Shari’ah ≠ Islamic Law: Misunderstanding the Role of Islam in Libya

After Libya’s interim leader Abdul-Jalil’s Sunday speech, many have raised concerns about the place of Shari’ah law in Libya. Of course, you could take Juan Cole’s angle on this, and ask why we weren’t as concerned about the Islamic nature of the “new” Iraq and Afghanistan. Omar Ashour speculates on the reason for the mention of Shari’ah, positing that firm references to the role of Islam might have something to do with appeasing the Islamist elements of Libya’s popular revolution.

To begin, a brief primer. Shari’ah is not quite Islamic law. It is, rather, “the path to the water,” the sum total of God’s revelation to humanity, through the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. What we call Islamic law, and what is often meant by Shari’ah, are interpretations of Shari’ah, attempts by humans to ascertain what God’s intent in a certain verse was, or what the Prophet Muhammad meant when he said something.

With that, there are three points to take away here.

First, references to the place of Shari’ah in politics matter less because of an abstract reference to Shari’ah, which is not ipso facto dangerous; rather, references to Shari’ah are better considered in light of who is interpreting that law, by what authority, and on which forms of appeal exist to balance, check, and contain those interpretations. This is where the reference to democracy comes in, but also the great challenge.

To my second point, many Muslim-majority states will make reference to Islam, and/or Shari’ah, in their political and cultural institutions—but not all of them. We just saw Tunisia’s “moderate” Islamist party, Ennahda, win that country’s first election, but Tunisia’s a lot like Turkey, and it’s hard to see Tunisia’s future constitution advocating a strong or rigid role for Islamic law. Because the boundaries between “democracy” and “Islam”—as between democracy and Christianity here in America—are unclear.

Libya can claim it wants democracy and Islamic law, and these are not necessarily contradictory; the question becomes: What kind of Islamic law? What happens when democracy and Islamic law conflict? Who arbitrates these disputes? Are they even possible to arbitrate? These will be difficult and serious questions, and perhaps have no easy answer. But all the same, it is unlikely we can see Arab democracies emerge where Islam, liberalism, socialism, nationalism and other trends do not overlap.

Finally, Libya’s political system is quite a muddle right now. It’s not clear what power the NTC has in deciding Libya’s future governance—but there are some signs of concern (why are issues like polygamy raised during the country’s liberation day?), as well as some rather obvious continuities. (The points on Islamic finance are far more interesting, intriguing in the present global economic crisis, and deserve expanded consideration.) For example, Qaddafi’s Libya was culturally and politically Islamic—in certain ways. It was Qaddafi’s authoritarian, and weird, interpretation of Islam, but all the same, Libya under Qaddafi’s freakish ideology was shaped by Qaddafi’s own relationship to Islam. The map of Islam in Libya isn’t clear, and it is shaped by many different sources, which suggests the possibility of a more pluralist attitude.

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