Who is a Muslim?

I learned that the law is inadequate in answering the question of who is a Muslim. We had an introductory lecture on Islamic Law today and the definition of what makes a person a Muslim, did come up and I question our lecturer (Abd Muhsin) on this.

From the point of view of Islam, a person is a Muslim as long as his aqidah is complete. It’s not a question of whether he practices the religion or not but only a matter of faith. Practice merely differentiates a good Muslim from a bad Muslim.

Also, the Al-Quran is the ultimate authority on Islamic Law and in it, the issue of aqidah is important and is clearly illustrated by al-Maidah verse 44, 45 and 47 that spells out what makes a person a kafir or non-Muslim.

However, I quickly spotted an inconsistency with the law.

Under the Islamic Family Act (s.5), a Muslim is defined purely on reputation, and I quote:

If for the purposes of this Act any question arises as to whether a person is a Muslim, that question shall be decided according to the criterion of general reputation, without making any attempt to question the faith, beliefs, conduct, behaviour, character, acts, or omissions of that person.

In other words, from the point of view of Islam, it is the faith that matters while from the point of view of Islamic Law in Malaysia, the faith is not considered at all. Someone can be classified a Muslim for the purpose of the law merely on consideration of general reputation.

To complicate matters even more, Article 160 of our Federal Constitution states that:

“Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and –

(a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or
(b) is the issue of such a person;

In this case, the person is a Muslim by merely being born in the right set of circumstances. Again, the question of aqidah does not arise. As long as someone is a Malay, he or she is automatically a Muslim regardless of faith.

At this point in my studies, there are a lot of things that I honestly do not know yet as I am still grappling with the law. However, this kind of inconsistency just sticks out like a sore thumb to me.

Also, this becomes a serious issue because only Muslims are under the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts in Malaysia. If the Islamic Law claims its authority from the Al-Quran, then Section 5 of the Islamic Family Act cannot possibly be correct as it explicitly excludes aqidah.

PS: Just realised that a friend of mine cannot possibly be considered a Malay even if his IC says so.

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Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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