Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What is Sharia Law?

I put up the following post on the NYtimes discussion board on Stanley Fish's column on the relationship between Shariah law and American Law:

It's amazing that so much discussion takes place over Sharia Law by people who have no idea what it is, whether or not the term refers to a single consistent point of view, or whether there are any significant number of U.S. Muslims who want Sharia law. I include myself in this category, but I'd like to clear up my ignorance on this topic. I do know that Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban had significantly different ideas of what it consisted of. (although they are all pretty vile in their respective ways.) Isn't it possible that there are other interpretations of Sharia Law which are not that different from American Law? And how many Muslims in America actually want Sharia? Has anyone taken a poll? I have never seen a single demonstration in America demanding it. My guess is most US Muslims came here to get away from it.

Later I discovered another poster had given me something like an answer to my question:

"Must a devout Muslim choose between his or her faith and the letter of the law of the land?"

NO - and that's from Islamic doctrinal perspective.

When Muslims migrate to countries not governed by Islamic sharia or tradition (yes, there are Muslim countries that do not embrace sharia law), they are commanded to obey the laws of the country they reside in as long as those laws do not prevent them from carrying out their basic duties as Muslims.

To use some simplistic examples, under sharia it is permissible but not required for a man to have up to four wives. A man can have one wife and still be able to fulfill all his duties as a Muslim in any country. Therefore, according to Islam, he needs to follow US law and marry only one wife and duly punished under US law if he chooses to flout it.

On the other hand, if a law were passed that every person has to eat bacon with every meal then the law is in direct conflict with some of the basic tenents of Islam and Muslims are exhorted to move away from areas where laws conflict with religious practice.

France is a more nuanced case because of the burqa ban. The Quran directs women to "dress modestly" but does not explicitly advocate a burqa - that's a tradition passed on from the Saudis. The burqa vs niqab debate is still ongoing in the Muslim world, so technically the jury is still out on whether one can live as a devout Muslim there. Of greater concern is that a country felt it had to single out a minority religion for discrimination.

As a Muslim I find it ridiculous Prof Fish has decided to make an issue of a problem that does not exist. If he had simply looked into actual Islamic law, he might not have had to write this column as yet more fodder for the Tea Partiers. And for the record, no, I do not have references for my assertions. This was all taught to me long ago in my Islamic studies class in a muslim country (Pakistan).

It looks like I'm going to have to start reading about Sharia law these days, given that so many apparently unfounded statements are being made about it.