Malaysia’s highest court declares Kelantan’s Islamic laws unconstitutional

Malaysia’s highest court declares Kelantan’s Islamic laws unconstitutional, sparking potential challenges to sharia laws across the Muslim-majority nations.

Malaysia’s highest court issued a groundbreaking ruling on Friday, deeming more than a dozen Islamic laws enacted by the state of Kelantan as unconstitutional. This landmark decision holds significant implications for similar sharia laws across the Muslim-majority nation.

In Malaysia, a dual-track legal system operates, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims alongside secular laws. While Islamic laws are enacted by state legislatures, secular laws are passed by Malaysia’s parliament.

A nine-member Federal Court bench, in an 8-1 decision, invalidated 16 laws within Kelantan’s sharia criminal code. These laws included provisions criminalising sodomy, incest, gambling, sexual harassment, and the desecration of places of worship.

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, delivering the majority judgement, stated that Kelantan had overstepped its authority in enacting these laws, as the subject matter falls under parliament’s law-making powers.

Kelantan, governed by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), has advocated for a stricter interpretation of Islamic law. PAS has witnessed increased popularity, particularly among Malaysia’s majority ethnic Malay Muslims, posing a challenge to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-ethnic ruling coalition.

The constitutional challenge was initiated by a Kelantanese lawyer and her daughter against sharia laws passed by the state legislature in 2021.

While the case stirred controversy among conservative Muslim groups, Justice Tengku Maimun clarified that it solely concerned the legality of Kelantan’s legislative actions, not the position of Islam in Malaysia.

Following the ruling, Religious Affairs Minister Mohd Na’im Mokhtar assured that the government’s Islamic authorities would fortify sharia courts, affirming their protection under the federal constitution.

Kelantan government official Mohamed Fazli Hassan expressed disappointment with the verdict, indicating the state’s intent to confer with its royal ruler, Sultan Muhammad V, on matters concerning Islamic law. In Malaysia, nine of the 13 states are led by monarchs who serve as guardians of Islam.

Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod, a law professor at Malaysia’s Taylor’s University, suggested that Friday’s decision could trigger a “domino effect,” prompting challenges to sharia laws in other states. He advocated for a review of states’ jurisdiction over Islamic law, proposing amendments to the constitution to mitigate conflicts between sharia and civil laws.