Malaysian debate now turns to Muslim women and hair salons

New online buzz over preacher's 2015 video forces deputy minister to call for stop to 'strange edicts'

KUALA LUMPUR • Just as the controversy over a "Muslims-only" laundrette is cooling down, social media has zoomed in on a little-known preacher in Penang who said Muslim women cannot have their hair cut in non-Muslim hair salons.

In the 2015 video, preacher Shahul Hamid Seeni Muhammad says women cannot have their heads touched by non-Muslims, let alone have them cut their hair.

The issue was picked up by the Malaysian news media in recent days as it followed the huge storm over a laundrette in Muar, Johor, that had a signboard saying it was open only to Muslims.

These issues highlighted growing Islamic conservatism in Malaysia, but is also a reflection of the power of social media in quickly pushing a matter into mainstream debate.

In the laundrette issue, the shop owner has apologised and opened up his washing machines to everyone after being criticised by the Sultan of Johor for his "extremist" stance.

A preacher employed by a government agency, Zamihan Mat Zin, later criticised the Johor ruler for this as he claimed clothes worn by non-Muslims were soiled by pork and alcohol, among other things.

NO LEGAL STANDING

Any edict issued by individuals, even if they hold the status of ulama (cleric) or preacher, remains a personal opinion without any legal authority. Respect the Islamic authorities and stop issuing strange individual fatwa (religious edicts) that only causes confusion, muddy things up and cause polemics.

DATUK ASYRAF WAJDI DUSUKI, Deputy Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs, on the hair salon controversy.

Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar last week called the preacher "an empty can and brainless".

On Monday, Selangor's Sultan revoked the preaching credentials of Mr Zamihan in a rare royal intervention, barring him from speaking on Islam from mosque pulpits and at public functions in the state.

Mr Zamihan, who is being investigated by police for sedition, has apologised to the rulers.

In the hair salon controversy, the deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, said only muftis - a state's most senior Islamic official - could issue edicts on the religion, not those "who became famous via reality television shows".

"Any edict issued by individuals, even if they hold the status of ulama (cleric) or preacher, remains a personal opinion without any legal authority," Dr Asyraf said in a statement yesterday.

"Respect the Islamic authorities and stop issuing strange individual fatwa (religious edicts) that only causes confusion, muddy things up and cause polemics."

The mufti of the Federal Territories, Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, wrote in a Facebook post that there was nothing in Islam banning women from having their hair cut by non-Muslims.

Penang's Islamic religious affairs committee chairman, Datuk Abdul Malik Abul Kassim, said the preacher Shahul Hamid is known for his "critical and aggressive approach" in his sermons.

But he reassured Penang residents that there will never be "Muslims-only" hair salons in Penang, according to The Malay Mail Online news site yesterday.

In Malaysia, official edicts, or fatwa, are issued only by the state-appointed mufti or the National Fatwa Council.

But even these could be ignored by local Muslims as they are not legally binding, as happened with the 1995 National Fatwa Council ruling that smoking is "haram" - banned in Islam - or the 2008 edict that yoga is haram.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysian debate now turns to Muslim women and hair salons'. Print Edition | Subscribe