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Malaysia: The Great Apostasy Debate Stirs Again

ICC Note:

The case of a Malaysian woman allowed to revert to Buddhism from Islam may not be what it seems. Much of the ruling apparently involved the judge castigating the woman’s husband for failing to guide her in her new faith and the decision still demonstrates the subordinate position of “religious freedom” under Sharia law.


5/15/08 Malaysia (ANS) On 8 May, media across the world ran with the news: “Malaysian woman can leave Islam.” (BBC headline) Jurist, which reports legal news, commented: “Religious rights groups hailed the decision as a landmark ruling for interfaith relations.” (Link 1)

Judge Othman Ibrahim’s 8 May 2008 ruling in Penang’s Syariah High Court, whereby Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah (Tan Ean Yuang) (39) was granted leave to revert from Islam to Buddhism, is indeed a landmark ruling. But before getting too excited, religious liberty advocates should consider the following:

1) The finer details of the ruling make it unlikely that it could be a precedent for many other cases.

2) A significant element of the ruling was the judge’s castigation of the Islamic authorities for failing to save the plaintiff’s faith.

3) This case is not over yet. The Penang state religious council, which is opposing the plaintiff’s renunciation of Islam, has indicated that it is preparing to launch an appeal.

4) For religious liberty advocates it remains absolutely unacceptable that any Malaysian citizen should have to get permission from a Sharia (Islamic) Court before they can change their religious identity.



The plaintiff, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian woman named Tan Ean Yuang (39), converted from Buddhism to Islam in 1998 in order to marry an Iranian Muslim named Ferdoun Ashanian. Tan subsequently took the Islamic name of Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah and the couple married in 2004. The marriage only lasted four months and Siti claims that she has had no knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts since he deserted her.

In May 2006 Siti filed an application to renounce Islam and revert to Buddhism. The court however “ordered that she learn more about Islam and undergo three months of counselling with the Penang Islamic Religious Department’s unit ukhwah (brotherhood) to ensure she understood the religion. However, she only attended the session once and remained steadfast in wanting to revert to Buddhism.” (Link 2)

On Thursday 8 May 2008, in the Syariah High Court in Penang, judge Othman Ibrahim ruled in favour of Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah. While he noted that apostasy is a great sin in Islam deserving of severe punishment even death, he ruled that Siti was free to return to Buddhism on the grounds that she had never practised Islam, and therefore the court could regard her as a non-believer (kafir) and not an apostate (murtad). Siti’s lawyer remarked that “the ruling was important because it accepted that Muslims could renounce Islam on the grounds that they had never practised the faith”. (Link 3)

As the ruling rested on the plaintiff’s alleged non-practice of Islam, it can be assumed that had any Muslim testified to the contrary, Tan’s application would not have been successful.

Clearly this ruling will not provide a precedent for converts who have practised Islam — converts like Soon Singh, a Malaysian Sikh who converted to Islam as a minor but in 1999, at the age of 21 years, sought redress through the courts to renounce Islam and return to Sikhism. Soon Singh’s appeal was denied and the court ruled not only that all Muslims should have “Islam” printed on their identity cards, but that Sharia courts should have jurisdiction over all matters concerning Islam. This ruling became the precedent for all subsequent appeals against apostasy. (See link 4)


When delivering his ruling, judge Othman Ibrahim regretted that Siti’s Iranian husband had failed her by failing to guide her in her new faith. He then castigated the Penang Islamic Religious Council for neglecting its duties and failing to “save” Siti’s faith in Islam. “It is their obligation to encourage, support, help and ensure that new converts understand and follow Islamic teachings. However, in this case nothing was done until the last moment when it was already too late.” (Link 5)

According to Malaysia’s The Star online, PAS [Parti Islam se-Malaysia] is protesting the decision. “PAS vice-president Nasharudin Mat Isa said renouncing Islam was forbidden, unless one had been forced to embrace Islam under duress. ‘If one has embraced Islam out of one’s own free will, then one must be subject to Islamic law, and the law forbids the renouncing of Islam because it touches on one’s faith in the religion,’ he said.” (Link 6)

The Malay Mail notes: “Only last week both BN [Barisan Nasional] and PAS members of Parliament had argued that once you enter Islam there is no turning back, not just for born Muslims, but also for converts.” (Link 7)

Clearly PAS and the ruling BN government of PM Badawi are not interested in advancing religious liberty. It can therefore be expected that this ruling will not only stir the Great Apostasy Debate but initiate a debate about conversion procedures so that conversions to Islam are legally secure.

While Judge Ibrahim did ‘tear up’ Tan’s certificate of conversion to Islam he did not grant her application to have a new identity card issued, saying that was a matter for the National Registration Department (NRD).

The NRD is unlikely to issue Tan a new identity card while the Penang state Religious Council is planning to appeal the ruling. “The council’s counsel Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz said the council would appeal within the 14-day period, adding that among the concerns was the status of Siti Fatimah’s marriage as her conversion did not dissolve the marriage.” (Link 8)

If the ruling is appealed, then Tan may find she has injured her case by stating in her affidavit that she “stopped practising Islam” after her husband left her. (Link 7)


Ultimately the ruling does not advance religious liberty in Malaysia — it merely perpetuates the unacceptable status quo whereby in matters concerning Islam the religious liberty guarantees of the federal Constitution are deemed subordinate to the rulings of state-run Sharia Courts.

Malaysian lawyer A Sivanesan cautions: “This is a landmark decision and gives relief to Tan. However, non-Muslims should not be complacent with this decision. The real remedy for them is for the civil court to bravely uphold constitutional guarantees. If the Syariah High Court can make a decision based on facts, why is the civil court just washing their hands off the issue?” (Link 7)

The best this ruling can do is to stir up Malaysia’s Great Apostasy Debate once again.