PETALING JAYA • Malaysia's highest court, the Federal Court, yesterday held that a non-Muslim marriage is not automatically dissolved when one of the parties converts to Islam.
The written ruling is a major legal decision that could help resolve several controversial cases in which one spouse became a Muslim and then claimed that his assets and children now come under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court, instead of the civil courts.
With Malaysia's Islamic court system seen as being pro-Muslim, non-Muslims generally do not accept its authority, thus tying up cases for years.
Malaysia runs parallel Islamic and civil court systems with equal, but separate, powers.
The ruling was issued by the Court of Appeal president, Justice Md Raus Sharif, who chaired a five-man panel which heard the custody battle between Muslim convert Izwan Abdullah, 33, and his Hindu former wife S. Deepa, 32.
The other four justices on the panel are also all Muslims.
The judgment said the civil courts shall continue to have jurisdiction over divorce and custody proceedings despite the conversion of a spouse to Islam.
"The ex-husband and the ex-wife were Hindus at the time of their marriage. By contracting the civil marriage under the Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce) Act (LRA) 1976, they are bound by its provisions in respect of divorce as well as custody of the children of the marriage.
"The matter of dispute in this case is not within the jurisdiction of the Syariah High Court," said Justice Md Raus. "In this case, the conflict arose because the ex-husband had brought his case to the Syariah High Court.
"But as discussed earlier, the LRA continues to bind the ex-husband despite his conversion to Islam. The Syariah courts have no jurisdiction over the ex-husband's application to dissolve his civil marriage or over custody of the children born from the civil marriage under the LRA."
He said the Syariah courts have jurisdiction only over matters relating to divorce and custody when it involves a Muslim marriage solemnised according to Muslim law. "When one of the parties is a non-Muslim, the Syariah courts do not have the jurisdiction over the case even if the subject matter falls within their jurisdiction." he said.
The custody battle between Mr Izwan and Ms Deepa ended last week with each granted custody of one child.
The high-profile case was closely followed in Malaysia amid concerns among the non-Muslim minority that their rights are being eroded by the rise of conservative Islam.
In handing down the decision, Justice Md Raus said the court was setting aside the orders of the High Court and Court of Appeal with regard to custody.
The lower courts had given custody of both children to Ms Deepa.
Justice Md Raus also recorded a consent agreement between Mr Izwan and Ms Deepa on access to the children.
Both agreed to allow the other access to the children on a Saturday, once every two months, at the house of Ms Deepa's mother in Negeri Sembilan.
They also consented to reasonable access via phone without limitation.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK