Divorce first, then convert to Islam

Divorce first, then convert to Islam
Posed photo of a man removing the wedding ring.

MALAYSIA - Seremban (Negeri Sembilan) - Any married person wanting to embrace Islam will first have to divorce his or her spouse, under a law to be introduced in Negeri Sembilan which has been praised by rights groups.

The law aims to put a stop to the controversial practice in Malaysia of an estranged parent converting to Islam so as to gain custody of a child.

Menteri Besar Mohamad Hasan said the move was to safeguard the sanctity of the religion as there have been "too many controversies" surrounding this issue, The Star reported yesterday.

"It must stop," said Datuk Seri Mohamad.

"We cannot allow people to mock Islam or criticise Islamic authorities because of the actions of a certain individual." He added that this would ensure there were no aggrieved parties in the event that an individual converted before dissolving his or her civil marriage.

"According to Islam, once you convert, you can no longer live with a spouse who is a non-Muslim," said Mr Mohamad.

"So, if you are keen to convert, it makes sense for you to do so the correct and legal way."

The controversy is a longstanding one in Malaysia because of the country's dual-track legal system that is governed by civil law, yet allows for the Syariah Court to adjudicate on civil matters for Muslims, who make up 60 per cent of the population.

Civil courts have largely deferred to Islamic courts even where one party is non-Muslim, and the syariah judges have consistently granted the Muslim parent custody of children, who are also converted to Islam.

This has angered many non-Muslims, resulting in the government's announcement in 2009 that unilateral conversion of minors to Islam is prohibited. But the practice still continued.

Last year, there were two high-profile cases where two non-Muslim women's ex-husbands, who were Muslim converts, made away with their children after gaining custody through the Syariah Court, while ignoring civil court rulings in their ex-wives' favour. Both cases are still pending in court.

After the divorce, the new convert will also have to make a statutory declaration that he or she was now a Muslim, said Mr Mohamad.

This is so that the rightful party would be able to claim his or her body after death.

In the past, there have been cases where the non-Muslim families of the deceased convert were involved in unnecessary fights with Islamic authorities over the remains, he noted.

Mr Mohamad said the state Islamic council will be incorporating these provisions into the state's Islamic laws and that the state's sultan had consented to it.

The announcement has been praised by rights groups, who call it a positive step forward, the Malaysian Insider reported.

Lawyer and opposition politician M. Kulasegaran called on the federal government to advise other states to follow the lead of Negeri Sembilan.

This article was first published on February 07, 2015.
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