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While doing anthropological fieldwork in Malaysia, DOMINIK MÜLLER noticed that the Islamic Party of Malaysia organizes events and activities that are frequently embellished with popular culture elements, such as bands playing on electric guitars. This seemed at odds with common Western assumptions that Islamic political movements tend to condemn popular culture as un-Islamic. Müller then investigated how the change of the party’s religious stance – a Sharia-framed stance that had still been adamant twenty years before – came about. He found that not only the Islamic Party has opened itself to new forms of modern pop culture but also these elements have been appropriated and reframed in an Islamic context to convey the political messages of the party. This ethnographic study shows that Islamist ideologies can be much more complex and flexible than many people would normally assume.


Dominik Müller is Head of a Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Before this, he was affiliated with the Goethe University Frankfurt as postdoctoral researcher for the Cluster of Excellence ‘Formation of Normative Orders’. During this time, he also undertook research at the National University of Singapore, at the University of Oxford and at the University of Brunei Darussalam. In 2016, he was appointed as member of the Young Academy at the Academy of Science and Literature, Mainz. His PhD thesis on the rise of pop-Islamism in Malaysia received the Frobenius Society’s Research Award in 2012. Müller’s research interests include the question of Islam and the state and his area of research centres on South East Asia, especially Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.

Original publication

Islamic Politics and Popular Culture in Malaysia: Negotiating Normative Change Between Shariah Law and Electric Guitars

Müller Dominik M.
Indonesia and the Malay World
Published in 2015

Reading recommendations

Pop, Politics and Piety

Barendregt Bart
Islam and Popular Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia
Published in 2011

Sonic Histories in a Southeast Asian Context

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Sonic Modernities in the Malay World
Published in 2014

Political Islam in Malaysia: Legitimacy, Hegemony and Resistance

Liow Joseph Chinyong
Islamic Legitimacy in a Plural Asia, Routledge, London and New York
Published in 2007