in an increasing number of studies on PAS in recent years. The current literature has mostly taken the form of journal articles and book chapters focusing on the evolution of the party’s Islamist character and agenda in general as well as specific aspects of PAS’s engagement in politics in Malaysia, such as its model of local governance. Notwithstanding popular depictions of PAS in the media (especially Western media) as Islamist fundamentalists, the party’s political ideology and engagement strategies have in fact evolved over three broad phases, as mapped out in Noor 2003 and Liow 2004. The first phase of this evolution generally covered the first three decades of the party’s existence, when the party’s political agenda was primarily ethno-nationalist in orientation despite it having declared itself to be an Islamic party on its formation. PAS was officially formed prior to Malaysian independence, on 24 November 1951. Funston 1980 reminds us that PAS was initially a part of UMNO, which was established in 1946 by the traditional Malay nationalist movement in an attempt to unite an erstwhile disparate Malay-Muslim community in preparation for independence. Because of this, Ibrahim 1981 suggests that the party’s initial engagement in Malaysian politics was primarily driven by the objective of defending the interests of the Malay community. This was taking place against the backdrop of racial and ethnic tension, which became the definitive feature of Malaysian politics in the years following independence in 1957. Jaffarm 1980 and Mohamed 1991 note that under the leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy during the 1960s, PAS had also toyed with socialist ideas, in no small part a result of Burhanuddin’s fascination with developments in Indonesia at the time. The second phase of PAS’s development was the introduction of clerical (ulama) rule in the early 1980s, a phenomenon mapped expertly by Noor 2003 with considerable detail. All studies on PAS have noted in particular the pivotal role that the Iranian Revolution played in this transformation. The introduction of ulama rule also heralded a period of escalating tensions between PAS and its main competitor for Malay-Muslim support, UMNO. As Noor 2003 and Hamid 2007 remind us, this competition spilled over into conflict and rivalry on several occasions in the 1980s, including allegations that PAS members were involved in political violence, the most prominent of which was the Memali incident where former PAS members were involved in a gunfight with government security officers. The third phase roughly accords with the emergence of reformers within PAS who sought to move the party away from its fundamentalist orientation toward a more inclusivist platform that focuses on democracy and social justice. According to Noor 2003 and Noor 2004, this movement was very much inspired by the late Fadzil Noor, himself a member of the ulama cohort that took over leadership of the party in the early 1980s.

  • Funston, N. J.. Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of the United Malays National Organisation and Party Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Educational, 1980.

    This somewhat dated book is also not primarily a study on PAS per se. Nevertheless, it provides a highly illuminating account of Malay-Muslim politics that allows readers to locate today’s PAS in the historical context of Malay political activism upon which its identity (as Islamists) was built.

  • Hamid, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul. Islam and Violence in Malaysia. RSIS Working Paper 123. Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2007.

    A well-written working paper that discusses aspects of violence and militancy of Muslim groups, including groups whose members were also members or former members of PAS, in Malaysia.

  • Ibrahim, Shafie. The Islamic Party of Malaysia: Its Formative Stages and Ideology. Kota Bahru, Malaysia: Nuawi bin Ismail, 1981.

    A useful reference book that traces the origins of PAS.

  • Jaffarm, Kamarudin. Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy: Politik Melayu dan Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Anda, 1980.

    A compilation and study of the thought and speeches of one of the most influential PAS politicians in the party’s history by the former secretary-general of PAS.

  • Liow, Joseph Chinyong. “Exigency or Expediency: Contextualising Political Islam and the PAS Challenge in Malaysian Politics.” Third World Quarterly 25.2 (March 2004): 359–372.

    DOI: 10.1080/0143659042000174851

    Identifies several distinct periods in the evolution of PAS and argues that more often than not, the Islamist opposition party’s articulation of a religio-political discourse has been a response to their quest to enhance their legitimacy. It also argues that the empirical record shows a distinct correlation between the success of PAS at national polls and the downplaying of its Islamist agenda.

  • Mohamed, Alias. Malaysia’s Islamic Opposition: Past, Present, and Future. Kuala Lumpur: Gateway, 1991.

    A useful overview of PAS’s political evolution and involvement in Malaysian politics, including a discussion of the escalation of its Islamist discourse after the advent of clerical rule in the early 1980s.

  • Noor, Farish A. “Blood, Sweat, and Jihad: The Radicalization of the Political Discourse of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) from 1982 Onwards.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 25.2 (2003): 200–232.

    DOI: 10.1355/CS25-2B

    Details how PAS’s discourse on Islam in Malaysia took a turn toward radicalism in the early and mid-1980s, leading to various confrontations with UMNO. Of specific interest is its analysis of the notorious kafir-mengafir (also known as takfir) exchanges that defined much of PAS-UMNO contestations during this period, where each party accused the other of being a kafir.

  • Noor, Farish A. Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS: 1951–2003. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 2004.

    The definitive study of PAS. Based on extensive use of primary resources and interviews, this book provides an in-depth analysis of PAS as it has evolved over five decades.

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