Sisters in Islam's case against fatwa goes back to High Court

Sisters in Islam's supporters outside the court room after the ruling was made

PUTRAJAYA: The Court of Appeal has allowed Sisters in Islam (SIS) to challenge a gazetted fatwa (edict) in Selangor that declared the Muslim women’s rights group as deviating from Islam.

Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat ordered for the merits of the judicial review bid by SIS to be heard by another High Court judge.

"We disagree with the High Court judge in upholding the preliminary objection on the issue of jurisdiction," she said to a packed courtroom on Thursday.

The three-member panel unanimously allowed the appeal by SIS but did not make any order as to costs and set March 9 for mention at the High Court.

Also on the panel were Court of Appeal judges Justices Abdul Rahman Sebli and Zaleha Yusof.

Speaking to the media later, SIS lead counsel A. Surendra Ananth said that the ruling means that the civil courts have jurisdiction to hear a challenge on a fatwa on constitutional grounds.

High Court (Appellate and Special Powers) judge Justice Hanipah Farikullah had on June 24, 2016 ruled that the issue was within the jurisdiction of the Syariah court, adding that a fatwa is a matter of determination of Islamic law.

In allowing the preliminary objection, Justice Hanipah cited Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution which stated that the civil courts have no authority on matters that are within the jurisdiction of the Syariah court.

In an immediate response on Thursday, SIS executive director Rozana Isa, who was present with her supporters who cheered the ruling, said she was happy as SIS now has the opportunity to be fully heard in the High Court.

At the outset, Surendra argued that there is no provision in law which grants the Syariah court jurisdiction to interpret the Federal Constitution in respect of a company.

"This fatwa is only for a person professing religion and SIS being a company can't profess religion," said Surendra adding that the fatwa has denied his client's right to be heard.

Surendra also argued that another High Court judge, Justice Asmabi Mohamad, had granted leave on Dec 10, 2014 to SIS to initiate a judicial review bid after ruling that its application was not frivolous.

SIS through its company SIS Forum (Malaysia), had filed for a judicial review against the Selangor Fatwa Committee's edict titled Pemikiran Liberalisme dan Pluralisme Agama.

The fatwa, gazetted in July 2014, declared SIS Forum (Malaysia) as subscribing to liberalism and religious pluralism, and thus deviating from the teachings of Islam.

Former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and SIS co-founder Zainah Mahfoozah Anwar were the co-applicants.

In the judicial review application filed on Oct 31, 2014, SIS Forum named the Selangor Fatwa Committee, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) and the Selangor government as respondents.

SIS Forum said that the contested fatwa allows for any publications deemed liberal and plural to be banned and seized.

In addition, it calls for any form of social media that promotes such content to be monitored and restricted by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

SIS is seeking for a declaration that banning publications and directing the MCMC to block websites are beyond the powers of the fatwa.

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