Malaysia’s top court Friday struck down over a dozen Shariah-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 nine-member Federal Court panel invalidated 16 laws made by the opposition-run Kelantan state government, which imposed punishments for offenses from sodomy, sexual harassment, incest, and cross dressing to giving false evidence.
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 Shariah covering personal and family matters for Muslims, alongside civil laws. Ethnic Malays — all of whom are considered Muslim in 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 the hadith.
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 Friday calling for the protection of Sharia laws.
“We are very sad today. This a black Friday for Islamic Shariah 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.”
The PAS is a member of the opposition bloc and the single biggest party in Parliament, as well as governing four of Malaysia’s 13 states. The party favors tough Islamic legal norms, once seeking to implement a criminal code known as hudud that includes penalties such as amputations for theft and stoning to death 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 Malay support after taking office following 2022 general election.
Mohamad Na’im Mokhtar, the minister in charge of religious affairs, promised that the court ruling won’t affect the position of Shariah courts. He urged Muslims to stay calm and said the government will study the the ruling. He said in a statement that ongoing efforts to empower Shariah courts will continue.
Anwar has also disputed PAS’s assertion that the case was an attack on Shariah laws. He has said the the root issue was about state jurisdiction and that the matter shouldn’t be politicized.