Malaysia: Historic verdict rules 16 Islamic laws unconstitutional

The case has caused outrage among some conservative Muslim groups, who worry the challenge could weaken Islam or the sharia courts in Malaysia.

The Federal Court of Malaysia declared 16 Islamic laws in the state of Kelantan invalid in a historic verdict that could affect the country’s legal system.

The court, with an 8-1 vote, decided on Friday that the Kelantan state government had no authority to pass the laws, which dealt with offences ranging from sodomy to sexual harassment, false information, intoxication and scale measurements, as they were already under federal law and the federal parliament’s responsibility.

Malaysia is a federal country where states have control over laws pertaining to Islam, the official religion. It also has a dual legal system where Islamic law applies to Muslims, who are just over 60 percent of the population, in personal and family matters, as well as their religious practice. All other offences are managed by the civil courts.

Kelantan, regarded as the centre of ethnic Malay Muslim culture, has been governed by the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) since 1990.

The Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has pushed for a more rigid application of Islamic law, and has gained more support in recent years as Islamic conservatism has grown among Malaysia’s dominant ethnic Malay Muslims, being seen as a threat for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s diverse ruling coalition. PAS has more parliamentary seats than any other party.

The case has caused outrage among some conservative Muslim groups, who worry the challenge could weaken Islam or the sharia courts in Malaysia.

“Parliament and state legislatures are restricted by the Federal Constitution and they cannot enact any laws they want,” Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mai said, according to Malaysia’s BFM radio, as she announced the outcome of the nine-judge panel.

The case was filed in 2022 by Kelantan lawyer Nik Elin Zurina Nik Abdul Rashid and her daughter after the state government introduced a new set of laws on Islamic offences.

The two questioned the constitutionality of 18 of the laws, claiming that they exceeded the state assembly’s jurisdiction and were already covered by parliament.

The Federal Court did not invalidate the two other laws and emphasised that the two women did not bring the case to challenge the status of Islam or the Islamic legal system.

Around 1,000 people, including PAS supporters and conservative Muslims, assembled outside the court in Putrajaya before the ruling.

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