Malaysia: Heretical Islamic cult returns

JAIS officials found that its recruits were told that they could only effectively fight Jews if they joined up

Spero News/December 5, 2006

69-year old Ashaari Muhammad has four wives and 37 children. He gained notoriety in Malaysia when his Islamic sect, called Al-Arqam was banned for being heretical.

The group he founded has now been in the headlines of the Malaysian press for more than a week, since it was revealed that a multi-national business he owns, Rufaqa Corporation, has been exposed as a front for the revival of Al-Arqam. Two officials of the company were taken into custody on Friday. On Saturday four more businessmen, or "sheikhs" were arrested in a raid, but were later released. The four are expected to be charged by a Syariah (Islamic) court next week.

At Shah Alam, capital city of Selangor state, officials from the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS or MAIS) infiltrated the Rufaqa group and over four months documented some of the "heresies" which the cult was now preaching. They found that the new revival of Al-Arqam is more extreme than its predecessor.

The group is, like most Islamic groups, virulently anti-semitic. JAIS officials found that its recruits were told that they could only effectively fight Jews if they joined up. And the sect promised gifts of supernatural powers to those who followed the teachings of Ashaari Muhammad. A prayer taught to the neophytes runs thus:

"Those who fight in this battle will receive the same power bestowed upon the Prophet by Allah. The pinnacle of this miracle is when you point a finger towards an aeroplane intending it to fall, and it will fall."

Another states: "If we become followers of Fata At-Tamimi, practicing this sect, the miracles of Imam Mahdi will flow within everyone, only then we can battle the Jews and Nasrani (Christians). Otherwise everyone will become followers of Dajjal or the beast."

The Mahdi is the Muslim "messiah" who is said to return one day. In the original teachings of Al-Arqam, the Imam Mahdi was regarded as Muhammad As-Suhaimi, who died in Klang, Selangor, in 1925. "Fata At-Tamimi" is the "herald" who announces the advent of the Mahdi and reforms Islam to its true state to allow the Mahdi to return. In some circles he is said to come from the East and will have his path obstructed, yet he will persevere - in this case, Fata At-Tamimi is assumed to be Ashaari Muhammad.

In the Hadith of Sunan Abu Dawud (Book 36, Number 4272), Mohammed is said to have prophesied that "The Mahdi will be of my stock, and will have a broad forehead a prominent nose. He will fill the earth will equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny, and he will rule for seven years." Muhammad As-Suhaimi is said to be a descendant of Mohammed.


Ashaari Muhammad founded Al-Arqam in 1968, and by the time it was officially blacklisted in Malaysia in August 1994, it had gained an estimated 100,000 followers.

He took as his inspiration the works of the Sufi Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abdullah as-Suhaimi, but placed the Sheikh on a pedestal which as-Suhaimi's late grandson would never have done. By declaring as-Suhaimi as the Imam Mahdi, Ashaari was already veering into the realms of Islamic heresy. His declaration that the Mahdi would rise from the dead was among the claims which led to the group becoming outlawed in 1994.

Ashaari told his followers that he was receiving dreams, which came directly from the "prophet Mohammed". As such, he was casting himself as a prophet. He declared that he had the power to forgive people's sins, another heresy in Islam.

Like many unscrupulous cult leaders, Ashaari told his followers to leave their homes if their families did not believe in his teachings, and many worked for a pittance at the numerous businesses which Ashaari owned. They lived in Al-Arqam "communes". By the time of Aashari's arrest, he had established 48 of these across Malaysia. Each commune had its own school and health clinic.

Followers wore Islamic regalia - long flowing robes and turbans for the men, and black robes and niqabs (face-veils) for the women. In groups of seven, followers went door to door to distribute literature from Al-Arqam. Ashaari Muhammad, who went under the title "Abuya" or "father of the people", wrote several books and his sermons were distributed on audio cassettes.

Male followers were urged to engage in polygamy, in the manner of their leader. The group had also spread its influence to Indonesia, where it was known as Darul Arqam and had about 1,000 members. Various groups in Indonesia campaigned in the 1990s for the group to become outlawed.

Al-Arqam managed to amass 400 trading companies, including 56 manufacturing companies, 20 department stores, 52 retail shops, 18 restaurants, as well as several publishing companies. It had gathered assets worth $8,000,000,000.

During the 1980s, tensions between Malaysian authorities and Ashaari increased, and Al Arqam was banned in this decade from government premises, and its publishing permit was withdrawn. As a result, Ashaari moved with his wives to Changmai, Thailand.

The end of the line for Al-Arqam had come in 1994, when the prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad decided that the group posed a threat to national security. Media reports suggested Ashaari had gathered a fighting force in Thailand, and was ready to overthrow the government. Tapes of Ashaari's conversations with prophet Mohammed had circulated, in which it was suggested that Allah had chosen Ashaari to become the leader of Malaysia's Muslim community.

Some press reports had said that Ashaari had openly sated his intention to come from Thailand and challenge the leadership in Malaysia. He said he would lead the country one day. Ashaari was by this time banned from entering Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei.

7,000 government employees were said to have been followers of Al-Arqam. In July, these were warned by the government that they had to leave the movement.

On August 25, 1994, AL-Arqam was declared illegal under the Societies Act of 1996. On September 2, Ashaari was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960. He was subjected to interrogation by Islamic authorities, along with seven other prominent members of Al-Arqam. On October 20, 1994, Ashaari confessed to the National Fatwa Committee that he had strayed from Islamic teaching. He claimed to have repented. He also renounced his belief that Sheikh Muhammad Bin 'Abdullah as-Suhaimi was the Imam Mahdi.

Ashaari Muhammad was then placed under a form of virtual house arrest on the island of Labuan, under strict supervision of the government.


Despite his being under close surveillance, Ashaari founded Rufaqa Corporation in 1997 in Rawang. It now has 80 businesses under its wing in Malaysia, with hundreds of branches worldwide. A former leading member of Al-Arqam, Sheikh Hussein Sheikh Omar told the Bernama News Agency that most of the businesses are not profitable, and that they exist to recruit new members to the Al-Arqam "revival".

He said that employees are not paid salaries, and that money earned was channelled into the hands of the leaders of the group. The majority of followers were asked to donate their earnings to the leaders of the group "to gain a place in heaven".

Some new recruits were being asked to pay from 150 to 250 ringgit ($42 to $70) to obtain "degrees" in courses about Al-Arqam. Followers had to pay 30 ringgit ($8) merely to register for these courses.

Khadijah Aam, one of Ashaari's wives, published a book about her husband, which is essentially an exercise in hagiography. This was launched recently in Malaysia and Thailand, and is said to have made recruitment easier.

The website of Rufaqa eulogizes Ashaari. Copies of his speeches and sermons can be obtained, and photographs promote a recent meeting in a hotel in Thailand where the leader is praised.

In shops which are owned by Rufaqa, such as its supermarket in Grace Square, Sembulan in Kota Kinabalu, large posters of Ashaari hang from the ceiling.

Prime minister Abdullah Badawi has said that legal action will taken against anyone who tries to resetablish the Al-Arqam group. Most of the leaders of the revived Al-Arqam group are said to be people who were leaders just before the group was banned in 1994.

The two officials of Rufaqa who were arrested were taken into custody on Friday because they were said by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department to have breached a fatwa. The fatwa was the one issued in 1994 by the National Fatwa Council, banning the Al-Arqam group and its deviant teachings. The two officials have not been named.

The businesses owned by Rufaqa comprise mini markets, cafeterias, herbal products, tourism, advertising, furniture, clinics, electronic and multimedia, childcare centres, motivation and counselling and publishing groups. It is said to have 700 branches worldwide, and Ashaari is said to have a 78% stake in the company, which has investments in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Australia.

Under Malaysian law, the government cannot directly ban a company. However, under Section 195 of the Companies Act 1965 a company can be investigated by the government if this is deemed to be in the public interest, and following such a probe, a minister is allowed to declare a company against public interest. He could then apply to a court to have the business dissolved.

Last Saturday (November 25), 107 people were detained following a meeting which was held above a bakery in Shah Alam, Selangor state. After the arrests, the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department called for Rufaqa to be banned.

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