APOSTATE LAWS AND CURBS ON CONVERSION FROM ISLAM IN MALAYSIA

APOSTATE LAWS IN MALAYSIA

In Malaysia, Muslims are not allowed to formally renounce Islam, and apostates are sent for counseling and, ultimately, fined or jailed if they do not desist. Lina Joy, a Muslim by birth who converted to Christianity, lost a six-year battle to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card.

According to the study The Freethought Report 2013, Malaysia was one of 13 countries around the world, all of them Muslim, where people who openly espouse atheism or reject the official state religion of Islam face execution under the law.

In 2006 there was discussion on whether Islamic courts should have the sole right to judge apostates. Reuters reported: “The ruling comes amid calls for capital punishment for apostasy, and follows a spate of civil suits by Malaysians seeking official recognition of their decision to leave Islam. Apostasy is not a new phenomenon but the issue has come to the forefront because it underscores the growing Islamization of a country that was intended to be secular/ [Source: Reuters, June 28, 2006 /+\]

“Malaysia's civil courts have said they cannot recognize conversions from Islam and refer apostates to the Islamic courts, where sentences for various offenses range from caning to jail. Although such sentences are rarely carried out on apostates, Malaysians who leave Islam can find themselves in a legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliation or to marry non-Muslims. Many keep quiet about their choice or move abroad. Rights activists say such barriers to conversion are at odds with Malaysia's status as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and violate the nation's constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship. Some groups, including the opposition party Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), want apostasy to be punishable by death. One government cleric said about 250,000 Malaysians had left Islam. /+\

“The Koran forbids Muslims to abandon their faith, but it doesn't specify the penalties, said Sohirin Solihin, professor of Koranic studies at Malaysia's International Islamic University. But traditional writings, or Hadith, associated with the Prophet Mohammad proscribe death. While efforts to make apostasy a crime punishable by death in Malaysia are unlikely to succeed given the government's multiethnic coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties, many fear that obstacles to religious conversion will stay in place. /+\

“The Prime Minister's Department for religious affairs publishes a web site that recommends isolating and counseling apostates and then jailing them if they fail to repent: If the person remains an apostate, it is left to the respective authorities to impose the fitting sentence that is death, said the site in its Malay-language FAQ.” /+\

According to the Department if Islamic Development of Malaysia: “Akidah Hadith: Ibn Abbas r.a. said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Whoever changes his religion, put him to death.” (From Jama’ah but Muslim). Huraian Hadith: 1) Every Muslim must protect his faith from any belief (i'tiqad), word or act that can damage one’s faith and religion. 2) Apostasy (riddah) means leaving the religion of Islam after becoming a Muslim and those who do this are called apostates. This act is especially contemptible and the laws regarding apostasy differ from that of other non-believers. 3) An apostate should not be left in a state of apostasy but the authorities should ask the person to repent and embrace Islam again. If the person refuses, then the person is punishable by death. 4) The punishment is not against the policy of ‘religious freedom' or the policy of ‘no compulsion in religion’ as mentioned in the al-Qur’an because those policies do not deal directly with the question of apostasy. 5) ‘No compulsion in religion’ means that Muslims are not at all to force the non-believers to convert to Islam because it is up to them to choose to convert or not, after they have been told about Islam. 6) However, in the case of apostasy, the apostate has committed the crime of insulting Islam and they are bad examples to others who may be influenced by their actions or propaganda. This will surely result in the defamation of Islam. [Source: the Department if Islamic Development of Malaysia, March 10, 2010]

Malaysia Introduce New Islamic Conversion Rule

In 2008, Malaysia introduced a regulation that required its nationals to inform their family before converting to Islam. News services reported: “Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said such a declaration would prevent families from contesting conversion by any member. His comments came as several religious disputes have come to light in recent months. In one such instance after a Hindu ethnic-Indian, Moorthy, who had secretly converted to Islam, died, his widow could not claim the body for cremation. The Islamic authorities said he had to be buried as the deceased had converted to Islam. However, his widow said she was unaware of the conversion. [Source: Agencies April 11, 2008 ~]

“Noting that religious issues were "very sensitive", Abdullah told reporters after chairing a meeting of the National Council on Islamic Religious Affairs here yesterday that issues like demolition of places of worship and funeral disputes should be tackled wisely to avoid racial tension. The step is seen as a damage control exercise by Barisan Nasional which suffered its worst ever electoral performance the March 2008 general election following discontent among ethnic Indians who allege discrimination. ~

“Non-Muslims have accused Islamic authorities of often giving their decision against minorities. Abdullah suggested that non-Muslims who wanted to convert to Islam should fill a form or letter declaring their intention to let their families know. This would ensure that families had been told and had understood his or her decision, a newspaper said.” ~

Apostasy-Related Cases in Malaysia

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: The Christian husband of a Malaysian woman who died in December clashed with Islamic authorities who contended she had converted to Islam a week before her death and would be buried according to Muslim rites. A Malaysian court ordered the woman’s body released for a Christian funeral after the conversion claim was retracted. In another case, a 29-year-old woman who was born a Muslim but converted to Hinduism was ordered by Malaysian authorities to spend six months in an Islamic rehabilitation center, where she said officials tried to make her pray as a Muslim, wear a head scarf and eat beef, a sacrilege to Hindus. [Source: Sean Yoong, AP, February 23, 2008]

In January 2008, Reuters reported: “In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a high court has permitted the husband of deceased Wong Sau Lan to have her body cremated in Christian funeral rites. Reuters today reports that the Buddhist husband's 18-day legal battle ensued after his ethnic Chinese wife, who was baptised as a Christian in November 2007, died of kidney failure in a Kuala Lumpur hospital. Police claimed that the woman had converted to Islam by reciting Arabic verses during a session with a traditional healer a week earlier. However in court the Islamic Affairs Council agreed that the body could be released to the husband because the alleged conversion to Islam was not carried out in accordance with Islamic law. This is the latest in a series of court battles over the right of relatives to bury deceased family members in non-Muslim funerals. [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2008]

In March 2009, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian went to court to fight the secret conversion of his 15-month-old daughter by his estranged Muslim convert wife. AFP reported: “Carpenter Hoo Ying Soon, 28, is also challenging the temporary custody granted to his wife by a sharia court. Lawyer Tang Jay Son told AFP Hoo only learned of his wife and child's secret conversion two days ago through a sharia court notice, which said the woman had become a Muslim on January 28 and his infant daughter on February 3. "They also served him an interim court order... that grants the wife a temporary custody over the child and the reason for that is because the child is already a Muslim," Tang said. "But we have to bear in mind that the child was converted to Islam without Hoo's knowledge and consent as a father." [Source: AFP, March 5, 2009 *=*]

“The couple - originally both Buddhists who married in 2007 and live in central Negri Sembilan state- separated in September 2008, the lawyer said. He said the parents took turns to look after their daughter, who has now been given the Muslim name Nurul Syuhada Chew Abdullah. Hoo is now seeking custody of his daughter in the civil courts while his wife applies for a divorce through the sharia court. Tang criticised the Islamic authorities for allowing the baby's conversion without first determining the child's custody or the status of the couple's marriage.” *=*

In January 2008, a Malaysian Court has awarded a temporary injunction to an ethnic Chinese man to prevent the local Islamic Council from taking the body of his wife and burying her in accordance with Muslim rites. Christian Today Australia and news agencies reported: “The injunction issued comes after a dispute erupted between the widower, Ngiam Tee Kong, and the council over the conversion of his wife, Mong Sau Lan, to Islam. The husband insisted to the council and the court she remained a Christian up until her death. As such, he wanted her to be buried in accordance with Christian rites. According to a local newspaper, Mr. Kong received a letter notifying him his wife had converted to Islam and it was witnessed by a religious affairs authority. When Ms. Lan passed away, the hospital notified her husband that the council requested her body to be handed over to them so she could be given a Muslim burial. However, this was disputed by her spouse, where he argued that he had the legal authority as a husband to receive the body instead. [Source: Christian Today Australia and agencies, January 7, 2008]

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, There is the “case of a young Malay woman who no longer believed in Islam and wanted to marry a Christian. To do so, she would have to change her religious status. The secular authorities ruled that this was a matter for the Islamic court, but, of course, no Islamic court (whose authority she, as a non-believer, no longer recognised) would ever accede to apostasy. Her predicament has become a test case on the issue of Malay identity. After receiving death threats, she is now in hiding. Anwar rolled his eyes. “Islamically, it is indefensible that all Malays should have to be Muslims,” he told me. “Not all Arabs are Muslims, after all. But this case has become too political. It is better not to dwell on this issue. We should deal with poverty, rule of law, democracy. . . .” I must have looked unsatisfied. “Look,” he said, “I have Malay friends who no longer believe, who drink. But they don’t make an issue out of it.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 <>]

Malaysia Rejects Bid for Christian Convert to Remove Islam ID Tag

In May 2007, Ian MacKinnon wrote in The Guardian, “The highest court in Malaysia rejected a Muslim-born woman's appeal to be recognised as a Christian, ending a six-year legal battle that heightened concerns over discrimination of the country's religious minorities. Lina Joy, 42, had fought the decisions of Malaysia's lower courts in an effort to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card, arguing that the constitution guaranteed her religious freedom. But the panel of three judges decided, in a majority verdict, that it had no power to intervene in cases of apostasy. These cases fall under the jurisdiction of Malaysia's Sharia courts, which run in tandem with the country's civil courts. [Source: Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, May 31, 2007 +++]

“However, it has never been made clear which branch of the court takes precedence. The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of worship, but ethnic Malays must be Muslim by law. "She cannot simply, at her own whim, enter or leave her religion," Judge Ahmad Fairuz said during the ruling. "She must follow rules." But Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, said it was "unreasonable" to ask Ms Joy to turn to the Sharia court as she could face criminal prosecution because abandoning Islam is punishable by a fine or jail. Critics of the verdict expressed dismay and said it failed to uphold the legal rights of Malaysians. +++

“Two-hundred Muslim protesters who gathered in a prayer vigil outside the court yesterday greeted the verdict with cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). The woman, born Azlina Jailani, started attending church in 1990 and was baptised eight years later. She was given permission to change her name, but "Islam" remained as her religion on her identity card. +++

Malaysia Court Halts Baby Hindu Boy's Conversion to Islam

In March 2007, Reuters reported: “A Malaysian court has taken the rare step of ordering a Muslim man not to go ahead with plans to convert his baby son to Islam, pending a last-ditch legal effort by the Hindu mother to take custody of the boy. The Court of Appeal, which usually defers jurisdiction in religious matters to Malaysia's Islamic courts, granted the mother an injunction barring the father from converting their 1-year-old to Islam, local newspapers said. Once the boy is converted to Islam, the father could seek custody of him in an Islamic court. He did this last year with the couple's elder son, aged 3, the papers said. The legal battle highlights constitutional tensions over religion in mainly Muslim Malaysia: the charter assures freedom of religion but in practice non-Muslims have found no recourse to civil courts where questions of Islamic identity are involved. [Source: Reuters, March 30, 2007 |+|]

Many non-Muslims refuse to submit to Islamic law. “In 2005, the High Court ruled it could not intervene to stop state religious officials giving a man a Muslim burial against his Hindu widow's wishes. She said he was Hindu but an Islamic court ruled he was Muslim. In the latest case, the lawyer for the Hindu mother said an Islamic court might award custody of her younger son to the father before she could exhaust all her civil legal options. "If the injunction is not granted, the wife's right will be over-reached before the appeal is heard in the Federal Court and it will cause severe injustice," state news agency Bernama quoted the lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, as telling the Court of Appeal. "There is also the possibility that the father will convert the second child. The threat is substantial." |+|

“But the injunction may be only a brief legal victory for the mother, R. Subashini, who married under Hindu rites in 2001. The Court of Appeal ruled earlier that the father had the right to go to the Islamic court to have his marriage dissolved and to seek custody of the younger son. The injunction granted on Friday applies only until the mother can persuade the Federal Court to hear her appeal against the Court of Appeal's March 13 ruling.” |+|

Malaysian Woman Allowed to Revert to Buddhism

In May 2008, a religious court in Malaysia allowed a Muslim convert to leave the Islamic faith. The BBC reported: “Penang's Sharia court ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah was free to return to Buddhism, following the collapse of her marriage to a Muslim man. It was decided she had not had proper counselling during her conversion. [Source: BBC, May 8, 2008]

“Malaysians are rarely allowed to renounce the faith - those who do can be prosecuted under stringent laws. Malaysia insists a non-Muslim marrying a Muslim must take their faith. Ms Siti, an ethnic Chinese, converted when she married an Iranian Muslim man. When their marriage collapsed, she filed a case with the Penang court asking to be allowed to revert to being a Buddhist. The judge found in her favour, saying it was clear she had never practised Islam after her conversion and continued to pray as a Buddhist. "The court has no choice but to declare that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah is no longer a Muslim as she has never practised the teachings of Islam," said Judge Othman Ibrahim. ||||

“He instead blamed the state Islamic council for not fulfilling its responsibility of counselling and guiding new converts. Analysts say the judge used a very liberal interpretation of the law because in many countries converts are treated just like those who are born into Islam - and are prohibited from changing their faith. Islamic affairs are governed at a state level so this decision may not form a precedent for other parts of Malaysia. The local religious council in Penang may also appeal against the ruling. ||||

IANS reported: “Siti Fatimah, who is from Nibong Tebal, is Chinese by birth. In her application filed in May 2008, year to renounce her religion, Siti Fatimah, whose Chinese name is Tan Ean Huang, said she converted to Islam in July 1998 but never practised it. The woman claimed before the court that she had converted for the sake of marrying an Iranian named Ferdoun Ashanian in 1999, but he left her a few months later. She has no knowledge of his current whereabouts. The issue of non-Muslims converting to Islam, mostly for the sake of marriage, is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. If the marriage does not work, parents born of different faiths have gone to court to determine the religion their children should follow. [Source: IANS, March 2009]

AFP reported: “Apostasy, or renouncing the faith, is one of the gravest sins in Islam and a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia where Islamic sharia courts have rarely allowed people to abandon the religion. Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah said she had never practised Islamic teachings since she converted in 1998 and only did so to enable her to marry her Iranian husband. The couple married in 2004 and she filed for renunciation after her husband left her, winning approval from a religious court last year in a decision appealed by the Islamic Religious Council in Penang state. [Source: AFP <<>> ]

“Penang's Sharia Appeal Court said Ms Tan could revert to Buddhism, but only because her conversion was not valid and done only for the sake of marriage. 'She has been living a non-Islamic lifestyle and praying to deities and this clearly shows she never embraced Islam,' said Ibrahim Lembut, one of a three-member panel of judges. 'The question of conversion does not arise because she never intended to become a Muslim in the first place.' Ms Tan welcomed the decision. 'I am very happy that this is finally over. It has been a long struggle,' she told reporters outside the court. <<>>

“The Penang Islamic Religious Council also endorsed the ruling, which it said confirmed the status quo in Malaysia, where religious courts operate in parallel to civil courts. 'The original decision gave the impression that one could simply convert out of Islam. So now it is clear this is not the case,' its lawyer Ahmad Munawar Abdul Aziz told reporters. 'In this case, the court has made it clear that this was a unique case where her conversion itself was invalid,' he added. 'So this removes the fear among the Muslim community that conversions may be subject to review.' Islam is Malaysia's official religion and more than 60 percent of the nation's 27 million people are Muslim Malays.” <<>>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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