Conversion controversy: A conversion in death for Malaysian Everest hero?

Conversion controversy: A conversion in death for Malaysian Everest hero? January 4, 2006
Over my dead body

Eight days after M. Moorthy, a member of the first Malaysian team to conquer Mt. Everest in 1997, passed away, he was laid to rest in a Muslim burial. Unremarkable news, save for the fact that Moorthy’s widow and relatives claim he was a practicing Hindu who never converted to Islam in the first place. Moorthy, a 36 year old former corporal in the Malaysian army and a national hero in that country, lapsed into a coma on November 11th before passing away on December 20th. During that time, military officials claimed Moorthy declared shahada the year before, with his conversion registered the following May. “Based on the documents submitted, it is confirmed that Mohammad died as a Muslim and should be buried accordingly,” said Malaysian sharia court secretary Che Mat Che Ali. Sharia courts are often used in parallel justice systems in Muslim countries with sizable non-Muslim minorities (40% in Malaysia’s case), which is where the focus of the controversy then turned. Moorthy’s family went to the civil courts to protest the conversion only to find the civil courts had no jurisdiction over Moorthy (or rather, his body) and the sharia ruling. “They have been telling lies. Nothing but lies,” said his widow, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, adding that he was interviewed for local television two months ago about his preparations for the Hindu festival of Diwali. Further complicating matters, Mr Moorthy’s conversion to Islam meant his marriage to his Hindu wife may not have been considered valid (nor her claim to his estate). None of Moorthy’s family members attended the burial ceremony except for his brother, Mohammad Hussain Abdullah (yup, he converted), who was not aware that Moorthy had become a Muslim. “I only found out about this when he died and was surprised,” said Abdullah, who waived his claim to Moorthy’s estate in favour of his widow. “But there’s no point in pursuing this matter any further. The court has made a ruling.” The case has sparked the interest of Malaysia’s other religious minorities (Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists), who now argue for the right of the civil courts to decide on conversion, and whether non-Muslims have any rights to the body of a converted family member. Sharia court officials say the family could have contested in sharia court by hiring a sharia lawyer. The religious minorities aren’t buying it and are continuing their protest of the burial, while Moorthy’s widow vows to continue her legal fight. The Malaysian government, spooked by the negative publicity, has asked the media to stop reporting the case, though a prominent government minister has voiced his opposition to the decision and the military has promoted Moorthy posthumously to Sergeant. Ultimately, resolution of the issue will depend on legal access for non-Muslims over Islamic legal matters and clearer confirmation of conversion. “The lack of an avenue for remedy that is recognised by both Muslim and non-Muslim litigants has been the sorest point raised by the Moorthy case,” said one editorial. “If (one) doesn’t (profess conversion) voluntarily, the state should do it for him, and provide the means for adjudication in the event of doubt.”

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England.

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