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Who's Afraid of Shariah?

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Hasn't the whole notion of shariah in America gotten a bit out of control? No, it hasn't -- it's gotten hugely, obscenely, ignorantly out of control. How many of those anti-Islam protesters holding "NO SHARIA LAW" signs (as if anyone were advocating shariah law in the U.S.) actually know what the word means? I'd say, oh, none. Roughly.

Shariah (also spelled shari'ah or sharia or shari'a) is the Arabic word for "the road to the watering place." In a religious context, it means "the righteous path." Loosely, it can mean simply, "Islam."

There are six principles of shariah. They are derived from the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the word of God. All Islamic religious rules must be in line with these six principles of shariah.

Aha! The six principles must be about killing infidels, veiling women, stoning people for adultery, honor killings and female genital cutting, right? Nope.

Here they are, the six principles of shariah:

1. The right to the protection of life.
2. The right to the protection of family.
3. The right to the protection of education.
4. The right to the protection of religion.
5. The right to the protection of property (access to resources).
6. The right to the protection of human dignity.

Well, bless me, as a pledge-of-allegiance-reciting, California-raised Muslim girl, these six principles sound a lot like those espoused in my very own Constitution of the United States. Except that these were developed over a thousand years ago.

This is the core of shariah -- these six principles. The term "shariah law" is a misnomer, because shariah is not law, but a set of principles. To Muslims, it's the general term for "the way of God."

But how do we know what the way of God is? Early Muslims looked to the Qur'an and the words of the Prophet Muhammad to figure this out. They filled books of interpretive writings (called fiqh) about how to act in accordance with the way of God. They rarely agreed -- the fiqh is not just one rule, but many differing opinions and contradictory rules and scholarly debates.

Sometimes, shariah also refers to the whole body of Islamic texts, which includes the Qur'an, the sayings of the Prophet, and the books of interpretive literature written by medieval Muslim scholars. The first two are considered divine. The interpretive literature, the fiqh, is not.

The fiqh was meant to develop and change according to the time and place -- it has internal methodologies for that to happen. It is not static, but flexible. No religion gets to be 1400 years old and the second largest in the world unless it's flexible and adaptable.

The Qur'an is old. The fiqh books of jurisprudence are old. To modern eyes, they can look just as outdated as other ancient texts, including the Bible and Torah. That's why, just like the Bible and the Torah, the Islamic texts must be read in their historical context.

Assuming all Muslims follow medieval Islamic rules today is like assuming that all Catholics follow 9th century canon law. Islam, like Christianity, has changed many times over the centuries, and it continues to change. Focusing only on the nutcases who advocate a return to medieval times is ignoring the vast majority of modern Muslims.

For example, stoning for adultery is a punishment that appears in fiqh, as well as early Judaic law. But it does not appear in the Qur'an. In Islam, therefore, stoning was a result of cultural norms imposed on the religious texts. Moreover, in the fiqh, though the punishment for adultery was stoning, adultery was made such a fantastically difficult crime to prove that the punishment was impossible to apply. Historically, stoning was very rarely implemented in the Islamic world, which is ironic, since today the Saudi and Iranian governments apply it as though they'd never heard of the strict Islamic constraints on it.

The vast majority of Muslims today do not believe in stoning people for adultery, and many are working hard to eradicate it. Stoning is horrific and has no place in our world. The miniscule percentage of Muslims who advocate it are imposing the medieval penalty while ignoring all the myriad limitations meant to make it inapplicable.

As for other scary stories attributed to shari'a, like honor killings, veiling of women, and female genital cutting, these are cultural practices and not Islamic. They are practiced by non-Muslims of certain cultures as well as Muslims.

Shari'a is a set of religious principles and is not the law of the land anywhere in the world. The 50-some Muslim-majority countries are all constitutional states and nearly all of them have civil codes (many of these based on the French system). Being Muslim does not require a governmental imposition of something called "shari'a law," any more than being a Christian requires the implementation of "Biblical law" (though there are, of course, a tiny minority of both Christians and Muslims who do advocate such things, including Sarah Palin).

As for Islam being a political system, there is nothing in the Qur'an about an "Islamic state," and the Prophet himself never tried to implement an "Islamic state," despite hysterical accusations to the contrary. Those under his leadership practiced a variety of religions.

Traditionally, in the Islamic world, the institutions that governed were always separate from the institutions that developed religion. In fact, they often checked and balanced one another. Although no civilization has been free from all conflict, every Islamic empire was a multi-religious, multicultural empire, in which religious minorities were governed by their own laws.

The term "Islam as a religion and a state" really only became popular in the 1920s, as a reaction to Western colonization of the Muslim world. In fact, Islam contains plenty of concepts consistent with modern democracy -- for example, shura (consultation) and aqd (a contract between the governed and the governing). In other words, Muslims can be perfectly comfortable in America, following state and federal laws.

The Qur'an contains many verses advocating religious tolerance, too, though the anti-Islam protesters won't believe it. The Qur'an says that: God could have made everyone into one people, but elected not to (11:118); God made us into different nations and tribes so that we can learn from one another (49:13); there is no compulsion in religion (2:256); and that we should say, "to you your religion, to me mine" (109:6).

The only verses about fighting in the Qur'an refer specifically to the polytheistic Arab tribes who were trying to kill the Prophet in the 7th century. So the Islamophobes who look in the Qur'an for the fighting verses and assume that these verses refer to them personally are simply being narcissistic. Contrary to counting Jews and Christians as "infidels," the Qur'an repeatedly commands particular respect of Jews and Christians. It is established in Islam that you don't need to be Muslim to go to heaven.

Repeating a lie over and over again doesn't make it true; but it certainly results in people believing the lie. That's what the Islam-haters are counting on. That, and the ignorance about Islamic tenets.

So the best thing to do is find out what Islam really is about. Talk to a Muslim in person. Read an introduction to Islam (try a fun one like mine). Read Loonwatch to read about the holes in the anti-Islamic rhetoric. Or take a look at the University of Georgia's informational website on Islam, for some quick answers and further reading. If you read the anti-Islam fear-mongering websites, all you'll learn will be tall tales.

Bigotry may be a human tendency, but America has never stood for bigotry. I believe in an America that stands for pluralism and multicultural understanding. The hysteria and hate toward Muslims - resulting in several acts of violence against Muslims just this week, such as a stabbing and arson - is un-American. We must stop it, and the first step is understanding and education.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law, as well as the author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing."

Around the Web

Sharia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sharia law: A brief introduction

Islam: Governing Under Sharia - Council on Foreign Relations

BBC - Religions - Islam: Sharia

For critics of Islam, 'sharia' a loaded word

Hundreds Rally Against 'Sharia Mosque' Near Ground Zero