Islam vs. Liberalism? An Analysis of an Opinion issued by a Malaysian Fatwā Council  in July 2014

This article examines the content of a fatwā issued and published into law on 31 July 2014 by the fatwā committee of a state in Malaysia named Selangor. The fatwā is entitled “Fatwā Pemikiran Liberalisme Dan Pluralisme Agama,” or “Fatwā on the Thought of Liberalism and Religious Pluralism.” It is significant politically for having targeted Sisters in Islam (SIS), which is a women’s rights organization located in Selangor that criticizes and advocates against what it views as unjust decisions made by Islamic courts in the country against women. In this post, I will analyze the content of the fatwā, contrast it with a similar fatwā passed in Indonesia, and discuss its political significance in Malaysia.

The institution that issued the fatwā is the Majlis Agama Islam Selangor (hereafter “MAIS”): the religious department of Selangor, the state in which the office of Sisters in Islam is located. Its official functions, as outlined by MAIS itself, are to direct localized Islamic practices in the state while collaborating closely with government—both Selangor’s state government and the federally administered Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM).

The content of the fatwā[1] is minimal with just four points. First, it condemns Sisters in Islam, stating that “SIS Forum and any individual, organization, or institution that promotes liberalism and religious pluralism is misguided and deviating from the teachings of Islam.”[2] Second, the fatwā purports to ban liberal and pluralistic thought, stating that “any material affiliated with thoughts of liberalism and pluralism should be banned and confiscated.” Third, it promotes censorship of SIS writings: “[T]he Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission should block websites that conflict with the teachings of Islam and the sharīʿa.” Lastly, conflates liberal thought with apostasy, declaring that “any individual who believes in liberalism and pluralism must repent and return to the path of Islam.”

It is significant that nowhere in this fatwā does the committee appeal to the Qurʿān or ḥadīth, or to any other sources of authority, for justification.[3] The fatwā also does not provide definitions of “religious pluralism” and “liberalism,” yet seems to assume that it is possible to condemn organizations and websites that advocate these values. Additionally, the specific mention of Sisters in Islam stands out because it seems to suggest that the fatwā’s aim is not solely to provide guidance on a religious matter, but to target an activist organization in Malaysia that challenges decisions made in Islamic Courts. Notwithstanding these problems, the fatwā was signed by the chairman of the fatwā committee of Selangor, Dato’ Setia Haji Mohd Tamyes Bin Abd. Wahid, and published in the Gazette.

Not all fatāwā are published, and publication of this one means that the Sultan of Selangor determined that it should be legally binding for every Muslim in that state, such that to defy, disobey, or dispute the fatwā would constitute a criminal offense subject to a fine or jail time for any offender. The choice to publish the fatwā may also indicate political impulses for using religious language and authority to juxtapose “religious pluralism” and “liberalism” against Islam in Selangor.

Moreover, the lack of citation of textual basis for its reasoning means that there is little one can observe about the methodological choices at play in the fatwā. By contrast, a similarly themed fatwā issued in Indonesia by the Indonesian Ulema (Ar., ʿulamāʾ, religious scholars) Council (MUI) in 2005 quoted the Qurʾān in eight places and provided a discussion of two ḥadīth reports in an attempt to provide justification for its declaration that “religious pluralism, liberalism, and secularism are notions that are against Islam.”[4] Also, unlike the fatwā from Selangor, the Indonesian fatwā provided definitions of the terms “religious pluralism,” “liberalism,” and “secularism.” The citation of sources and definition of terms made the Indonesian fatwā was stronger than the Malaysian fatwā. However, the Indonesian fatwā was weak to the extent that it relied on many assumptions in both its definitions of the terms and its methodology of relating verses in the Qurʿān or the Prophet Muhammad’s sunna (life example collected in ḥadīth reports) to concepts ad practices that did not exist in seventh-century Arabia. In both fatāwā, it seems that by deeming certain conceptions as authoritative or closed to debate, the fatwā councils are introducing concepts into Islamic juridical discourse without much firm purchase in Islamic history or legal practice.

By pitting “Islam” against complex concepts such as “liberalism” and “religious pluralism,” the Selangor fatwā dismisses the fact that Muslims in Malaysia are interacting with, responding to, and locating themselves and their Islamic subjectivities in relation to these concepts. Overall, the basic lack of definitions and justification from foundational sources of Islamic law make this fatwā controversial, a controversy that is heightened by nature of the fatwā as legally binding. With this in mind, one wonders why the Sultan of Selangor did not require a legal argument in justification for the fatwā by the MAIS committee in order to publish it into the Gazette.

[1] Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, Fatwā Pemikiran Liberalisme Dan Pluralisme Agama (Government of the State of Selangor Gazette, 2014).

[2] Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, Fatwā Pemikiran Liberalisme.

[3] See M. Khālid Masud, Messick, Brinkley Messick, and David Stephan Powers (1996) for more information about the fatwā in the Islamic legal tradition. <<Name of the Book Needed>>

[4] Majelis Ulama Indonesia,  Pluralisme, Liberalisme, Dan Sekularisme Agama, Seventh National Meeting (2005).

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