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

21 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2012 Last revised: 28 Aug 2013

Date Written: 2013


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.

Keywords: Islamic law, women's rights, human rights, fiqh, sharia, Malaysia

Suggested Citation

Moustafa, Tamir, Islamic Law, Women's Rights, and Popular Legal Consciousness in Malaysia (2013). Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 38, pp. 168-188, Available at SSRN:

Tamir Moustafa (Contact Author)

Simon Fraser University (SFU) ( email )

Simon Fraser University
7200-515 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 5K3


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