Malaysian allowed non-Muslim burial

Muslim lawyers in Malaysia say an Islamic court's landmark verdict allowing a Buddhist burial for a woman who renounced Islam should relieve fears among Malaysia's religious minorities about their rights.

    Non-Muslims are concerned about Shariah court rulings

    An advocacy group for religious minorities, however, said on Tuesday that the precedent-setting verdict showed the Islamic court was inconsistent in its protection of religious minorities.

    The Shariah High Court ruled on Monday that the body of Nyonya Tahir, an 89-year-old ethnic Malay, should be handed over to her Buddhist children.

    A Muslim by birth, Nyonya was raised as a Chinese by her Malay grandmother who married a Chinese convert to Islam, and she continued to live as a Chinese and practised Buddhism after marrying Chiang Meng in 1936.

    All their children were registered and lived as Chinese.

    She died on Thursday, but the state religious affairs department obtained an order to postpone her burial until the case was heard. She was buried according to Buddhist rites hours after Monday's verdict.

    Conversion concerns

    The court rejected concerns raised by Islamic authorities over whether Nyonya's conversion to Buddhism was valid.

    The woman had kept her Malay name - Nyonya Tahir - and her identification card said she was officially a Muslim.

    "[The verdict] gives great hope to non-Muslims that they can find justice in the Islamic system.

    We hope non-Muslims will now understand that their fears are not justified"

    Muhammad Burok,
    P president,

    Malaysian Shariah Lawyers Association

    However, Chiang Kwai Ying, her daughter, said Nyonya had tried to change her name officially but was denied.

    Malays are identified in the constitution as Muslims, and few have tried to legally convert because they risk being imprisoned for apostasy in this Muslim-majority country.

    A few Malays have been jailed on such charges in the past.

    Muhammad Burok, president of the Malaysian Shariah Lawyers Association, said Monday's Shariah court verdict "gives great hope to non-Muslims that they can find justice in the Islamic system".

    "We hope non-Muslims will now understand that their fears are not justified."

    Contradictions

    The Reverend Wong Kim Kong, assistant secretary-general of Malaysia's Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, said the contrast between how the Shariah court handled both cases showed "contradictions and weaknesses in the interpretation of the law".

    A memorandum by non-Muslim
    ministers stirred up a storm

    "There is no guarantee that what happened in Nyonya's case will happen again."

    Religious minority leaders hope that the government will pursue "legal remedies and clarifications" so that such cases in the future can be heard in civil courts, Wong added.

    Nyonya's case was closely scrutinised because of dissatisfaction among religious minorities over how the authorities in the mostly Muslim nation dealt with the death of a Hindu-born soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who was buried last month as a Muslim.

    Non-Muslim testimony

    Muslim officials said he had converted to Islam without informing his family. A Shariah court refused to hear an appeal by Moorthy's widow because she was not a Muslim, while the civil court also turned her away, saying it had no jurisdiction over a Shariah court decision.

    However, in a precedent-setting move, the Shariah High Court allowed two of Nyonya's eight Buddhist children to testify that she had left Islam, and submit documents in which she stated that she wanted to be buried as a Buddhist.

    "[The contrast between Nyonya and Moorthy's cases show] contradictions and weaknesses in the interpretation of the law.

    There is no guarantee that what happened in Nyonya's case will happen again"

    Wong Kim Kong,
    Assistant Secretary-General,
    Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism

    Chiang Kwai Ying and Chiang Ah Fatt on Monday became the first non-Muslims to ever testify in a Shariah court, which handles cases involving Muslims.

    While non-Muslims are forbidden from filing cases in Shariah court, they are not officially barred from giving testimony in Islamic trials.

    In previous cases, however, they have never done so.

    Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, has said ambiguous laws on religion will be reviewed.

    But a memorandum handed to him by nine non-Muslim cabinet ministers last week to highlight their concerns outraged Abdullah's ruling Malay party, prompting them to withdraw it.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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