Tuan Guru Haji Nik Abdul Aziz bin Nik Mat (1931 – 2015): A Personal Memoir

We go back a long way together, Tok Guru and I.

To the beginning, each of us after his own prior apprenticeship, of our ensuing public careers in our closely intertwined fields of work.

Two synchronous starts

His work, that is, of pursuing and exemplifying an identifiably “traditional” and committed Islamic life within the modern political world; and mine –– born of a conviction, held against the grain and bias of prevalent academic attitudes at the time, that efforts such as that of Nik Aziz to “make Islam real in modern political life” needed to be understood –– as a scholarly analyst of and commentator upon such things.

I was convinced that the new, and newly assertive, politics of Islam within, and even against, the modern world had to be studied, not dismissed as a mere relic of an earlier, now waning pre-modern political era. He, on his part, believed that that kind of Islamic politics needed to be pursued and deepened. Both of us took the matter seriously, and each of us was committed to his own part of that task.

The two parts were complementary, but not symmetrically so. His side of the challenge did not need me or mine; my part made sense, and could only exist, in relation to his.

Our careers came together as they began. As we began those two public journeys and careers, he as a noted Islamist politician and I as a student and observer of Islamic politics, in Kelantan in 1967.

By then I was at last getting down to the project of field research that I had begun to think of in about 1962: a ground-level village-based anthropological study of the sources of the then unusual, even paradoxical, mass support that the Islamic party PAS had managed to mobilize and retain in Kelantan from shortly after Malaya’s achievement of national independence.

In 1959, PAS had dramatically won –– at the expense and to the great discomfort of UMNO and its Alliance Party coalition –– 28 of the 30 seats that then comprised the Kelantan State Assembly. In defiant opposition to the national federal government, PAS had captured state power in Kelantan.

And, after many delays and setbacks, I was by July 1967 beginning what was to become about two years of field research centred in Kelantan’s Bachok district, leading up to and beyond Malaysia’s fateful 1969 elections.

1967, a busy year for PAS

And 1967 was to be a big year for Islamic politics in Kelantan. PAS had survived the 1964 elections, held at the peak of Indonesia’s Konfrontasi against the new, expanded Malaysian Federation, and, though with a significantly reduced majority, retained its control of Kelantan.

But, with its improved position, UMNO was now hopeful of defeating PAS, and “seeing it off” from the national political scene, at the next elections due in 1969.

This guaranteed that politics in Kelantan between the two rival parties competing for popular Malay support (and the political credibility and legitimacy that it provided) would, in the interim, be keenly, even tenaciously, contested.

The entire Malaysian opposition, especially the parties of the radical left, had been accused (notably in a government “white paper” entitled A Plot Exposed) of sympathy with and complicity in Indonesian confrontation and –– based upon the connection of PAS through its President, the pre-war radical leader Dr. Burhanuddin Helmy, with the “old Malay left” –– PAS too was under enormous pressure. In him, the radical or “populist nationalist” side of the PAS leadership was “put out of play” and detained as a risk to national security.

Meanwhile, the more Islamically-minded (or “ulama”) side of the PAS leadership had also been dealt a savage blow from which it had not yet recovered. The party’s pre-eminent Islamist political intellectual, Ustadz Zulkifli Muhammad (born 1927), rising from his connection with the new Kolej Islam in Kelang, and while serving as the federal MP for Bachok, had been killed in an automobile accident in 1964.

The party had fallen into the crisis custodianship of the Islamically educated radical nationalist Kelantanese politician, Mohamad Asri bin Haji Muda (1923-1992).

As 1967 began, the religious side of the party’s leadership was, if not in disarray, then in eclipse. There was a gap there be filled, an opportunity to be seized.

Two more events in 1967 were soon to shape dramatically the political contours of Kelantan and PAS. First, in July, the “firebrand” PAS MP for Pasir Mas was murdered outside the PAS headquarters in Kota Baru. There were murmurings of political conspiracy, but personal animosities may well have been the main motivation. A heated by-election was held to replace him.

No sooner was that by-election completed than the member for Kelantan Hilir (or “down-river” Kota Baru), one of the old PAS ulama (religious scholars) also died, and in November a by-election was held to replace him.

The candidate that PAS, somewhat surprisingly, produced was Nik Abdul Aziz bin Nik Mat, a well-known and widely respected religious teacher in the area but, until then, not a man publicly identified with PAS.

On the contrary, he came to PAS candidature from his previous employment as a co-ordinator of programmes of rural extension (“adult education”) religious teaching offered by the UMNO-led federal government through Kemas, the Jabatan Kemajuan Masyarakat (or Department of Social Development), generally seen as a kind of government-housed UMNO rural outreach instrument. All Kemas employees, it was assumed, were either explicitly pro-UMNO or else decidedly neutral and non-political.

With his emergence as candidate, Nik Aziz –– to the surprise of many, since he had been a conscientious but politically undemonstrative servant of Kemas, but amid grumblings about disloyalty and deception from some UMNO functionaries –– declared his true political colours and allegiances.

Starting gradually, Nik Aziz, or simply “Tok Guru” as people would come to refer to him, over the following years became a major political personality in Kelantan, a high-profile PAS identity nation-wide, and a powerful force and focus of the reassertion of the ulama presence and their power within PAS.

Nik Aziz and Bachok politics, 1968-1969

From the time of his election to parliament and as the 1969 elections approached, Kelantanese politics became increasingly heated. Partly this heightening of tension reflected national-level developments, as Malay discontent grew and found expression in agitation over such issues as Malay as the national language, education policy, and the obstacles to Malay bumiputera economic advancement.

But it was also in response to local, village-level developments too. In Bachok district it certainly was. In 1968 the State Assembly member for North Bachok died, and another by-election had to be held.

As I have noted elsewhere, “In this, the third by-election caused within a year by the death of a PAS incumbent in Kelantan, the UMNO was again eager to capture a PAS seat and thus promote a flood of defections to its side before the approaching general elections of 1969. Though it had twice increased its share of the vote in PAS strongholds, the UMNO had been denied the dramatic victory it sought. Rating its chances better in North Bachok than in the earlier contests, the UMNO decided to pursue victory aggressively” (Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969, Cornell U.P., 1978, p. 151).

And it proved brutal.

UMNO deployed enormous power and resources in this third contest, now concentrated within a small, state assembly constituency area. It brought to bear a full range of government instrumentalities, an enormous government-provided “war-chest” to fund offers and inducements, and overbearing social pressure as well.

Humble villagers were approached on a near daily basis by teams of UMNO operatives and “grandees”, who sought politely to “win their hearts” but also socially to cajole, shame, humiliate and overwhelm them. To pressure them to say, just once, as a way of getting some relief from the sustained onslaught, that, yes, they would vote for UMNO.

Once they did that, they would find it difficult, under unrelenting daily reinforcement, not to deliver their vote on the day; and, meanwhile, having promised to do so, they would often find themselves cut off and shunned by their fellow villagers who, having resisted such blandishments, still supported PAS.

And, when PAS people tried to persuade those who had wavered and wilted that they might still vote their own minds and consciences, they would find the prospective defectors surrounded and protected by young UMNO supporters and “enforcers” who were determined to keep the “new recruits” isolated from their own village friends and to keep PAS operatives away from them.

In these circumstances, interpersonal tensions rose rapidly, and soon escalated into overt violence. When that happened it was generally the UMNO side that found its position upheld by the police, and the PAS partisans found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Things became very ugly. Especially in certain villages identified and targeted by UMNO as “ripe” for breaking open and capture.

How was PAS to respond to this onslaught? It lacked UMNO’s vast material resources, its access to government infrastructure, and its ability to rely on police support.

It could turn only to what we might term “moral resistance”.

To hold the situation, and hold their supporters together (and out of UMNO’s easy reach), PAS sent out to those “beleaguered” villagers a number of its religious teachers and ulama operatives –– not just for an afternoon’s pep talk but to stay and live with them, in their houses and villages, for days on end, until polling day.

These men would stay with the PAS-supporting villagers, provide a focus of attention and activities, talk with them and tell stories, lead prayers, give religious lectures and offer personal assurance and advice. They came to be and also stay with their party’s local supporters, holding them together in tight social and political cohesion, bound together in exemplary Islamic terms by what many were ready to regard as “the rope of Allah”, of divinely encouraged Islamic solidarity.

The Nik Aziz political paradigm

Under the guidance of the party’s ulama emissaries, the Kelantan villagers came to see and experience themselves as part of the core drama, and moral paradigms, of Islamic politics and Islamic struggle, not just in Kelantan in the 1960s but at all times and places. They became, in their own eyes, true believers engaged, in full standing, in the defining drama and struggle of Islam itself.

As I have noted: “What had happened in their parish, they were instructed, was no obscure dispute in a remote village on the fringe of the Muslim world, but part of the whole fabric of Islamic history, woven from the warp of unending oppression and the woof of a responding intransigence. Islamic history was not simply the ancient, almost legendary events of distant Arabia, but a process in which, through unyielding commitment, they had participated on a basis of salvationary equality with all who have suffered for Islam. ‘What is Islam,’ mused one villager, ‘but a community of suffering? We here in our own way have been fully inducted into the ranks of the Faithful’” (Islam and Politics in a Malay State, p. 155).

And it was –– in the year or so following his election as Kelantan Hilir MP and based upon his experience as the programme organizer for the Kemas adult education and outreach activities –– Nik Aziz who conceptualized, devised, headed, developed and promoted those live-in ulama teams, their modus operandi and techniques. And what we would today call their persuasive “form of discourse”.

Nik Aziz did not just devise and personally oversee this programme of Islamically-informed “moral resistance”, of modern Malay politics in a locally accessible Islamic idiom. In doing so, he created or recreated himself as Tok Guru. As the prototype and archetype of the Kelantanese and Malaysian Islamic politician. As the persuasive template and identikit of the Islamic man of faith in action: not in the madrassah or in party political conclave but “out in the world”.

A lot of facile nonsense is uttered these days about “public intellectuals”. Well, Nik Aziz was something similar but also entirely different. And, of that specific social type, he was “the genuine thing”. He was the living epitome of the “public alim”: an exemplar of “ulama politics” who personally embodied and projected a powerful vision and doctrine about how the everyday challenges of Islamic politics –– of “being and doing Islam in the world” –– were to be faced as a single, coherent, ubiquitous and paradigmatic form of struggle.

How did he do it?

From Ustadz Nik Aziz to Tok Guru: it was a remarkable transformation or image “remake”.

How did he do it?

My answer to this key question comes not from talking to the man or any similarly close and privileged insight into him in those years but from observing him publicly. From watching and being fascinated by his presentation of himself and by his projection, through his austere persona, of his political outlook and message.

And I was not alone in seeing him as this often remote, aloof and ascetic yet compelling man or living symbol. A leading international journalist who stumbled upon one of his political rallies in a Kelantan kampung during the 1986 national election was similarly struck –– but in his published report greatly offended his admirers by likening Nik Aziz, his aura and demeanour to “Uncle Ho”, Ho Chi Minh.

It has become a commonplace for people to tell their stories of how modest, open and approachable –– often to their great surprise –– they found Tok Guru on meeting him.

But, early in his public political career, I did not find him easy to approach. Though generally of gentle and withdrawn demeanour, he could be fierce, even terrifying –– especially when denouncing UMNO and inveighing against what he saw as the arrogance and abuses of those who represented it and projected it into village life.

In those days, to be honest, I suspected him of being a committed but quietly spoken fanatic. When our paths crossed, as they often did, in the Bachok villages, I suppose he wondered what I was doing there, suspecting that, whatever my purpose, I was (from his point of view) up to no good. And I also recognized that, given his politics and attitude to the kind of thing that I was doing there, he was probably right to think so. Hence I always felt awkward in his stern and forbidding presence.

So I did not pester or intrude upon him. I simply observed and listened to him, watched his “performative” social presentation of himself and attended closely to his words, their patterning, their subtly calculated and accumulating, even cascading, effects.

Until his election to parliament in 1967, Nik Aziz was what was technically known at the time, via the standard Arabic term, as a mubaligh, meaning not just a religious teacher or “propagandist” but an exponent of balaghah –– of the arts of rhetoric, argument and persuasion.

Balaghah has always been a key component of the curriculum of the so-called Sekolah Arab religious schools in Malaysia, as elsewhere. Mastery of the traditional skills and art of public speaking and argument, of balaghah, has always been fundamental to PAS campaigning, and has long been the basis of its persistent ability to “out-argue” and “out-persuade” UMNO on the ground in kampung-level Malay politics. In its title, one famous prewar guide to Kelantanese argument characterized this verbal jousting as Tikaman Bahasa, as stabbing with words, or verbal dagger-work.

Ustadz Nik Aziz was a master of those verbal skills. These, in his own case, had been further sharpened by his overseas studies, in this aspect more significantly at the formidable Dar Ul Uloom Deoband Academy in India than by his later studies at Al-Azhar in Cairo. As he now emerged as Tok Guru, he created and defined himself through their masterful deployment within the brutally uncompromising intra-Malay politics pitting PAS against UMNO in Kelantan in and from the late 1960s.

Rhetorical style and technique

When Tok Guru addressed a Kelantan village audience, he did not only speak in the local Kelantan dialect. He also adopted a “folksy” –– replete, elaborated and locally accessible –– narrative style. (Some insight into these processes is provided by Farish A. Noor, “The Localization of Islamist Discourse in the Tafsir of Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat …”, in Virginia Hooker & Norani Othman, eds., Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics, ISEAS, Singapore, 2003, pp. 195-235.)

As he talked about, and drew political lessons from, the life of the Prophet, the stories that he told became “real” and immediately apprehendable in local terms, to local audiences. Related in a recognizably Kelantanese Malay “verbal register” and style, the struggles of Mekkah and Madinah centuries ago became recognizable to Kelantanese, in ways familiar to them.

This narrative technique not only had the effect of placing his Kelantanese listeners in the midst of the conflicts that shaped the Prophet’s career in Arabia; it also, as he told those stories in richly Kelantanese idiom and style, brought the Prophet and the whole cast of characters from his life-story into Kelantan. They became people just like the neighbours of these Kelantan villagers. It made sense in a new way to many Kelantanese, a familiar and recognizable Kelantan kind of sense.

This narrative technique produced –– as in that villager’s comment about the impact of the brutal North Bachok by-election –– a merging, a collapsing and folding together, that worked in two directions, not just one. It transposed the painful and harrowing conflicts of a small and remote Kelantan village into the heart of the Islamic world and experience, into the formative events and meanings of Islamic history. And, as presented by Tok Guru, it also brought that history, its events and validating meanings and messages to the PAS-supporting faithful in those far-off villages, making those struggles coherently graspable and endowing the lives of those caught up in them with rich Islamic meaning.

Sacred history and local anecdote became one. Ancient Arabia and Kelantan –– Mekkah and Madinah and Bachok –– were fused together by a unifying narrative. What was happening in Kelantan occurred, or so it was made to seem, in the same time, place and moral space as the careers of the Prophet and his companions. Accounts of their travails and triumphs were made to provide object lessons, parables, and instructive precepts and action-paradigms for Tok Guru’s listeners. He made what was happening in Kelantan seem a part, or a refraction, of all that had happened elsewhere at other times, notably in the life of the Prophet himself.

Mekkah and Madinah became, for Tok Guru’s listeners, places whose challenges were not altogether unlike those faced by them in their own villages and state. And, not that Tok Guru was in any way an image or model of the Prophet, through his example and words people felt they might begin to imagine how the Prophet might have lived and conducted himself.

It was powerful stuff, that, to be up against. If you didn’t believe it you had only to ask UMNO, whose more locally attuned leaders and operatives saw how hard this process was either to crack, on PAS’s side, or to replicate on UMNO’s. And how hard, in fact near impossible, it was for them to undo the profoundly adverse effects these processes had for UMNO’s hopes of ever winning and holding onto Kelantan by ordinary electoral means.

In this way, via Tok Guru’s artful balaghah, the Kelantanese were made to sit four-square within the formative and recognizable history of the ummah generally; and that history, centering upon the life of the Prophet –– thanks to his narrative ingenuity and agility –– was brought to bear upon and sit with them in the midst of their tribulations in confronting the massive and intimidating force mobilized against them by UMNO. Tok Guru brought these often demeaned Kelantanese into the paradigmatic history of Islam, and he brought that grand history to them, in locally comprehensible verbal and moral idioms, to clarify, dignify and in that way also to strengthen their struggle.

If Tok Guru could do this, could invoke and “make real” for these poor Kelantanese the very essence of Islam –– make it an immediate and almost palpable presence in their often deprived lives –– then who might possibly and plausibly deny that PAS, through Tok Guru, was making Islam real for them, literally making it “come to life” with clarity and compelling coherence, in their lives?

Certainly not UMNO, with its all too “political” politicians (so dramatically unlike the master “anti-politician” Nik Aziz) and its legions of politically ambitious and self-regarding party-religious ideologues.

UMNO leaders and operatives never quite grasped that, for the PAS-supporting villagers of Kelantan, the struggle of PAS was the struggle of Islam itself: not (as UMNO always imagined) because of some lies or misrepresentations or simply verbal tricks that PAS offered; but because experientially, in those unrelenting village conflicts and through the power of that narrative technique (identified above all with Nik Aziz), those villagers came experientially to “know” and become part of and “at one with” Islam through PAS. Hence they came to see PAS not just as toying with or “conjuring up” the presence of Islam but in fact representing it. PAS somehow made Islam real, for them, in their lives.

Focusing on Kelantan

Many of the accounts of Tok Guru’s career that have appeared in the days since his death suggest that in 1986 he opted to abandon federal politics and to focus exclusively on Kelantan.

This is inaccurate.

The 1986 elections –– held when Dr. Mahathir had risen high in his early ascendancy, and before any of the major problems of his prime ministership had asserted themselves –– was also the first election held after the young Shari’ah-minded Islamists around Hadi Awang had seized control of the party from Datuk Asri Haji Muda.

It was not a good campaign for PAS, and it was made worse by the fact that it offered a strenuously Shari’ah-minded platform that owed much to recent revolutionary events in Iran. And still worse, unprecedentedly, it was held during the “haj season” when many devout PAS-supporting Kelantanese were away overseas and unable to vote.

PAS had assumed that it could hold onto Nik Aziz’s parliamentary seat (the old Kelantan Hilir, now known as Pengkalan Chepa) but it wanted to make sure of winning neighbouring Bachok with a strong candidate. So the party found a new candidate for Pengkalan Chepa and Nik Aziz stood for PAS in Bachok where he was widely known, respected and liked. But strangely, in that very strange election, he lost, by a small margin but (despite the absent pilgrimage people) on a huge voter turnout. Many newly enrolled military voters may have been added, for the first time, to the Bachok rolls.

Nik Aziz lost in Bachok. Sad, but no matter. He did not greatly like federal parliament, where his presence was largely decorative and suited his adversaries’ purposes, not his own. So he was content to be the state assemblyman for Semut Api, now named Chempaka, and to concentrate on Kelantanese matters.

UMNO ended up paying a heavy price for defeating Tok Guru in Bachok. With his energies now exclusively focused within Kelantan, he did the groundwork that enabled PAS –– which had ruled Kelantan from 1959 to 1978 and then been ousted from power by high-level UMNO manoeuvering using a disaffected faction within PAS –– to return to power in the state. UMNO had won Kelantan in 1978 and then held it, in Dr. Mahathir’s first two national election campaigns in 1982 and 1986. But now, Nik Aziz was back on the case. PAS once again won control of Kelantan in a stunning victory in 1990 –– and so began Tok Guru’s 23 years as Chief Minister (and also Mubaligh-in-Chief, as it were) of Kelantan –– and it has held onto the state through the succeeding elections of 1995, 1999, 2004, 2008 and 2013.

While many in PAS these days, along with powerful elements within UMNO, eagerly look to the imminent possibility of a rapprochement between UMNO and PAS to establish together a “Malay Bumiputera Islamic government” whose preferred terms all other parts of the nation will have to accept, within PAS Nik Aziz was an adamant and powerful opponent of any such initiative.

He had basic disagreements within the Pakatan coalition with the late Karpal Singh over the implementation of hudud law punishments. But they were allied in resisting the clamouring from some elements within PAS for it to leave Pakatan and make common cause once more with UMNO. Nik Aziz not only remembered all too well the bitter partisan rivalries throughout the Kelantan countryside of the 1960s. He also recalled with pain the treachery, as he saw it, of UMNO’s co-opting and then betraying of PAS in Kelantan in 1978 and the years that followed.

Asked why he opposed pursuing any second rapprochement with UMNO, his pointedly bitter reply was that it would be stupid “to allow oneself to be bitten twice by the same snake coming out of the same hole”. A pithy Kelantanese village locution once again.

Whether such a rapprochement will soon become irresistible now that both Karpal Singh and Nik Aziz have departed from the mundane field of political battles is one of the large questions of the present moment and immediate, pre-GE14 future.

Tok Guru, my teacher too

Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, or Tok Guru, will likely prove unique in Malaysian political history. He was the product of a complex combination of historical circumstances that are unlikely ever to recur.

He stands there, seemingly alone and on his own. As so many people have said lately in so many different ways, you did not have to agree with him to recognize his personal modesty and courtesy, his self-evident integrity and his own authenticity –– all of them grounded in the Kelantanese Islamic politics, society and culture of his time.

He became known almost universally as Tok Guru, and he was my teacher too. He taught me a lot (though I am sure that it was not what he would have wished me to learn from him and his commitments) that has stayed with me throughout my life and career as a scholar for almost half a century now, since I first began observing him and how he operated.

Above all, I learned from him, from his example and by watching him carefully, about the great force that –– when effectively personified and presented, performed and projected –– Islam can be and can generate within, and also against, the modern world: against the distinctive “package” of benefits and challenges and “trade-offs” that “modernity” may present.

I learned from Tok Guru how, in the name of a faith and a sacred history “made real” for everyday folk, the agenda of an over-confident and heedlessly advancing modernity may be decisively obstructed and resisted.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969, Cornell U.P., Ithaca NY, 1978.