Jun 20th 2017

What Sharia law means: Five questions answered

by Asma Afsaruddin

Professor of Islamic Studies and former Chairperson, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University

A note by the Editor of The Convesration: A conservative grassroots organization, ACT for America, organized a “March against Sharia” in at least 20 cities across the United States on Saturday, June 10. Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University Asma Afsaruddin explains Sharia and dispels a number of myths about it.

What is Sharia law?

Sharia in Arabic means “the way,” and does not refer to a body of law. Sharia is more accurately understood as referring to wide-ranging moral and broad ethical principles drawn from the Quran and the practices and sayings (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad. These broad principles are interpreted by jurists to come up with specific legal rulings and moral prescriptions. The body of legal rulings that emerges from the interpretation of Sharia law is commonly referred to as Islamic law, or as “fiqh” in Arabic. It is the result of human intellectual activity and is therefore, by definition, fallible and changeable.

Is it true that Sharia does prescribe harsh punishment for acts such as adultery?

I want to caution against reducing Sharia to just one or two legal principles and picking out certain punishments as being characteristic of Sharia. It is much more fruitful to start with Sharia’s fundamental objectives.

Sharia provides guidance on how to live an ethical life. It lays down guidelines on how to pray and how to treat one’s family members, neighbors and those who are in need. It requires Muslims to be just and fair in their dealings with everyone, to refrain from lying and gossip, etc., and always to promote what is good and prevent what is wrong.

Muslim scholars reflecting on the larger objectives of Sharia have said that laws derived from it must always protect the following: life, intellect, family, property and the honor of human beings. These five objectives create what we may consider to be a premodern Islamic Bill of Rights, providing protection for civil liberties.

On the specific question of adultery, Islam, like some other religions, takes a strong position, since it seeks to promote the sanctity and stability of the family. Those found guilty of adultery are supposed to be punished by lashing (based on the Quran) or stoning (based on hadith).

But there is a high bar of evidence that must be met before this punishment can be meted out: Four witnesses must observe the actual act of penetration. Even in this age of voyeurism, it would be next to impossible to meet this criterion. The prescribed punishment for adultery was therefore hardly ever carried out in the premodern world.

This situation is in contrast to the brutal stonings that have been carried out in the modern, post-colonial period in a handful of Muslim majority countries, like Nigeria and Pakistan. From my perspective, the above-mentioned rules of evidence were not given due regard. In many such cases, modern jurists who may have very little training in classical Islamic law and do not understand the principles of Sharia are being asked to implement “Islamic punishments” by politicians who want to appear Islamic. Stoning appears to be a dramatic way of asserting a shallow “Islamic” identity, often in conscious opposition to the West. There are other jurists who have criticized these sensationalist examples of stoning as being in violation of fundamental moral and legal principles within Islam.

Is Sharia anti-women?

Most definitely not. The Quran recognizes the absolute equality of men and women as human beings and proclaims that they are each other’s partners in promoting the common good.

Sharia provides women with certain rights that were practically unheard of in the premodern world. It requires that both men and women have equal access to knowledge; it requires a woman’s consent before marriage; and it allows her the right to initiate divorce under certain conditions. Muslim jurists allowed abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, especially if the mother’s health was in jeopardy.

Above all, Sharia allows a woman to inherit property from her male relatives and to keep this property for herself, even after marriage – her husband cannot lay any claim to it. In contrast, European Christian women were not allowed to hold on to their property after marriage until the 19th century. Muslim feminists campaigning for equal legal rights in Muslim majority societies today draw their arguments and strength from Sharia.

Honor killings and female genital mutilation, that are often described by the media as Islamic, are in fact non-Islamic tribal practices that have no basis in Sharia. Female genital mutilation is practiced by non-Muslims as well.

At least nine states in America have passed “foreign law” statutes banning Sharia in American courts. What was behind the fear? Is Sharia law being implemented anywhere in America?

As I see it, fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims or Islamophobia is propelling an anti-Sharia campaign. The U.S. Constitution remains the law of the land. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims anyway so the hysteria that is now being incited by certain groups, I believe, is based on utter ignorance and bigotry. This bigotry underlying the anti-Sharia campaign was recognized by the American Bar Association when it passed a resolution in 2011 opposing various anti-Sharia measures. As the resolution stated:

“Initiatives that target an entire religion or stigmatize an entire religious community, such as those explicitly aimed at ‘Sharia law,’ are inconsistent with some of the core principles and ideals of American jurisprudence.”

To set the record straight, one should note that anti-Sharia legislation has been defeated in Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma and the fight continues in states such as Michigan.

Is Sharia the law of the land in Muslim countries? How does the implementation differ?

Traditionally, Muslim countries have belonged to one of four major schools of law that developed in the 10th century. These legal schools interpreted Sharia somewhat differently on various matters but they were understood to be equally orthodox and valid. Today, Islamic legal rulings are applied primarily in the area of personal and family law, which governs issues of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, among others.

Civil law in most Muslim majority countries is based upon modern Western legal systems, a legacy of the period of European colonization of much of the Islamic world starting in the 19th century. Thus, Egypt borrowed the French civil code, while Turkey adopted Swiss civil law and Indonesia Dutch. The notable exceptions are Saudi Arabia and Iran, which apply Islamic law in the civil and public sphere as well. In the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, tribal law known as jirga law sometimes takes precedence over Islamic law.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries.