5 things about Shariah 5 May 2013

Shariah has become an ominous term in discussion today. Even the erudite former Archbishop Rowan Williams was viciously attackedshariah-court in the media when he suggested that there may be room for incorporating Shariah into a British legal system. If a thoroughly liberal and progressive Christian leader is given such a response to discussing Shariah in a scholarly context, it isn’t hard to imagine the response a Muslim might get for discussing it publicly.

Debate around Shariah Law was brought to the fore once again with the publication of Pew Research Center’s survey on Muslims. The findings were presented in the media with various conjugations of ‘Most Muslims want Shariah’. Such a headline may evoke dread in those who equate Shariah with decapitation, but for those with a more balanced understanding of Shariah, the headlines were about as surprising as ‘Most Christians read Bible’.

So here is a quick list of things you should know about Shariah before worrying that your Muslim neighbour may want to lash you for wearing shorts in public.

1. Shariah is about life

Shariah literally means a ‘path to water’. In the context of the desert in which Classical Arabic was spoken, this makes it synonymous to a ‘path to life’. It is the term used to describe the various practical teachings of Islam, the guidance on how to live a good life, and thus includes everything from marriage through to being kind to your neighbours. The objectives of Shariah are generally considered to be the preservation and protection of five things – a person’s religion, their life, their family, intellect and their wealth.

2. Shariah is not a legal codex

When we think legal, most of us think in Roman terms. A legal codex is centralised, it is unchanging, applies to all uniformly. Shariah is none of these things. It is decentralised – a Muslim scholar with sufficient years of study can issue a fatwa (opinion), and it is not binding upon anyone other than the one who chooses to adhere to it. Shariah is dynamic, and fluid. It considers context. The principles behind Shariah remain the same, but the practicalities and applications are wide and varied and adapt according to time and place. Finally, Shariah is not uniform. What is considered an obligation for one person may be considered prohibited or advised against for another. It is judged by the individual scholar on a case-by-case basis. In fact, the only people who attempted to crystallise and codify Shariah were the British Government during the Colonial Era who created the ‘Anglo-Muhammadan Law’ in an attempt to better control what was an otherwise democratic and decentralised system. Any simplistic comparison then to other legal systems, particularly talk of parallel laws, is misleading and incorrect.

3. Shariah does not oppose religious freedom

The Pew survey that inspired this article notes that the vast majority of Muslims surveyed felt that it was a ‘good thing’ that others are free to practice their religion – in fact the lowest support was found in Niger where 76% were in favour of religious freedom – still a significant majority. In most other countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, support was close to 100%. Shariah has historically and contemporarily been supportive of religious freedom. What then of Saudi Arabia and Iran? They are modern aberrations, and it is worth noting that religious freedom, even for Muslims, is restricted in such places. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it is that the ruling powers of Muslim majority countries are not necessarily representatives of Islam, even if they claim to be so.

4. Shariah is not about punishments

The US Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf commented that ‘reducing Shariah down to the punishments is like reducing the US judicial system down to the electric chair’. Unfortunately, contemporary popular discourse on Shariah is sometimes dominated by talk of decapitation, hanging and lashing. Richard Dawkins recently tweeted about the evils of Shariah, highlighting in particular how he did not need to read the Quran before criticising the ruling on stoning rape victims (the tweet has since been deleted). Except no such punishment exists, or has ever existed, within Islamic theology. Rather, the crime of rape is one of the most serious within Islam, being classed under hiraba, and carrying the death penalty for perpetrators. The practical application of essentially limited specifications for capital punishment is a discussion scholars of Islam have had for centuries; it is clear that such punishments are final recourses of justice, and not dealt with trivially.

5. Shariah Courts aren’t actually courts

The term Shariah Court has been used in the UK and the United States to refer to the formalised way in which judgements are conducted by Muslim scholars. In the UK, Shariah Courts have faced intense opposition from some quarters, led by figures such as Baroness Cox. It was his comments about Shariah Courts in particular that got Rowan Williams in trouble. The reality is these courts offer no legal judgement and are in no way in opposition or in parallel to British legal courts. Although British Law has a proviso for arbitration (meaning individuals can select a third party to resolve an issue, and the judgement is legally binding), Shariah Courts do not even try to utilise these. Rather, they act as mediation centres. If a Muslim gets married, they would look to Shariah Courts to issue the Islamic nikkah (marriage contract). If the marriage fails, they would look to the Shariah Courts for an Islamic divorce. What little academic research has been conducted on the issue of Sharia Courts has found little of concern (see work by Professor Gillian Douglas and Dr Samia Bano) and rather than being places where women hold no power, Shariah Courts are of most utility to women.

It’s time to move away from caricatures of Shariah and begin an earnest discussion about the role of Shariah in contemporary life. Aspects of Shariah such as waqf (trusts/social enterprises) and interest-free banking are all areas of growth that promise to benefit not just Muslims but wider society, especially in the current economic climate. These discussions need to take place without the knee-jerk reactions that too often accompany mention of Shariah.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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