Sharia: A Fabricated Threat

In recent weeks, “sharia” has become the favorite buzzword of many a politician, blogger, and pundit.  We heard the word at Peter King’s second round of Muslim radicalization hearings, in remarks made by presidential hopefuls at the recent GOP debate, and in T.V. appearances by blogger/activists who claim to fight “radical Islam.”

We also heard it on the floors of state legislatures during the last several months as more than 20 states proposed bans against the usage of “sharia, foreign, or Islamic law” in U.S. courts.  A few bans passed, like the one in Oklahoma, where 70% of voters assented to a constitutional amendment banning the consideration of sharia or international law in U.S. courts.

Why this continuous discussion of and fervent concern for “creeping sharia?”  Is it really a threat?

Despite the claims of the aforementioned groups—that Muslim radicals are attempting to supersede the Constitution by implementing sharia law—Muslim-Americans have not been pushing for anything of the sort.  If they had been, I’m sure we would have heard about it—the media would be all over it.  As of now, we have only heard about sharia from non-Muslim newsmakers, those who tell us that it poses a threat but have no solid evidence to back up their claims (except an intentionally-botched understanding of Islam.)

I like to believe that people act with good intentions, and I really hate to claim that those who perpetuate this fear of “creeping sharia” are doing so to get political points, a new book contract, or the chance to be an “expert” on CNN.  But I can’t find any other reason why so many people—with very prominent voices in our society—are devoting their lives to making Muslim-Americans’ lives so unnecessarily hard.

Scapegoating Islam and Muslims has become politically and financially rewarding, and people like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, Rep. Allen West, and Brigitte Gabriel have realized that.  Playing on Americans’ ignorance of Islam, they and others have created and exploited a climate of fear to get reelected, make money, or experience fame, whether or not they are willing to admit that to their audience, or even to themselves.

The easiest way these Islamophobes (I use this term to talk about people who manufacture and then capitalize on fear of Islam) to do their work is by taking a previously unknown but seemingly menacing word like sharia, and attach their own sinister meanings and interpretations.  They simplify their message about sharia, and purposefully ignore the nuance and complexity that surrounds sharia, or any other religious concept for that matter.

This is why it’s all the more important for me and others to help disseminate the actual meaning of sharia.  I hope to do that here with the help of a few good articles on the subject.  The three pieces from which I will quote extensively are the best articles I’ve read on the topic because they present the complexities and real meaning of sharia clearly and, most importantly, without getting defensive or huffy.  If I was Muslim and my religious practice was being questioned and misconstrued everyday, I would get pretty annoyed and angry, and I’m pretty sure that frustration would show up in my writing.  So I’m amazed by the poise with which these Muslims (two of the following experts quoted are Muslim) respond to ignorance and hate in both word and speech.  I’m sure it’s a hard thing to do.

What is sharia?

Literally, sharia means “a path to the watering hole” in Arabic.  And that’s what sharia is—a guide to living a good, Islamic life.  But as Georgetown professor and Islam expert, John Esposito puts it, “many Muslims and non-Muslims have come to confuse and use the terms ‘Shariah’ and ‘Islamic law’ interchangeably.”  Sharia is not a law book, he says, but a guide for Muslims informed by the Qur’an and the sayings and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.  “Early jurists used revelation as well as reason to create a body of laws to govern their societies. But, over time, these man-made laws came to be viewed as sacred and unchangeable.”

As Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the chair of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions, describes, “sharia is not one monolithic body” and not all parts are agreed upon by every Muslim:

“There are literally hundreds and thousands of books written in the last 1,400 years, in multiple languages in places as diverse as Timbuktu in Africa to Bukhara in Central Asia, with millions of opinions, judicial reviews, etc. on various issues. Together, they form the body of sharia.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who heads the Cordoba Initiative and the Park 51 building project in Manhattan, has this to say:

“At the core of Shariah law are God’s commandments, revealed in the Old Testament and revised in the New Testament and the Quran. The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law – that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty.”

Sharia: Living the faith

When Muslims carry out their daily life as believers, they are carrying out sharia.  Imam Mujahid’s description of lived sharia is probably the best one I’ve heard:

“You might have seen a government-required sign at a McDonald’s restroom telling employees to wash their hands. Muslims do this as a part of living their faith, which is called sharia in Arabic.

“When Muslims begin anything they say, ‘in the name of God’ –that is sharia. When they greet each other, they smile and say, ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ (peace be with you) –that is sharia.

“Muslims often avoid taking out mortgages due to the sharia prohibition on Riba (usury/interest). This has led to the establishment of the worldwide Islamic financial industry and Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes. The latter select companies that don’t deal in weapons, pornography, gambling, tobacco, or alcohol, etc. These investments are similar to 30 other ‘faith-based’ investment options, like the Catholic Values Index. These are examples of the practice of sharia in the realm of business.” 

Sharia: The bad parts we hear about

When discussing sharia, critics of Islam often bring up the violent and “sharia-enforced” punishments we hear about in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  They tend to reduce sharia to its penal code, which as I’ve explained is only a small part of the greater guide for living.

Imam Mujahid addresses sharia’s penal code and many Americans’ concerns about it:

“It is true that Islamic criminal law has been at times implemented harshly, and even wrongly, by some Muslims. Such an application of Islamic criminal law is void of God’s mercy, which is considered His primary attribute in Islam.

“There are parts of sharia—[the sometimes-violent penal code]–that Muslim Americans don’t implement in their daily lives.

“Since Muslims ran a civilization for over a thousand years, they naturally developed a body of laws to deal with governing society. These laws deal with issues ranging from fighting neighborhood crime to international laws of war and peace.

“Muslim Americans don’t practice these laws since they deal with the realm of government and state. sharia emphasizes that the rule of law in a society must be implemented by the state. It considers vigilantism a major crime and a sin. Therefore, sharia prohibits Muslims from practicing this part of Islam on an individual basis.”

Imam Abdul Rauf has this to add:

“Where there is a conflict [between secular law and the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad], it is not with Shariah law itself but more often with the way the penal code is sometimes applied. Some aspects of this penal code and its laws pertaining to women flow out of the cultural context.

“The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.”

A few final words from Imam Mujahid:

“When some American pundits call sharia, ‘a growing threat to the United States,’ Muslim Americans wonder what in the world are they talking about. Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observance, not with constitutions and laws. All observant Muslims practice sharia. Defining sharia as a threat, therefore, is the same thing as saying that all observant Muslims are a threat.

“To understand sharia is to understand Islam. Criminalizing sharia will criminalize the practice of Islam in America.”

Islamophobic politicians and pundits often claim they have “no problem” with peaceful, practicing Muslims; they simply have a problem with sharia.  But, as I’ve discussed here, Muslims can’t be Muslim without sharia—without greeting one another with a friendly “Assalaamu alaikum,” without performing ablutions, and without giving charity.

Preventing our Muslim friends and neighbors from doing these things just seems senseless.

__________

Main articles cited:

-The complete article featuring John Esposito, which also defines other buzz words like “jihad” and “taqiyya”

-Imam Mujahid’s op-ed

-Imam Abdul Rauf’s op-ed

About jdenari

Research Fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
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7 Responses to Sharia: A Fabricated Threat

  1. KT says:

    I found this in the Wikipedia article on Sharia:

    The punishment depends on whether the criminal was convicted of qesas, hudud, or tazir.
    In a tazir crime, the penalty would be usually a prison sentence, corporal punishment in some countries, or a execution in a more serious case (such as a case that was not prosecuted as hudud, like rape/drug trafficking). Since hudud crimes are extremely hard to punish, this is the usual route that would be taken. Stoning and amputation would certainly not be carried out in a tazir sentence, and the punishment would not be fixed, but discretionary. Most countries have a civil code that regulates the penalties that should be received in a tazir crime, such as a death sentence in the case of drug trafficking aggravated rape, or prison time in the case of other offenses.
    In the rarest of rare case (more common in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under Taliban rule) when a person is convicted of a hudud crime, the punishment is much harsher. In accordance with the Qur’an and several hadith, theft is punished by imprisonment or amputation of hands. Several requirements are in place for the amputation of hands, they are:
    There must have been criminal intent to take private (not common) property.
    The theft must not have been the product of hunger, necessity, or duress.
    The goods stolen must: be over a minimum value, not haraam, and not owned by the thief’s family.
    Goods must have been taken from custody (i.e. not in a public place).
    There must be reliable witnesses.
    All of these must be met under the scrutiny of judicial authority.[Qur'an 5:38]
    In accordance with hadith, stoning to death is the penalty for married men and women who commit adultery. In addition, there are several conditions related to the person who commits it that must be met. One of the difficult ones is that the punishment cannot be enforced unless there is a confession of the person, or four male eyewitnesses who each saw the act being committed. All of these must be met under the scrutiny of judicial authority. For unmarried men and women, the punishment prescribed in the Qur’an and hadith is 100 lashes.
    The “four witness” standard comes from the Qur’an itself, a revelation Muhammad announced in response to accusations of adultery leveled at his wife, Aisha: “Why did they not produce four witnesses? Since they produce not witnesses, they verily are liars in the sight of Allah.”[Qur'an 24:13]
    Punishments are authorized by other passages in the Qur’an and hadiths for certain crimes (e.g., extramarital sex, adultery), and are employed by some as rationale for extra-legal punitive action while others disagree:
    “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Qur'an 24:2] “Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils).”[Qur'an 17:32]
    Leaving Islam/Apostasy

    In most interpretations of Sharia, conversion by Muslims to other religions or becoming non-religious, is strictly forbidden and is termed apostasy. Non-Muslims, however, are allowed to convert into Islam. Muslim theology equates apostasy to treason, and in most interpretations of Sharia, the penalty for apostasy is death.
    During the time of Muhammad, treason and apostasy were considered one and the same; nowadays, many scholars differentiate between treason and apostasy, believing that the punishment for apostasy is not death, while the punishment for treason is death.
    The accusation of apostasy may be used against non-conventional interpretations of the Qur’an. The severe persecution[weasel words] of the famous expert in Arabic literature, Nasr Abu Zayd, is an example of this. Similar accusations and persecutions[weasel words] were famously leveled against the author Salman Rushdie.

    • jdenari says:

      Would you mind explaining your point? I realize that I excluded many examples of sharia teaching, but as I did say in my post, many of parts of the penal code are disagreed upon by many Muslims. Remember, the sharia is made up of contributions of thousands of scholars, many of whom have competing views on these issues.

      Those few that do adhere to the more violent guidelines of sharia often do so as an excuse to uphold their patriarchal society.

      Also, I would suggest getting your information from a place other than Wikipedia. It’s often a good starting point, but the information is hard to verify and often is incomplete.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

  2. KT says:

    Why did you specifically exclude the violent beliefs according to Sharia? I think you definitely have an agenda and it is in protecting Muslims rather than ordinary Americans.

    What about the most recent study showing that a great number of mosques in the United States have materials that openly support violence in Sharia? And, preach that violence is acceptable?

    “First, of the 100 mosques surveyed, 51% had texts on site rated as severely advocating violence; 30% had texts rated as moderately advocating violence; and 19% had no violent texts at all. Mosques that presented as Sharia adherent were more likely to feature violence-positive texts on site than were their non-Sharia-adherent counterparts. In 84.5% of the mosques, the imam recommended studying violence-positive texts. The leadership at Sharia-adherent mosques was more likely to recommend that a worshipper study violence-positive texts than leadership at non-Sharia-adherent mosques. Fifty-eight percent of the mosques invited guest imams known to promote violent jihad. The leadership of mosques that featured violence-positive literature was more likely to invite guest imams who were known to promote violent jihad than was the leadership of mosques that did not feature violence-positive literature on mosque premises.”

    http://frontpagemag.com/2011/06/10/sharia-and-violence-in-american-mosques/

    BTW – I would like you to prove these so called Islamaphobes wrong, and by this I mean provide evidence that what they say on their site is false, or the information on all the violence they expose is false? I think what you claim to be Islamaphobia is really the reality of Islam, and more than of just a few who either support or partake in the violent aspects of Islam.

    How do you explain the evidence in Dearborn Michigan, where other other religious groups – not Islam – is treated like a second class citizen without freedom of religion or freedom of speech rights? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEPod-hxD7g

    and here is more information on Dearborn – http://the-american-catholic.com/2010/06/24/sharia-in-dearborn/

    • jdenari says:

      First of all, Muslims are ordinary Americans, and I am offended that you differentiate between the two. I am wondering, have you met any Muslims? Do you have any Muslim friends? I think before learning about Islam from people like David Horowitz and David Yerushalmi (whose organization and study who referenced) you should try talking to some Muslims in your own community. That might give you a clearer picture of Muslims in America.

      And yes, I do have an agenda: presenting a more realistic image of Muslims and combatting the intentionally untrue images spread by Islamophobes.

      With regard to the violent parts of sharia, they are disagreed upon by many Muslims. In Islam, there is no official hierarchy, so people are free to agree and disagree with certain parts of sharia. Every imam I’ve heard speak on sharia believes that violent punishments have no place in American society. I’ll re-quote Imam Abdul Rauf from my post: “The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.”

      I’d also like to respond to the study you mentioned, which I’ve read before. David Yerushalmi, who conducted the study, and David Horowitz, who runs the Freedom Center, spend their time trying to demonize Muslims and creating unnecessary fear. Some of the study’s evidence in determining whether U.S. mosques are radical were things like: Does the imam wear his watch on his right or left hand? Does the imam encourage his congregation stand in straight lines? I have a hard time taking these kind of things seriously. And the study also talks about “sharia-compliant mosques,” implying that they are more radical. As I said in my post, all Muslims follow some form of sharia, the ever-evolving guide to Muslim life, so I would think all mosques are sharia compliant.

      Once again, I encourage you to spend some time with Muslims in your community. Then we can talk.

  3. KT says:

    I will agree that probably a majority of Muslims living here in the United States are ordinary Americans, or moderate Muslims. But I would also contend that many of the moderate Muslims don’t adhere to Sharia law or substantial portions of the law. But, I think you are underestimating the threat that radical Islam poses to the United States, and the number of Muslims who either support violence silently, promote violence, or are engaged in violence is far more prevalent than you would have me believe. Do you believe that there are any mosques within the US that support violence? Some people can be blinded to reality and I believe you are an example of another sheep falling for wolves in sheep’s clothing. But, do prove me wrong.

    So, your going to wimp out because you can’t prove me wrong? Prove my beliefs about Islam wrong and provide facts that counter some of Pamela Geller’s articles wrong.

    Send a peaceful Muslim my way – Pittsburgh Pa – Do you have connections? If you want me to believe you and want me to believe that most Muslims are peaceful then please do at least send me in the right direction. .

  4. jdenari says:

    To get to know Muslims, I would seek out the mosques/Islamic centers in your community and see if you can visit for Friday prayers or organize a community service day with your church and the mosque. You can also visit these websites, which tell the stories of Muslim-Americans and their friends:
    -My Best Friend is Muslim: http://www.mybestfriendismuslim.com/
    -My Fellow American: http://myfellowamerican.us/videos/my_fellow_american_wardah.html
    -Change the Story: http://www.changethestory.net/?q=content/meet-your-neighbor
    I am very involved in the Muslim Students Association at my university, and MSAs in the Pittsburgh area might be good resources for you too.

    Sure, there are likely mosque leaders and Muslim congregants in America who endorse violence, just as there likely are pastors and Christian congregants who support violence and other sinful acts. As Catholics, you and I both know that when other Catholics use our religion in an attempt to justify acts that harm society, it is because they lack a true understanding of our faith and pick-and-choose portions of Catholicism that will serve their sinister ends.

    I don’t think I underestimate the threat of violence and terrorism in the U.S. I am actually quite worried about the rise in hate crimes we’ve seen in recent years–crimes especially intended to terrorize Muslims.

    Part of what I’m doing on my blog is trying to respond to some of the falsehoods and simplifications presented by Geller and others. If you’re interested in hearing my responses, I suggest subscribing to my blog.

    Also, your blog is written by a few individuals–who have I been speaking to?

  5. Pingback: Trends we can’t ignore: 3) The recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes | Jordan Denari

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