“Sharia Law” is a scary little phrase. It is short, foreign-sounding, easy to pronounce and vaguely threatening – everything you need to get a big reaction. Snippets and quotes from Sharia law are often thrown about, supposedly proving an entire faith is irredeemably backwards and violent.
But what is Sharia? Where does it come from? If it has no legitimacy, why do millions of Muslims follow some form of Sharia, all over the world? We could all stand to know the basics.
The vast majority of Muslims, 85-90 percent, follow the Sunni tradition, so I will address Sunni Islam here. (Shia and Sufi Islam have fascinating variations, but that is a topic for another time.)
No matter what you might’ve heard on TV, Sharia is not the top document in the Islamic hierarchy. That space is held by the Qu’ran, an un-amendable constitution, the Islamic “Word of God.” Below that are the Sunnah and Hadith, the deeds and words of the prophets. Think of these as old Supreme Court decisions, still binding but open to interpretation. Then comes Sharia and Fiqh, a.k.a. jurisprudence – how the law is applied in daily life.
But who makes the rules? There is no “pope” figure in Sunni Islam, no centralized authority on matters of religion. Unlike Christianity, Islam is highly decentralized, with no person any closer to God than any other. When a question of faith is presented, the believer can make his own choices in regard to interpreting scripture.
Islamic jurisprudence is a scholarly pursuit. Just as you’d call a chemistry professor to ask about a chemical reaction, so too do Muslims turn to scholars with education in religion. The four denominations of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’I, are bodies of consensus on interpreting what Sharia should be – religious think-tanks. Each school puzzles out Sharia from the consensus of the Prophet’s companions, analogy to primary sources, prior rulings by jurists, and local customs and practice. Imagine these as longstanding circuit splits.
Sharia is a wildly diverse, regionally varied set of beliefs and behavior codes based on what interpretation a believer finds persuasive. In its ideal state, Sharia is an ongoing debate on the word of God, as well as what is best for the Islamic and local community. It is loose and adaptable to its environment, and seeks justice over all. The Qu’ran is unequivocal in saying, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” (Surah al- Baqara 256.) A scholar must persuade me that his interpretation is correct before I take his word for it.
So where did things go wrong? When did “sharia” start meaning lopping off limbs? In the US, we are deeply concerned about the separation of church and state, and all but the most avid Tea-Partiers strive to keep religion out of the government.
Middle East dictatorships have the opposite problem. Mosques are supported by tax dollars, and Imams’ lives and livelihoods depend on towing a tyrant’s line. Leaders keep the people in ignorance, and use puppets to cloak their abuses with farcical sermons that validate executions, oppression, and mass imprisonment. This creates a new, darker school of thought far from any of the traditional beliefs. The state controls God and religion.
A direct product of that corruption is groups like ISIS or Al-Qada, who profess to restore the faith to a purity that never truly existed, yet both they and the regimes they oppose believe the same twisted doctrine of unrestrained violence and rule by force and fear. Neither remembers that almost every chapter of the Qu’ran opens with “Bismillah A Rahman ir Raheem” or “In the Name of Allah, the most gracious and most merciful.” Mercy becomes a conveniently ignored part of that constitution.
Climate change is a good analogy. Despite scientific consensus that climate change is real and humans are driving it, you can always find at least one “industry expert” who will say it is not. That gossamer legitimacy is enough to persuade US senators. Islam’s lack of centralized authority makes it vulnerable to the same kind of cherry-picking. With no centralized orthodoxy, anything can be validated if you can find a scholar to base it on, even against consensus.
Sharia is better understood not as an ominous “Them,” but as another way of saying “Law.” It cannot be disregarded out of hand as illegitimate, but must be met with the same respect as any other venerable legal system. Good and bad laws abound, and only through understanding and engagement can they be changed or challenged.
Philip Schreffler is a freelance general practice and civil litigator with a focus in business and corporate law based in Manchester.