ABDUL RAHMAN: GIVING UP A HIGH-FLYING START FOR A “BAPTISM OF FIRE” INTO SYARIAH LAW
The expert practitioner on why lawyers today have no excuse not to take on cases in the Syariah court
BY RACHEL CHIA
Thirty minutes – that’s all he had to locate, read and photocopy the cases needed from a private library to argue an appeal.
“It was a mad rush, but I will say the rest is history,” says Mr Abdul Rahman Bin Mohd Hanipah, of his adrenaline-packed start to a career as a Muslim family law expert. There were no compendiums of cases for Islamic law when Rahman started practice, so when his first Syariah Court case came, the young lawyer found himself at a loss.
“Nobody wanted to give me answers,” he said, of his attempts to obtain practice guidelines and case authorities. “But I took it as a challenge.”
He began pursuing every avenue of research, and got his break after emailing the secretary of the Appeal Board at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, which hears appeal matters from the Syariah Court. “She kindly told me they had a closed library – not open to members of the public, but she would let me have half an hour in there,” he says. “It was a baptism of fire.”
That was how high the barrier was to practising Syariah law in the past, Rahman reflects. “If you're lucky, you know who to ask, and where to find the cases; otherwise, you're just not going to be able to.”
But today, with the publishing of the Singapore Syariah Appeals Reports and changes at the Bench and Bar, the standard of practice has changed tremendously. “Anyone who wants to get into this area of law can pick up the skills,” he says. “There is no excuse to not acquire the right knowledge and capability to practice.”
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
In choosing to take on Syariah Court cases a decade ago, Rahman found himself walking a vastly different path from his peers. “People didn't like doing community legal work,” he says. “They wanted to go to large firms to do multi-million-dollar litigation.”
But a “depressing” six-month stint wining and dining high-net-worth clients like banks and governments led the NUS Law graduate to realise community engagement was his calling to serve those in need.
“I want to make a difference in people's lives,” he says. “So, I decided to go to a smaller firm. We had a lot of leeway in what kind of matters we wanted to do. I handled Syariah Court cases because there was a lot of such work, but not a lot of lawyers to do it.”
Beyond paid work, he began conducting free legal clinics and community talks. Today, Rahman is among Singapore’s foremost Muslim family law practitioners, and runs Abdul Rahman Law Corporation, which he established in 2014 to take on matters including matrimonial and probate cases.
He has argued landmark cases including one on the custody of illegitimate children in divorces. Traditionally, mothers are awarded sole custody, but Rahman successfully appealed for custody to go to the father, as the mother was heavily involved in the nightlife scene.
“Many years later, the father messaged me. His words were: ‘if not for the fact that you argued the case, I don't think that my daughter would be taking the A Levels this year.’ So something did go right,” he says. “It's things like this that make it all worth it.”
A FASCINATING STUDY
Concurrent jurisdiction between the civil system and the Syariah Court – meaning a civil court can hear matters between Muslim parties that would ordinarily fall under Islamic law – is one aspect that makes Syariah law particularly fascinating.
While similarities exist between the provisions of the Administration of Muslim Law Act and the Women's Charter, practitioners must grasp nuances and different treatments between the laws of the Syariah and Family Justice Courts, says Rahman.
“Sometimes, it's a question of where proceedings start,” he says, citing divorces as an example. As the registration process for divorces in the Syariah Court results in a six-month delay due to compulsory counselling, couples would commence matters in the Family Justice Courts instead. The Syariah Court has since changed its registration regime.
Unlike neighbouring countries, Singapore’s Syariah Court allows lawyers to appear in court regardless of religion, Rahman notes, while voicing hopes for the next generation of lawyers to take up more such cases. “Muslim family law is an underserved area,” he says. “There's always space for more to come in.”
As for his advice to younger practitioners? It’s the same guidance he gives junior lawyers at his firm: be sensitive.
“When a client walks through our doors, more likely than not, they’re at a point in their life where they are in their darkest moments,” he says. “They are here not just to get legal advice. They are here to buy your time to walk through that journey with them.”
Abdul Rahman Law Corporation is a learning partner of Practice and Procedure in the Administration of Muslim Family Law, an upcoming in-person event devoted to the practice area. Register here.