Influential scholar adds to Muslim disquiet in conversion row

By Shannon Teoh, The Malaysian Insider

LAMPETER (Wales): The Cabinet's unilateral decision that children be raised in the faith of their parents while married even if one spouse later converts to Islam contradicts both Islam and fundamental human rights, according to the former mufti of Perlis, Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin.

He said, however, that there should be no forced conversions and that both parents have a right to educate their children in their respective religions.

Adding more fuel to the roiling debate over the issue of conversion, the maverick Muslim scholar with a strong following among young Muslims in Malaysia accused the government of making the decision simply to gain support from the electorate.

"The problem here is that when a government is crazy for votes, especially non-Muslim votes, they make decisions based on sentiment. If the Chinese now ask for something, and then the Malays, then the stand keeps changing," he said in an exclusive interview with The Malaysian Insider here.

Asri, who was mufti for two years before quitting the position to move to Wales last December to research on Islam, joined the chorus of disapproval which includes conservative Muslim groups as well as a number of PAS leaders.

The criticisms were sparked by the controversial case of conversion involving the custody of children belonging to Indira Ghandi, a Hindu, and her ex-husband who had converted to Islam.

As a state mufti, Asri has been praised by progressive voices for his stand against the propensity of religious authorities to conduct raids on Muslim couples engaged in khalwat, or close proximity, and has stated that non-Muslims had a right to use the word "Allah".

But he remains a dogmatic Islamic scholar.

"Just because I convert, I have no right over the religious future of my children? This is not right according to Islam and also universal human rights," he said.

"Why can't the father teach his children? In fact, there should be no decision until he reaches the proper age because even in Islam, children are not responsible over sin and pahala (reward).

"The Cabinet should have left it to the courts, whether Syariah or civil. It does not matter so long as they decide fairly," he said, adding that both courts would have to take into account religious factors as well as which parent can best provide for the child in deciding custody rights.

Asri explained that as long as the other parent had visitation rights, he or she can also teach the children about his or her own religion before the children decide for themselves.

He also defended the role of Syariah courts in arbitrating these matters, stating that the problem in Malaysia was not the fairness of Islamic jurisprudence but the inefficiency of the Syariah courts locally.

"The problem is not Islam but Syariah courts not reflecting true Islam. According to Islam, divorce cases must be settled within three menstrual cycles of the wife, but instead, we see that it takes years.

"When cases are delayed, people feel Islam is being cruel, but in fact, it is the inefficiency of the Syariah courts," he said.

Asri also said that no authority should force religion on a person as there was nothing to be gained from it.

"As a Muslim, of course I want people to join my religion as I believe it is the true way. But you can force a person to eat or drink but you cannot force belief. If you say something is red, and he thinks it is blue, even though we force him to say it is red, in his heart, it is still blue," he commented.

Referring to the landmark case of Lina Joy, who attempted to change her religious status on her identity card from Islam to Christian, Asri said that there was no point in retaining her status as a Muslim.

"What is the benefit? Do we want people who do not believe in Islam with ICs that say they are Muslim? If they get married to Muslims, then there will be problems. What if their spouses become committee members of mosques, for example. Won't this create confusion?"