We the members of G25 Malaysia would like to record our appreciation to the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Shah, for his speech at the recent nationwide convention of fatwa committees, which was held in Sepang, Selangor, on Sept 22. 2020.
It was a well-written and progressive speech in which the ruler advised that fatwas which are formulated should take into account the views of all stakeholders in society. This is because, when fatwas are issued after receiving the royal consent in the respective states, they are expected to be well-received, due to their practical application in the daily lives of every Muslim.
We are most impressed that the Sultan’s advice is based on reference to the Holy Quran and the Hadiths which clearly state that fatwas are essential for guiding Muslims to conduct their lives according to Islamic values.
Fatwas in Malaysia are statements issued by the state mufti, who heads the fatwa committee. In each state, the muftis will then refer to the Majlis Kebangsaan Islam (MKI) where discussions and deliberations are heard, by members of a committee consisting of religious scholars.
These scholars are supposed to be knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects, such as Islamic history, the spiritual and temporal aspects of Islam, as well as how Islam evolved through various stages of economic, social, cultural and political development.
Since the days of Prophet Mohammad, SAW, Islam as a religion and polity has come into contact with different civilisations. As a result, our muftis and Muslim scholars must derive their knowledge of Islam, not only from the holy texts but also from the various sources of Islamic interpretations, which are tied closely to their historical context from which they emerged.
There are always new trends in society which may raise doubts among Muslims, of whether they can apply these new approaches to their lives or not. It is here that the role of the mufti is vital, in order to explain and clarify what is acceptable, what is oppressive and what is culturally and religiously inappropriate.
Diversified analyses of issues
G25 also supports the Perak sultan’s statement about the ummah being increasingly exposed to a diverse corpus of educational resources.
Muslims around the world are more critical, curious and intelligent. Likewise, our muftis are equally exposed and find themselves in need of more thorough and diversified analyses of issues that affect various levels of our society.
Under Malaysia’s constitutional provisions, although Islam is the religion of the Federation, it is not the basis for law in the country. Fatwas, therefore, fall under the jurisdiction of each individual state.
At the state level, after fatwas are gazetted with the consent of the Ruler, they become the official authority for the religious department to enforce.
Some examples of actions that a state may wish to issue a fatwa on are eating in public places during the fasting month, cross-dressing by men, giving lectures on Islam without a permit or publishing a book that is deemed offensive to the religion.
Some of the fatwas may be at odds with modern lifestyles such as prohibiting an unmarried woman to be riding in the same car as a man or the close physical proximity of male and female co-workers in an office.
Fatwas vary from state to state as each state has its own shariah system of law. Some states are progressive while some are extreme in their punishments for shariah offenses (as stipulated by certain fatwas).
The institution of the mufti must be further developed in the states, to be in line with both religious (Islamic) and secular viewpoints because Malaysia is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-racial society.
Islam and “the right path” is premised on the acceptance of differences and maqasid l’il alamin. It would be an asset for our muftis to understand the secular aspects of society and how Islam can accommodate non-Islamic aspects of societal organisation.
After all, Islam supports the co-existence of differences in order to promote harmony within society. Fatwas, therefore, are not meant to be oppressive and unjust.
Realistic view of modern trends
G25 agrees with the Perak sultan that fatwas should take into account the changing times as each generation will face different challenges in their private as well as public lives. As the world becomes more competitive and modern, the lifestyles of society are bound to change to suit the prevailing circumstances.
Sultan Nazrin said that state fatwa committees should take a realistic view of modern trends by consulting with various groups, in order to take into account their expert views before issuing a fatwa on a particular aspect of life.
This will ensure that when the fatwa is issued, there will be no dispute as to its application by Muslims, especially in Malaysia’s multi-racial and multi-cultural setting.
The ruler gave the advice based on the teachings of various scholars who saw the wisdom of being practical when advising Muslims in their fatwas. These scholars lived centuries ago.
As new discoveries in science, engineering and technology made the old world seem obsolete, these Muslim scholars were courageous enough to take the progressive view towards adapting to the political, economic and social changes around them.
Unfortunately, there are conservative scholars today, even in Malaysia, who claim that while the world may change, Islamic doctrines cannot be interpreted through the use of reason and intellect, in order to adapt to current circumstances.
The fatwas made by such conservative ulama are bound to create confusion and divisions among Muslims and also, complicate their relationship with other races, cultures and religions.
G25 has been criticised by the religious establishment for taking the view that fatwas issued by state governments should be advisory, in form and substance, and should not have the authority to criminalise religious offences.
Crime is a federal matter and not a state responsibility under the Constitution. As one state mufti rightly said, let the sins of Allah be punished by Allah. And let the worldly crimes be punished by man-made laws under the Constitution, which is the Supreme Law of the country.
This shows that there are muftis and ulama who have similar views as G25, about the role of religious edicts or fatwas in guiding Muslims.
On reading the Sultan’s speech, G25 is pleased that his view is similar to ours. While fatwas are part of Islamic tradition and are useful guides to Muslims, they should be relevant to present day realities.
As G25 stated in our Open Letter to the People of Malaysia in December 2014, fatwas should be made in full consultation with all stakeholders so that they are consistent with the laws of the country in protecting the rights and freedoms of all Malaysians, including women and girls, as guaranteed under the Constitution and further, are consistent with the demands of modern living.
G25 is a group of former senior civil servants.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.