Malaysia’s top court declares some state Islamic laws unconstitutional

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KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s top court on Friday declared more than a dozen Islamic laws enacted by the state of Kelantan as unconstitutional, in a landmark decision that could affect the legality of similar sharia laws in other parts of the Muslim-majority country.

Malaysia has a dual-track legal system with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims running alongside civil laws. Islamic laws are enacted by state legislatures while civil laws are passed by Malaysia’s parliament.

A nine-member Federal Court bench, in an 8-1 decision, declared 16 laws in Kelantan’s sharia criminal code “void and invalid”, including provisions criminalizing sodomy, incest, gambling, sexual harassment, and desecrating places of worship.

Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat who delivered the majority judgement said the northeastern state had no power to enact the laws, as their subject matter were covered under parliament’s law-making powers.

“The essence of those provisions are matters under the federal list which only parliament has the power to make,” she said.

Kelantan, which lies just south of Thailand in Malaysia’s north, is governed by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) which has advocated for a stricter interpretation of Islamic law.

The constitutional challenge was filed by a Kelantanese lawyer and her daughter against laws covering sharia offenses that were passed by the state and came into force in 2021.

The case has sparked uproar among some conservative Muslim groups, who fear the challenge could undermine the position of Islam in Malaysia.

Security was tight around the court complex in Malaysia’s administrative capital Putrajaya as around 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside to protest the case. They prayed and chanted “God is great” as the judgement was delivered.

Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod, a law professor at Malaysia-based Taylor’s University, said the decision could have a “domino effect” with sharia laws in other states likely to see similar challenges.

“There is a need to rewind and reconsider the existing states’ jurisdiction on Islamic law,” he said, adding that Malaysia’s constitution should be amended to avoid conflicts between sharia and civil laws. – Reuters