Malaysia’s top court on Friday struck down Shariah-based criminal laws in an opposition-run state, saying they encroached on federal authority. Islamists denounced the decision and said it could undermine religious courts across the Muslim-majority nation.
In an 8-1 ruling, the nine-member Federal Court panel invalidated 16 laws created by the Kelantan state government, which imposed punishments rooted in Islam for offenses that included sodomy, sexual harassment, incest, cross-dressing and destroying or defiling places of worship.
The court said that the state could not make Islamic laws on those topics because they are covered by Malaysian federal law.
Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, with both government laws and Shariah — Islamic law based on the Quran and a set of scriptures known as the hadith — covering personal and family matters for Muslims. Ethnic Malays, all of whom are considered Muslim in Malaysian law, make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people. The population also includes large Chinese and Indian minorities.
The case decided Friday was filed in 2022 by two Muslim women from Kelantan, a rural northeastern state whose population is 97% Muslim. The conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, has governed the state since 1990.
Lawyer Nik Elin Nik Abdul Rashid, who brought the challenge to the state laws with her daughter, said the court’s ruling attested to the Malaysian Constitution as the supreme law of the country.
Hundreds of Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party supporters gathered outside the Federal Court calling for the protection of Shariah.
“We are very sad today. This is a black Friday for Islamic Shariah laws,” PAS Secretary-General Takiyuddin Hassan told reporters. “When Shariah laws in one locality become invalid, this means that Shariah laws in other states may now face the same risk.”
Malaysian media quoted Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat as saying the ruling does not dispute the position of Islam as the official religion and dismissing claims that the court was trying to curb the powers of Shariah courts.
The PAS is a member of the opposition bloc but is the single biggest party represented in Parliament. It also runs the governments in four of Malaysia’s 13 states.
The party favors tough Islamic legal norms and once sought to implement a criminal code known as “hudud,” which prescribes penalties such as amputations for theft and death by stoning for adultery. The federal government blocked the move.
Mohamad Na’im Mokhtar, the government minister in charge of religious affairs, promised that the court ruling woold not affect the position of Shariah courts. He urged Muslims to stay calm and said that ongoing efforts to empower Shariah courts would continue.
The issue could pose a challenge for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is struggling to win Malay support after taking office following a 2022 general election.
Anwar has also disputed PAS’s assertion that the court case was an attack on Shariah. He has said the the root issue was about state jurisdiction and that the matter shouldn’t be politicized.