What do Egyptians really mean when they say ‘sharia’?

One of the major themes in GetReligion posts about Islam over the past decade has been our emphasis on the fact that there is no one monolithic Islam, no one simplistic way for journalists to approach that faith.

For millions, Islam is truly a religion of peace. For millions of others, Islam is not — when it collides with minority religions and the modern world — a religion of peace. There is no one Islam.

This theme also applies to coverage of stories linked to Islamic, or sharia, law. When Muslims say that they want to see their land governed according to sharia law, journalists really need to stop and ask them what they mean when they use that term. Journalists need to ask specific questions about specific issues, so that readers are not caught, once again, in simplistic assumptions.

Take, for example, the fascinating Washington Post story that just ran under the headline, “Among many Egyptians, a dramatic shift in favor of the military.”

The key question that everyone is asking: Many Egyptians backed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party at the polls, then a year later took to the streets to call for the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. Why? What’s the logic? Is this really just about a bad economy?

Read this section of the story carefully:

The military has portrayed its takeover as a bold stroke to save the country from terrorism. But the public’s rejection of Morsi is rooted in the wildly high hopes that ordinary Egyptians had for the Arab Spring — and their bitterness at how democracy failed to deliver jobs or social justice.

When Egyptians revolted in 2011 against Mubarak, it reflected their disgust with his government’s corruption, police abuses and inability to provide jobs for the swelling population. In the lead-up last year to the country’s first free presidential elections, candidates offered not so much policy proposals as visions of a new country.

“Islam is the solution” was the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge. Working-class Egyptians such as Mohammed Abdul Qadir, 43, took that to heart.

“I only wanted one thing: to be ruled under sharia,” or Islamic law, the cabdriver said. “But this didn’t happen. There was only more injustice.” By “sharia,” Abdul Qadir didn’t mean a ban on alcohol or a requirement that women wear veils. He meant the creation of a broadly just society, the kind promoted in Islamic teachings.

One can only assume that the last two sentences in that paragraph are based on paraphrased information taken from that interview with the cabbie.

So he wanted sharia law, but he was not insisting that all aspects of Islamic law, or one interpretation of Islamic law, be enforced as the law of the land.

So, is this Egyptian on the street in favor of sharia law or not?

You can sense some of the same conflict in the following material from the same Post story:

The coup against Morsi sparked even more chaos and violence, with security forces raiding protest camps and Islamists attacking churches, police and military targets. Many accuse the Islamists of provoking the violence, citing inflammatory television reports alleging that they have been stockpiling weapons and planning terrorist attacks.

“There’s nobody in Egypt not in danger,” said Mohammed al-Laban, 43, a chauffeur for a private company, who was sitting at Hosny’s cafe.

For upper-class Egyptians and many secular middle-class families, the Islamists threatened the lifestyles that they had come to enjoy under Mubarak. Morsi’s government failed to put in place any strict Islamic legislation. But men who let their daughters drive cars or walk around without head scarves felt as if they were being judged, said Hamdeen Sabahi, a secularist politician who ran against Morsi and others in the presidential election.

“Maybe it wasn’t a noticeable factor, but it was very harmful for many Egyptians,” he said.

Here’s my point: Journalists must probe for information on specific issues in Islamic law. It’s not enough to sling around terms such as “sharia” and even “Islamist.”

Once again, let me point readers toward some crucial numbers drawn from Pew Forum research in Arab Spring Egypt, care of a post at The Weekly Number website.

The key questions, right now, appear to be about shifting Egyptian beliefs related to key sharia components, especially the oppression of minority religions and Muslims who convert to another faith. In other words, the majority of Muslims appear to want a state that is tolerant on some lifestyle issues, but not truly tolerant of the free practice of other faiths.

The article is called “5 things to know about Egypt, as churches burn, a mosque is sieged & hundreds die.” As before, let me spotlight parts of statements No. 3 and No. 5:

3. Sectarian violence — as occurs in Egypt — is strongly associated with high government restrictions

Sectarian violence in Egypt is not a new phenomenon, but it appears to be on the rise. For instance, prior to last week’s violence, Al-Jazeera reported that confrontations between Muslims and Copts have increased in Egypt since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. And Amnesty International reported on a recent increase in tensions in Wasta (about one hundred kilometers south of Cairo), highlighting the vulnerability of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority in the country.

The violence by and toward the Muslim Brotherhood, however, is also a form of communal violence within the Muslim population, pitting those supporting a more Islamist approach against other Muslims in the country. …

And, again:

5. Egypt stands out among Muslim-majority countries as having low tolerance of religious pluralism

While Egypt is home to some of the most intense government restrictions on religion, these restrictions are coupled with a Muslim public that is considerably less tolerant of religious pluralism than Muslims elsewhere, according to a recent Pew Research analysis. …

* Like many Muslim publics surveyed around the world, a majority of Egyptian Muslims (74%) want sharia, or Islamic law, enshrined as the official law of the land. However, Egypt is one of the few countries where a clear majority (74%) of sharia supporters say both Muslims and non-Muslims in their country should be subject to Islamic law. Worldwide, a median of 39% of Muslims who favor enshrining Islamic law say sharia should apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

* Egyptian Muslims also back criminalizing apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion. An overwhelming majority of Egyptian Muslims (88%), say converting away from Islam should be punishable by death. Among the 37 countries where the question was asked, a median of 28% of Muslims say apostates should be subject to the death penalty.

As always, be careful out there.

IMAGE: Pro-Morsi demonstration at Egyptian embassy in England.

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  • wlinden

    “siege” is not a verb.

    • Darren Jones

      I think it is. According to dictionary.reference.com (use #8), it can be used instead of “besiege.”

      • wlinden

        Well, if it’s on the INTERNET, it must be right.

  • James Patton

    I am amused by this article but not at all surprised. You need to only look at Christianity to see the parallels between what is acceptable behavior in your own community. Do all Christians follow the 613 commandments in the Old Testament or the Ten Commandments or just the One commandment?

  • kendallpeak

    Christians are not required to follow the ritual laws and commandments of the OT, only the moral laws. Both Jesus and later the apostle Paul addressed this thoroughly. But I do agree that Christianity calls for loving your neighbor, and many do not. Islam calls for oppressing your neighbor and some have no desire to do so.

    • James Patton

      Of course this is what Jesus meant when He said:

      Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I have come to set aside the law and the prophets; I have not come to set them aside, but to bring them to perfection.

  • gullycat

    Hi Terry: I suppose we should thank you for adding to the analysis of Islam in Egypt, but, alas, your article merely skims the surface of a very complex situation. First, you have to look at Islam as a culture and a political system, not just a religion. You have to look at the history and continuity of the minority religions in Egypt. You also have to consider Egypt as a failed modern society, one that can’t even feed its population, let alone provide a decent life for even a minority of them. They have a demographic time bomb in their young adults – poorly educated, without jobs in Egypt and without the education or background to emmigrate. There are geopolitical aspects to what’s happening – both the Saudis and the Russians are rushing in to become involved. Each of these aspects could easily be the subject of an article as long or longer than what you’ve written. You’re restricting your comments to (correct me if I’m wrong) “how the press should consider and report on what the Egyptians mean by sharia.” The story of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind – you’re not going to be able to navigate through this complex situation by looking at one tiny area. What the Egyptian-man-on-the-street (funny it’s never the woman-on-the-street – I wonder why?) thinks “sharia” means is irrelevant – in this society, an old, barbaric, Islam-based and tribal society, without even a modicum of civil institutions to modify their age-old hatreds, I’m afraid the only result is going to be a bloodbath and a further de-stabilization of the country. The question you’ve raised in my mind is how can we even talk to people who by an almost 9 out of 10 majority think apostasy should be punished by death? What do we conceivably have to talk to them about? I wish I could see something different or more optimistic coming from all this, but I can’t. Get the Copts out; then let the Egyptian muslims figure out what they want in the future and live with the consequences of their choices. I will pray for them.

  • FW Ken

    Did I miss it in the WaPo article where they discussed Morsi’s power grab in 2012? I realize he rescinded at least some of his expansion of powers, but could there be residual disillusionment from his dissolving parliament and overriding the courts? You would think the article would mention that.


  • Gee whiz…those women look like they are free…don’t they.

    What a freedom smothering and backward religious/political system.

    Thanks be to God that Christ came to put an end to all that nonsense. Hopefully one day those poor folks will hear the gospel and be liberated.

  • JoFro

    Perhaps read the New Testament and educate yourself on the basics of Christianity before asking such a silly question!

    • James Patton

      99% of the time a person that makes this claim is guilty of not reading the Bible themselves in its entirety. Are you in that 1%?

      • JoFro

        Yes! Now you know my terrible secret! Lets read it together, mate! 😛

  • Jerry Rhino

    There are many varieties of Islam just as there are many varieties of Christians. To get a better picture of what a particular Christian believes, it is helpful to know which denomination they adhere to. For a better picture of a Muslim’s beliefs, it is helpful to know which Imam they listen to at their Friday evening service.