This HUGE Blow to Sharia Law in Malaysia Caused a Legal Earthquake

More than a dozen Islamic laws enacted in a small Malaysian state were declared unconstitutional by Malaysia’s top court, a landmark decision that could affect how Sharia law is implemented across the Muslim-majority country.

In an 8-1 decision, a nine-member Federal Court bench declared on February 9th that 16 laws in Kelantan’s Sharia criminal code "void and invalid," including provisions criminalizing sodomy, incest, gambling, sexual harassment, and desecration of places of worship.

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who delivered the majority judgment, said the northeastern state, which lies just south of Thailand, had no authority to enforce the laws, as the subject matter was covered under parliament’s lawmaking powers.

"The essence of those provisions are matters under the federal list, which only parliament has the power to make," the chief justice said.

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is an Islamist political party with an electoral base centered around Peninsular Malaysia’s northern and eastern areas. It governs Kelantan and other nearby states and has advocated for a stricter interpretation of Islamic law.

The party has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years amidst growing Islamic conservatism among Malaysia’s majority ethnic Malay Muslims and is widely seen as a challenge for Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's multi-ethnic ruling coalition. PAS holds more seats in parliament than any other party.

The constitutional challenge against Kelantan’s Sharia criminal code was filed by a Kelantanese lawyer and her daughter against laws covering Sharia offenses that were passed by the state and came into effect in 2021.

The case and the subsequent decision by Malaysia’s top court sparked controversy among some conservative Muslim groups, who fear the challenge could undermine sharia courts or even the position of Islam in Malaysia.

Security was tight around the court complex in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, as around 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside to protest the case. They prayed and chanted, "God is great," as the judgment was delivered. 

But Justice Tengku Maimun said the case has nothing to do with the position of Islam in the country, and it only focused on whether the Kelantan legislature had acted beyond its powers.

"Seen from this position, the issue of the civil court not upholding Islam or the Sharia courts does not arise," the justice said. 

Religious Affairs Minister Mohd Na'im Mokhtar said in a statement after the judgment that the government would take immediate steps to strengthen Sharia courts in Malaysia. He added that the Islamic judiciary remains protected under the country’s federal constitution.

Mohamed Fazli Hassan, the deputy chief minister of Kelantan, expressed disappointment with the ruling, stating that the state would consult with its royal ruler, Sultan Muhammad V, on the decision and further matters of Islamic law. Nine of Malaysia’s 13 states are ruled by monarchs who also act as guardians of Islam.

Malaysia uses a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims running alongside secular laws. State legislatures enact Islamic laws, while the country’s federal parliament passes secular laws.

Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod, a law professor at Malaysia-based Taylor's University, said the top court’s decision could have a "domino effect,” with Sharia laws in other states likely to see similar challenges.

"There is a need to rewind and reconsider the existing states’ jurisdiction on Islamic law," the professor said, adding that Malaysia’s constitution should be amended to avoid conflicts between Sharia and civil laws.

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