This article examines the content of a fatwÄ issued and published into law on 31 July 2014 by the fatwÄ committee of a state in Malaysia named Selangor. The fatwÄ is entitled â€œFatwÄ Pemikiran Liberalisme Dan Pluralisme Agama,â€ or â€œFatwÄ on the Thought of Liberalism and Religious Pluralism.â€ It is significant politically for having targeted Sisters in Islam (SIS), which is a womenâ€™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 fatwÄ, contrast it with a similar fatwÄ passed in Indonesia, and discuss its political significance in Malaysia.
The institution that issued the fatwÄ is the Majlis Agama Islam Selangor (hereafter â€œMAISâ€): 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 governmentâ€”both Selangorâ€™s state government and the federally administered Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM).
The content of the fatwÄ is minimal with just four points. First, it condemns Sisters in Islam, stating that â€œSIS Forum and any individual, organization, or institution that promotes liberalism and religious pluralism is misguided and deviating from the teachings of Islam.â€ Second, the fatwÄ purports to ban liberal and pluralistic thought, stating that â€œany material affiliated with thoughts of liberalism and pluralism should be banned and confiscated.â€ Third, it promotes censorship of SIS writings: â€œ[T]he Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission should block websites that conflict with the teachings of Islam and the sharÄ«Ê¿a.â€ Lastly, conflates liberal thought with apostasy, declaring that â€œany individual who believes in liberalism and pluralism must repent and return to the path of Islam.â€
It is significant that nowhere in this fatwÄ does the committee appeal to the QurÊ¿Än or á¸¥adÄ«th, or to any other sources of authority, for justification. The fatwÄ also does not provide definitions of â€œreligious pluralismâ€ and â€œliberalism,â€ 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 fatwÄâ€™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 fatwÄ was signed by the chairman of the fatwÄ committee of Selangor, Datoâ€™ Setia Haji Mohd Tamyes Bin Abd. Wahid, and published in the Gazette.
Not all fatÄwÄ 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 fatwÄ would constitute a criminal offense subject to a fine or jail time for any offender. The choice to publish the fatwÄ may also indicate political impulses for using religious language and authority to juxtapose â€œreligious pluralismâ€ and â€œliberalismâ€ 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 fatwÄ. By contrast, a similarly themed fatwÄ issued in Indonesia by the Indonesian Ulema (Ar., Ê¿ulamÄÊ¾, religious scholars) Council (MUI) in 2005 quoted the QurÊ¾Än in eight places and provided a discussion of two á¸¥adÄ«th reports in an attempt to provide justification for its declaration that â€œreligious pluralism, liberalism, and secularism are notions that are against Islam.â€ Also, unlike the fatwÄ from Selangor, the Indonesian fatwÄ provided definitions of the terms â€œreligious pluralism,â€ â€œliberalism,â€ and â€œsecularism.â€ The citation of sources and definition of terms made the Indonesian fatwÄ was stronger than the Malaysian fatwÄ. However, the Indonesian fatwÄ 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 QurÊ¿Än or the Prophet Muhammadâ€™s sunna (life example collected in á¸¥adÄ«th reports) to concepts ad practices that did not exist in seventh-century Arabia. In both fatÄwÄ, it seems that by deeming certain conceptions as authoritative or closed to debate, the fatwÄ councils are introducing concepts into Islamic juridical discourse without much firm purchase in Islamic history or legal practice.
By pitting â€œIslamâ€ against complex concepts such as â€œliberalismâ€ and â€œreligious pluralism,â€ the Selangor fatwÄ 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 fatwÄ controversial, a controversy that is heightened by nature of the fatwÄ as legally binding. With this in mind, one wonders why the Sultan of Selangor did not require a legal argument in justification for the fatwÄ by the MAIS committee in order to publish it into the Gazette.
 Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, FatwÄ Pemikiran Liberalisme Dan Pluralisme Agama (Government of the State of Selangor Gazette,Â 2014).
 Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, FatwÄ Pemikiran Liberalisme.
 See M. KhÄlid Masud, Messick, Brinkley Messick, and David Stephan Powers (1996) for more information about the fatwÄ in the Islamic legal tradition. <<Name of the Book Needed>>
 Majelis Ulama Indonesia,Â Pluralisme, Liberalisme, Dan Sekularisme Agama, Seventh National Meeting (2005).