Malaysia’s top court on Friday struck down more than a dozen Sharia-based state laws, saying they encroached on federal authority, a decision denounced by Islamists who fear it could undermine religious courts across the country.
In an 8-1 ruling, the Federal Court’s nine-member panel invalidated 16 laws enacted by the opposition-led Kelantan state government, which imposed punishments for crimes ranging from sodomy, sexual harassment, incest and cross-dressing until the presentation of false evidence.
The court said the state could not enact Islamic laws on those issues because they are covered by Malaysian federal law.
Malaysia has a two-track legal system, in which Sharia covers personal and family matters of Muslims, in addition to civil laws. Ethnic Malays, all considered Muslims under Malaysian law, make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, with large Chinese and Indian minorities.
Shariah is Islamic law, based on the Quran and a set of scriptures known as hadiths.
The court challenge was filed in 2020 by two Muslim women from Kelantan, a rural northeastern state whose population is 97% Muslim. Kelantan has been governed by the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, since 1990.
Hundreds of PAS supporters gathered outside the court on Friday calling for the protection of Sharia laws.
“We are very sad today. This is a black Friday for Islamic Sharia laws,” PAS Secretary General Takiyuddin Hassan told reporters outside the court building after the ruling. “When Shariah laws in one locality become invalid, this means that Shariah laws in other states may now face the same risk.”
PAS is a member of the opposition bloc and the largest party in Parliament, as well as governing four of Malaysia’s 13 states. The party favors strict Islamic legal standards and once sought to implement a penal code known as hudud that includes penalties such as amputations for theft and stoning for adultery. This was blocked by the federal government.
The issue could be a challenge for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is struggling to win Malaysian support after taking office following the 2022 general election.
Mohamad Na’im Mokhtar, minister in charge of religious affairs, promised that the court ruling will not affect the position of the Sharia courts. He urged Muslims to remain calm and said the government would study the ruling. He said in a statement that ongoing efforts to empower Sharia courts will continue.
Anwar has also disputed PAS’ claim that the case was an attack on Shariah laws. He has said that the root of the problem was state jurisdiction and that the issue should not be politicized.
Eileen Ng, Associated Press