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Sharî'ah: Between Two Popes

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While it started out as a minor footnote, opposition to sharî'ah has now morphed into the mantra by which many justify their opposition to the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." If we allow this mosque to go forth, so the logic goes, the next thing you know, all the bars in the country will be shut down (and those infidel lushes flogged!), all the women will be draped in sheets, and Muhammad will replace Jacob as the most popular name in America. Allahu akbar!

While some of this hysteria is clearly being peddled by people who know better, most Americans are probably just engaged in a good-faith attempt to understand and respond to sharî'ah through the only prism they have: their own historical experience. I was recently reminded of this on a visit to Cairo, during which time two popes, one Catholic, the other Coptic, expressed almost mutually contradictory sentiments about sharî'ah. The chasm separating their perspectives related not to their different levels of knowledge about sharî'ah but almost entirely to their differences in historical experience.

I arrived in Cairo on the first of June. On 29 May, the High Administrative Court of Egypt had ordered the Coptic Church to issue marriage licenses to divorced Copts who wanted to remarry. The Church demurred, arguing that this went against official Church doctrine, according to which adultery, death or apostasy were the only legitimate reasons for divorce and thus the only basis upon which the Church could issue licenses to remarry. Because the couples in question did not fit any of these criteria, the Church insisted that it could not issue such licenses and that, in the name of religious freedom, the High Court should not try to force it to do so.

For the next three weeks (I left on June 19) Egyptian papers teemed with coverage of what was developing into a constitutional crisis -- demonstrations, letter-writing, rallies, the whole nine. Those who supported the secular character of the Egyptian state -- Muslim or Christian -- argued that in the name of equality (Muslims are free to divorce and remarry) and human rights (marriage is a fundamental right) the Coptic Church should either issue the licenses or be forced to do so by the state. The most interesting position, however, was that of the Church itself. In addition to religious freedom it invoked sharî'ah in its defense! Time and again, Church officials publicly invoked such sharî'ah maxims as, "When confronted with People of the Book (Jews and Christians), adjudicate among them on the basis of their own religion." The Coptic patriarch, Pope Shanoudah III, even went so far as to quote the Qur'ân directly in his weekly sermon: "Let the People of the Bible adjudicate according to what God revealed therein. And whoever does not adjudicate in accordance to what God reveals, they are among the corrupt" (5: 47). As if these statements were not explicit enough, in an interview published on 10 June in the official Ahram newspaper, Pope Shanoudah stated plainly and without equivocation, "We simply ask the judges, if they want to reconcile with the Church, to apply the Islamic sharî'ah."

It would be disingenuous, of course, to read more than tactical sophistication into the Pope's and the Church's position. After all, Pope Shanoudah did not rush out to sign up with the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, their statements and protestations make it clear that he and the Church understood that under sharî'ah they would enjoy the right to preserve their way of life as Christians and that the rules governing Muslims do not automatically extend to non-Muslims. One can thus imagine my surprise to read, also in the Ahram newspaper, statements by Pope Benedict XVI in which he expressed, during a visit to Cypress, fears about how Christians in the Middle East would fair under the rising tide of sharî'ah-minded Islamic resurgence. Rather than seeing in sharî'ah any protection for the rights of Christians or other minorities, Pope Benedict could only imagine it to be a threat to his co-religionists. What accounts for this difference between these two popes?

For Pope Shanoudah, sharî'ah took its definitive political character under the pre-modern order, when non-Muslim communities existed before the Muslim state, and and rather than obliterate these, the state merely required them to recognize its sovereignty. For Pope Benedict, sharî'ah was seen through the prism of modern Western history, where it was presumed to be the uniform law of a homogenizing nation-state that decides if, how and according to what rules communities are to exist. For Pope Shanoudah, sharî'ah included a palpable element of "live and let live." For Pope Benedict, sharî'ah was simply "the law of the land" -- for everyone.

Most Americans share the perspective of Pope Benedict XVI. While some of this is based on simple prejudice and the massive amount of disinformation being spread about sharî'ah, I suspect that most of it is based on the simple fact that people simply view sharî'ah through the prism of their own experience as citizens of a modern state. Just as the modern state applies a single régime of rules equally across the board to all citizens, so too, they assume, must sharî'ah. This, by the way, is not only the assumption of Pope Benedict and most non-Muslim Americans; many Muslims have also imbibed this understanding. But as Pope Shanoudah's and the Coptic Church's tactic demonstrates, this is more indebted to Western success at universalizing its narrative than it is to the intrinsic nature of sharî'ah itself. Bottom line? Sharî'ah accommodated the existence and lifestyles of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians and countless others. It can live with a few bars and miniskirts and lots of Jacobs in modern America -- multiracial, multicultural, multireligious modern America.

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