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Monday, November 18, 2013

State rulers have no right to dictate religion to non-Muslims, says constitutional expert

November 18, 2013

State rulers in Malaysia have no power to suspend or deny the rights of non-Muslims to refer to God as Allah or their rights to religious freedom, which are guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, says constitutional law expert Dr Abdul Aziz Bari.

He said the laws are clear about the authority of the state rulers, just days after Selangor's Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah reminded non-Muslims in the state not to refer to God as Allah, which was affirmed a month ago by an appeal court ruling.

"The powers of all the rulers must be seen within the context of the Federal Constitution. The authority of the rulers as heads of religion only applies to Muslims within their respective states," Abdul Aziz told The Malaysian Insider.

"But the non-Muslims, even those who are residing in those states, are outside the jurisdiction of these rulers. Even with regard to Muslims, orders issued by the rulers are not absolute as they are subject to Islamic laws," he added.

For example, the former academic said the rulers cannot ask Muslims in their states to do something which goes against the Islamic religion.

Although the Federal Constitution has made clear the councils and clerics were under the authority of the rulers, there was nothing which empowered the rulers to issue their own laws.

Abdul Aziz said when the Federal Constitution was drawn up, it was envisaged that the rulers would be allowed to retain their religious authority free of government interference.

But the Federal Constitution certainly never imagined that the rulers might go against the tenets of Islam, he added.

"Islamic law is not entirely clear on the issue of Allah. Religious authorities in the Middle East, which has long been the cradle of Islam, have expressed their views that prohibition on the usage of
Allah by non-Muslims has no basis in Islam," Abdul Aziz said.

He said although the Court of Appeal ruled on October 14 to uphold the ban by the Home Ministry on the use of the word Allah by Catholic publication Herald, perhaps it was better for the highest court in Malaysia to make an ultimate decision.

"While the rulers are free from the advice of the government of the day in exercising their powers as the heads of Islam in their respective states, but they are still bound and subject to the provisions of the Federal Constitution," Abdul Aziz said.

"With regards to the various councils, they have no legislative authority to make laws. Even when it comes to Muslims, what eventually binds them is the legal provisions, not the decision of the councils," he said, adding that Islamic religious councils only had the authority to assist and advise the rulers.

Selangor is Malaysia's richest state and counts many Christians from Sabah and Sarawak as its residents. Most of them worship in Bahasa Malaysia and refer to God as Allah.

Putrajaya has said that it would stick to a 10-point agreement that would allow the usage of the word in East Malaysia but not in Peninsular Malaysia where the majority are Muslims.

Restrictions on other religions using certain Arabic words was first introduced in 1982 just after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took power but they were never strictly enforced until the past few years, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations who use Bahasa Malaysia to preach to a generation of Malaysians who use the language more than English. – November 18, 2013. -- The Malaysian Insider
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