by M.Salahuddin Khan

US Senate Tea Party candidate, Nevada’s Sharron Angle yesterday made public comments about Islamic religious law taking hold in some US cities coupled with equating such a development with a “militant terrorist situation.” We’re in the depths of electioneering silly season.

Leaving aside the tiny matter of evidence, and tempting though it is to dismiss for its obviously flawed illogic, such rhetoric nonetheless speaks volumes about the audience that Angle felt it necessary to pander to. She was clearly not attempting to persuade anyone, but was instead reassuring like-minded voters that their ill-informed fears resonate with her and that by implication they should vote for her against incumbent Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

For anyone interested in the increasingly unlikely triumph of reason over fear, here are a couple of things to consider.

Let’s suppose that what she chooses to call Muslim Sharia were to be practiced in one or more US cities. We can overlook for a moment her manifest lack of grasp of what Muslim Sharia even is, but before raising our arms in horror at the thought, or rushing to deny the claim, should we not at least pause to uncover why this is being conflated with terrorism? It reflects upon us all that our would-be political leaders require us to be so fearful of the branded bogeyman of Islam to fall for such obvious pandering. Sadly, enough voters are out there to lead to such a calculus. Legitimized by the likes of such luminaries-turned-fearmongers as Newt Gingrich, why not?

In this lies a truly tragic prospect for this country’s future,  one incidentally, that is well illustrated in Mike Judge’s disturbingly funny movie “Idiocracy.”

Be as it may, let’s consider the other side of this issue. What indeed of Muslim Sharia law? First, we need to get past the talk-show, shock-jock brand-identity of this word, in this country, in these times. Next, we should understand that it’s a common mistake to imagine Sharia to be some form of book of statutes which lists a body of Muslim laws, prescribing iconic punishments such as amputation or stoning. Try as you might you won’t find such a volume because none exists.

So what is Sharia? The word comes from the Arabic meaning for “path” but especially a “path to water”, which in desert country, is an important path. It refers in this sense not to an end but to a means. What’s significant about this is that Sharia can best be described as a combination of actual laws prescribed in primary sources—such as the Qur’an and the example set by the most corroborated of the reported actions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (upon whom be peace)—coupled with “principles” to be applied when deliberating new law. This is not an esoteric point.

Indeed, Islam expects change and, beyond the few primary laws, stops short of declaring what the actual laws should be by focusing instead on such principles precisely because laws can be both guided by modernity and influence it too. This is analogous to the US Constitution which along with certain guaranteed rights, offers principles for balancing individual liberties with the needs of societal order, while allowing laws to be passed, modified or repealed as circumstances arise.  Yes, the bigots will try the “Don’t compare your Sharia with our Constitution” line but the point for those with a mind, isn’t such a direct comparison. It’s simply to illustrate an obvious parallel.

With principles, we can apply jurisprudence to determine what laws should look like in any given human era. Those laws are capable of change without violating the notion of Sharia principles.

That said, it would be naïve to suggest that this more ideal perspective on Sharia has been followed in modern so-called Muslim countries, which in just about every case offer a mish-mash of legal codes derived from a bygone colonial era and various Sharia compliant constructs. Outdated laws have lived on instead of adapting Sharia principles to the changing world. By counter-example, the flurry of modern ideas for Sharia-compliant or “Islamic” finance represents a departure from this norm and such products are proving hugely popular among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Meanwhile, some western countries have allowed Muslims to apply Sharia compliant family laws while requiring Muslims to conform to secular civil and criminal legal structures that apply to all society in those countries. Success in this respect has been frankly, mixed.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that terrorism isn’t the natural state of affairs in either those or in Muslim majority countries and it hasn’t been for the past 1400 years. Yes, places like Pakistan and Afghanistan have seen a massive rise in terrorism not since Islam came to the region but since the American adventure in this part of the world at the tail end of the Cold War but even more so after the horrific events of 9/11 nine years ago.

Sharron Angle and others of her ilk cannot be expected even to try to grasp such concepts while in the grubby pursuit of votes and even if she’s capable of it, we should not expect her to reach for reason when fear-stoking is sadly such an effective alternative.

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Comments

2 Responses to “An Angle on Sharia”

  1. Fatima Khan on October 11th, 2010 9:12 pm

    Another angle on Sharia at Prof. Ebrahim Moosa’s website ;

    How do we know what is Sharia?

    http://ebrahimmoosa.com/2010/10/01/231/

  2. Salahuddin on October 16th, 2010 12:41 am

    Indeed Fatima. I think his sentiments echo mine completely. This is not to say that we should each be going around inventing our own laws. And this is where I think the traditions established by the fuqaha are valuable. There needs to be scholarship before nuanced pronouncements can be made.

    I envy the US its Supreme Court and its Constitution both of which limit the amount of personal interpretation of things like individual liberty especially at the places where its boundaries intersect with those of societal order.