News analysis

Who runs Islam in Malaysia? Answer is not so clear-cut

The Sultan of Johor's decree last Saturday that the state Islamic authorities disengage from the national Islamic development agency has raised the question of who calls the shots in Malaysia's growing Islamic bureaucracy.

The widely held belief is that ruling party Umno has, since the 1980s, used state apparatus to push an increasingly formalist view of the religion to ensure support from the country's Muslim majority.

In Malaysia, everyone knows that the Home Ministry is able to ban books, or the use of certain words - such as "Allah" - by non-Muslims.

And it is known that the federal government's Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim), with its RM1 billion (S$320.6 million) annual budget, has the authority to issue halal (permitted by Islam) certificates for businesses.

Jakim also operates free-to-air TV station Alhijrah, which is popular in the homes of many Malay Muslims.

But Jakim has no authority to regulate the Islamic affairs of each state and is merely a body to "promote" the religion.

The federal government's Islamic Development Department of Malaysia has no authority to regulate the Islamic affairs of each state.
The federal government's Islamic Development Department of Malaysia has no authority to regulate the Islamic affairs of each state. PHOTO: BERNAMA

"Islamic authority lies with the state itself. Jakim has no power or jurisdiction over the various Islamic councils," constitutional lawyer Syahredzan Johan told The Straits Times, referring to each state's top religious body.

Granted, most Malaysian states have been governed by Umno and its allies, or Parti Islam SeMalaysia, since the country's independence 60 years ago. But with Umno's once ironclad grip on power loosened since big electoral setbacks in 2008, Malaysia's nine Malay rulers have been flexing their muscles, in no small part due to their revered position as constitutional heads of Islam in their respective states.

The rulers appoint the Mufti - the highest authority on Islamic law and practices in the state - as well as the heads of the Islamic councils, who "aid and advise" the monarch on the administration of the religion. In the four states where there is no royalty, as well as in the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan, the king takes this role.

But this is where things get more complicated because these bodies sometimes overstep their boundaries. Apart from Islamic councils, there are Islamic departments in each state and the three federal territories collectively.

Unlike Jakim, these departments have powers of enforcement and can punish or charge people with breaking Islamic laws. One controversial instance was the 2014 seizure of Malay and Iban-language Bibles owned by the Bible Society of Malaysia by the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais), and its refusal to return them despite a state government order.

Universiti Malaya law professor Azmi Sharom told ST that this was clear insubordination by Jais, which is part of the state executive.

It was only after the Selangor Sultan intervened that the Bibles were returned. This has led to debate even among experts over whether the Islamic departments are ultimately accountable to the state governments or the monarch.

In the case of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar's statement last Saturday for the Johor State Islamic Department to stop dealings with Jakim, there is doubt whether it would constitute a binding order.

"The sultans need to be consulted before a new Islamic law is passed. But just how far and what kind of powers do they have over state religious authorities? Not so far as to make executive orders like that," Dr Azmi said.


However, syariah lawyer Nizam Bashir disagrees, noting that the Federal Constitution and various state counterparts give the rulers discretion to act on issues of Islam and Malay custom.

He said "the answer is probably that (the Islamic department) comes under the chief minister's office but is wholly answerable to the sultan".

Such is the influence that the rulers hold over their Muslim subjects that the extent of their powers is rarely challenged legally. Politicians, especially, are reluctant to be seen as anti-monarchy, which is perceived to be anti-Islam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Who runs Islam in Malaysia? Answer is not so clear-cut'. Print Edition | Subscribe