The Spectacle Blog

Sharia 101

By on 10.27.11 | 9:15AM

What is Sharia Law?

Sharia law is a familiar term to Muslims and non-Muslims, alike. Nearly every Republican candidate for president has vilified it. It's been discussed in relevance to new "democracies" emerging in the Arab world. As a legal tradition, it generates monstrous resonance in matters relating to politics, terror and the normative timbre of international human rights. It's been banned in 11 American states.

Yet, despite the fact that sharia law is bandied about by issue experts, elected officials and every single talking-head within the Beltway, from what I can tell, most folks don't really know that much about it.

This is problematic.

It's incredibly important that we understand exactly what we're talking about -- to recognize the opportunities and threats presented in dealings with sharia-inspired states in the Muslim world.

What are the sources of Sharia?

Sharia or the "divine law of Islam" is mostly derived from these two sources:

  1. The Quran (a.k.a. the Qu'ran, or the Qur'an, or the Koran, or the Korawn, etc., et al.)
  2. The Sunna (in layman's terms, the teachings of the Prophet...)

AND...to a lesser extent, sharia also owes interpretive echoes to:

  1. Ijma' (consensus of Muslims...the understanding of "consensus" is incredibly controversial)
  2. Qiyas (Reasoning based on Analogy...vast differences between Sunni and Shi'a deduction)
  3. Ijtihad (literally, a personal striving to deduce divine law...an individual's interpretation of problems not covered in the Quran)

Can I buy a copy of Sharia Law at my local bookstore?

Nope. There's a library of interpretation out there, so you can read the scholarly stuff, but there is no definitive, codified or monolithic conception of sharia. It isn't written down like the dusty, old legal tomes you might find stealing shelf space in an attorney's office. There is no universal interpretation. This is important.

Isn't it evil?

Well, it sure can be used that way. I think it's fair to say that many Americans associate sharia with medieval punishment that includes religiously sanctioned stoning, the amputation of limbs, and vicious lashings in response to mundane crimes like adultery or petty theft. Lots of Muslims view it this way, too. However, it's all a matter of interpretation...mixed with a little cultural relevance.

Cultural interpretation has a lot to do with it and can account for why the Pashtunwali Taliban state doesn't look anything like an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse Malaysia despite the fact that both states find inspiration (of sorts) in sharia law.

Many Muslims hold a different view. In Islamic tradition, sharia is more positively understood as something that cultivates humanity. As a religious jurisprudence (or fiqh in Arabic), it is believed to be divinely revealed, and is supposed to serve as an antidote to a society where cultural ills are rife. From a more progressive sense, sharia is designed to free humanity to realize its potential.

So when does ever that happen?

It depends. One of the few things most all Islamic scholars agree on is that sharia can regulate all human actions and puts it into five categories: actions obligatory, actions recommended, actions allowed, actions disliked and actions that are flat out forbidden.

There's a presumption that sharia is incompatible with Western liberal ideals. It's supposedly irreconcilable with women's rights, gender equality, private property, money lending, and freedom of speech.

Sadly, it's got a lot less to do with the "law" and a lot more to do with the folks who are trying to unravel their divine guidance.

For the record, reformers exist who believe that new Islamic theory can produce a modernized Islamic law. We should work with them AND their secular allies against the rabid traditionalists.

What countries use sharia?

A bunch of them. Some might surprise you. But it's less important to actually tally up the nations that incorporate elements of sharia as it is to consider how they use it. Some states just implement the legality to regulate basic family and business dealings. In other countries, it's only deployed in certain regions. Then there are the outliers - states like Saudi Arabia and Iran that have employed a brutal interpretation to oppress and terrorize their citizens.

Will the proto-democracies of an "Arab Spring" use sharia?

Probably. A 2010 Pew poll  conducted across the Arab world showed strong support for Islam in politics and for harsh punishments for petty crime. On the other hand, most of the Muslims polled (except those in our "ally" Pakistan) believed democracy is the best form of governance.

The sharia interpretation they implement is anybody's guess.. 

So who decides what sharia looks like?

Well, there are five major schools of sharia law.

The Hanbali school is the most conservative. It's the sort that allows a thief's hand to be cut off in Saudi Arabia, or a woman to be stoned in Northern Nigeria. On the other hand, the Hanifi tradition is known for being the most liberal. Its focus is squared on reason and analogy. Hanafi adherents are dominant among Sunnis in Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, Turkey, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. The Maliki school is based on the practices of the folks living in Medina during Muhammad's lifetime. Depending on your interpretation, this can prove a lot more progressive than it sounds. This discipline is most common in and around North Africa. The Shafi'I school is a relatively conservative movement that emphasizes the opinions of Muhammad's friends and companions.  Not to be forgotten is the Jafari school which is really only used by Shi'a Muslims. 

Its range of interpretation can track from the sublime to the scary -- see: "Iran, The Islamic Republic of."

What does it pertain to?

It depends what country you're talking about. Classical sharia covers all aspects of human life...it's traditionally conceived into four parts, regarding worship, commercial deals, marriage/divorce, and penalties for breaking the rules.

However, not every country uses so broad an umbrella.

Sharia law was originally conceived to only apply to Muslims. Christians and Jews were afforded a special status, granted our shared Abrahamic roots. However, this has obviously not always proven the case.

Why should I care?

When the United States invaded Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban, part of the reason we were given was to liberate those poor women from the barbaric abuse of sharia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia won't let women drive -- let alone talk to men -- but they remain our closest Arab ally. 

Despite the fact that you're apparently unqualified to run for the GOP nod if you're not proactively campaigning against some sneaky Muslims installing a Taliban style theocracy under our collective noses, does anybody see that special relationship with Riyadh changing?

To be honest, I'm not terribly worried about this happening. I was similarly confident that a sharia compliant mortgage program designed to assist Muslim homebuyers in Minnesota didn't present an existential threat to the American culture. It was just designed to sell houses. I'm not an alarmist and I can recognize that sharia isn't inherently evil, even if the people who employ may be. Like any other religious law, it's only as good as the people who wield it -- any spiritual justification for political order and cultural identity can be dangerous. 

It's naïve to assume that sharia law will always be used for good, but equally worthwhile to demystify an assumed evil.

Who made you the expert?

Nobody, and I'm not pretending to be. But I've recently done a bunch of research for a peer reviewed academic article regarding the history of sharia, I specialize on Muslim political identity, I've lived in the "sharia" world and I figured it would be worth passing along some cursory information to develop the debate.

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