Malaysia’s Top Court Rules Dozens of Islamic Laws Unconstitutional, Ignites Controversy Over Sharia Legal System

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – Malaysia’s highest court has declared more than a dozen Islamic laws in the state of Kelantan unconstitutional, citing their infringement on federal authority. The decision, reached by an 8-1 judgment of the Federal Court, has stirred debate, with some conservative Muslim critics suggesting that it could undermine the country’s Sharia legal system. Among the 16 laws deemed “void and invalid” are those related to sodomy, sexual harassment, intoxication, incest, and defiling or destroying a place of worship.

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat emphasized that the verdict should not be interpreted as an assessment of the role of Islam or Sharia courts in Malaysia, but rather as a determination of the authority of state legislatures to pass laws falling within federal jurisdiction. Malaysia operates under a dual-track legal system, where Sharia courts apply Islamic law and secular courts rule on civil and criminal matters. Sharia laws are enacted by state governments, while secular laws are passed by Parliament.

In its ruling, the Federal Court found that only two of the 18 disputed laws were within the jurisdiction of Kelantan’s Sharia criminal code: selling or giving away children and using words capable of breaking peace. Outside the courtroom, lawyer Nik Elin Zurina Nik Abdul Rashid, who initiated the legal challenge alongside her daughter, highlighted the need for cautious exercise of legislative powers by the states. She emphasized that the decision was about upholding the supremacy of the federal constitution, asserting it was not influenced by religious considerations.

Approximately 70% of Malaysia’s population is Malay, and all Malays are considered Muslim. Ethnic Chinese make up 22.8% of the population, while ethnic Indians account for 6.6%. Kelantan, a predominantly rural state bordering Thailand, is governed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which advocates for a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Ahead of the court’s decision, thousands of Muslims gathered outside the courthouse in Putrajaya, demonstrating their support with chants of “Allahu Akbar.” Opposition leaders from the Perikatan Nasional coalition also made an appearance.

Responding to the ruling, Kelantan’s deputy chief minister Mohamed Fadzli Hassan announced plans to seek an audience with Sultan Muhammad V, the Sultan of Kelantan, to discuss the matter. He underscored the significance of the decision, emphasizing that it had implications for all states and governments, not just Kelantan. Malaysia’s Religious Affairs Minister Mohd Na’im affirmed the steadfastness of the Sharia court system in Malaysia, stating that its status is clearly guaranteed by the Constitution. He added that adjustments would be made to existing plans to align them with the court’s judgment, with a commitment to empowering the Sharia courts.

Salim Bashir, a former president of the Malaysian Bar, noted that the Federal Court decision addressed the issue of jurisdictional overlaps between civil and Sharia courts with regard to criminal offenses in Kelantan. He stressed that this ruling does not render all state Sharia-promulgated criminal laws irrelevant, as each case will still require individual assessment.

The decision by Malaysia’s top court to declare certain Islamic laws in Kelantan unconstitutional due to federal authority intrusions has ignited discussions about the country’s dual-track legal system and the role of Sharia courts. The ruling is seen as a reminder of the supremacy of the federal constitution and the need for cautious exercise of legislative powers by state governments. It remains to be seen how this decision will shape future discussions on the division of power between civil and Sharia courts in Malaysia.