In the recent United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) general assembly, the “Prime Minister and Umno President Datuk Seri Najib Razak launched a Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap” as a gesture to inform the Malay community that his political party will continue to advance the Malay agenda.[1]

UMNO’s Deputy President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin further affirmed this race-based ideology by saying that “it is vital” to protect “Malay political power.”[2] He justified such ideology by painting the picture that the interest of the Malay race, given its demography in the country, dictates the well being of the whole nation. “[W]hen we talk about Malay interest it does not mean we are racist because the largest group in the Malaysian society whether you like it or not is still Malays, Bumiputeras and Muslims.”[3]

Seeing ‘Malays’, ‘Bumiputeras’, and ‘Muslims’ being juxtaposed next to each other certainly stirs up curiosity as to what actually has the third group (Muslims) to do with the other two:

Does Islam teach race-based ideology or race-favouritism? Is it true that Islam requires the advancement of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Malay Supremacy)?

It is common understanding among theologians and scholars of comparative religions that Islam promotes racial equality. One of the clearest indications of this is in the fact that Allah’s Prophets consist of individuals from different races. There is no distinction made among them:

“‘Say: “We believe in God and what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob and [his] children, and what was given to Moses and Jesus, and what was given to [all other] prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between any of them; and to Him we submit ourselves.”’ (Qur’an 2:136).

Not all of these messengers are Arab, yet all are considered equally authoritative. There is simply no relevance to their prophethood whether they came from the Jewish, Arabian, or any other race.

Besides the Prophets, there are also Qur’anic teachings concerning equality of humankind:

“O people! Be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship [the wombs]; surely Allah ever watches over you.” (Qur’an 4:1)

Here, the Islamic Scripture teaches that all ethnic groups are created in the same way, and bear close ties to one another.

Reflecting on this, Abd-al‘Aziz ‘Abd-al-Qadir Kamil, Professor at the University of Cairo and Minister of Waqfs and Azhar Affairs of Al-Azhar University, commented that: “God […] commands us to fear two things: God and ‘the wombs’ (al-arham). ‘The wombs’ refers here to the human bond that links all men, however remote they may be from each other in space or time, and however unlike they may be in language and colour, and however much they may differ in economic or social position. We are charged to fear God’s commands, and this applies first and foremost to the observation of human brotherhood on the widest scale…”[4]

At another place of the Qur’an, we find similar teaching:

“O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.”

(Qur’an 49:13).

Although it is commonly interpreted that this passage is talking about race, some said that it actually refers to ‘tribes’ and not ‘race’.

Responding to this, Paul A. Hardy, who lectured on Islamic thoughts at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the Universityof London, remarked that there is no difference between tribe and race in this passage. He pointed out two early Islamic commentators–the eighth century C.E. Sufyan ath-Thawri and the tenth century C.E. Tabari–who understood this verse as reference to genealogy.[5]

In other words, this verse is indeed referring to race. It describes the creation of the various ethnic groups with their own genealogy. No race or genealogical lineage is declared superior or should be favoured than others. The only superiority is that of piety, between those who are loyal to Allah and those who are not–Not between those who are Malay and non-Malay, Bumiputeras or non-Bumiputeras.

Besides, this verse also states that the diversity of races is intended for mutual learning (“that you may know one another”). The instruction to cultivate multi-racial learning is understood by Hardy as “a motivating force for mutual love.”[6] If this is followed, then this further undermines the ideology that one race is or should be more favoured than others.

Turning to the Hadith, we find in Prophet Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon his conviction of racial equality:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”[7]

The Prophet has a deep sense of racial impartiality. Probably this is the reason why he condemned those who claim supremacy over others because of their ancestral-racial lineage:

“Allah, Most High, has removed from you the pride of the pre-Islamic period and its boasting in ancestors. One is only a pious believer or a miserable sinner. You are sons of Adam, and Adam came from dust. Let the people cease to boast about their ancestors. They are merely fuel in Jahannam [hell]; or they will certainly be of less account with Allah than the beetle which rolls dung with its nose.”[8]
“Your lineage is of no account… you are all the children of Adam… the pride you take in your forefathers transgresses the teaching of your Lord… no man is superior to another save in faith and fear of God.”[9]

These Hadith accounts prompted Abd-al Aziz Abd-al-Qadir Kamil to conclude that, “Islam sees mankind as a large garden, in which there are flowers of many colours, but no one colour is superior to any other;”[10] and, “The diversity of tongues and colours is simply a manifestation of divine power, and does not imply any notion of preference or privilege. On the contrary, in Islamic thought, privilege is opposed to God‘s commands of love and brotherhood.”[11]

Commenting on the Prophet’s teachings on racial equality, Zakaria El-Berry, the then Minister of State for Wakfs and Head of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, who was also Professor of Sharia Law at Cairo University, wrote, “In this powerful style, the Prophet, peace be on him, has destroyed all racial and other discriminatory grounds artificially claimed by selfish and conceited forces.[12]

The implication of this to the Malaysian context is obvious: the Prophet opposes all race-based ideology, including ‘Ketuanan Melayu’.

Among the Hadith accounts, there was an incident where the Prophet made clear that there should not be favouritism based on racial, cultural, economic, or even familial affinity in Muslims’ handling of public policy:

“During the Prophet’s lifetime, a woman of the Banu Makhzum (a noble Arab clan) stole and was due to be punished. Some of the men of Quraish thought it intolerable that judgement should be executed upon the person of a woman of Makhzum and considered who would be able to speak to the Prophet and convey the people’s intercession to him. Their choice fell on Usamah ibn-Zaid, who was near to the Prophet’s heart and well loved by him, because of his own and his father’s rank and standing. But the Prophet rejected Usamah’s mediation, and rebuked him, saying: ‘Would you intercede against a punishment ordained by God?’ He then stood up and addressed the people: ‘Verily those that came before you were destroyed. It was their wont, if a noble man stole, to let him go free and if a weak man stole, to execute judgement upon him. By God! Were even Fatimah the daughter of Muhammad a thief, she should have her hand severed.”[13]

Such was the firmness of the Prophet’s sense of impartiality. Probably due to his stern stand on this issue that subsequent Muslims continued to exemplify the same deep sense of racial equality. One example is seen in the trial presided by the second Caliph, Umar ibn-al-Khattab, which involved a Jew and Ali ibn-Abi Talib.

During the trial, the second Caliph called the Jew by his name and addressed Ali by his agnomen (Abu al-Hasan), because that was how the Caliph called Ali when they talk. As the trial proceeded, the Caliph noticed the angry expression on Ali’s face. So the Caliph rebuked Ali, “Are you displeased that your opponent is a Jew and that you have appeared with him before the court!”

Ali said in reply, “No, but I take it amiss that you have not treated us equally but have displayed partiality in my favour, inasmuch as you addressed him by his name and me by my agnomen.” (At that time, the use of the agnomen was a mark of esteem).[14]

In this account, Ali displayed the same fervency to uphold racial equality like the Prophet. Such was the admirable sensitivity of the first Muslim leaders with regard to racial differences. (We know that later on Ali assumed the caliphate as the fourth Caliph, ruling over the entire Islamic community of that time.)

The Qur’an stipulates that the concern of the people of Allah should not be dictated by race and kinship, but by justice and righteousness. “O you who believe! Be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness of Allah’s sake, though it may be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives; if he be rich or poor, Allah is nearer to them both in compassion; therefore do not follow (your) low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely Allah is aware of what you do.” (Qur’an 4:135)

Therefore it is remarkable that some Muslim politicians in our present day differ so much from their earliest religious leaders. The contemporary racist mentality displayed by local Malay supremacists who claim to be Muslims contradicts directly against the values held so dear by earlier Islamic rulers. There is inherent inconsistency to juxtapose the interest of the ‘Muslims’ with that of the ‘Malays’ and ‘Bumiputeras’.

Nonetheless, one may understand that the proponents of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ justify their race-based ideology and propaganda by their appeal to the Malaysian Constitution. The recent remark made by the Rector of Melaka University Technology MARA, Mizan Hitam, is a case in point, “A Malay, as defined in the Constitution must be a Muslim, speaks the Malay language and practices Malay customs. So, it can be concluded that the Malays in Malaysia are Muslims, while the most relevant Malay party is Umno.”[15]

However, there is a grave theological danger in such reasoning for it confuses the place of the Constitution in the Muslim consciousness. Before elaborating further on this, it is worthwhile to take a look at the present consensus among global Islamic authorities on the identity of Muslim.

In “July 2005, H.M. King Abdullah II convened an international Islamic conference of 200 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars (Ulama) from 50 countries”[16] to engage on the issue of Islamic identity in the present time. The conference unanimously issued a ruling on three points considered fundamental, of which the first is on the identity of Muslims.

In order to facilitate our appreciation of the consensus, I have quoted the relevant portion at length:

“Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Mathahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali), the two Shi‘i schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim. Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable. Moreover, in accordance with the Shaykh Al-Azhar’s fatwa, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash‘ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.

Equally, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believes in God, Glorified and Exalted be He, and His Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) and the pillars of faith, and acknowledges the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.”[17]

Nowhere in the Amman Message states that the Malay ethnicity must be Muslim. The criterion is in the conviction in the tenet of Islam, not in racial identity. These leading Islamic scholars from around the world unanimously do not recognize that one’s religiosity marks one’s ethnicity.

To be fair, the Amman consensus is not aimed at addressing ethnic identity. Rather, it is concerned with the identity of Muslims. However, due to the Malaysian context that intertwines ethnicity with religiosity that the Amman Message carries implication. And as far as it goes, the ijma ulama (concession of Islamic scholars) does not acknowledge any sort of correlation between race and Islam.

It is notable that there are eight signatories from Malaysia who endorse the Amman Message statement: Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdul Hamid Othman, Kamal Hasan, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Shahidan Kasem, Khayri Jamal Al-Din, and Salih Qadir Karim Al-Zanki.[18] At least three out of these eight are publicly known as leaders in the political party UMNO. This means that either they agree with the statement that there is no correlation between race and Islam, or they simply stamped their signature on the consensus without giving much consideration to its implication.

Now back to the confusion that I have mentioned earlier regarding the Malay supremacists who think that the Malaysian Constitution defines the Malay-Muslim identity. It seems that they have committed very serious mistake. Saying that the Constitution is able to define and identify an ethnic group (Malay) as Muslim, which is not stated in the Amman Message nor the Qur’an, is making the bold claim that the Constitution is superior to the ijma ulama and the Qur’an! This has effectively misplaced the Islamic scholars and the Qur’an in the consciousness of the Muslims.

Nevertheless this is not to say that Malaysia should do away with its Constitution. The Constitution is still essential in governing the country. What I am pointing out is the need to recognize that the Constitution has its limit when it comes to Islamic matters.

“We have revealed the Qur’an to you explaining clearly everything, and a guidance and mercy and good news for those who submit.” (Qur’an 16:89, emphasis added.)

Defining who is or who is not a Muslim is undeniably an Islamic matter, and hence its appeal should be the Ulama and the Qur’an. Not the Constitution. The Malay supremacists can certainly pursue their race-based ideology all they want. However, they should not confuse their own agenda with that of Islam.

Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is currently reading theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, and blogs at and He is the co-editor (with Soo-Inn Tan) of ‘The Bible and the Ballot: Reflections on Christian Political Engagement in Malaysia today’ (Singapore: Graceworks, forthcoming).

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”

[1] MY Sin Chew website: Lim Sue Goan (translated by Soong Phui Jee), Umno General Assembly and Malay agenda, dated 29 November 2011, (accessed 30 November 2011).

[2] Sun Daily website: Umno reaffirms its Malay agenda, dated 30 November 2011, (accessed 30 November 2011)

[3] Bernama website: Umno Not A Racist Party–Muhyiddin, dated 26 November 2011, (accessed 30 November 2011). Emphasis added.

[4] Abd-al‘Aziz ‘Abd-al-Qadir Kamil, Islam and the race question (Belgium: Unesco, 1970), p.26.

[5] Masud website: Paul A. Hardy, Islam and the Race Question, (accessed 30 November 2011).

[6] Masud website: Paul A. Hardy, Islam and the Race Question, (accessed 30 November 2011).

[7] Islami City website: Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) Farewell Sermon, dated 15 February 2011, (accessed 30 November 2011).

[8] As stated in Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 41, number 5097. This verse can be read at (accessed 30 November 2011).

[9] Quoted in Abd-al‘Aziz ‘Abd-al-Qadir Kamil, Islam and the race question (Belgium: Unesco, 1970), p.34.

[10] Ibid, p.29.

[11] Ibid, p.63. Emphasis added.

[12] Islam Basics website: Zakaria El-Berry, Man’s Rights in Islam, (accessed 30 November 2011). Emphasis added.

[13] Abd-al‘Aziz ‘Abd-al-Qadir Kamil, Islam and the race question (Belgium: Unesco, 1970), p.41-42.

[14] Ibid, p.42. Emphasis added.

[15] Bernama website: Mohamad Bakri Darus, Umno Continues To Promote The Sanctity of Islam, dated 29 November 2011, (accessed 30 November 2011).

[16] The Amman Message (Jordan: The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2008), pp.v-vi.

[17] Ibid, pp.16-17.

[18] Ibid, pp.53-53.