Selangor Sultan’s ‘Allah’ decree not legally binding, lawyers say

A Muslim woman recites a prayer during a demonstration outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur October 14, 2013. — Reuters pic
A Muslim woman recites a prayer during a demonstration outside Malaysia's Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur October 14, 2013. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 18 — Selangor residents are not legally bound by the Sultan’s latest decree banning non-Muslims from using “Allah” in the state as the ruler’s powers in Islamic matters were ceremonial, several lawyers have said.

Nizam Bashir, who is both a constitutional and syariah lawyer, added that Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah’s decree, which impinges on non-Muslims’ right to freedom of expression relating to their god, was unconstitutional as Article 10 (2) of the Federal Constitution states that only Parliament can restrict such freedoms.

“The decree is not legally binding. The sultan has purely ceremonial powers where Islam is concerned,” Nizam told The Malay Mail Online yesterday.

“When you talk about usage of the word ‘Allah’, it is a form of expression. It is for that reason I take the view that that power does not belong to the Sultan, but it is a power that belongs to Parliament alone,” he added.

The Selangor Sultan renewed his decree last Thursday that the Arabic word for God be barred to non-Muslims in the country’s most developed state, including in the Malay-language Christian bible, the Al-Kitab, and in the Catholic weekly, the Herald.

The decree by the Sultan, who is the head of Islam in the state, came after a discussion with the Selangor Royal Council, where it was decided that Selangor citizens should abide by the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988, which is enforceable regardless of one’s religion.

The 1988 state law, which was passed by the then Barisan Nasional government, prohibits non-Muslims from using 35 Arabic words and phrases in their faith, including “Allah”, “Nabi” (prophet), “Injil” (gospel) and “Insya’Allah” (God willing).

Nizam questioned the validity of the ban in the state law, which was premised on Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution that allows state and federal laws to restrict the propagation of other religious doctrines among Muslims.

“I personally don’t take the view that when a non-Muslim uses the word ‘Allah’, it is, in the sense, propagation. On two scores, i.e. on Article 10(2) and 11(4), there’s no basis for the so-called restraint being imposed on non-Muslims,” he said.

“I’d even go further and say that from a theological perspective and from a historical perspective, ‘Allah’ the word predates the coming of Islam. There is no prohibition in the Quran for non-Muslims using the word ‘Allah’,” added the Muslim lawyer.

He also said that the Selangor state law could be challenged in court on its constitutionality and legality, pointing out that fundamental liberties “reign supreme” in the secular country, above both federal and Islamic laws.

“The Che Omar Che Soh case basically says that Malaysia is a secular state...The reason why it’s a secular state is that fundamental liberties triumphs over everything else,” said Nizam, referring to the 1988 landmark case where then Lord President Tun Salleh Abas ruled that Malaysian laws are secular and not Islamic.

Weighing in on the same matter, Andrew Khoo, who is chairman of the Bar Council’s human rights committee, said that the Selangor state enactment is binding “until and unless it is declared unconstitutional”.

“How that sits with use in church to Christians remains to be seen or tested,” he told The Malay Mail Online.

“The Sultan is speaking in his capacity as the head of the religion of Islam in Selangor. But the law he is referring to is a state enactment which is enforceable in the state of Selangor regardless of one’s religion, or lack of one,” added the lawyer.

Edmund Bon, who is a lawyer and campaigner for the NGO, Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, also said that the Selangor Sultan’s decree, if read alone, was not legally binding.

“But if you read it in the context of the ‘Allah’ decision in the Court of Appeal, what he’s saying is just reiterating what the Court of Appeal said,” he told The Malay Mail Online.

In October, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Home Ministry’s decision to ban the Herald from referring to God as “Allah” was justified, finding that the use of the word was not integral to the practice of the Christian faith.

The ruling — which overturned an earlier High Court decision that the ban was unconstitutional — has since sparked confusion over the use of the word by Christians in their worship, especially with conflicting opinions within the government itself on how far the ruling would affect practising Christians.

Bon said that though Putrajaya may interpret the court verdict as being limited to the Herald, and that it does not cover the worship practices of Christians, including their holy scriptures, the appellate court had maintained that “Allah” is “exclusively for Muslims, according to the government, which the Court of Appeal accepted”.

* A previous version of the article erroneously listed Andrew Khoo as the head of the Bar Council’s constitutional law committee and has since been corrected to reflect his actual position as head of its human rights committee.