The party was founded in 1951 by Muslim clerics in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). In the party's early decades, it fused Islamist and Malay nationalist ideologies and entrenched itself as one of the country's strongest opposition parties. From 1974 to 1978, PAS joined the governing Barisan Nasional coalition, but has otherwise been in opposition at the federal level for the entirety of its history. The 1980s saw the party taken over by a group of Muslim clerics ("ulama"), who shifted the party's ideology away from Malay nationalism towards a more radical brand of Islamism. After poor electoral performances, the party moderated in the 1990s, with an increase in progressive leaders. In the 2015 PAS Muktamar, the Ulama wing called for a total out of progressives, following which the progressive leaders lost almost all party positions. The progressive faction later formed Parti Amanah Negara and with the two main Malaysian opposition parties, PKR, DAP formed Pakatan Harapan. In the following year, PAS Secretary-General Takiyuddin Hassan revealed that PAS had lost 200,000 members in the year following the 2015 PAS Muktamar.
PAS's electoral base is in Malaysia's rural and conservative north. The party has governed the northern state of Kelantan two times (1959-1977 and 1990-now) and has also, in the past, formed governments in Kedah (2008-2013) and Terengganu (1959-1962 and 1999-2004). The party currently holds 14 of the 222 seats in the federal House of Representatives and has elected parliamentarians or state assembly members in ten of the country's 13 states.
The President is the party's chief office-holder. Abdul Hadi Awang has occupied the post since 2002. Under the President sits a Deputy President and three Vice-Presidents. There are two standing decision-making bodies of the party: the elected Central Working Committee, which deals with administrative and political affairs, and the Syura Council, composed of clerics, which deals with religious matters. The party has formal branches for women members ("PAS Muslimat") and youth ("PAS Pemuda"). Harakah is the party's official newspaper.
The post-World War II period, while Malaya was still under British colonial rule, saw the emergence of the country's first formal Islamic political movements. The Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), a left-wing nationalist organisation, was formed in 1945 and led by Burhanuddin al-Helmy, who would later become the president of PAS. Out of the MNP arose the Pas-Malayan Supreme Islamic Council (MATA) in 1947, and MATA in turn formed the party Hizbul Muslimin ("Islamic Party") in 1948. The central aim of Hizbul Muslimin was the establishment of an independent Malaya as an Islamic state. However, the party did not live beyond 1948. The Malayan Emergency of that year, while a British–Communist dispute, saw the colonial administration arrest a number of the party's leaders, and the nascent group disbanded. Nevertheless, the party served as a forerunner to PAS, supplying both the ideology upon which PAS was formed and some of PAS's key leaders in its early years.
PAS was founded on 24 November 1951, as the Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya (PAS-Malayan Islamic Organisation). The formation of the party was the culmination of a growing movement among Muslim clerics within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to formalise a discrete Islamic political organisation. However, at first, the lines between UMNO and the new party were blurred. PAS allowed dual membership of the two parties, and many of its early senior leaders were also UMNO members. The party's first president was Ahmad Fuad Hassan, an UMNO cleric. He lasted in the position only until 1953, when he fell out of favour with the party, which was now developing a more distinct identity, and returned to the UMNO fold. Fuad's departure coincided with the end of dual membership. The party turned to Abbas Alias, a Western-educated medical doctor, as its second president, although he did not play an active role in the party and was little more than a nominal figurehead.
The party's first electoral test was the pre-independence 1955 election to the Federal Legislative Council, the body that preceded the national parliament. 52 single-member seats were up for election; PAS fielded 11 candidates. Hampered by a lack of funds and party organisation, PAS succeeded in having only one candidate elected: Ahmad Tuan Hussein, a teacher at an Islamic school in Kerian, Perak. He was the only opposition member of the Council; the other 51 seats were won by members of the Alliance coalition between UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. PAS's performance in the election weakened its hand in negotiations with the British over the terms of Malayan independence. Its advocacy for the protection of Malay and Muslim rights, including the recognition of Islam as the country's official religion, was ignored. Alias stepped down from the presidency in 1956, handing it voluntarily to the radical nationalist Burhanuddin al-Helmy. This change exemplified a broader trend among PAS's leadership in the late 1950s: the party's upper echelons gradually became filled with nationalists and long-time UMNO opponents, replacing the UMNO clerics who had initially led the party.
Burhanuddin al-Helmy, a prominent anti-colonialist, steered PAS in a socialist and nationalist direction and set about strengthening the party's internal structure and geographic reach. In the 1959 election, Malaya's first since independence, the party's focus on rural constituencies, especially in the north, paid off. Thirteen PAS candidates were elected to the 104-member House of Representatives, and the party took control of the legislative assemblies of the northern states of Kelantan and Terengganu.
However, Burhanuddin's leftist pas-Islamism, under which PAS sought greater ties between the Muslim peoples of Malaya and the Indonesian archipelago, soon led the party into a wedge. The Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation (Konfrontasi) of 1963–66 turned popular Malayan opinion against Indonesia. PAS's attacks on Tunku Abdul Rahman's Alliance government for seeking Western assistance during the confrontation, and the party's continued support for Southeast Asian pas-Islamism, led to a loss of support in the 1964 election. The party's parliamentary cohort was reduced to nine. The party became further marginalised the following year, when Burhanuddin was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act on allegations that he had collaborated with Indonesia.
Political circumstances in the country had changed by the 1969 election. The Konfrontasi had ended, Burhanuddin had been released from custody although was too ill to campaign actively, and the Alliance coalition was suffering internal division and unpopularity. PAS's vote rose to over 20 percent of the national electorate, netting the party 12 seats in Parliament. However, the Parliament would not convene until 1971. Race riots after the election caused Tunku Abdul Rahman to suspend Parliament and declare a state of emergency. The country would be run by a National Operations Council for the following two years. In the meantime, Burhanuddin died in October 1969 and was replaced as PAS's President by his deputy, Asri Muda.
Asri came to the presidency having been PAS's de facto leader during Burhanuddin's long illness. But this did not mean a seamless transition for the party. While Burhanuddin had been sympathetic to left-wing causes and parties in Malaysia, Asri was first and foremost a Malay nationalist, and was hostile to leftist politics. One of his first acts as President of PAS was to part ways with the party's opposition allies on the left, such as the Malaysian People's Party (PRM). Ideologically, Asri's presidency would see the party shift markedly away from the pas-Islamism of Burhanuddin. The party became principally concerned with the protection and advancement of the rights of ethnic Malays. The party's activities also became solely focused on party politics, as reflected in the change of its name in 1971 from the "Persatuan Islam Se-Malaysia" (Pas-Malaysian Islamic Association) to the "Parti Islam Se-Malaysia" (Pas-Malaysian Islamic Party).
However, Asri's most radical change was still to come. In January 1972, he announced, after negotiations with UMNO, that PAS would be joining the Alliance coalition (which would soon rebadge itself as the Barisan Nasional). After two decades as an opposition party, PAS would now be in government, but as a junior partner of its main rival UMNO. The move was controversial within PAS, and some of its members and senior leaders either left the party or were purged by Asri. Asri's principal justification for joining UMNO in a coalition government was that after the 1969 race riots, Malay unity was paramount, and that this required a partnership between the country's two ethnic-Malay political parties. Asri himself became a minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein.
The 1974 election saw PAS competing under the Barisan Nasional banner for the first and only time. The party won 14 parliamentary seats to UMNO's 62, cementing PAS's position as the junior of the coalition partners. PAS also found itself governing in coalition in Kelantan, which it had previously governed in its own right. PAS's vote in its northern strongholds was weakened by a loss of support to both its former opposition allies and renegade PAS candidates running on anti-Barisan Nasional tickets. Ultimately, it was Kelantan, Asri's home state and the base of political power, that would trigger the downfall of the UMNO–PAS partnership. After a conflict between Asri and the UMNO-favoured chief minister of the state, Mohamad Nasir, over investigations that Nasir initiated into Asri's financial dealings, Asri mobilised the PAS members of the Kelantan State Legislative Assembly to move a no-confidence motion against Nasir. The UMNO assemblymen staged a walk-out, abandoning Asri, driving an irreparable wedge through the coalition and causing a political crisis in the state. The Prime Minister Hussein Onn declared an emergency in the state, allowing the federal government to take control. Asri withdrew PAS from Barisan Nasional in December 1977.
The 1978 election underscored how disastrous PAS's foray into the Barisan Nasional had been. The party was reduced to five parliamentary seats and, in separate state-level elections in Kelantan, was routed by UMNO and the PAS-Malaysian Islamic Front (BERJASA), which Nasir had founded after leaving PAS. The party's fortunes in the Kelantan election were not helped by a ban on public election rallies; while the Barisan Nasional was able to campaign through a compliant mass media, public talks were the principal way in which PAS could reach voters. PAS fared little better in the 1982 election. In the face of a new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and the decision of the popular Islamist youth leader Anwar Ibrahim to join UMNO instead of PAS, the party was unable to improve on its five parliamentary seats and failed to regain government in Kelantan. Meanwhile, the 1978 to 1982 period coincided with the rise of a new generation of leaders within the party, including foreign-educated Muslim clerics (or "ulama") such as Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and Abdul Hadi Awang. This group sought to reorient PAS as an Islamist party and were fundamentally hostile to UMNO, whose Malay nationalist focus they saw to be at the expense of Islam. In 1980 the group succeeded in electing Yusof Rawa to the deputy presidency of the party, ousting the Asri loyalist Abu Bakar Omar. By the time of PAS's 1982 assembly, it was clear to Asri that the ulama faction had the numbers to defeat him. He resigned on the floor of the assembly, and subsequently attacked the party through the media, leading to his expulsion. The following year, Yusof was elevated to the presidency, unopposed.
The ulama who took over PAS in 1982 drew from the 1979 Iranian revolution for inspiration in establishing an Islamic state; Yusof Rawa himself had served as Malaysia's Ambassador to Iran in the years preceding the revolution. Yusof openly rejected the Malay nationalism that characterised both UMNO and PAS under Asri Muda, considering it a narrow and ignorant philosophy that was contrary to the concept of a Muslim ummah. As if to exemplify the shift in the party's ideological outlook under Yusof and his ulama colleagues, the party's new leaders adopted a more conservative and religious form of dress, abandoning Malay and western clothing for traditional Arab religious garb. Politics between UMNO and PAS became increasingly religious in nature. The Barisan Nasional government tried to counter the possible electoral appeal of PAS's Islamisation by creating a number of state-run Islamic institutions, such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia. PAS leaders responded by labelling such initiatives as superficial and hypocritical, UMNO leaders as "infidels" and UMNO as the "party of the devil".
The increasingly divisive rhetoric between UMNO and PAS produced deep divisions in Malay communities, especially in the northern states. Sometimes the divisions became violent, the most infamous example being the 1985 Memali incident, in which the government sanctioned a raid on a village led by the PAS cleric Ibrahim Libya, which left 14 civilians and four policemen dead. It was against this backdrop that the PAS ulama faced their first general election in 1986. The result was a whitewash for the Barisan Nasional coalition. PAS recorded its worst-ever election result, retaining only one seat in Parliament. PAS, in recovering from the defeat, had no choice but to retreat from its hardline Islamism and pursue a moderate course. By 1989, Yusof had become too ill to remain as PAS's President, and was replaced by his deputy, Fadzil Noor, another member of the ulama faction that now dominated the party.
While not abandoning PAS's ideological commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state, Fadzil Noor moderated the party's rhetoric. He also set about infusing the party's membership with young urban professionals in an attempt to diversify the leadership ranks beyond religious clerics. The 1990s also saw PAS engage in international Islamist movements. Abdul Hadi Awang became active in a number of international Islamic organisations and delegations, and Islamist parties abroad sent delegations to Malaysia to observe PAS.
The first electoral test of Fadzil's presidency was the 1990 election, which occurred against the backdrop of a split in UMNO out of which the Semangat 46 opposition party was formed. PAS joined Semangat 46 and two other Malay parties in the United Ummah Front ("Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah"), and won seven parliamentary seats. The new coalition swept the Barisan Nasional from power in Kelantan, winning all of its state assembly seats. Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, a cleric who played a leading role in the 1982 takeover of the party, became Kelantan's Chief Minister, and would remain in the position until his retirement in 2013. One of the first acts of the PAS-led government in Kelantan was to seek to introduce hudud, a criminal punishment system for particular Islamic offences. The move was abandoned after it became clear that the law could not be enforced over the objections of the federal government.
PAS retained its seven parliamentary seats and the government of Kelantan in the 1995 election while all other opposition parties lost ground. By the time of the next election, in 1999, circumstances external to PAS had changed its fortunes for the better. The 1997 Asian financial crisis split the Barisan Nasional government between supporters of the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir's sacking of Anwar in 1998 provoked widespread opposition, which PAS capitalised on more than any other opposition party. The party ran a sophisticated campaign for the 1999 election, taking advantage of the internet to bypass restrictions on print publications and managing to woo urban professional voters while retaining its traditional rural support base. For the first time, PAS joined the centre-left and secular Democratic Action Party in a coalition—the Barisan Alternatif—which also included Anwar Ibrahim's new party Keadilan. The result was PAS's best ever. The party took 27 of 192 parliamentary seats and won landslide state-level victories in Kelantan and Terengganu.
The death of Fadzil Noor in 2002, and his replacement by the conservative cleric Abdul Hadi Awang, coincided with a period of division within the party between its younger and professional leaders, who sought to make PAS's Islamist ideology more appealing to mainstream Malaysia, and its conservative, and generally older, clerics. The party was unable to reconcile the views of the two factions with a coherent definition of the "Islamic state" that the party's platform envisioned. The debate itself caused the DAP to break with the Barisan Alternatif coalition; as a secular party with mainly an ethnic Chinese support base, it could not support the vision of an Islamic state propagated by PAS's conservatives. PAS also found itself losing Malay support following the replacement of Mahathir as Prime Minister with Abdullah Badawi, a popular and moderate Muslim, and post-11 September fears among the electorate about radical Islam in Southeast Asia. If the 1999 election had been the party's zenith, the 2004 poll was one of the lowest points in its history. In an expanded Parliament, PAS was reduced to seven seats. Abdul Hadi not only lost his parliamentary seat but saw the government he led in Terengganu thrown from office after one term.
The response of PAS to the 2004 election, like its response to the similar 1986 wipeout, was to abandon the hardline image that had contributed to its defeat. By now, the urban professional wing of the party's membership, brought into the party by Fadzil Noor in the 1990s, was ready to take charge. While Abdul Hadi's presidency was not under threat, the moderate faction, known as the "Erdogans" after the moderate Turkish Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had its members voted into other key positions in the party's 2005 general assembly. PAS was now able to attack Abdullah Badawi's government from both the right and the left: on the one hand, it criticised Abdullah's promotion of Islam Hadhari as a watered-down version of Islam; on the other, it attacked the government for its human rights record and promoted the causes of social and economic justice, including for non-Muslims. The party also capitalised on the growth of the internet and social media in Malaysia to bypass the pro-government mass media.
Ahead of the 2008 election PAS joined the DAP and Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party (PKR) in a new coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat. The coalition handed the Barisan Nasional its worst-ever election result. Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, disabling it from passing constitutional amendments without opposition support. PAS won 23 seats; the Pakatan Rakyat won 82. At a state level, decades-old Barisan Nasional governments fell in Kedah, Perak and Selangor. PAS now governed Kedah and Kelantan (led respectively by Azizan Abdul Razak and Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat) and supplied the Chief Minister of Perak (Nizar Jamaluddin) in a Pakatan Rakyat coalition government.
PAS's 2009 general assembly saw latent fissures within the party come out into the open. The incumbent deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa, a Malay nationalist who promoted greater co-operation between PAS and UMNO, was challenged by two moderate candidates. Nasharudin survived with the backing of the conservative ulama faction; his two opponents had split the moderate vote. But at the 2011 assembly, Nasharudin was not so lucky: Mohamad Sabu, a leading moderate close to Anwar Ibrahim, commanded the support of the "Erdogan" wing and toppled him. Sabu's election was a significant defeat for the ulama faction. He was the first non-cleric to serve as the party's deputy president in over 20 years.
The Pakatan Rakyat coalition went into the 2013 election facing Najib Razak, who had replaced Abdullah as Prime Minister in 2009 but failed to improve the government's fortunes, especially among urban voters. PAS made a concerted effort to expand its voter base beyond the northern peninsula states, and campaigned heavily in Johor, where it had never won a parliamentary seat. The election witnessed a significant degree of cross-over ethnic voting: Chinese voters in Malay-majority seats decided in large numbers to support PAS, to maximise the chances of a national Pakatan Rakyat victory. Pakatan Rakyat won 50.8 percent of the national popular vote although fell short of forming government. PAS, however, suffered a net loss of two parliamentary seats. This was principally attributable to a swing against the party in Kedah, where the party was removed from state government after one term and lost four parliamentary seats.
In the 2015 PAS Muktamar, the Ulama wing called for a total out of progressives, following which the progressive leaders lost almost all party positions. The progressive faction later formed Parti Amanah Negara and with the two main Malaysian opposition parties, PKR, DAP formed Pakatan Harapan. In the following year, PAS Secretary-General Takiyuddin Hassan revealed that PAS had lost 200,000 members in the year following the 2015 PAS Muktamar.
In 2017, it was revealed that PAS have accepted RM90 million from UMNO through Affin Bank.
According to Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian academic who has written a complete history of PAS:
From the day PAS was formed, in November 1951, the long-term goal of creating an Islamic state in Malaysia has been the beacon that has driven successive generations of PAS leaders and members ever forward. What has changed is the meaning and content of the signifier 'Islamic state'
From time to time, PAS's pursuit of an "Islamic state" has involved attempts to legislate for hudud—an Islamic criminal justice system—in the states that it governs. Such laws would apply to all Muslims and would not apply to non-Muslims. PAS-dominated state assemblies in Kelantan and Terengganu passed hudud laws in the early 1990s and early 2000s respectively, although neither has ever been enforced due to opposition from the federal government. PAS returned to its pursuit of hudud laws after the 2013 election, signalling that it would table bills in the federal Parliament to allow the laws, still on the statute books in Kelantan, to be enforced. The bills would require a two-thirds majority in the Parliament as they involve constitutional amendments.
After PAS's electoral routing in 2004, the party sought to broaden its policies beyond Islamism. Among other things, the party focused on calling for improved civil liberties and race relations. However, these policy shifts have proven controversial within the party; conservatives have considered them part of a dilution of PAS's commitment to an Islamic state.
PAS's general assembly ("Muktamar") elects the party's President, Deputy President, three Vice-Presidents and a multi-member Central Working Committee. The assembly is held annually, but elections occur only in every second year. The assembly is composed mainly of delegates elected by individual local divisions of the party. The day-to-day administration of the party is carried out by its Secretary-General, a position appointed by the party's leadership. The Central Working Committee is ostensibly the party's principal decision-making body, although its decisions are susceptible to being overturned by the Syura Council, an unelected body composed only of Muslim clerics and led by the party's Spiritual Leader ("Musyidul 'Am"). The relationship between the different administrative bodies within the party occasionally causes conflict. In 2014, the Central Working Committee voted to support the nomination of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the President of the People's Justice Party (PKR), to be the Chief Minister of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor. Abdul Hadi Awang, as PAS's president and with the backing of the Syura Council, overturned the decision and nominated different candidates.
The party has three recognised sub-organisations for different categories of party members: an ulama wing (the "Dewan Ulama") for Muslim clerics, a women's wing (the "Dewan Muslimat") and a youth wing (the "Dewan Pemuda"). Each wing elects its own leadership at its own general assembly. There is a fourth wing for non-Muslim supporters of the party, although it does not have the same recognised position in the party's structure as the other three wings.
PAS has approximately one million members, more than any other opposition party in Malaysia. PAS members often distinguish themselves from UMNO members through cultural and religious practices. For Islamic headwear, males who support PAS tend to prefer the white, soft kopiah, while UMNO supporters tend to wear the traditional Malay songkok, a rigid black cap. Some areas of Malaysia host rival mosques catering for the members and supporters of each party.
Members of the Malaysian Senate are not popularly elected. Each of the country's 13 state assemblies elects two Senators; the remaining 44 are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. PAS has two Senators—Khairiah Mohamed and Johari Mat—each of whom was elected by the PAS-controlled Kelantan State Legislative Assembly.
PAS has 14 members of the House of Representatives.
PAS has 80 members of state legislative assemblies. It has representatives in every assembly other than those of Negeri Sembilan, Sabah and Sarawak. The party holds a majority in the Kelantan State Legislative Assembly, and supplies all the members of the state's Executive Council (a body akin to a Cabinet), led by Menteri Besar, Ahmad Yakob. In Selangor the party is part of a Pakatan Rakyat coalition government with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the People's Justice Party (PKR), and has three members on the state's Executive Council. The Pakatan Rakyat coalition also governs the state of Penang although PAS, with only one assemblyman, does not have a seat on state's Executive Council.