Who's Afraid of Shariah?

By Sumbul Ali-Karamali 

photo courtesy of fortinbras via C.C. license at FlickrHasn't the whole notion of shariah in America gotten a bit out of control? No, it hasn't -- it's gotten hugely, obscenely, ignorantly out of control. How many of those anti-Islam protesters holding "NO SHARIA LAW" signs (as if anyone were advocating shariah law in the U.S.) actually know what the word means? I'd say, oh, none. Roughly. 

Shariah (also spelled shari'ah or sharia or shari'a) is the Arabic word for "the road to the watering place." In a religious context, it means "the righteous path." Loosely, it can mean simply, "Islam."

There are six principles of shariah. They are derived from the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the word of God. All Islamic religious rules must be in line with these six principles of shariah.

Aha! The six principles must be about killing infidels, veiling women, stoning people for adultery, honor killings, and female genital cutting, right? Nope.

Here they are, the six principles of shariah:

1) The right to the protection of life.

2) The right to the protection of family.

3) The right to the protection of education.

4) The right to the protection of religion.

5) The right to the protection of property (access to resources). 

6) The right to the protection of human dignity.

Well, bless me, as a pledge-of-allegiance-reciting, California-raised Muslim girl, these six principles sound a lot like those espoused in my very own Constitution of the United States. Except that these were developed over a thousand years ago.

This is the core of shariah -- these six principles. The term "shariah law" is a misnomer, because shariah is not law, but a set of principles. To Muslims, it's the general term for "the way of God."

But how do we know what the way of God is? Early Muslims looked to the Qur'an and the words of the Prophet Muhammad to figure this out. They filled books of interpretive writings (called fiqh) about how to act in accordance with the way of God. They rarely agreed -- the fiqh is not just one rule, but many differing opinions and contradictory rules and scholarly debates.

Sometimes, shariah also refers to the whole body of Islamic texts, which includes the Qur'an, the sayings of the Prophet, and the books of interpretive literature written by medieval Muslim scholars. The first two are considered divine. The interpretive literature, the fiqh, is not.

The fiqh was meant to develop and change according to the time and place -- it has internal methodologies for that to happen. It is not static, but flexible. No religion gets to be 1400 years old and the second largest in the world unless it's flexible and adaptable.

The Qur'an is old. The fiqh books of jurisprudence are old. To modern eyes, they can look just as outdated as other ancient texts, including the Bible and Torah. That's why, just like the Bible and the Torah, the Islamic texts must be read in their historical context.

Assuming all Muslims follow medieval Islamic rules today is like assuming that all Catholics follow 9th-century canon law. Islam, like Christianity, has changed many times over the centuries, and it continues to change. Focusing only on the nutcases who advocate a return to medieval times is ignoring the vast majority of modern Muslims.

For example, stoning for adultery is a punishment that appears in fiqh, as well as early Judaic law. But it does not appear in the Qur'an. In Islam, therefore, stoning was a result of cultural norms imposed on the religious texts. Moreover, in the fiqh, though the punishment for adultery was stoning, adultery was made such a fantastically difficult crime to prove that the punishment was impossible to apply. Historically, stoning was very rarely implemented in the Islamic world, which is ironic, since today the Saudi and Iranian governments apply it as though they'd never heard of the strict Islamic constraints on it.

The vast majority of Muslims today do not believe in stoning people for adultery, and many are working hard to eradicate it. Stoning is horrific and has no place in our world. The miniscule percentage of Muslims who advocate it are imposing the medieval penalty while ignoring all the myriad limitations meant to make it inapplicable.

As for other scary stories attributed to shari'a, like honor killings, veiling of women, and female genital cutting, these are cultural practices and not Islamic. They are practiced by non-Muslims of certain cultures as well as Muslims.

Shari'a is a set of religious principles and is not the law of the land anywhere in the world. The fifty-some Muslim-majority countries are all constitutional states and nearly all of them have civil codes (many of these based on the French system). Being Muslim does not require a governmental imposition of something called "shari'a law," any more than being a Christian requires the implementation of "biblical law" (though there are, of course, a tiny minority of both Christians and Muslims who do advocate such things, including Sarah Palin).