Malaysia’s Islamic Affairs minister called Monday on the Sharia court system to seek a balance during sentencings by not focusing on mere punishment but striving to be more in line with the principle of Islam as a merciful religion.
The philosophy of “Rahmatan Lil Alamin” (mercy to the world) as introduced in the Quran is necessary to counter the growing negative perception of the Sharia court system, Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa said during a roundtable forum in Kuala Lumpur of the nation’s top Sharia court judges, Islamic law enforcers and NGOs.
“There must be a balance between retribution and rehabilitation in the implementation of the punishments under Sharia law,” Mujahid said. “The philosophy of the judiciary must shift away from punishing for its own sake, to a philosophy of restorative punishment that is more reformative in nature.”
Following Monday’s roundtable discussion on the “philosophy and procedures of Sharia criminal punishments toward achieving the aim of being a mercy to the world,” the minister said participants had agreed with this new direction.
Mujahid said such support was essential because under Malaysia’s system, the federal government has limited power in matters pertaining to Islam including the Sharia courts, which are overseen by the nation’s 13 states.
“This will eventually affect the method of the punishment being meted out, with the possible introduction of community work, bonds for good behavior, as well as others that fall into the restorative and reformative criteria,” he said.
While the Sharia court will retain its ability to order canings, Mujahid said he expected the exact method of carrying out the punishment to be reviewed.
“We will be looking into how the whipping is done, where it will be done as well as who gets to observe the punishment,” said Mujahid.
A second meeting was planned for Thursday at the Sultan Mizan Mosque in Putrajaya.
Judge: Caning of woman ‘like a fiesta’
Interest runs high among Muslims to witness canings, said Terengganu state chief Sharia judge Wan Mohd Zakri, who attended the roundtable.
He said more than 800 people swarmed the courthouse in Kuala Terengganu earlier this month demanding that they be able to witness the punishment against a woman who had confessed to engaging in prostitution.
“It was like a fiesta with people selling food and drinks just outside the courtroom, prompting us to postpone the punishment and angering a lot of the people there,” the judge told BenarNews.
In early September, two other women were caned together in Terengganu after pleading guilty to charges linked to allegedly attempting to have sex in a parked car. Later, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized their caning witnessed by more than 100 people, saying it tarnished Islam’s image as the nation’s new leader called for lighter sentences under Sharia law.
Monday’s roundtable and a press briefing by Minister Mujahid followed a weekend report in The Star that it has since clarified about comments he made regarding intrusion into the private lives of Muslims.
The Star’s report began with: No more knocks on the door in the middle of the night and no more breaking down of doors by the religious authorities investigating reports of khalwat (an unmarried couple being alone in a secluded place) or other alleged wrongdoings.
The clarification showed that while Mujahid said that the khalwat had been exploited or misused, the federal government could not outlaw the practice because it fell under state courts.
Reacting to the Star’s original reporting, Riduan Mohd, who sits on the central committee of the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said the federal government was more concerned with upholding human rights rather than the moral requirements as dictated by the religion.
“Now comes fake scholars and leaders who are bringing this new narrative of a personal sin and a public sin,” Riduan told The Star. “This is a strategic effort by the enemies of Islam to make Muslims feel that sinning is not a serious matter.”
Mujahid addressed those concerns during a press conference following Monday’s roundtable.
He said officials must proceed cautiously in investigating khalwat and similar complaints.
“You must have very solid information because we do not want to be a peeping tom,” he said. “When you want to enforce something on moral values, you have to be very wary and concerned.”
Mujahid said he was speaking in his role as a government official while offering a message to the community.
“You as a Muslim, if you see your neighbor do something bad, it is your responsibility to advise your neighbor.”