This election cycle, we've heard plenty about the "threat of sharia" to American culture, but noting about how Muḥammad would vote the issues. What does Islamic law have to say about the federal deficit, tax-cuts, gay marriage and the other hot-button issues that President Obama and Gov. Romney have been fighting about so vehemently?
First, why is sharia talk important? It has featured in the Republican campaigns since the beginning, and many state campaigns as well. The myth told is that "sharia law" might be creeping into our system. For example, last year, former Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed anti-sharia pledges, citing fears of its "totalitarian control." Herman Cain kept up the fight against sharia, noting even after meeting with American Muslims to apologize for "any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it," that "[s]ome people would infuse Sharia Law in our courts system if we allow it. I honestly believe that." Just this August, the Republican Party adopted an amendment to its platform banning the "use of foreign law by U.S. Courts in interpreting our Constitution and laws ... [or] in State courts' adjudication of criminal and civil matters," in reference to the perceived threat of Islamic law.
But as attorney Abed Awad, who regularly handles cases involving components of Islamic law, has noted,
The true story of Sharia in American courts is not one of a plot for imminent takeover but rather another part of the tale of globalization. Marriages, divorces, corporations and commercial transactions are global, meaning that US courts must regularly interpret and apply foreign law. Islamic law has been considered by American courts in everything from the recognition of foreign divorces and custody decrees to the validity of marriages, the enforcement of money judgments, and the awarding of damages in commercial disputes and negligence matters.
What does sharia say about the issues that are relevant? What about voters who are interested in whether Islamic law could actually be relevant to the most pressing issues in this year's presidential election? For the most part, there has been little in the way of authoritative, accessible information. Now, a newly published guide from islawmix offers one expert's opinion on what Islamic law could have to say about the economy, healthcare, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and more.
Professor Mohammed Fadel, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, emphasizes an overarching theme that dictates the Islamic legal perspective on many of the issues, a common thread that seems to run through legal opinions regarding the economy, healthcare, immigration and education: that of distributive justice, the government's responsibility to provide, first and foremost, for the least well off in society. The more privileged, those with surplus wealth, are obligated to contribute to the wellbeing of the poor. This, Fadel says, is the spirit of the zakat, the obligatory annual almsgiving in the form of a tax on one's savings, and suggests that Islamic law would be supportive of a progressive income tax.
The same principle governs the Islamic approach to healthcare and education. Muslim jurists would most likely take the opinion that everyone should be afforded primary care, as per the belief in a public responsibility for the general welfare of the disadvantaged. And when a family cannot provide for a child's education, it is the government's obligation to step in. The Prophet Muhammad is recorded as having said, "to acquire knowledge is binding on all Muslims, whether male or female." Today's extremists denounce female education through violence, but young Muslim women like Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani activist shot by the Taliban earlier this month for advocating women's education, seem to understand this God-given right: "Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right."
And what about same-sex marriage and reproductive rights? Some things just aren't the domain of the state, under Islamic law. According to Professor Fadel, "one can certainly take the view, and I know a lot of Muslims might find this to be controversial, that we can support the idea of same-sex marriage because what we want is to make sure that all citizens have access to the same kinds of public benefits that other people do." Regarding reproductive rights, he notes that
Islamic law ... has [a] principle that respects the independence of women with respect to their own bodies, and who's in control of their own bodies -- there's a legal principle that said "al-nisaa' mu'taminaat 'ala arhamihinna," meaning that "women are the trustees of their wombs," so you can't second-guess what women say about their own reproduction ... In other words, even if one says that abortion is categorically sinful in all circumstances, one can nevertheless say that, as a political matter, that a woman should be free to choose to do that and she answers only to God.
So, while it's not possible to know how the Prophet Muhammad would vote, Professor Fadel's answers suggest that from an Islamic legal perspective, there is plenty of support for the idea that we have a collective responsibility to care for one another, and that the job of the government is to provide for the public good. One thing is clear: sensationalism aside, there's plenty about Islamic law that might surprise you.
Sarah Moawad is a Master's student in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is also a contributor to islawmix, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
Krystina Friedlander is the Senior Editor to islawmix.