Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Legal FAQs on Converting to Islam

One of my students wrote me an email with some of the usual questions on converting to Islam. I thought I would share it here because it is a series of the most common questions a new Muslim has to grapple with.

Q With a change in name, I would have to go update all records at the banks, insurance companies, service providers, institutions etc. I understand from a Muslim friend, who has helped in the conversion of one of her friends, that it is possible to adopt a Muslim name as a middle name, retaining the original first and surname of the person, as well as the Chinese name. If so, then it could help in circumventing the trouble of notifying each and every institution which I may have a record or participation in. On the issue of names, where would be a good place to research on the meanings of the various Islamic names?

A This is easy. Dont do an outright substitution of your present name. Include your Muslim name as an alias, meaning it is an alternative name. You can continue to use your present name in existing, even future documents. E.g. John Tan Ah Kow now becomes John Tan Ah Kow @ Yunus Tan.
On choice of names – there is a wide range you can go on. It used to be that a convert would take on a totally Muslim name and drop his previous name – John Tan Ah Kow became only Yunus Abdullah. Those were the days when the races didn’t mix and saw Islam as being Malay .
Later we developed acceptance for converts to retain their cultural identity, because Islam does not mean Malay exclusively. So John Tan Ah Kow became Yunus Abdullah Tan Ah Kow. Then it became Yunus Tan Ah Kow. It also became acceptable to use the alias - John Tan Ah Kow now becomes John Tan Ah Kow @ Yunus Tan.
Actually, religiously speaking, there is no such thing as a “Muslim” name. Under Islam, any name is acceptable as long as it is not otherwise forbidden or unsuitable for a Muslim. Examples of unsuitable names would be names with clear religious connotations such as Christian or Ramalingam or Indoo. Even “Muslim” sounding names can fall foul of this rule. In the life if the Prophet, s.a.w., he had close companions who kept their non-Arab names – eg. Salman (Persian), Bilal (Ethiopian).
Nevertheless, there is a social acceptance issue. Your fiancee's family could have some level of apprehension about you. After all, you have to admit that his mother probably had all her life imagined him to bring her a good Muslim daughter-in-law. Taking on a Muslim-sounding moniker is a great gesture to assure her that you ARE that person.
How to choose a name? Wow that’s tough. Remember that the name is a label of YOU. It should be something you like. On a religious level, the Prophet taught parents to choose the names for their children carefully, because it is by that name that they will be called upon on Judgment Day by God. Imagine for a minute. How would you like God to call you on Judgment Day? Maybe that is a good clue on how to choose your Muslim name, by its meaning.
Some converts I know who already liked their existing names simply chose an Arabic translation of their names. This may also be a good signal to your own parents that they are not “losing” you. So maybe you want to find out the meaning of your Chinese name and find the Arabic equivalent. I personally think this is more meaningful than simply choosing a Muslim name that sounds phonetically similar . Of course it translations may not always have a nice ring to them, so you could try something else.
Oh, and there is no hard or fast rule on the arrangement of your name – be it first or middle or last name. It depends on whether it sounds weird or not. But your friend’s way is quite common nowadays, Clara Farida Tan, for example, or Farida Clara Tan, or Clara Tan @ Farida Tan @ Clara Farida Tan.

Q How are the matrimonial laws different from civil laws? Whilst I hope there would not be a day where I have to rely on this aspect of the law, the inquiry is for my information only. Can a Muslim woman commence divorce proceedings, does the law favour the woman in respect of custody of the children as she is usually the primary care-giver, what constitutes matrimonial property, and how is that divided? The thinking behind men being given a larger proportion in a person's estate is that he has to provide for his family whereas the woman would be provided for in any event. Is this thinking applied in matrimonial issues as well?

A When there is a dissolution of marriage situation, the applicable law relating to division of jointly acquired property is lock stock and barrel the same in the Administration of Muslim Law Act and the Women’s Charter. When the AMLA was last amended in 1999, the entire provisions of division of matrimonial property in the Women’s Charter were imported into it. In the Syariah Court, the judicial practice is in tandem with the Family Court’s. Wives will be able to acquire a share in the matrimonial property vie indirect contributions, and this will include the taking care of minor children in her custody. Of course, each and every case will have its own factual matrix, so it is impossible to say with certainty what will happen everytime.
Yes, Muslim women can, and do commence divorce proceedings. Most of the summonses in the Syariah Court have women plaintiffs, similar to the Family Court. The processes are not the same, and many people criticise the Shariah by saying that it makes it difficult for women to obtain divorces. However, the numbers speak for themselves; in Singapore women can get their divorces faster and cheaper in the Shariah Court than in the Family Court.
Men get a larger share only in intestacy situations, not in divorces.

Q Estate laws.
My fiancee had said should anything happen to me, I would like to make sure that my parents are well taken care of. I understand that a Muslim person cannot will more than 1/3 of his property away and even then, not to a non-Muslim. The rest of the estate which is not subject to the will would be divided in accordance with the intestate Syariah laws, which would see to its apportionment to Muslim sisters and brothers. How can I ensure that my parents receive part of my estate?

A This is a common situation for a convert, because most, if not all, of his/her family is not Muslim. The answer is you have to make a conscious effort to plan your estate, and not leave it to intestacy. This is strongly encouraged by the Prophet who said, "It is not permissible for any Muslim who has something to will to stay for two nights without having his last will and testament written and kept ready with him."
So you should start with what you want to do, and then choose the instruments to fit your plan, not the other way around.
Now we start at intestacy first. Your intestate heirs are fixed by Muslim law – parents, spouse, legitimate issue, who are Muslim at the time of your death. So if any of them are not Muslim, they drop their entitlement, and become strangers to your estate.
You may provide up to 1/3 of your total estate (calculated at the time of your death) in your will. Your bequest may be to anybody who is a stranger to your estate, both Muslim and non-Muslim (see above). Any bequest in a will to a person who is already entitled to a share of your estate under intestacy will be void .
Here is a word about CPF monies. CPF forms a separate estate. If you nominate the beneficiaries of your CPF, the nominations take effect on your death. Intestacy rules do not apply. However, if there is no valid nomination at the time of your death, then your CPF will be given to the Insolvency and Public Trustee Office, who will distribute it to your intestate heirs (as defined by Muslim law). In such a case, your non-Muslim family members who would otherwise be heirs, would not be entitled to any share.
Actually, as you can see, this exposition can go on and on , and it is better to know what your plan is first, and then work the plan.
So if your plan is to ensure your parents who are not Muslim are provided for in the event of your death, please execute a will to that effect , as well as make any nominations in CPF , because they are not covered under intestacy.

Q If we are blessed to have children and of whom may be daughters, I would also like to see that the apportionment is equal, in their favour. Is there any way to ensure that?
A Children are inalienable heirs. In Islamic intestate rules, the shares of sons will be more than of the daughters.
To circumvent this, you should park assets in trusts, because trusts are separate estates, hence not subject to intestate rules. Best way is to provide for your young daughters by way of insurance trust funds. When they become adults, then another way would be by depositing money into joint accounts with them, with specific instructions that you relinquish ownership of the monies upon your death .
These rules apply to both you and your future husband, by the way.

Q with the new Court of Appeal ruling that the Land Titles Act take precedence over the fatwah which is meant to be expert opinion only in relation to joint tenancy in property, this is a way to ensure that certain property is given to a specific person. Does this principle also extend to other joint holdings eg bank accounts, where the surviving holder would have title to the bank account, and that is carved out of the estate?
A The CA held that a joint tenancy survivorship prevails over Islamic law (which does not have such a concept). Actually it also said to the effect that the concept of joint ownership is reconcilable with Islamic law. So, if you, like most people, own a property in joint tenancy, rest assured that the surviving joint owner inherits all.
However, the CA expressedly stated that it could not comment on other jointly owned assets such as joint bank accounts (and I would venture to add partnerships). In other words, it is still an open question.
Nevertheless, in reality, monies held in joint bank accounts that belong to the deceased are always treated as part of the estate of a deceased person, and should be distributed according to Muslim law if you die as a Muslim.

Q Is it possible to choose not to subject myself to Syariah law and that civil law prevails (not just on the 2 subjects above)?
A I can only think of 2 aspects of life where Syariah law applies – probate and matrimonial matters. I have explained what how to deal with them above. If you have a specific concern, let me know, and I’ll try to think of something.

Da'wah Thoughts

This graph is from the Department of Statistics report on religion in Singapore.

Note that the "no religion" category of Chinese - 18.6% of 80% is still approx 15% of the total SG population - more than the entire population of Muslims or Christians.

Maybe da'wah in SG has been distracted into a Christian-targeted approach. This is probably because we are influenced by the experience of Muslim missionaries in the West, who live in a Christian or post-Christian setting. The reality is that there is a large number of people who are religiously not committed, and it is only logical that we should work harder to reach out to them, instead of aiming at people who already have a religious position.

Islam 2010

Ive been thinking a lot about using the new media for dakwah, and realised that there is much that we can do to create a presence in the new media world and promote islam.

lets start with my youtube channel. youtube is watched by everybody. we need to be in it, and in it in a BIG way.

i have already started creating my ppt presentations for the channel. that will provide a start point. then we need other stuff, home made reality stuff.

there are hundreds of personal videos of people interviewing themselves about their conversions to islam. but none from sg. we need to do this. all that is needed is a laptop with a camera, and willing participants. i aim for 20 to start with.

next we need staged vids of conversion processes. coming to darul arqam, signing up for class, converting, etc.

another thing is using wikis and videojugs. we need to have wikis on conversion, how to pray, fast, etc etc.

in essence, we create a new darul arqam in the virtual world.

the other aspect is to use facebook and twitter. we need a fb page, but its not about events only, like the present fb page people of darul arqam. it has to generate content, twitter-like, on a regular basis to maintain interest. it needs to be aimed at non-muslims, so it wont have doas, etc. just feelgood stuff.

we need to know who we're targeting. young 18 - 30s. english speaking Chinese and Others.

islam has to be hip. how? it has to be different. the different thing attracts the curiosity of the young. element of questioning the status quo. need to up the glamour factor - need pretty faces and nice voices nice clothes. need a cause. young pple are into causes nowadays. the cause is not to be ISLAM per se, or "the truth" itself. it has to be things like a worldwide brotherhood, courage, change, being strong.

your ideas.