By Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Malaysia’s top court on Friday ruled that more than a dozen Islamic laws in Kelantan state were unconstitutional because they intruded on federal authority, in a decision that some conservative Muslim critics say could undermine the country’s Sharia legal system.
In an 8-1 judgment, the Federal Court declared “void and invalid” 16 laws under the state’s criminal code, including sodomy, sexual harassment, intoxication, incest and defiling or destroying a place of worship.
Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat said the verdict was not about the role of Islam or Sharia courts in Malaysia, but whether state legislatures had authority to pass laws listed under federal jurisdiction.
Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, where Sharia courts interpret and apply Islamic law and secular courts rule on civil and criminal matters. Sharia laws are passed by state governments and secular laws by Parliament.
The court ruled that only two of the 18 laws in dispute fell within the jurisdiction of Kelantan’s Sharia criminal code: selling or giving away children and words capable of breaking peace.
Outside the courtroom, lawyer Nik Elin Zurina Nik Abdul Rashid, who filed the legal challenge with her daughter, said the decision showed states must exercise caution when using their legislative powers.
“It also shows that the federal constitution is supreme,” she said at a press conference. “It’s for the well-being of all [Malaysians] and has nothing to do with the doctrine of Islam, as decided by the court.
“It concerns the competency of the state legislative assembly. I do not do this for myself but for all Malaysians, even when I was completely vilified, scorned, and condemned.”
About 70% of the Malaysian population are Malays, all of whom are considered Muslim. Ethnic Chinese comprise 22.8% of the population, and ethnic Indians make up 6.6%.
Kelantan, a rural state in northeast Malaysia near Thailand, is governed by the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which advocates for a stricter interpretation of Islamic law.
Thousands of Muslims had gathered outside the courthouse in the administrative capital of Putrajaya Friday morning ahead of the decision. Amid chants of “Allahu Akbar”, opposition leaders from the Perikatan Nasional coalition also made an appearance.
In response to the decision, Kelantan deputy chief minister Mohamed Fadzli Hassan said his team would seek an audience with the Sultan of Kelantan, Sultan Muhammad V, to discuss the matter.
“We have formed a committee to study the decision made and we will scrutinize it. This won’t stop here,” he told reporters.
“This is a concern not just for the Kelantan government; it affects all states and governments.”
Immediately after the ruling, Malaysia’s Religious Affairs Minister Mohd Na’im issued a statement saying the position of the “Sharia court in Malaysia is steadfast, with its status guaranteed as clearly stated in the Constitution.”
“Several adjustments to existing plans will be done in line with this judgment,” he said. “We will implement all existing avenues and opportunities to empower the Sharia courts.”Salim Bashir, a former president of the Malaysian Bar, said the Federal Court decision addressed the issue of overlapping of jurisdictions between civil and Sharia courts for criminal offenses in Kelantan.
“It doesn’t mean that all state Sharia-promulgated criminal laws will be rendered otiose or displaced; it still remains to be tested in every given case on a case-by-case basis,” he told BenarNews.