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Islamic Movement In Paradox: Between Civil Society & Masyarakat Madani


Mohammad Fazril Bin Mohd Saleh
National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students


A society is a basic unit of human civilization and culture, where these two play a vital role. From time immemorial human beings are tied in social relationship to one another. Nowadays social status has taken on a new dimension according to the needs and requirement of the society. The primitive cultures and civilizations are very simple, therefore their society was also simple and now, society becomes more and more complex, apparently its complexity is at its zenith.

Although we live in ‘civilized’ world today with electronic wave system, satellite communications and wonderful devices which are supplying amazing comfort in the terrestrial life, but still we are not in peace. As criticized by Sirajul Islam (2005): “ever imminent war, scarcity of morality, degradation of values, slackening of human rights and so on are peeping in at our doors every moment.” Therefore, we feel the need of ‘civil society’, so that our good life, civilization and culture may be preserved. 

Islamic movement all around the world tried their best to champion in this area. However, it is a very urgent need for Islamic movement to understand the very meaning and concept of civil society in order to impart and manifest the idea in their actions. Interestingly, particularly in Malaysia, the debate on this topic has been flourished once led by Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM) and Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) and a new term which signifies the notion of civil society in their own mold was coined; the concept of ‘Masyarakat Madani’ emerged.


            The answer to the question, “what is good life?” would lead to the concept of ‘civil society’.  But, according to Asha Mukherjee (2005), answering this question satisfactorily needs that we first agrees as to what should be counted as good life. He said, “We find that ‘good life’ has an inbuilt two dimensions, the individualistic as well as social.”  Meanwhile, looking on the term ‘civil society’ in the modern perspective, Moten and Islam (2009) mentioned that the term is a peculiarly modern concept which was neglected for most of the 20th century in the West (particularly in the Western Europe), though it was commonly used in Marxist terminology and some of its derivatives and the term became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

In contemporary academic exploration, ‘civil society’ as defined by Cohen and Arato (1992), is usually defined to refer to the level of governance between the state and the governed.  It includes, but is not limited to, non-government organizations involved in service delivery and advocacy activities, charitable organizations, private foundations, professional associations, social movements and activist networks. As insisted by Helen James, the key common denominator with all these groups is that they be ‘not for profit’, and seek to achieve their objectives through non-violent methods. 

Meanwhile for Philip Oxhorn (2007), the civil society expert who focuses his analysis and studies of civil society in Latin America said: “Given the concept’s close association with Western history and political thought, its applicability to other regions such as Latin America is often hotly debated”.  Therefore, he defined civil society as ‘the social fabric formed by a multiplicity of self-constituted territorially and functionally-based units which peacefully coexist and collectively resist subordination to the state, at the same time that they demand inclusion into national political structure’.

Even though the concept of civil society has largely flourished from the 18th century (in the time of early modern thought of the ‘Enlightenment’) and onward, but it is not a new concept. Sirajul Islam (2009) proved that the concept of civil society had been expounded in ancient Greece. Plato’s “Republic” offers vivid instances of civil society and justice.  Even, Socrates also advised each citizen to maintain civil laws and principles of the society, because, as a good citizen of a particular state, it is his moral obligation to obey the law of his state. However, their civil society was basically confined to the political theory.  In “The Republic”, Plato maintained that government, whether it is ruled by the king or the military, the people or the tyrant, should treat society in a reasonable way, as an image of the individual and people will be the sole composer of that regime. 

Meanwhile, the ‘social concept’ theory developed by Thomas Hobbes, as mentioned by Michael Goldman (1997), is basically signifies the associations of the people which is the necessary part of the civil society. In his book “Leviathan”, he said: “human beings in the state of nature are determined by the necessity of the mechanics of their bodies to pursue their own good, even at the expense of others and cannot be blamed for pursuing that to which nature impels them.”  According to him, human beings come together because they need each other to be complete, also for the social conditions necessary to bring out happiness and fulfillment.

Afterward, as stated by Zaleski and Pawel (1997), Hegel, Toqueville, Marx, and Gramsci, all spoke about civil society in the political or economical sense.  Hegel gave rise to a modern liberal understanding of the concept of civil society as a form of market society as opposed to institutions of modern nation state.   He considered civil society as a separate realm, a "system of needs", that stood for the satisfaction of individual interests and private property. Hence, he used the German term "burgerliche Gesellschaft" to denote civil society as "civilian society". Then, Alexis de Tocqueville put weight on the system of civilian and political associations as a counterbalance to both liberal individualism and centralization of the state. Hence, Hegel's perception of social reality was followed in general by Tocqueville who distinguished between political society and civil society. 

Meanwhile, for Karl Marx, civil society was the ‘base’ where productive forces and social relations were taking place, whereas political society was the 'superstructure'.  Agreeing with the link between capitalism and civil society, Marx held that the latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the state as superstructure also represents the interests of the dominant class; under capitalism, it maintains the domination of the bourgeoisie.  Hence, Marx rejected the positive role of state put forth by Hegel. Marx argued that the state cannot be a neutral problem solver. Rather, he depicted the state as the defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state and civil society as the executive arms of the bourgeoisie; therefore, “both should wither away”. 

On the other hand, the negative view about civil society raised by Marx was rectified by Antonio Gramsci.  He underlined the crucial role of civil society as the contributor of the cultural and ideological capital required for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism. Rather than posing it as a problem, as in earlier Marxist conceptions, Gramsci viewed civil society (societa civile) as the site for problem-solving.

For the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society, ‘civil society’ is a concept located strategically at the cross-section of important strands of intellectual developments in the discipline of social sciences. To take account of the diversity of the concept, they adopted an initial working definition that is meant to guide research activities and teaching, but are by no means to be interpreted as a rigid statement: “Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated.

Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women's organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group.”

Examples of civil society institutions are: (1) non-governmental organizations (NGOs), (2) private voluntary organizations (PVOs), (3) peoples’ organizations, (4) community-based organizations, (4) civic clubs, (5) trade unions, (6) gender, cultural, and religious groups, (7) charities, (8) social and sports clubs, (9) cooperatives, (10) environmental groups, (11) professional associations, (12) academia, (13) policy institutions, (14) consumers/consumer organizations, (15) the media, (16) citizens' militia, and (17) organized religion. Moten and Islam argued that civil society is not the exclusive domain of one country or continent, or of a particular type of political system. Almost all societies have within them civil formations regardless of the system of government. 

According to Larry Diamond, the organizations of civil society are voluntary, self-generating, autonomous, and rule abiding. They are concerned with the public ends; they relate to the state without seeking office; they encompass pluralism; and they are partial.  Moten and Islam had elaborated beautifully those characteristics of civil society given by Larry Diamond. They explained six characteristics of civil society, summarized as follow: (1) Voluntary and autonomous, (2) public ends, (3) pluralism and diversity, (4) partial and non-holistic, (5) link with the state, and (6) civility.

[End of Part 1] To be continued.


al-Attas,   Syed Muhammad Naquib     Prolegomena to The Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of The Fundamental Elements of The Worldview of Islam, Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1995.

Goldman, Michael (ed.),      Journal of Teaching Philosophy, USA: Miami University, 1997, edition. 20:2, June.

James, Helen. (ed.)     Civil Society, Religion and Global Governance: Paradigms of Power and Persuasion, London & NY: Routledge, 2007.

Madjid, Nurcholish “Introduction to Civil Society and Democratic Investment: Challenges and Opportunities”, Civil Society versus Civilised Society: Archeology of the Notion of “Civil Society” in Islam Indonesia, ed. by Ahmad Baso, Bandung: Pustaka Hidayah, 1999

Miller, David     The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought, London: Blackwell, 1994.

Moten, Islam.      Introduction to Political Science 3rd Edition, Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2009.

Zaleski, Pawel.     "Tocqueville on Civilian Society. A Romantic Vision of the Dichotomic Structure of Social Reality", Archiv fur Begriffsgeschichte, Germany: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2008.

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