Is the definition of a “Muslim” unconstitutional?

Today, the Federal Court hears a special Constitutional Reference from the Shah Alam High Court which will have very far reaching consequences for a small minority of Malaysians living a double life. These Malaysians are forced into having an official “Muslim” identity, when they in fact profess and practice a different religion.


An Indian Malaysian, Zaina Abdin @ Balachandran, who says he has spent the whole of his life – more than 60 years now – as a Hindu, is being unconstitutionally treated as a “Muslim” by the authorities.

Bala’s father, also of Indian ethnicity, went through a formal conversion process in order to marry his Indian Muslim mother in the 1950s. But Bala’s father and mother lived as Hindus and continued to profess and practice Hinduism as their religion.

In the early 1970s, Bala officially changed his name by a Deed Poll published in the Government Gazette. He went through a marriage registered under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 to his Hindu wife, and was blessed with 3 children.

But Bala and his three children are all all still being treated as Muslim even though all profess and practice Hinduism.


The Constitution never uses the word “Muslim”. It uses the phrase “person professing the religion of Islam” whenever it refers to the people we call “Muslims”.

Bala professes Hinduism – he has never in his life professed Islam as his religion.

The problem is because in 1989, they changed the law to include a definition of a “Muslim” in the Selangor Administration of Islamic Law enactment which had additional definitions other than “person professing the religion of Islam”. Similar definitions founds its way into the State Islamic Law of all States.

The current 2003 legislation in Selangor includes as a definition of “Muslim” a person who is born to a Muslim parent and a person who by general reputation is considered a Muslim.

It is because of this that Bala and his three children are now caught in this crisis of identity.

Syariah Court and Islamic law

The Government of Malaysia, and the Government of Selangor, both say that Bala must go to the Syariah court first to get permission to “leave” Islam. They say the other definitions of “profess” are all mere extensions and elaborations of the phrase “person professing the religion of Islam”.

But Bala says that he is a Hindu. He does not want Islamic theological law applied on him when he is a Hindu. He says it does not matter to him that Islamic law classifies him as a Muslim – what is important to him is that the Constitution does not allow Islamic law to be applied if a person does not “profess” Islam, and the Constitution says he can profess and practice his religion in peace and harmony.

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