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“Islam, properly understood” Mahathir Mohamad on religion, Malaysian society and politics

posted on 17.05.2017, 01:39 by Schottmann, Sven Alexander
This thesis represents the first major study of the representations that Mahathir Mohamad made of Islam and of the role that Islam played in shaping his political vision and discourse. The longest serving Prime Minister of Malaysia, holding the post from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir was a remarkable politician by any measure. Most aspects of his leadership have been closely studied, but his articulation of Islam represents a long neglected but greatly needed perspective on both the man and the country that he sought to set onto the path of accelerated modernisation. Apart from identifying dominant themes in the evolving representations he made about Islam, this thesis also investigates the biographical, intellectual and theological influences that underlay his assertion that Islam was not an obstacle to the modernisation of Muslim societies. I put the case that the representations Mahathir made of religion can be conceived of as a relatively coherent discourse which might be called “Mahathir’s Islam.” Apart from rationalistic and pragmatist interpretations of the religion, these representations also contained Mahathir’s assessment of the socio-cultural, economic and political problems facing the contemporary Muslim world, and a “theology of progress,” or the range of solutions and corrective measures which he proposed Muslims should adopt. This thesis argues that “Mahathir’s Islam” inspired and informed much of the government’s ‘Islamisation’ policies of the 1980s and 1990s. This underscores Mahathir’s centrality in the development of Malaysia’s public Islam during these years of pivotal change. My analysis concludes that Mahathir’s religious discourse was marked by strong dualisms. The public representations he made of ‘correctly understood Islam,’ were themselves moulded by the competing forces of the circumstances he found himself in as well as his own understandings of religion. Similarly, while Mahathir emphasised the individualistic, egalitarian, pluralistic, democratic and dynamic qualities of Islam, his government concurrently enacted legislation that circumscribed religious freedoms. Conversely, while the representations which Mahathir made of Islam were fraught with contradictions and flaws, his insistence that every Muslim had the right to speak for Islam paradoxically seem to have strengthened the ground for the future democratisation of Malaysian politics.


Principal supervisor

Marika Vicziany

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Monash Asia Institute


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts