Malaysia’s ruling party recently voiced support for a proposed law in parliament that aims to give more power to the country’s Islamic courts. This has obviously raised tensions in the multicultural nation, where non-Muslims fear such a development would threaten Malaysia’s secular constitution. However, legal experts reassured those concerned that the proposal made by the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) would not affect them as it concerns only Muslims who abide by Sharia law. They also said that Sharia courts would not preside over crimes that already fall under the jurisdiction of conventional courts.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also stressed that non-Muslims would not be impacted by the amendment of the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act of 1965.
According to the PAS proposal, a clause would be inserted stating, “In the exercise of the criminal law, the Sharia Court has the right to impose penalties allowed by sharia law… other than the death penalty.”
Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, deputy president of PAS, told the media last month that his party was trying to elevate the status of Sharia courts in the country as their unthreatening punishments had turned them into a laughing stock among conservatives.
Currently, Sharia courts are allowed to impose a maximum jail term of three years, a maximum fine of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit and a whipping of up to six strokes. If the proposed changes are made, Sharia court judges would be able to impose a whipping of up to 80 strokes on those found guilty of consuming alcohol and up to 100 strokes on those convicted of engaging in prohibited sexual relations.
“Technically the bill merely sought to widen the powers of the sharia court; it is not about hudud,” Abdul Aziz Bari, a professor of constitutional law, said.
The Islamic penal code that sets penalties such as amputation for theft and stoning for prohibited sexual relations is also known as hudud.
Oxford Islamic Studies Online states, “With the exception of Saudi Arabia, hudud punishments are rarely applied, although recently fundamentalist ideologies have demanded the reintroduction of hudud, especially in Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan.”
Malaysia unanimously passed a hudud bill in March 2015, but it was not immediately implemented because a parliamentary bill was required to remove certain obstacles at the federal level. At the same time, the bill had caused rifts in Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition, as many important members threatened to resign over it.
Naturally, Razak attempted to calm the tension at the time. “I would like to state that it's not for the implementation of hudud. It's just to give the Sharia courts enhanced punishments. From six-strokes caning to a few more,” he said.
More recently, opposition leaders have condemned the proposed legislation as the PAS’ attempt to circumvent Malaysia’s constitution, which—despite naming Islam as the state religion—guarantees citizens a secular society.
“Clearly PAS is trying to bypass and get around the constitutional requirement of a 2/3 majority by treating this as an ordinary law which requires only a simple majority,” said Lim Guan Eng, secretary general of t Democratic Action Party (DAP).
He even warned that the amendment could lead to the setting up of two different criminal systems in a diverse country, where race and religion often go hand in hand.
With most ethnic Malays following Islam, only a sizeable portion of the country’s population abides by Indian, Chinese or indigenous traditions. In figures, approximately 61 percent of Malaysia’s 30.5 million population identifies as Muslim.
Accusing critics of not having read the proposed legislation, Zainul RIjal Abu Bakar (president of Muslim Lawyers Association of Malaysia), said the changes would apply to only Muslims and apply to crimes that are not already covered by federal criminal statutes. He also explained that state assemblies would have to approve the law for it to actually come into effect, since states have jurisdiction over religion in Malaysia.
“Among the more pertinent question is what would happen [under the proposed law] if, for example, a Muslim woman was raped by a non-Muslim man. Would the man be charged under the sharia law, or federal law?” he said. “The answer is very simple. That non-Muslim man cannot be charged under the sharia law because rape (as a crime) falls under federal jurisdiction … Even if the bill is passed it doesn't make the crime shifted to state jurisdiction.”
Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), reacted to the proposed legislation by stating it opposes the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Amendment Bill of 2016, as it poses threat to Malaysia’s constitutional liberties—such as religious freedom.
“It has the potential to undermine religious freedom and fundamental liberties as enshrined in Part II of the Constitution. The Non-Muslim’s position too would be in jeopardy under Hudud, and they would not have equal rights if implemented,” said Malaysia’s umbrella body representing non-Muslim religions in the country. “Hudud Law punishes victims while actual criminals were often left off with minimum punishment. The hudud countries at the moment are no examples to follow; and according to our former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, they are all failed and unstable states. Our first 5 Prime Ministers, beginning with Tunku Abdul Rahman until Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had objected to Hudud Law and Islamic Law being introduced into The Constitution.”
An essay published in Chandra Muzaffar’s Rights, Religion and Reform explores whether or not hudud is central to Islam.
Photo Credits: Kedah News