Another sign of imminent Umno-PAS unity?

This year's Tokoh Maal Hijrah - Malaysian Muslim of the Year - is former Chief Justice, Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim. The annual award, which is given on the New Year's day of the Islamic calendar, is handed out to the most outstanding Malaysian Muslim in recognition for his contributions to the country. Past recipients include retired judges, university academics, scholars, politicians and former muftis (religious scholars).

A special award was also given this year to the late Datuk Dr Haron Din, former Mursyidul Am (spiritual leader) of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). The Islamic party appointed him spiritual leader after the passing of Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat in February last year. Dr Haron died last month in the United States after undergoing heart treatment.

Dr Haron was not the first PAS leader to receive such recognition. In 1991, the government named Tan Sri Mohd Asri Muda - fourth President of the PAS - as Tokoh Maal Hijrah. In 1974, he was responsible for bringing the PAS into the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. In 1982, Tan Sri Mohd Asri resigned from the PAS after the ulama (clerics) took over the leadership of the party. The following year, he was expelled from it.

By the 1980s, Malaysia experienced an Islamic resurgence, and a majority of PAS members considered Tan Sri Mohd Asri too close to Umno. Conversely, Umno saw his cooperation with the ruling establishment as a boon. It was unsurprising that he was bestowed the award.

Does this special Maal Hijrah award for Dr Haron contain any implicit meaning? Is he recognised for forging Umno and PAS unity?

One should not read too much into the political motivations underlying this award. Although Dr Haron spent most of his political career in the PAS, he had served in both state and federal religious institutions.

For example, he was member of the National Fatwa Committee, Selangor Fatwa Council and Perlis Fatwa Council. He was Vice-Dean of Islamic Studies faculty at the National University of Malaysia, and adviser for the Malaysian Central Bank. He was also active in giving sermons and writing - he published numerous books on Islamic medicine.

Still, some could interpret the award as paving the way for Umno to offer an olive branch to the PAS. His daughter, Dr Huda Haron, who received the award on behalf of her late father, gave an interesting quote that may encourage Umno-PAS unity: "We (humans) can never hold the same opinion, not even twins. But do we constantly look for our similarities or differences? Only by celebrating our similarities can we enhance brotherhood. Ideological differences is a norm and given, but our search for unity will be meaningful for the ummah (Muslim community)."

Dr Haron was not a typical PAS leader of his time. In many ways, he was a traditionalist, Sufi-oriented mystic, and not the firebrand puritan closely associated with the Wahhabi/Salafi sect. Many knew Dr Haron as a spiritual healer; he was the adviser to Darussyifa', a faith-healing clinic. He used Quranic verses to heal patients, and his clients originate from countries including Belgium, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Britain.

When it comes to issues of governance and laws, Dr Haron was consistent on the implementation of hudud laws (punitive Islamic laws). In the run-up to the 2008 elections, the PAS began to change its slogan from Negara Islam to Negara Berkebajikan, or "benevolent state". There was less emphasis on hudud laws, and the party edged closer to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Coalition). Yet, Dr Haron was consistent with the PAS' original struggle, and maintained that hudud laws cannot be questioned.

In 2013, he published a book, Hukum Hudud: Dalam Perundangan Islam (Hudud Laws According To Islam), where he emphasised how hudud laws are obligatory in Islam to prevent crimes. In fact, so consistent was Dr Haron on hudud that it made PAS cooperation with the secularist Democratic Action Party untenable.

At the outset, Umno leaders were more comfortable working with the late Dr Haron compared to Mr Nik Aziz. He was a soft-spoken leader and did not openly criticise the regime. There are many photos posted on the Internet featuring Prime Minister Najib Razak visiting Dr Haron when the latter underwent treatment in hospital.

Dr Haron's passing is a great loss for Umno. The party could only hope that the man who replaces him as PAS spiritual guide shares his position on Muslim unity in Malaysia. Umno would not want someone like Mr Nik Aziz to lead the PAS, because he was the stumbling block for Umno-PAS between 1990 and his passing last year.

  • The writer is a fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore politics.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2016, with the headline 'Another sign of imminent Umno-PAS unity?'. Print Edition | Subscribe