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What’s in a name?

Is Malaysia an Islamic or secular state?

IF there is one enduring debate in Malaysia, it is whether this country is an Islamic or secular state. No less because successive prime ministers keep making declarations that it is an Islamic state to much public confusion.

Islam is the official religion of the federation. But what does “official” mean? Are we being made to choose between an Islamic state or a secular one?

At the Bar Council‘s launch of its Constitutional Law Committee’s MyConstitution or PerlembagaanKu campaign on 13 Nov, the public forum that followed the launch saw this issue being raised again with a question from the floor.

What is Malaysia?

The panel of lawyers and academics were divided. Human rights and constitutional lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said a secular state was good for Islam to flourish.

Universiti Malaya law lecturer Assoc Prof Dr Azmi Sharom said the Federal Constitution was a secular document, from which even the syariah courts derived their powers. The state was secular, he argued, because none of its institutions got their powers from religious authority, but from the constitution.


“Any sort of religious system of governance makes democracy difficult. In democracy, one should be able to question everything. But in a religious state, you cannot question because [the argument is stopped by claiming] God says so,” Azmi said.

His fellow law academician Prof Dr Aziz Bari from the International Islamic University disagreed. If Malaysia were secular, he said, religion would have no role in government administration at all. Whereas, the constitution allows public funds to be used for Islamic purposes, and Islamic rites and prayers are allowed in government events. Malaysia is not secular, Aziz continued, because Islam is the religion of the federation.


“This subject is of academic interest and doesn’t mean anything to the vast majority,” Aziz told the forum.

Sulaiman Abdullah
Another prominent constitutional lawyer, Sulaiman Abdullah, agreed with Aziz.

“To be technical about it, ‘secular’ means divorcing religion from the state, from everything, totally. If that is the definition of secular, then Malaysia is not a secular state. And if we are not a secular state, so what? Islam has no requirement that everyone must be Muslim in order to be an Islamic state.

“This issue is brought up to divide us,” Sulaiman concluded.

Constitutional law professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi from Universiti Tekonologi Mara said the debate was being reduced to “black or white”, when the reality in Malaysia was more complex. We are neither fully secular, nor fully Islamic, he said.

“This is all semantics. I personally think that we are a hybrid state,” Shad Saleem stated.

Speaking for God

Audience at the launch of MyConstitution
What is for sure is that Malaysia is a Muslim country, which is merely a description of its population. But as a state, where syariah law exists in parallel to civil law, Malaysia is not a pure Islamic state where syariah is the ideological foundation for political and public institutions.

Former PAS president, the late Datuk Fadzil Noor, in 2001 said a prerequisite of an Islamic state is syariah law as the supreme source of all laws. But what should an Islamic state look like? There is no formula in the Quran and hadith on how one should be structured. Rather, there are concepts of what a society based on Islamic values should be like. Hence, the emphasis on justice, plurality, gender equality and rights for minorities, which are in themselves democratic and universal values.

“There is no textual blueprint of what is an Islamic state. The whole idea of the state, not just an Islamic state but the political organisation of the state itself, is an invention of the last few centuries.

“This idea of the state may well continue to change,” Shad Saleem said in a subsequent interview with The Nut Graph.

Mohd Asri
An Islamic state also need not be authoritarian, adds Shad Saleem. It can adopt many elements of democratic practice, such as consultation or syura. In theory, the Islamic state works for human rights and equality and an independent judiciary. It denies the idea of a sovereign state which makes its own laws as law can only come from God.

But, as with good ideas, the problem lies with fallible human implementers. Can a theocratic state guarantee democracy if its administrators are human?

“This is the problem that has happened in Muslim societies. Who decides who speaks for God in a theocratic state? It ends up being a small group that seizes the monopoly to speak in the name of God.

“Look at the arrest of [former Perlis mufti] Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. That had nothing do with Islam, but with authoritarianism,” Shad Saleem observes.

Back to the beginning

The panellists themselves were divided on whether the Federal Constitution is secular or not.

Although there is Article 3 which upholds Islam as the official religion, Shad Saleem says the framework of the constitution and clarifications on the meaning of this article imply that Malaysia is not a theocratic state.

References to the effect that Malaysia is a secular state are contained in the reports of the Reid Commission and the Cobbold Commission. These and other interpretations that Malaysia is a secular and not Islamic state are substantive.

But whatever these external sources have said, it is not enough to settle the dispute over the semantics of what “secular” means.

L-r: Aziz Bari, Sulaiman Abdullah, Azmi Sharom, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Shad Saleem, and Malik Imtiaz

As seen from the divided views of eminent lawyers and academics on the panel, those like Sulaiman and Aziz are holding “secular” to its narrower meaning — the absence of any religious influence — to explain their position that Malaysia’s constitution and its state are not secular.

The opposing view, however, takes “secular” to mean institutional separation between religious authority and state apparatus.


Differing interpretations have allowed politicians to move into the vacuum for their advantage. Hence the propaganda war between Umno and PAS in 2001 over whether Malaysia was an Islamic state.

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in September 2001 declared Malaysia an Islamic state. His justification was not because syariah was the law of the land, but craftily, because non-Muslims had specific rights. This non-compulsion on non-Muslims was in line with Islam, he had said.

PAS’s reaction, as seen by its late president Fadzil’s rebuttal, was to debunk Mahathir’s claim and insist that only when syariah law ruled the land supremely could Malaysia be considered an Islamic state.

Mahathir’s government followed up with the publication of Malaysia adalah sebuah Negara Islam by the Information Ministry. It detailed the duties of an Islamic government and so far seems to be the clearest definition yet by the ruling Barisan Nasional government on how it envisions an Islamic state.

Mahathir’s successors continued the debate over Islamic-secular semantics. Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Malaysia was “neither a secular nor theocratic state” in early August 2007, before changing his mind within the same month that Malaysia was indeed an Islamic state. He said Malaysia qualified as an Islamic state because it was administered on Islamic principles.

A month before his boss, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in July 2007 said Malaysia was not a secular state. To avoid the scholarly definition that syariah had to be the supreme law and ideology of the land, Najib said Malaysia had its own interpretation.

In contrast, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman of then-Malaya said the constitution was framed on the basis of a secular state, and clarified again one year after independence that this country is not an Islamic state. Islam as the “official religion”, to Tunku, meant that it was for ceremonial purposes in government events.

Do semantics matter?

Are we being made to choose? Is it even a real choice, when regardless the label, syariah law already governs the personal morals of Muslims and affects the lives of non-Muslims through the conversions of spouses? And even if not law, religious fervour already influences government policy on the use of words like “Allah” by followers of non-Muslim religions.

Lawyer Malik Imtiaz, back in 2007, already wrote about why defining labels accurately is important: The rule of law will be undermined because of “attempts to reinterpret law to make it more Islamic compliant. This is wrong in light of the understanding underlying the Federal Constitution”.

And, it raises the question of who will define Islam “for the purpose of reinterpretation of law and the development of an ‘Islamic’ policy. The monopoly over Islam potentially hurts Muslims as much as it does non-Muslims.”

In short, the political reality of an Islamic state comes down to who’s in charge, and whether as fallible human beings, they can be trusted not to exploit religion for political power and personal agenda. From the arrest of ex-mufti Asri, it appears as though religious authorities can and do act arbitrarily.

Shad Saleem thinks being a hybrid state is a blessing because the balancing act required can protect plurality.

Shad Saleem
“A hybrid state allows us to harmonise different interests. Given the fact that Islam is the defining feature of Malay [Malaysians], the idea of an Islamic state will not go away. But given the fact also that 45% of the population is non-Muslim, being a hybrid state is the best middle path we can take,” he says.

While some may disagree with Shad Saleem’s “hybrid” terminology, he does identify a significant part of the problem: The confusion between ideals and realities. Certainly, the ideal of the Islamic state is premised on justice, accountability and equality, but then so is the ideal of the secular state. The question now is: What has been the reality when modern nation-states have experimented with either the Islamic state or secular state? Have the ideals of either ideology been translated effectively into reality? And based on the reality in Malaysia right now, Malaysians therefore need to decide the best way to foster greater democracy and justice. Favicon

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16 Responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. Sean says:

    While I’m happy to agree that Malaysia is neither a secular nor an Islamic state, I think your casual reference to “Muslim country” is careless. I occasionally find myself eating at a restaurant opposite a mosque in Malaysia around the time worshippers arrive, and it seems to me – from a headcount of attendees – that if 60% of Malaysians are Muslim, then 90% of houses must be unoccupied.

  2. Yeo Kien Kiong says:

    Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy, not an Islamic country. To all the politicians and bigots trying to abuse or brainwash the nation by manipulating religions, please stop and think about your children.

    “Unity is Strength”

  3. Nero says:

    If I were a Muslim, I would be terribly ashamed to regard this backward, corrupt and crime-ridden state as an “Islamic” one!

  4. faerie says:

    The obvious fact is that is that it is extremely difficult to attain this “ketuanan Melayu” status in Malaysia due to increasing inter-racial marriages. Labeling boldly with much uncertainty about its Islamic state status would definitely upset the harmony of the nation. I see the painful truth of the one major ethnic group (and it is not Orang Asli or East Malaysian natives) being selfish out of their fear of their rights being snatched.

    I am proud to be a Malaysian Melayu and not Melayu Malaysia (there’s a difference here) who blends in nicely and comfortably with people of others races and creeds! I do not want to be robbed of such colourful living. I love to live in this country as ONE and not be questioned on my lifestyle and beliefs so long as I don’t go against the law.
    Oh dear, I forgot that “the law” should be my utmost problem since it changes to fit the whims of the so-called authorities especially to citizens like me who are born Muslim but practise rationally and not blindly go by the book!

  5. T-Boy says:

    What a fascinating article. On the one hand, the state does have a hand in and is influenced by a religion. On the other, there is a separation, however porous, between state and religious apparatus — an apparatus that is, incidentally, not mandated in either the Quran and the Hadith.

    There are definite issues, specifically on what is the definition of an Islamic state and what is a secular one. But really, fascinating, fascinating.

    @Sean: Whether a person professes to a religion does not mean that they are “good” members of the religion. Once again, the ideal is different from the reality.

  6. U-Jean says:

    Very interesting article indeed! Thank you.

    I think it’s important to define whether Malaysia is secular or Islamic as this influences policies such as the legal identity of transsexuals and homosexuals, and whether to legalise prostitution or fund abortion… many other issues that can be debated from a religious point of view.

    It also depends very heavily on who makes the decisions up there. Even religious scholars differ on opinions, so which to follow?

  7. kamal says:

    There’s a running assumption throughout the commentary that a theocratic state is undemocratic. Another assumption is that there must be a distinction between the secular and theocratic. And yet another that the Malaysian hybrid system is somewhat unique.

    I think we are a post-colonial nation going through what other post-colonial nations go through, that is making sense of the power inherited or earned and as time goes by, if that is left unchecked it becomes compromised.

    If [we are] as those who take a narrowly defined view of the religious state, then we must only assume that Japan, England, Australia, the US, and wherever exists a monarch or the mention of a higher power (e.g. In God We Trust), are theocratic states. Or at least some sort of hybrid. In any case, does it matter?

    It only matters when it starts to discriminate and abuse the legitimacy accorded to it by the people – who should be sovereigns in the modern nation-state. The only governments whose rule is base on a different philosophy are those who claim legitimacy from older traditions – namely nations that remain under the authority of absolute monarchs. And they do exist.

    My alluding to the post-colonial dilemma is one of managing power. In many ways, we are still colonised – but not by the British, rather by an idea of governance and the legacy (bureaucracy) it left behind. Part of that idea is perpetuated by our infatuation with “progress”, that development is some sort of catch-up-with-me-if-you-can game.

    And as our leaders are fond to remind us, that economic growth supersedes everything. We replace the superiority of race in colonialism with a technocratic class in the post-colonial nation-state. We replace the paternalism of late colonialism with that of technocratic logic. The elites remain as rulers. And they use the sovereignty of the office to impose power on the people. Whether we choose to call ourselves Islamic or secular, the point is the system has to recognise the sovereignty of the people. Otherwise, the really important question is, are we independent?

  8. Farouq Omaro says:

    Malaysia is a secular state! If it is not, then Sabah and Sarawak would never have become part of it. That was why the state of Kelantan opposed the formation of Malaysia! And don’t forget the article which says the Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land, not the Syariah!

  9. fly says:

    Sabah/Sarawak (18/20-Point Agreement):

    Point 1: Religion

    While there was no objection to Islam being the national religion of Malaysia there should be no State religion in North Borneo, and the provisions relating to Islam in the present Constitution of Malaya should not apply to North Borneo.

    Sarawak and Sabah are not Islamic states. Only Persekutuan Tanah Melayu is an “Islamic state”. Therefore, *Malaysia* is not an Islamic country.

  10. abakjr says:

    The photo is of a church. Notice the cross above the dome. Is it purposely done to insult Islam?

    Editor’s note: The photo is public domain and was obtained and cropped from the website

    The photo is of a mosque in Qom, Iran. What you perceive as the cross on the dome is actually just part of the structure of the dome. It just happens to look like a crucifix from that particular angle of the photograph. You can refer to photos of the same mosque from other angles: and

    Was this purposely done to insult Islam? No, it wasn’t. Not by The Nut Graph, certainly. Regardless of the facts at hand, sometimes an insult really is in the eye of the beholder.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  11. Dennis Madden says:

    Islam, or its administrators, [hold] Malaysia [hostage] and they aren’t going to give up control of this country until Malaysians start to break through the barrier of religion-induced-non-thinking. Until Malay [Malaysians] begin to think for themselves. Umno recognises the control that these Muslims have over Malay [Malaysians] and are firmly in bed with them, because by pandering to religion they know that they too can control Malay [Malaysians]. Both parties are prepared to overlook the most horrendously non-Islamic practices merely to stay in power and generate wealth.

    This scenario has nothing to do with religion. Religion is just the cotton wool that masks an ugly power grab and an agenda to undermine all that was once good about Malaysia

  12. balasi says:

    Dear D Loh,

    Malaysia is not a “secular or a Islamic state”. It’s a state where two past PMs and the present practice “idiocy”.

    It’s best to leave it at that and let history decide in the near future, when it is no longer relevant in this gobalised world. […]

  13. jery says:

    Islam as a national religion for Malaysia has no standing however you look at it. A national religion by definition shall cater to the needs of all, and Islam derived its status by virtue of the fact that there is to be religious freedom for all in accordance to the constitution.

    By the very act of declaring Malaysia an Islamic state, Islam has ceased to become the national religion in reality; unable to protect the religious freedom as promised in the constitution. There is no need for non-Muslims to acknowledge the official religion as such because there is now none for them! For every action, there is a reaction. Think about it!

  14. Hirman says:

    I think at the end of the day, the way the born Muslim people live their life will signify whether the country is a Muslim state or not. Islam is not just a name and by naming or telling the world that the country is a Muslim country doesn’t make everyone a nobleman either.

  15. soul survivor says:

    This is such an old, never-ending discourse. To put it mildly, academic! I hope whatever the intentions were, Malaysians should not be swayed from the real issues at hand i.e. to get rid of the present corrupt establishment. Wake up you guys. We’ve got to pull all the limited resources that we have to continuously press for change or else the evil, reverse-psychology, subtle divide-and-rule will prolong yet again the change that we must [demand]!

    It’s just sometimes, whenever we like to discuss this topic, academically or spiritually, my five sen opinion would be to start with the question of who is God? Secondly,who are we? Thirdly, what’s inside us that makes us breathe, walk, think, talk, blog, etc? We’ve got to clear these things first, only then are we fair to ourselves to discuss this so-called issue.

    And lastly, it’s not about secular state or Islamic state but rather about us humans who are living in the state however we define it! We Malaysians are living under a corrupt, dirty, chronic, hypocritical establishment that is bleeding the rakyat. Gone is the theory of rakyats being the govt. Once the system elects a govt, the state is fully controlled and functioned by the few at their whims and fancies! So to foster greater democracy and justice, we must first get the right establishment before dwelling into Islamic or secular state.

  16. Santhira Kumar Madhavan says:

    “Any sort of religious system of governance makes democracy difficult. In democracy, one should be able to question everything. But in a religious state, you cannot question..”?

    The Vedänta-sütra states, athäto brahma jijnäsä: “Now one should inquire about Brahman.”

    This inquiry is necessary for those who are between the paramahamas and the fools who have forgotten the question of self-realization in the midst of life in sense gratification.

    “Now” implies that the questioning should be done immediately and is welcome.

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