September 3, 2010


Lawless: ‘Sharia’ is a much more abstract concept than ideologues—whether Mideast Islamists or Newt Gingrich—suggest (Lee Smith, Aug 18, 2010, The Tablet)

By making sharia the focus of his fulminations, Gingrich has taken an almost hopelessly abstract concept and weighted it with an existential presence that it has never had in 1,400 years of Muslim history. Sharia is not a concrete legal code; it is the idealized notion of God’s law. Because there is no way to approach what is ostensibly divine except through human agency, sharia as such does not exist except as interpreted by human beings over the long course of Islamic history. The word “sharia” necessarily means many things to many people. Even though Islam is very simple in its basics, including conversion—you are a Muslim if you testify there is no God but God and Muhummad is the messenger of God—the faith comes with a fabulously esoteric scholarly tradition.

The access that Muslims have to sharia is through jurisprudence, or fiqh al-sharia, the comprehension of sharia. In Muslim history there were at least six major Sunni schools of law, with only four remaining (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i); in Shia Islam there are two major approaches, usuli, based on deriving principles, and akhbari, a scripturalist posture that believes all answers are already written down in the Quran and the sayings of the Shiite saints.

Of course, there is also difference of opinion as to the relevant texts. Except for the Quran, Sunnis and Shiites typically disagree about everything. As for the hadith, or sayings of the prophet, the Sunnis believe the relevant hadith are those of the prophet and his companions, the sahaba; for the Shia, the meaningful hadith are those of the prophet as well as the imams who followed him. To produce fiqh, the Shia also have aql, or intellect, whereas the Sunnis go by the principle of qiyas, or reasoning by analogy, and also ijma, or consensus. [...]

If to Gingrich sharia stands for everything wrong with Islam, Muslims associate it with all that is best about Islam—justice, accountability, the rule of law, and even democracy. That is to say, it’s a highly idealized version of reality that has little basis in fact. For most Muslims (moderate and non-moderate alike), sharia is a catchall phrase for legal principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies, where the law of the land is not God’s but the ruler’s. It is not abstract notions of “sharia” but the actual application of the ahkam al-sultaniyya, or laws of the ruler, that have shaped the reality of most Muslim societies over the last millennium.

The notion that something called “sharia” was widely imposed throughout the lands of Islam is an Orientalist fantasy. If Gingrich’s Orientalism—sharia represents an all-encompassing totalitarian force—is of the negative variety, positive Orientalism asserts that Muslim societies were just and well-administered until Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and the colonial legacy that ensued. The driving force behind this positive Orientalism is none other than the Islamist movement. For instance, the Islamists reasoned that the Arabs lost the 1967 war with Israel because they no longer practiced the true religion. Islam had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and Muslim societies needed to return to the essentials of the faith as practiced by the prophet of Islam and the righteous forebears, al-salaf. Those who adopted such ahistorical beliefs are known as salafists, whose ranks include a broad spectrum of Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the hands of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, sharia was another wedge used to divide Muslim populations from the ruling regimes. In time, the regimes adapted so that today the Egyptian constitution names sharia as its principle source of legislation, and the new Iraqi constitution cites it as a fundamental source; but this is essentially window-dressing to placate pious Muslims and ward off the Islamists.

The Islamists are hardly more specific about what sharia means. When Banna spoke of sharia to the Egyptian masses, he meant something similar to the empty Western left-wing mantra of “social justice.” In any case, the Islamist definition of sharia is something very different from the thousand-year-old enterprise that had devoted its scholarly energies to discerning how to understand and implement, if possible, God’s revealed word. Aside from notable exceptions like Youssef al-Qaradawi, almost none of the notables even vaguely affiliated with the Islamist movement are scholars. What they know about sharia is only slightly more than what Newt Gingrich thinks he knows about it.

It is surpassingly strange that a concept revived by Islamists as a political tool may now be serving a similar purpose in the United States, where sharia is no more likely to affect the American way of life than the burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians are likely to influence our funerary rites. When the organizer behind the lower Manhattan Islamic center, Imam Feisal Rauf, says that the U.S. legal system is “sharia-compliant,” he is not preparing the way for a regime of lashings and beheadings; he is engaging in a species of inter-Muslim apologetics—which are also pro-American, even if in a roundabout way.

Globalization is the strong horse and Islam, aided by being so weak, will --as the Imam demonstrates--rather easily adapt to it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 3, 2010 6:21 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus