Muslims must follow the law of the land wherever we live, regardless of whether it is ruled by Muslims or non-Muslims. Sharia scholars have told us this for centuries, because Muslims have lived as religious minorities since the beginning of Islam.
(Many scholars even said that if Muslims do anything hostile against a non-Muslim host country, they could be prosecuted for that in a Muslim-ruled land.)
But, there is something different about what “law of the land” means in a democracy. For American Muslims, the law isn’t imposed on us by a Christian king; it is created by a democratic process that includes our voices. That creates an interesting question: Since we have a say in what the laws of the land are, how should we be voting?
Because part of being a Muslim involves paying attention to sharia, some think that American Muslims will (or should) advocate for sharia rules to become the law of the land in the United States. Indeed, fear of this idea is exactly what motivates anti-sharia campaigns across the country.
So, does sharia advocate for American Muslims to try to enact Muslim rules of behavior as the law of the land? Are we supposed to be pushing for a national ban on alcohol, for example, or to require attendance at Friday prayers? The answer is no, but to understand why, we need a little Sharia 101.
First, Some Definitions
Literally meaning “street,” or “way,” sharia means the way God has instructed us to live, via the sources of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunnah). Scholars interpret those sources to provide specific rules on how to live a Muslim life — things like how to pray, what to eat and drink, who and how to marry, who gets your money after you die and so on.
These rules are called fiqh, a word that means “understanding,” indicating that these scholars didn’t claim to speak for God; they only provided their best understanding of God’s Way for our lives. That is why there are so many different schools of fiqh, all equally valid for Muslims choosing to live by sharia.
But, fiqh is only one part of a bigger picture. Before colonialism changed everything, there were actually two types of law in Muslim countries. One was fiqh — the rules for living a Muslim life. The other was siyasa (political administration). Siyasa laws were made by rulers, not religious scholars. They were not based on scriptural study but on the idea that a ruler must serve the maslaha ‘amma (public good). (An Islamic legal maxim says, “The affairs of the ruler concerning his people are judged by reference to public good.”)
Siyasa laws included things like setting standard weights and measures, punishing corruption, and raising armies to defend the land. Today we might include things like traffic laws, professional licensing regulations, and health and zoning codes. In other words, siyasa covers all those laws that are important for social order but can’t be derived from scripture. (No matter how long we look through the Quran and Sunnah, we won’t find anything telling us how far apart wall studs should be so that our houses don’t fall down.)
Should Sharia Influence Muslim Votes?
Knowing this, the question of what sharia demands of American Muslim voters becomes quite simple. If the first Islamic responsibility of a ruler is to serve the public good, and if in a democracy the “ruler” is all of us, then the only question on my mind when I go to the voting booth in the United States is: “What will serve the American public good?” (Notice that this is a very different question than “How do I live my life as a Muslim?” That is the business of fiqh personal law, not siyasa state law.)
This same question should be on the minds of all American Muslims who cast a ballot, or vote in Congress, or judge a case.
Most importantly, this is not a selling out of our Islamic values. As USC professor and Islamic scholar Sherman Jackson points out in The Islamic Secular, there are all sorts of important societal rules that don’t come from scripture, but that does not make them any less Islamic. For example, the Quran and Sunnah tell us to take care of nature, the poor and the sick, but they don’t tell us what level of emissions standards to set, what the minimum wage should be, or how to get everyone adequate health care.
Will we disagree on the public good? Of course. I might vote for universal health care whereas you might think a privatized system will better serve us. I might want a higher minimum wage, and you might think that would hurt small businesses. Those debates are inevitable. The important thing is that we make sure we are debating over what each of us thinks truly serves the public good and that we know this is our Islamic duty as American citizens.
But, what about laws that are contrary to fiqh rules? Many think that American Muslims can’t support such laws because that would mean they are supporting something that contradicts sharia. A popular example is same-sex marriage: Muslims may think that they must oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage because it is prohibited in the fiqh. But they are forgetting the crucial difference between fiqh and siyasa.
Remember, fiqh rules are guidelines for Muslim behavior. They were never meant to be uniformly applied by the state to everyone. Fiqh forbids Muslims from drinking wine, but Muslim rulers never used state power (siyasa) to apply that rule to non-Muslims.
Sharia Restrictions on the Public Good?
So, if we want to make sure that we don’t contradict sharia when we vote for the public good, we need to use something different than the fiqh rules of Muslim behavior. Personally, I think we should use the purposes (maqasid) of sharia. Sharia scholars of all schools have long agreed that the rules of sharia ultimately serve one of five primary purposes: The preservation of life, religion, family, property and intellect (some add a sixth, human honor/dignity). These purposes are, I believe, the best way to ensure that our human determinations of the public good doesn’t violate sharia. For example, what if we decided that population control was an important public good, and we passed a law to kill half the population to serve that public good? A Muslim would have to reject such a law because it would contradict the preservation of life, one of the primary purposes of sharia.
Putting all this together, let’s go back to the legalization of same-sex marriage, one of the trickiest and continuously controversial laws for American Muslims to navigate. Here is how I analyze it: First, I ask myself, does legalizing same-sex marriage serve the American public good? My answer? Yes. I think it serves the public good for same-sex couples to be able to, for example, make medical decisions for each other as spouses and have other benefits that come from legal marriage recognition.
Next, I ask, would legalizing same-sex marriages violate any of the primary purposes of sharia? (Again, whether fiqh allows same sex-marriage for Muslims is irrelevant.). To that question I answer, no. I do not see how legalizing same-sex marriage would violate the preservation of life, property, family, religion, intellect or human dignity. Therefore, I support – as an American Muslim – the decision to legalize same sex marriage in this country.
Others may disagree with the process of my analysis, of course. God knows best who is correct. But, the most important thing to me is that we recognize the two steps of the analysis. Many tend to skip over the step looking for the public good. I believe it is that very step that is our first Islamic responsibility as voting citizens.
Of course, at some level, none of this is relevant because secular countries are not supposed to be held to sharia standards in the first place. But if they were, the picture is a lot more encouraging than the one painted by those fearing “creeping sharia.” Sharia simply obligates American Muslims to work for the public good. And, it turns out that we already are.
Take the Muslim response to the water crisis in Flint: Muslims in Michigan raised $300,000 for new pipes, clean water and child care, arranged the first pipe dig, and set up tutoring, a library and a community center for water pick up. Muslim doctors donated time to treat skin rashes and sores and conduct lead testing. And, a Muslim lawyer and member of the Flint Democracy Defense League is leading a class action lawsuit on behalf of the victims.
We’re doing these things because we believe sharia tells us to. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, about 7 in 10 American Muslims say “working for justice and equality in society” is an essential part of their Muslim identity. Sixty-two percent say the same thing about “working to protect the environment.”
It saddens me that the popular rhetoric about sharia in the United States does not reflect this truth. But, that can change. If American Muslims are clear, bold and public about the fact that it is our Islamic duty to serve the public good, I can see a future in which sharia is not seen as a threat to America, but as the very thing that makes American Muslims care about the good of all. More and more of our fellow Americans will see that this country is better because we’re part of it.
As Muslim country singer Kareem Salama puts it, “When I’m six feet in the ground, the poor and the weak and the orphan and meek will miss having me around.”