Surrounded by filthy walls and a toilet without a partition, an ustaz (religious teacher) waits. There are no clocks or announcements, so the only way to find out if it’s prayer time is to ask a prison officer. The food in prison consists of a tiny piece of fish the size of three fingers, kangkong, porridge, and soup that tastes like pipe water.
Ustaz Wan Ji Wan Husin was released on bail after three days in Sungai Buloh Prison. But he’s not a free man yet; he’ll have to fight for his freedom at the Court of Appeal.
Wan Ji was charged on 10 September 2014, under the colonial-era Sedition Act, for a video posted on Facebook in November 2012 that had been critical of and allegedly seditious against the Sultan of Selangor. While New Naratif will not reproduce the exact comment, the basis of his critique can also be found in an old article in 2013, where he wrote, “Islam emphasises appointment to a position by merit, not lineage. According to a hadith (Al-Bukhari 59), Prophet Muhammad said that when a task is assigned to a person who was not worthy, catastrophe is bound to happen.”
On 9 April 2018, he was found guilty by the Sessions Court and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. Wan Ji filed an appeal against the conviction, prompting the public prosecutor to file their own cross-appeal. The High Court ruled in the prosecution’s favour, increasing Wan Ji’s sentence to one year.
As a progressive religious preacher within a conservative system, Wan Ji fits right in at SAUDARA. But his activities and position also mean that the sedition charge isn’t the first time he’s been on the receiving end of state-led repercussions.
Opposition to the penalty came from both the political and civil society spheres. The president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Anwar Ibrahim, slammed Wan Ji’s sentence as “too harsh.” The Pakatan Harapan Youth wing, led by the current Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, denounced the “severe sentence” and urged the federal government to repeal the Sedition Act as promised in the election manifesto. Lawyers for Liberty, a human rights lawyers organisation, issued a press statement condemning the verdict as a stain on freedom of speech.
Despite the outrage, Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, who’d been appointed to the position a month after Pakatan Harapan won the election in mid-2018, said that the cross-appeal had been prior to his appointment, and that Wan Ji’s conviction by the two Courts leaves his Chambers with limited discretion.
In addition to delivering religious lectures around the country, Ustaz Wan Ji is also the current academic director of SAUDARA, an organisation dedicated to bridging communities through research on socio-cultural and religious studies in Malaysia. The organisation got its start in September 2018 following the regime change that had taken place just four months prior.
“We find that many proposed reforms were facing opposition at the community level. Efforts to engage with all segments of society are important, so that we can build consensus and no community considers its voice marginalised,” its executive director, Lim Hong Siang, explained in an email to New Naratif. “So SAUDARA was set up to engage with the wider community. Today we focus more on engaging in discourse whether through writing, forums, dialogue sessions or weekend courses.”
In the past one year, the organisation has held events aiming to foster better understanding between communities, such as highlighting the experience of Malay students in Chinese vernacular schools and engagement between Muslim and non-Muslim groups.
As a progressive religious preacher within a conservative system, Wan Ji fits right in at SAUDARA. But his activities and position also mean that the sedition charge isn’t the first time he’s been on the receiving end of state-led repercussions. He’d previously been prevented from speaking in a mosque, and slammed for defending the touching of dogs and calling for a secular government that doesn’t bar anyone from practicing their religion—rare for someone born, bred, and educated within a largely conservative Malaysian environment.
From a workman’s son to Al-Azhar graduate
Wan Ji was born in Kelantan, and is the grandson of Tuan Guru Haji Wan Hassan bin Wan Ismail, a well-known local figure and friend of Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the late spiritual leader of the Islamist political party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). Despite being from a prominent, well-to-do religious family, Wan Ji’s father—the youngest child of a fourth wife—was uneducated and worked as a labourer at the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), while his mother runs a grocery store.
When he was about 13 years old, Wan Ji was inspired to study in a sekolah pondok (a type of Islamic boarding school) after hearing from a friend who was also studying in one in Kedah. It was an easily granted wish; his uncle had been a warden at such a school in Kelantan, so all it took was a phone call. Wan Ji began memorising the Quran in preparation for religious school.
He spent the next four years in a sekolah pondok as part of an intimate, tight-knit community. The students lived with their batchmates and teachers, spending most of their time studying the Quran together.
The sekolah pondok isn’t considered as part of the Malaysian formal education system, and students don’t sit for standardised tests nor receive certificates after graduation. It was therefore a more risky choice for those in search of qualifications, but the 17-year-old Wan Ji was able to continue his studies at Jamiah Farooqia in Karachi, Pakistan, a school he said was funded by Saudi millionaires. All his family needed to do, he tells New Naratif in an interview, was send him a few hundred ringgit a month to purchase books and cover the cost of living.
“Why is there a need to recognise and follow just one school of thought?”
In Karachi, Wan Ji said he was exposed to “rigid” religious thought and, for the first time, experienced being mocked as a minority sect. Most students in Jamiah Farooqia followed the Hanafi school of jurisprudence and condemned Wan Ji and his friends for adhering to the Shafie school. It was this bullying that got him thinking, “Why is there a need to recognise and follow just one school of thought?”
After three years in Karachi, Wan Ji went on to the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, one of the most prestigious universities in the area of Islamic studies. He graduated with a degree in Syariah Islamiyah a year later, in 2001. “Among the special things in Al-Azhar is that we learnt about the four schools of jurisprudence. In Pakistan, we learnt just one,” he says.
Exposure to multi-ethnic associations
Upon his return to Malaysia, Wan Ji was appointed to the Selangor PAS Ulama Council, an influential advisory wing of the Islamist party. It was just in time for him to be caught in the 2008 “political tsunami”, where, for the first time since 1969, the then-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition failed to secure a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament. In that year, PAS allied itself with PKR and the Democractic Action Party (DAP), both parties in the then-opposition.
“That was a big change in 2008, when PAS became friends with DAP and PKR,” Wan Ji recalled. “Indeed, it affected many of our lives in significant ways.”
According to Wan Ji, supporters and members of various political parties previously tended to mingle only within their own ethnic groups—a phenomenon bolstered by the fact that many political parties in Malaysia are organised along communal bases. But once the political alliance between the three parties happened, it brought together people from different ethnic backgrounds.
“We [PAS followers] got to know many non-Muslims/non-Malays for the first time. We regularly attended and organised joint programs. [Some] PAS leaders also took a ‘missionary’ attitude; that is, we were taught to show good manners to non-Muslims as a way of preaching.”
Not all PAS leaders embraced that open approach. “On the outside, they said they needed to preach to non-Muslims. In the party’s internal meetings, they criticised the thinking of others,” Wan Ji says. He, however, chose to take the opportunity to meet people from different walks of life, making more connections through them.
“If we believe that God gives us the mind to think and reason, why fear to use it? From there, I told myself, I had to be honest with myself and adopt the attitude to learn from anyone, including non-Muslims. God has given us reason to think calmly,” he says, quoting from the book Pergolakan Pemikiran Islam. He credited the book, written by Ahmad Wahib and published by Institut Kajian Dasar (Institute for Policy Research), for stirring up questions that have been lingering in his mind about the use of reason to engage with religion and religious pluralism.
“If we believe that God gives us the mind to think and reason, why fear to use it? From there, I told myself, I had to be honest with myself and adopt the attitude to learn from anyone, including non-Muslims. God has given us reason to think calmly.”
That was the starting point. 11 years later, Wan Ji has managed to build a small following among non-Muslims—a rare thing for a Malaysian Islamic preacher who usually caters to and interacts within a mono-racial audience. Wan Ji’s outreach within party politics and activist circles broadened his perspective, and widened his support base. When he was arrested for sedition, activists from different ethnic backgrounds gathered to show solidarity outside the prison. Puzzled by this inter-ethnic show of support, a prison guard asked Wan Ji, “Who are you and why do so many Chinese support you?”
Lim Hong Siang, his colleague at SAUDARA, was first acquainted with Wan Ji in 2012. “He takes a different approach compared to other preachers. Wan Ji is honest when it comes to the history of Islamic development, and it’s this quality that really makes him admirable,” he says.
“Usually an ustaz is selective when it comes to history, in order to glorify the religion, but Wan Ji respects the facts. […] He does not avoid complicated facts, nor does he try to justify it with sophistry. That’s what makes non-Muslims a bit more trustful of what he says.”
Confronting terrorism and conservatism
Wan Ji left the Islamist PAS in 2015; he was fed up of their polemic, growing sceptical of Islamist movements, and what he saw as a fixation by party elites on power and appointments at government-linked companies. After a stint at PKR, he was recruited by SAUDARA to accomplish two purposes: break the monopoly of conservative religious interpretations within Muslim discourse in the country, and debunking stereotypes that non-Muslims have about Islam.
As part of his role at SAUDARA, Wan Ji writes articles published in both Mandarin and Malay, delivers talks, and conducts the occasional weekend course. One recent course—“Getting to know Islam and Muslims”—was well-received by non-Muslim participants.
“They were surprised and impressed by Wan Ji’s interpretations. Our differences are due to a variety of factors, including culture, language, and politics. Eventually most participants realised where the issue was, and wanted to seek solutions,” Lim says.
In addition to his work as SAUDARA’s academic director and an independent speaker, Wan Ji is also writing a PhD thesis about terrorism and textual analysis. It’s a subject he got interested in through various encounters throughout his life: engaging with a teacher in Pakistan who’d been a member of the Taliban, and talking to a friend who’d spent two years in Guantanamo Bay before being detained under the Internal Security Act upon his repatriation to Malaysia.
“I thought that he had changed and [been] rehabilitated,” Wan Ji said of his meeting with that friend upon his release. “Apparently, he still thinks that infidels should be killed.”
Ever since that conversation, Wan Ji has been trying to study different approaches to changing the mindsets of those who have been radicalised by terrorists.
“Many of them are good people, but their minds [have been] corrupted,” he says. “They want to go to heaven, but hear the wrong guide. We have to shake the way their corrupted mindset functions.”
This mission has been complicated by the dominance of conservative Islamic interpretations in Malaysia, caused, in Wan Ji’s opinion, by shallow and limited understanding of the Quran and the hadith among Malaysian Muslims.
“The scholarly tradition among religious scholars in Malaysia has no broad reading other than the Shafie school of thought. If you mention arguments originating from anything other than Shafie, you would be considered ‘less Islamic’.”
“The scholarly tradition among religious scholars in Malaysia has no broad reading other than the Shafie school of thought. If you mention arguments originating from anything other than Shafie, you would be considered ‘less Islamic’,” he tells New Naratif.
To illustrate this point, he brings up the issue of touching dogs. According to the Shafie school of thought, it’s haram (forbidden) to touch dogs, even if one washes their hands after. Wan Ji points out that there’s no consensus among religious scholars on this issue, but that there’s resistance against any other view in Malaysia.
Things can get even more problematic when the religious teachers promote their own political leanings under the cover of their credentials, turning religion into a partisan issue.
“Imagine the ustaz is affiliated with PAS or ISMA (a right-wing Malay-Muslim group) and says that you have to be like this or that to enter paradise. In that situation, where many are naïve, many people will follow. They practice their religion by following the ustaz,” he said.
To Wan Ji, what’s needed is a religious discourse that emphasises values, rather than strict adherence to interpretations of religious laws. “If [something] is just fiqh (an interpretation of syariah law by religious scholars) then it isn’t wrong to rebuke and disagree with it. If it’s considered wrong to disagree with fiqh, then the great scholars were in the wrong,” he says, pointing out that prominent religious scholars disagreed with one another on multiple occasions.
Another contributing factor to the dominance of conservative Islam in Malaysia is the limited exposure of religious Muslims to non-Muslims. Many Muslim Malaysian students receive Islamic education in Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia—either through government sponsorship or at personal expense—and later return to work as religious teachers, religious department administrators, or independent speakers, shaping policies and discourse in Malaysia.
As Wan Ji points out, scholars who study in predominantly Muslim countries have limited opportunities to meet and communicate with non-Muslims: “The psychological effect of this is that when they return to Malaysia, their exposure and association is quite limited. They feel awkward in communicating with people of different religions and ethnicities.” The result of this lack of meaningful interfaith relationships is a limited understanding of non-Muslims, which leads to prejudice and presents barriers to co-existing in a multi-religious society.
To address this issue, Wan Ji suggests that some of the students be sent to study Islam in western countries, where the majority are non-Muslims: “The purpose is to change their view of the non-Muslim community, especially from the point of contact and association.”
The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists
In the Malaysian political arena, there’s been increasing efforts by right-wing Islamist groups to mobilise through exclusionary religious framing, ranging from the Buy Muslim First campaign or the campaign to recognise Malaysia as an Islamic state.
In order to understand the emergence of local Islamist movements, Wan Ji says that one must look to the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamist organisation founded in Egypt in 1928. Hasan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, argued that Islam is “a perfect system, encompassing all life”, and the organisation’s declared aim is to establish a state ruled by syariah law. According to John Esposito, the University Professor and Founding Director at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Hasan al-Banna “emphasised organisational development to implement […] visions of an Islamic state and society.”
Many Malaysians have studied in Egypt, or other countries in which the Muslim Brotherhood has a presence, bringing the organisation’s ideology and influence back home with them upon graduation. A number of these students have gone on to become prominent politicians and activists, such as Abdul Hadi Awang, the current President of PAS, and Saari Sungib, a veteran politician and founder of Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), an influential organisation from which politicians and political parties have emerged. (IKRAM and the right-wing Muslim group ISMA, for instance, came out of a split in JIM.) These individuals and organisations have become vehicles that recruit, educate, and influence thousands of members with ideas and political strategies associated with the Muslim Brotherhood .
The possibility of ISMA entering the political arena in the future won’t surprise Wan Ji, as they’re already playing a role in national politics outside of Parliament. He says that the anti-ICERD demonstrations—when conservative Malay Muslims took to the streets to protest the government’s intention to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which they saw as eroding their special place in Malaysian politics—had been the “brainchild” of ISMA, which then built on PAS’ following to mobilise a larger group.
Wan Ji has complex relationships with several Islamic movements, youth groups, and political parties; there are close interactions, but also many tensions. According to Mohd Jalaluddin of the independent research firm and local think-tank, Ilham Center, “What is interesting about Wan Ji’s approach is that he is able to facilitate understanding of complex matters for public consumption. He is also able to write, give speeches, engage in debates and forums. It’s rare for someone to be capable of doing all that well. Wan Ji has an influence on certain groups, especially among young people who are thirsty for knowledge and enlightenment. It helps that he has a youth-friendly and casual approach.”
Wan Ji has complex relationships with several Islamic movements, youth groups, and political parties; there are close interactions, but also many tensions.
The appeal of Wan Ji’s approach is also acknowledged by a young religious scholar in his field, who asked to remain anonymous. However, he adds, “Because of his brash and explicit political views, those who have different views have strongly opposed him. For example, ISMA and PAS.” Indeed, those who are politically opposed to Wan Ji—who does not hide his political inclinations—have been the most vocal in calling on authorities to curtail his freedom.
Wan Ji admits that he feels burdened by constant attacks. “I’ve been blocked from giving talks by the religious departments in a few states. In fact, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department has arrested me thrice.”
“Among the establishment, Wan Ji may be seen as too ‘liberal’ and open in religious views,” Jalaluddin says.
“The non-Muslim community seems to be more interested in him now. But the biggest disadvantage of Wan Ji is his inability to speak English well to reach the non-Muslim audience who do not speak the Malay language.”
Concerns in a “new Malaysia”
Wan Ji’s legal troubles haven’t exactly cleared up since Pakatan Harapan came to power, but he still believes that there are leaders in the current government who want to abolish undemocratic laws such as the Sedition Act.
But this doesn’t make him a cheerleader of Malaysia’s new government; speaking to New Naratif, Wan Ji expresses concern over Pakatan Harapan’s failure to advance ethnic harmony and balance in government policy.
“That’s why (many) Malays feel insecure. My concern with Pakatan Harapan is that they do not think much and have confidence issues. Nowadays many leaders think only of political survival.”
Wan Ji cites the example of the opposition playing up ethnic and religious issues; Pakatan Harapan, insecure of its Malay vote share, has had to “dance to the drums played by the enemy” to try to counter their narrative. In one instance, the administration back-pedalled from ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), after the opposition claimed that it would threaten Malay privileges and the position of Islam as the religion of the federation.
But the issue isn’t just with the opposition; in his experience of working with some of the Malay leaders in the new government, Wan Ji got the impression that some were there to “play politics, not solve problems.”
What’s needed, Wan Ji says, is action to demonstrate that affirmative action in Malaysia is about social justice, not racial dominance: “For example, by introducing affirmative action for the disabled, then for the poor, and so on. Our discourse has to be step-by-step.”
Right now, it’s Wan Ji himself who has to face his things one step at a time. After three days behind bars, he was released after posting bail of RM5,000. His passport, however, has been impounded, restricting his ability to travel. All he can do now is stay in Malaysia, and wait till the end of his appeal trial that’ll decide whether he can continue speaking up for the change he wants, or get dragged back to jail.
 Within Sunni Islam, the largest denomination followed by about 90% of the world’s Muslims (according to Pew Forum), there are four schools of jurisprudence (fiqh): Hanafi, Shafie, Hanbali, and Maliki. Adherents of the Hanafi school are mostly found in parts of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The Shafie school is predominant in Southeast Asia. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, these schools represent different interpretations of the Islamic law on the basis of the basic sources, but their differences are minor. However according to Vincent Cornell, Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University, the differences between the Islamic schools of law can be sizable or methodological in nature, and revolve around the assessment of tradition.
 PAS, an Islamist party, is all exclusively Malay-Muslims; DAP, although appealing for multiracialism, is still mostly made up of non-Malays; PKR has the most multi-ethnic membership even though its top two leaders have always been Malays.