Understanding Islam In Malaysia
Everyone may learn about Islam for various reasons. Some people just want to learn it as a guidance on practical living with Muslims. Some may want to comprehend the underpinning Islamic philosophy for scholarly debates. At the end, some may got it right regardless whether they eventually become Muslims or not. Unfortunately, some got it for the wrong reasons and end up being deviants or extremists to other fellow Muslims.
Economically speaking however, imagine someone who is interested to learn about Islam for the purpose of business dealings with Muslims in Malaysia. Or perhaps a global investor who is considering whether it is worth establishing an Islamic fund based in Malaysia. What are the trivial yet critical factors about Islam in Malaysia that one may probably fail to understand?
In these scenarios, there are three important points to consider – the Islamic authority, the government body and the Muslim community.
First, the Islamic authority. In Malaysia, there are 13 states and federal territories which make up the whole composition of Malaysia as a country. All of these 13 states have their own State Islamic Religious Council, or locally known as Majlis Agama Islam Negeri (MAIN).
Nine out of 13 states have the MAINs headed by Sultans, who inherit their utmost power at a state level based on the legacy of a monarchy system. For the other four states without Sultans, the MAINs are headed by the Yang di-Pertua Negeri.
The Majlis Agama Islam Negeri (MAIN) plays critical role for every state in Malaysia in matters pertaining to religion. The 13 MAINs are responsible for state enactments, which influence the Muslim practices encompassing both family and economic matters.
For example, business owners may apply for halal (lawful) certifications from MAINs if they want to meet the food demand from local Muslims in the states where their businesses operate. Similarly for businesses which involve the development of waqf (Islamic endowment) lands belong to the states. For private Islamic schools, an approval from MAIN helps to enhance school reputation and education quality to justify its fees.
In sum, it is fundamental and highly important to know about the Islamic Religious Council (MAIN) of the respective states if one wants to understand Islamic practices in Malaysia. As recently highlighted by Sultan Nazrin Muizzudin Shah, Deputy Yang di-Pertuan Agong, MAIN should in fact “play the role of a think tank and administrator of Islam under the aegis, supervision and direct monitoring of the King.”
Second, the government body. Following the independence from the British, Malaysia adopted the Constitutional Monarchy form of government. In this government system, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong represents the ceremonial Head of State and the Parliament forms the basis of executive legitimacy.
The Constitution outlines that the Sultans are automatically the head of the Islamic religion within their own states, whereas the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is the head of the Islamic religion for the entire country including the states without Sultans and the federal territories.
The Constitution acknowledges the practise of religious freedom even though Islam is the religion of the Federation. For this reason, the Parliament may by law make provisions for regulating Islamic religious affairs.
In Malaysia, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) is responsible in formulating policies for the advancement of Islamic affairs, and also being tasked as a secretariat for the National Council of Islamic Affairs of Malaysia.
For multinational corporations, they can apply for the halal certification from Jakim if they want to use Malaysia’s national halal logo. For global investors, they can also benefit the expertise of shariah advisory in Malaysia, which comes under Islamic Financial Services Act 2013.
Third, the Muslim community. One may think that Islam is being practised uniformly among Muslims across the world. However, the behaviour of Muslims reveal that while they share the same values and rituals, the way they express themselves are rather different.
Muslim clothing in Malaysia, for example, appear to be different from the Muslim costume in other parts of the world. Most of the time, Muslim women in Saudi Arabia cover themselves in black jilbab with the hijab and niqab in public, while the men wear white thawb and kufiya. In Malaysia, the only constraint for the choice of Muslim clothing is due to minimal shariah requirements, hence one can see Muslim fashion in Malaysia comes in various shapes, colours and brands.
Therefore, understanding Islam in Malaysia is a unique experience for anyone who is trying to understand the meaning and spirit of Islam in a different worldview. From the Islamic spirit in the monarchy and government system to the Muslim community themselves, there is much that speak for themselves of what Islam is and perhaps how to deal with Muslims, economically and socially. Indeed, they are trivial yet critical to be understood.