In a historic ruling that may have an impact on comparable sharia laws in other Muslim-majority regions of the nation, Malaysia’s top court on Friday ruled that over a dozen Islamic regulations passed by the state of Kelantan were unconstitutional.
Malaysia features a dual-track legal system that combines secular laws with Islamic criminal and family rules that apply to Muslims. State legislatures establish Islamic laws, and Malaysia’s parliament passes secular laws.
16 regulations in Kelantan’s sharia criminal code, including ones that make it illegal to engage in sodomy, incest, gambling, sexual harassment, and the vandalism of places of worship, were deemed “void and invalid” by a nine-member Federal Court panel in an 8-1 ruling.
The majority ruling’s chief justice, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, stated that the northeastern state lacked the jurisdiction to pass the laws because the topic fell beyond the purview of parliament’s legislative authority. “The essence of those provisions are matters under the federal list, which only parliament has the power to make,” she said.
The Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which has pushed for a harsher interpretation of Islamic law, is in charge of Kelantan, which is located in northern Malaysia, directly south of Thailand.
Growing Islamic conservatism among Malaysia’s majority ethnic Malay Muslims has given PAS more popularity in recent years, and the party is perceived as a threat to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s multiethnic ruling coalition. Compared to other parties, PAS has the most seats in the parliament.
A Kelantanese lawyer and her daughter launched a constitutional challenge against state-passed rules that included sharia crimes that went into effect in 2021.
Some hardline Muslim groups are outraged by the case because they believe it could jeopardise Islam or Malaysia’s sharia courts.
About a thousand protestors gathered outside the court building in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia, to voice their opposition to the case, and security was heightened around it. They chanted “God is great” and prayed while the verdict was being handed down.
According to Justice Tengku Maimun, the main question in the case was whether the Kelantan legislature had overreached itself, not how Islam was perceived in the nation.