Do U.S. law and sharia conflict? How?

One of the men that the recently killed Anwar al-Awlaki worked with was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He’s the guy known as the underwear bomber, after his attempt to take down a Detroit-bound plane two Christmases ago. And you can thank the U.S. response to that failed attempt for the nudie scans and freedom fondles you receive at airports these days.

Well, in a surprise move yesterday, Abdulmutallab pled guilty to all of the charges against him. It had been a bit of a crazy trial prior to that, with Abdulmutallab considering guilty please and firing his attorneys.

I was following some religion reporters yesterday on Twitter who wrote that Abdulmutallab read in English from a lengthy statement saying he was guilty under U.S. law but not under sharia. I had hoped that next-day reports would explain a bit more about Abdulmutallab’s views on sharia as well as what Muslims who don’t support terror have to say about that.

As this Associated Press story was updated, some of these things were fleshed out. Here’s how it ran in the New York Times:

Abdulmutallab calmly answered the judge’s questions and read a political statement warning that if the United States continues “to persist and promote the blasphemy of Muhammad and the prophets,” it risks “a great calamity … through the hands of the mujahedeen soon.”

“If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later on the day of judgment,” he said.

The article quotes his court-appointed lawyer talking about how Abdulmutallab prayed before his decision to plead and in general, there’s a lot of discussion of religion. But it’s unfortunately pretty shallow. Take this, in a section about how passengers on the plane felt about the guilty plea:

A woman who sat six rows in front of Abdulmutallab on the plane, said the guilty plea provided her with “relief.”

“It was disheartening and sickening, however, to listen to Abdulmutallab explain why he feels his actions were justified,” Hebba Aref, a Detroit-area native, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

“As a Muslim myself, I know that he has a completely erroneous and distorted interpretation of the Quran.”

I realize there’s not much room in a report about an attempted terrorist pleading guilty to a major attack but when a terrorist claims that there’s a major conflict between U.S. law and sharia, that needs to be explained a bit more. We’re always making fun of non-Muslims who say the same thing — generally also without listening to their arguments.

That there are people who either don’t see a conflict between sharia and U.S. law or don’t believe any conflicts will be realistically realized also needs to be mentioned and their arguments need to be fully explained. Here we have a great hook to discuss these things — a major terrorist making a claim about conflicts between U.S. and Muslim law. Al Qaeda’s theological arguments tend to be rather fleshed out. And many Muslims have taken the time and energy to refute them as well. Certainly 10 years after the September 11 terror attacks we’re ready for those debates to be mentioned in an even cursory fashion in the media.

Detroit Free Press reporter Niraj Warikoo helpfully linked to what I believe is the lengthy handwritten statement from which Abdulmutallab read. It begins with a criticism of the Trinity, is filled with religious references and justifications, and ends with a note explicitly stating the religious nature of Abdulmutallab’s attack. There’s simply no way around that part of the story.

Still, I would like more specifics about Abdulmutallab’s line of thinking. Precisely how does sharia conflict with U.S. law in his view? And what do other informed people — be they Muslim, legal scholars or both — say in response?

The Detroit News had a few lines from the guilty plea. The Detroit Free Press‘ latest article is most helpful because of the transcripts and pdfs that accompany the story. It’s really wonderful how much more informed readers can be thanks to the internet by getting a first-hand look at these things.

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  • Steve

    This story is an example –no news to you, of course– of the superficiality caused by your typical press corpsperson’s (!) ignorance of, suspicion of, condescension about, and disinterest in religion.

    Is there anywhere in the press where you will be able to find a story about sharia? What are its sources, assumptions, texts, etc? The information is all over the internet and easily discovered. But readers of the press will never know much about it.

    Is there a conflict between US law and sharia? I make only one point: the basic assumptions and sources are radically different. Westerners fail to understand that Islam is not a “religion” like Presbyterianism or Buddhism. It is a complete socio-legal order which recognizes no significant difference between “sacred” and “secular”. Sharia is the vehicle for this society. The root difference is that in Islam only God (specifically ALLAH, the God of the Quran) is the Lawgiver. US and Western laws which assume independent human competence to create legal institutions is an affront to the supremacy of this deity.

    There is much more to be said, but that is a basic position which sets the two codes in tension. Failure to understand that leads to many misunderstandings down the line.

  • http://None William Russell

    In my limited research. I find over 50% of those I question have no knowledge of Sharia. When I informed him of the details of Sharia Law, there’ll roots express Great surprise. Somehow our press must be informed of the to let public know what Sharia Law encompasses and why is a very great threat to our Western civilization.

  • Randy McDonald


    “Westerners fail to understand that Islam is not a “religion” like Presbyterianism or Buddhism.”

    It’s not like Presybterianism, inasmuch as Presybterian is one of a collection of sects belonging to the Protestant tradition of Christianity and Islam is an independent religion: category mismatch.

    Islam _is_ like Buddhism, mind, in that the two religions are the youngest scions of fairly ancient religious traditions: Buddhism emerged in the late 1st millennium CE in the context of Hindu India, and Islam emerged in the 7th century CE in an Arabian peninsula strongly influenced by Christianity and Islam.

    Generally speaking, religious law tends not to be very compatible with secular legal systems, especially in areas governing personal morality: the stoning proscribed for homosexuals in Leviticus comes quickly to mind. It would be nice if all anti-sharia people were consistent in criticizing all religious law and provisions for their implementation–here in Ontario, a law that allowed religious bodies to arbitrate family disputes was abrogated because, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, the bodies would violate basic secular principles of individual equality (institutionalized misogyny, say). Would that they all did.

  • Jerry

    It’s really wonderful how much more informed readers can be thanks to the internet by getting a first-hand look at these things.

    I agree. It will be even better when more outlets start providing such links.

    The repeated thrash about what Sharia Law means is a classic example of why such links are needed. For example, there’s a great discussion of what Sharia really means which was an interview of Khaled Abou Ed Fadl broadcast over Brigham Young University. which points to

    If you listen to it, you’ll see how superficial most people’s understanding of Sharia really is.

  • Steve

    Sigh. Thanks for your accurate but totally beside-the-point comments on Presbyterianism and Buddhism. Why that exercise would want to make any reader continue is beyond me. It certainly does not motivate me to explain what I meant.

  • Randy McDonald

    Then can you explain what, exactly, you mean?

    The number of religions which claim a right to determine the content of the secular state’s laws are not limited to Islam. The number of religions which have their own associated coherent bodies of law also are not limited to Islam–Judaism has its own legal structures, and while Christianity was founded in reaction to Jewish law it went on to develop its own legal codes (Roman Catholic canon law, etc).

    What is uniquely threatening about Islamic religious law in the American context? Keep in mind that, as the latest Pew survey suggests, there are half as many Muslims in the United States as there are Jews, American Muslims are rather more ethnically and politically divided than American Jews, and Muslims lack anything like the mainstream political support that American Jews enjoy. How is a religious code associated with a diverse population of diverse religiosities that’s already subject to serious public criticism supposed to endanger the American system?

    (And seriously, Islam within the clade of Abrahamic religions is similar to Buddhism within the clade of Indic religions, but the comparison with Presybeterianism fails on the grounds of categorty mismatch.)

  • Julia

    I read lots of analysis in the mainstream press/media regarding the Amanda Knox trial in Perugia about the legal and procedural differences between Italy and U.S.

    But I’ve seen almost nothing substantive about the differences between US law and the Sharia influenced law of Arabic countries.

    Maybe it will take some kind of foreign trial of a US citizen under Sharia law to have that occur. Has some trial like that occurred where the press didn’t get into the differences? I don’t recall any.

  • Ali

    As a Muslim, its not surprising I’m gonna have to correct some fools on here.

    Islam is 99.9% SPIRITUAL. Actually we are the MOST spiritual people on the planet. The Quran and Hadith contain dua’s (prayers) for everything ranging from having a child to being debt free. And so how is that political? How is praising God political?

    Islam has a FEW FIXED political aspects, which are interpreted differently and there’s SPECIFIC and CLEAR rules on how to apply religion into politics. This is the same in Judaism, where political aspects exist.

    What under secular law is not tolerated under Sharia? If you’re an alcoholic or gambler, then you’re in trouble. Otherwise Islam is pretty much equal with western democracy (some western democratic countries have death penalties too, so don’t start up on that).

  • Ali

    Also, there is not a single Muslim country that follows Sharia properly, not one. Firstly we have secular ones, then we got ones that claim to be ‘Muslim’. Example- Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. In all three Islam is the state religion, and Sharia is the prime source of law. Yet at the same time these three arab states have legalized bars, nightclubs, casino’s, prostitution, and there’s no dress code. And Iran and Saudi are both extreme, outright contradicting Islam. In every Muslim country there’s MAJOR loopholes that are against Islam. Something to note, we Muslims are the NUMBER ONE critisizers of Muslim countries. So no, we do not condone the acts that happen over there, most of them atleast.

  • Randy McDonald


    “What under secular law is not tolerated under Sharia? If you’re an alcoholic or gambler, then you’re in trouble.”

    And if you’re gay?

    Religious law doesn’t make good law–just law, I mean. And no, it’s not a matter of one’s own religion being the exception.

  • Kim

    Anyone who wants to know exactly what Sharia law is needs to read the Sunni sharia law manual, Umdat al Salik. The English translation is called “The Reliance of the Traveller”. It can be purchased as any Islamic bookstore, or even on There are also many Islamic websites that have it available to read for free online as a PDF.
    People should not just listen to what the news says about Sharia Law, they should actually read it for themselves. LEARN what is it, study it, don’t just take someone else’s word for it.

    Why isn’t Sharia compatible with US Law? The reasons are numerous.

    a Woman’s testimony is only worth 1/2 of a man’s
    a non-Muslim’s testimony is not admitted at all
    a woman only receives 1/2 of the inheritance that her male siblings are entitled to
    there is a death sentence for homosexuality, married adulterers, apostates, and blasphemers
    there is no physical punishment for a Muslim for killing a non-muslim-they need only to pay indemnity (blood money) to the victim’s family
    there is no punishment for a man or woman for killing their children or grant-children
    in indemnity cases, a Jew or Christian’s life is worth 1/2 of a muslim’s life. A woman’s life is worth 1/2 of what a male of her respective religion is worth. No other religions are allowed to exist under Sharia, so a person who is not Muslim, Christian or Jewish is not worth anything, because they are not given the allowance to exist
    There is no such thing as spousal rape, because under sharia a wife is not allowed to ever refuse sex to her husband any time he wants it unless she has a valid sharia reason (menstruation, obligatory prayers or fasting, or severe injury or sickness)
    Jews and Christians are allowed to keep their religion on Dhimmi conditions, which include many rules and regulations upon them, including paying Jizyah (basically a “protection” tax) No other religions are allowed to exist, so people of other religions have no choice other than converting to Islam, or being treated as a prisoner of war and being executed.
    Husbands can divorce their wives for any reason. A wife has no right to divorce, she can only ask her husband to divorce her (khula) in return for her giving him a payment. If he refuses to give her a divorce, she can go to Sharia court to ask the judge to force her husband to give her Khula, but she must have a valid Sharia reason to seek divorce.

    I could go on an on. And, please, before anyone says I don’t know what I’m talking about, BUY the Sharia law manual, or read it for free online. I am NOT making this stuff up. This IS sharia law, whether the people who want to try to be “PC” like it or not. I am a liberal athiest. I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that this was not true. BUT IT IS. People need to know what Sharia is, and to come to terms with it instead of trying to make excuses for it, no matter how much we want to.

  • Jerry

    Anyone who wants to know exactly what Sharia law is needs to read the Sunni sharia law manual, Umdat al Salik.

    That ignores that there is NO one Sharia law.

    Part of the media issue is that people have fixed ideas that are impervious to update. So I have to wonder how much of the media refusal to dig deeper is the recognition that a percentage of readers (or viewers) will get angry and cancel their subscriptions (stop watching).

  • Steve

    There are four acceptable schools of Muslim jurisprudence, but the differences between them are hardly radical. It’s not as if one school prescribes the death penalty for homosexual activity and another practices gay marriage. In fact, one of the differences is that one prescribes capital punishment and another only life imprisonment for repeat offenders. They are the liberals.

    Along with Kim’s reference, you can read for yourself the world of contemporary Sharia, in English, where Muslims ask a scholar for guidance on a particular issue. They are all over the internet.

    And read up on all the incidents where Muslim immigrants in the West push for special treatment for their religious sensibilities, including in ways that affect the behavior of non-Muslims. Sharia is an integral part of this.

    Jewish law has for two millennia, under the re-interpetive work of the rabbis, since the destruction of the Temple, concerned only Jews, btw, unless you are in the world’s only and recent Jewish state and there the restrictive effect on Gentiles is pretty mild indeed. Catholic Canon Law binds only the Church itself and Catholics, no one else, and in matters religious. While the mixing of Church and State has fluctuated wildly in history, it was Jesus himself who said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Christianity began outside the state and has re-dapted to non-establishment. Islam, being inherently a theocracy, –Muhammad was a warlord and a lawgiver–recognizes no such separation of spheres.

  • Mollie


    This is a forum for discussion of how the media covers religion news. If your comment is not about how the media covers religion news, it should not be posted here.