Ashaari Muhammad, leader of a new Islamic cult movement (Al Arqam) in Malaysia, was detained under the Internal Security Act of 1960 on September 2, 1994.
The Al Arqam was formed as a splinter Islamic group in 1967 with a small following. Male Arqam members were identifiable by their turban-like headgear with long, flowing gown, while the females dressed in black robes reminiscent of Catholic nuns, with veils (purdah) covering their faces. Their unique attires made the members' presence felt wherever they went.
The organization published books and booklets, produced cassette tapes of Ashaari's speeches, and disseminated them to its members and supporters. Al Arqam members participated in business and went from door to door in groups of seven to distribute Al Arqam literature. Since its involvement in business activity in the 1970s, it has set up more than 400 trading companies, including 56 manufacturing concerns, 20 department stores, 52 retail shops, 18 restaurants and a number of publishing and printing companies, video centres, schools and clinics.
Reports claimed that the movement had amassed total assets of some RM 20 billion (U.S. $8 billion) through its business activity, regimentation of commune labour and donations from supporters from within and outside Malaysia, and was fast becoming a force to be reckon with. (After his arrest, however, Ashaari denied this and admitted that the figure had been inflated to exalt his image and his movement.)
The movement gathered momentum in the 1980s and by 1994 it claimed to have a total membership of 100,000, including 10,000 hardcore members, living in 48 "communes" or "model villages" throughout Malaysia. Each commune had its own school, clinic and other social amenities.
In the initial stages, Ashaari's aim was to conduct Quranic classes to promote Islamic teachings and to combat Western influence on the Muslim community. As it grew stronger, however, it was made a tool for the promotion of charismatic teachings and the indoctrination of blind faith and loyalty among his followers. Believers had to read his "books" and to receive Islamic education through courses designed by him.
Because of the organization's deviationist teachings, the authorities had prohibitted Al Arqam members from conducting their activity in government premises, and the Ministry of Home Affairs had also withdrawn its publishing permit. Publications containing deviationist teaching were banned in the 1980s. The prohibition did not, however, dampen the movement's activity and development.
Since 1988 the Al Arqam leader with his four wives had been on self-imposed exile in Chiengmai, Thailand, from where he gave directives to his followers. It is learned that he and his family and assistants had been using a five-star hotel in Chiengmai as their living quarters. Ashaari has thirty-seven children.
Reports claimed that Ashaari had toyed with idea not only of overthrowing the Malaysian government, but also of aiming ultimately to capture political power in Indonesia so as to set up his own utopian theocracy.
In mid-1994, Ashaari came into open confrontation with Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad and Mr. Zainal Abidin, the head of the Islamic Centre (Pusat Islam) as a result of the press's exposure of Al Arquam's activity. One local daily, for instance, reported that the movement had trained a secret squad in Thailand and that it might pose a threat to public order and security.
Things came to a head when tapes of Ashaari's self-claimed dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad--insinuating that Allah (God) had chosen him to lead the Islamic community--were circulated among his followers and sympathizers. Malaysia's Islamic Fatwa Council met in Kuala Lumpur on August 5, 1994 to discuss these developments, and unanimously pronounced Al Arqam an illegal body. On August 25, the Ministry of Home Affairs accordingly gazetted Al Arqam's illegal status under the Societies Act of 1966.
In a closed door dialogue between Ashaari and seven of his followers and members of the National Fatwa Committee on October 20, Ashaari confessed that he had deviated from Islamic teaching, and said that he had repented. He also renounced his belief in the late Sheikh Muhammad As-Suhaimi (who died in Klang in 1925) as Imam Mahdi (the awaited one) and denied that he had spoken to the Prophet Muhammad.
Shaari Muhammad, 57, is fondly addressed by his followers as "Abuya" or "Father of the People." Son of a civil servant, he was born in the village of Pilin, Negeri Sembilan, and was five years old when his mother passed away. He received seven years of primary education and was under his uncle's spiritual guidance.