Islam in Malaysia
Before the coming of Islam, the indigenous Malays embraced an ancient religion with various forms of belief with some of the population belonging to the Hindu/Buddha religion. Life was structured and arranged in ways that showed the influence of more than one religion. This can be seen not only in the Malay's cultural patterns but is also part of the 'power' structure of state dignitaries and princes.
At the political level, the royal ruler and the head of state in most communities in the Malay world embraced the Islamic religion. The people were impressed and attracted by the provision in the Qur'an and the Hadith that mankind should be ranked on a basis of interpersonal equality.
Those who for so long had been considered of low caste saw how the different strata of Islamic society were laid before them. They were no longer imprisoned within a religious caste system and the notion of living in "classes". In Islam there was no discrimination, or division on the basis of colour, class tribal affiliation, race, homeland and birthplace, all of which gave rise to problems. Equal rights seemed the right human solution, which in practice meant the acceptance of rights and obligation as a member of the Islamic Community. The pious person achieved sublimity and nearness to God.
The local population saw that Islam could extricate them from this bondage and provide the means for the extirpation of social evils. The new religion gave the small man a sense of this individual worth - the dignity of man - as a member of an Islamic community.
The efforts of the ulama' in implementing Islamic teachings gradually reached rulers, officials, community leaders and the ordinary people. Their efforts left its mark in such places as Banten (formerly Bantam), East Java, Macassar, Kalimantan, the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, Malacca, Trengganu and elsewhere. The ulama' also played a part in the administration, and some of the powerful sultans held firmly to the teachings of Islam.
Spread of Islam
After the initial introduction of Islam, the religion was spread by local Muslim scholars or ulama' from one district to another. Their normal practice was to open a religious training centre called "pondok" or hut from the small sleeping quarters constructed for the students.
In addition to giving lectures in houses, prayer houses, or mosques, they also performed tasks such as working in padi fields, gardening and craftwork and other jobs according to each individual's capabilities. The role of these ulama' was not merely that of a teacher but also that of advisor for the village families and communities. The role they played was fairly broad one by reason of their expertise and capability in more than one field of human activity. After graduating, the pupils would go back to their homeland, often in some remote corner of the country, forming a link in the chain between one ulama' and another.
Islam in the Malay Archipelago in general and Malaysia in particular follows the Shafi Madhab (school of thought). However there are many Muslims in Malaysia who do not follow any particular school. In Perlis, the state constitution specifies that Perlis follows the Qur'an and Sunnah and not a particular madhab. Many Muslims in Perlis therefore do not follow any madhab, as is the case with the followers and members of the Muhammadiyah Organisation in Indonesia.
One noteworthy feature in the religious education scene is the close relationship between the Pondok schools, the teachers and even the pupils although the distance between them may be quite considerable as from Kubang Pasir for example, or Kedah to Achen, Java, Kalimantan, Kelantan and Terengganu.
The unifying factor that makes strong ties among them is the uniformity of the system of instruction, for not only are the Holy book and the language used the same but also the socio-political problems, even though in Indonesia the Dutch were the colonial power and in Malaysia (or Malaya) the British. The colonisers whether Portuguese, Dutch or British attempted Christionisation by various means, in particular through their educational systems.
There were, however, a number of Muslims who felt that the pondok schools could not deal with the challenge of colonial education institutions. In order to overcome the problems, the Madrasatul Mashoor al-Islamiyah was established in Pulau Pinang in the year 1916 using Arabic as the language of instruction. The madrassahs taught Fiqh as well as secular subjects. This institute of learning was not merely intended to enhance the position of Muslims in Penang and northern Malaya but in Southeast Asia as well. This school chose as its inspiration the name of Syed Ahmad Al Mashoor, alternatively known as Ayid Mashoor, a leader of Arab descent on that Island.
After Malaya achieved independence on August 31, 1957, the growth of religious education at government subsidised schools was a result of sustained effort on the part of the Malay community. This can be seen at the Islamic College and the National University of Malaysia.
The best known and reputedly oldest pondok in Malaysia is that of Tok Guru Haji Muhammad Yusof or Tok Kenali, who constructed it himself in Kota Bahru, Kelantan. He received his basic education in Kelantan and then like any other pondok teacher pursued his studies in the Masjid al-Haram (the Great Mosque of Makkah).
The Tok Kenali pondok became a famous centre of learning which led to large numbers of people from different states coming to learn at the pondok, and subsequently other pondok schools were opened by some of the former pupils who in time became community leaders. This teacher-pupil- teacher network spread to Southern Thailand and Indonesia.
Some Malaysian ulama' became teachers at the Masjid al-Haram. At the time of this writing one ulama' from Kedah, Muhammad bin Abdul Kadir, and two from Petani were teachers there. Muhammad's father was also a teacher at the al-Haram Mosque.