What Does Shari’ah Mean?

My colleague, Sarah Posner, has written a wonderful expose of the “Shari’ah Conspiracy Industry” here at RD. I want to offer some additional reflections as to why the idea of shari’ah, as it is being used by both Muslims and non-Muslims, is problematic and not representative of the tradition. In fact, the shari’ah that so-called security experts fear is a figment of their, and Muslim extremists’, imaginations. It’s a vision that thankfully can never come to pass.

Sarah quotes a recent interview with Intisar Rabb on the nature of shari’ah. Rabb says, “Sharia is the ideal law of God according to Islam,” that is guided by principles of “justice, fairness, and the good life.” Because the law of God is an ideal that people will struggle to define, “Sharia has tremendous diversity, as jurists and learned scholars figure out and articulate what that law is.”

I like Rabb’s description of shari’ah, because she describes it as aspirational. It is not something that Muslims have achieved, or will achieve. There is a constant struggle to define what it is, and what it means to live the “good life.” It is the Muslim equivalent of living the “Christ-like Life.”

This means that there is no one thing called shari’ah, but a wide variety of interpretations. It takes a certain amount of mind-twisting logic to look at Saudi Arabia’s laws that it calls shari’ah, where women are not allowed to drive and Iran’s laws that it calls shari’ah, where women are integral part of the government, and say that these systems form a unitary whole.

There are certain laws that come out of Qur’an for which all Muslims agree are clear limits. These include commands not to murder, not to steal, to give charity, to avoid pork and alcohol. Things like adultery are also forbidden, but to punish adultery, you need for male, adult witnesses to the act, so the Qur’an actually makes punishing personal indiscretions nearly impossible, a point often ignored by Muslim-majority nation-states that seek to impose such punishments.

Even in Muslim-minority contexts, the idea of shari’ah is turned into a false god that these individuals worship. An example of this is the recent attempt to launch a pro-shari’ah rally in Washington, DC by the English equivalent of Fred Phelps, Anjem Choudary.

The opportunitistic, demagoguery and fraud that Choudary perpetrates is well-known amongst watchers of politicized religions. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a well-known expert on terrorism, identifies the problem as media whoring. He says, “One lesson from our experience with would-be Quran burner Terry Jones is that when fringe or relatively fringe figures… are given a great amount of media exposure, it generally increases their power rather than diminishing it.” Sure enough, the other actors striving for media attention were there, with Frank Gaffney and Terry Jones fighting over who had more right to be more hateful. Choudary, Gaffney, and Jones claim to agree on what shari’ah is, but no one else can seem to do it.

The problem is when supposedly liberal commentators like Nick Kristof get into the shari’ah game. In a recent column, he attempts to say that Islam is not the problem holding back “the Muslim world” economically, but “Islamic law.” He actually starts out commenting that looking for one cause of “Muslim world” decline is problematic and you cannot look at the religion as the sole cause. However, he then assigns blame to the sole cause of shari’ah. His blinders are on to such an extent that he is arguing against the estate tax that makes sure property is not concentrated in the hands of a self-perpetuating elite. Shari’ah has now become a trope upon which we can blame all evils of the world.

Instead of this model of discourse, we have various actors, Muslims and non-Muslims, who have turned shari’ah into a static beast that has little to no hope of being salvaged; a false god that actually inhibits spiritual and faith-based discourses. The reality is that Muslim-majority countries cannot agree on what shari’ah is, and not one of them has successfully implemented anything approaching shari’ah. If they can’t do it where they are in power, I am not sure how they can do it in a diverse Muslim population that is an insignificant portion of the overall US population, and where the Constitution is the law of the land. The separation of church and state is a good thing, and it’s not Muslims in this country who are advocating getting rid of it.