"Where Are Malaysia’s Religious Authorities Heading?" a Commentary by Dr. Farish A. Noor

April 15, 2007

Author: Farish A. Noor

Source: The American Muslim


Since 2006 Malaysia has been rocked by a number of hugely controversial cases involving the fundamental right of belief and freedom of religion. Between 2005 to 2006 the country was a virtual battleground with opposing factions claiming the right for Malaysian citizens to believe according to their will and rational agency, and a number of legal experts and NGOs have come forth demanding that the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi defend the secular constitution of the country.

At the root of the matter is the the problem that arises with having two different, and some would say irreconcilable, legal systems: A secular civil code for non-Muslims and a religious one for Muslims. Furthermore Malaysia is unique in the sense that it is one of the few countries in the world that defines the racial identity of some of its citizens with their religion of birth. According to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, all Malays are by definition Muslims. (Which stands in stark contrast to Indonesia next door where being a local Indonesian does not necessarily mean that one is immediately a Muslim, as there are millions of Christian and Hindu Indonesians as well)

What has compounded matters are a series of divorce and marriage cases across the racial and religious divide. Since 2005 a number of prominent court cases have come to the fore where Muslims married to non-Muslims have been told that their cases have to be settled in Muslim courts. There have also been cases where non-Muslim couples have decided to divorce when one partner decides to marry marry a Muslim instead. In these cases it is again the Muslim court that decides the fate of both partners, and their children, by virtue of the fact that one of them is now a Muslim.

The latest case to be thrown into the fray is that of Revathi Masoosai, who was born to a Muslim family but brought up as a Hindu by her Hindu Grandmother. Revathi married a Hindu man and lived as a Hindu until she gave birth to their first child. Recently the Islamic authorities in the state of Melacca took away her child on the grounds that she was illegally practicing Hinduism, despite her claim that she has been a practising Hindu thanks to the religious education she received from her grandmother. Revathi’s child is now in the custody of her Muslim relatives while she herself has been sent to a ‘faith rehabilitation centre’ in order to recant and delcare herself a Muslim once again. Even then she would be left with the problem of her marriage to a Hindu man.