Is Malaysia an Islamic State?

There is something of a political dust-up happening in Malaysia right now. At issue is whether Malaysia is an Islamic state.

On one side we have Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister, who declared years ago that Malaysia is an Islamic state. On the other we have critics who say no, Islam is the state religion but Malaysia is nevertheless a secular state. Against that perspective we have people like cabinet minister Nazri Aziz who say that Malaysia is not a secular state, meaning that it is something else, and implying (but not stating like Mahathir) that it is indeed an Islamic state. Then we have former PM Abdullah Badawi who is on the record that Malaysia is a negara Islam, which can be translated either as “Islamic state” or “state with Muslims in it.”

This is another teachable moment. It goes to the heart of what it means to be an Islamic state, and more generally, what it means for politics and Islam to mix.

“Islamic state” could mean many things, but there are two basic ways to interpret this term.

  1. A state where where the ultimate source of legal and political authority is Islam: the Qur’an, the Hadith, fiqh, etc.
  2. A state where Islam has a legal status which is distinct from other religions.

If a state that has a Muslim majority does not fulfill either of those requirements, it could be either a secular state (like Mali until recently) or it could be something else, a state which is neither secular nor Islamic, just religious in some explicit way (see Chapter XI of the Indonesian constitution).

So, now that we’ve cleared some conceptual brush, what do the facts say? Legal and political authority in Malaysia comes from the Malaysian constitution—you can read it here. The ultimate source of political authority in Malaysia is not Islam, it is the constitution. Article 3(1) stipulates “Islam is the religion of the Federation,” but this very fact confirms that Islam’s status as the official religion derives from the constitution, not the other way around. Malaysia is by this standard not a secular state, nor is it a religious state in the sense that Indonesia is. Malaysia is an Islamic state in the second sense, in that the Malaysian constitution confers a particular legal status on Islam which is distinct from other religions. That can change only through an amendment to the Malaysian constitution.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where Islam is the official religion. It is neither a secular state nor a state where law is ultimately derived from Islam. It matters not what some prime minister said about this issue (sorry, Mahathir), nor whether or not he said it while holding office or not.

So actually—and it surprises me to say this—Nazri Aziz is the closest to being correct. So why can’t he say it? Why can’t he say “Malaysia is an Islamic state, and by that I mean that our constitution makes Islam the official religion, not that Islam is the source of all political authority here in Malaysia.” I suspect that the answer is, he and his fellow travelers fear that if they say directly that Islam is not the source of worldly authority, they will be accused of being insufficiently pious or religious by the very groups who do believe that Islam must be the source of all worldly authority. A common dilemma for UMNO politicians who want to use Islam, but not get swept away by it.