Islamic Law, Women's Rights, and Popular Legal Consciousness in Malaysia


Tamir Moustafa is Associate Professor and Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Funding for this project came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, through the Carnegie Scholars Program. The author thanks Zainah Anwar, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Masjaliza Hamza, Andrew Harding, Norani Othman, Asifa Quraishi, Intisar Rabb, Kristen Stilt, Ibrahim Suffian, Azmil Tayeb, Frank Vogel, and Amanda Whiting for their helpful feedback and assistance at various stages of this project. Any errors or shortcomings are the author's alone.


Drawing on original survey research, this study examines how lay Muslims in Malaysia understand foundational concepts in Islamic law. The survey finds a substantial disjuncture between popular legal consciousness and core epistemological commitments in Islamic legal theory. In its classic form, Islamic legal theory was marked by its commitment to pluralism and the centrality of human agency in Islamic jurisprudence. Yet in contemporary Malaysia, lay Muslims tend to understand Islamic law as being purely divine, with a single “correct” answer to any given question. The practical implications of these findings are demonstrated through examples of efforts by women's rights activists to reform family law provisions in Malaysia. The examples illustrate how popular misconceptions of Islamic law hinder the efforts of those working to reform family law codes while strengthening the hand of conservative actors wishing to maintain the status quo.