by Michael Adams
Last week’s Democratic National Convention featured a pair of unexpected stars in the limelight, and with them the renewal of a controversial discussion throughout the country.
Khzir Khan, a Muslim American, whose son Humayun was killed in the line of duty as a Captain in the US Army, took the stage to denounce Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration on the grounds of unconstitutionality. Standing beside his wife Ghazala, Khan asked if the Republic presidential nominee had ever read the US Constitution. The most memorable image from the speech came just afterwards, when Khan told him “I will gladly lend you my copy,” and pulled a pocket Constitution from his breast pocket. Following the Convention, Khzir and Ghazala Khan have repeated their criticism in interview with major media outlets.
On the Sunday following Khan’s address, Trump took to Twitter and claimed he had been “brutally attacked,” also adding that Ghazala Khan had been forbidden to speak at the Convention. His retaliation against the parents of a fallen soldier has prompted reproach from within his own party. Noted Conservative columnist George Will, in an interview on Fox News, saw the incident as a new low in the election cycle. “Just when you think American politics has hit rock bottom,” Will said, “Mr. Trump rises—or stoops—to the challenge of saying there is no rock bottom to American politics.” Senator Lindsey Graham expressed a similar sentiment. “There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics, that you don’t do, like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier, even if they criticize you.”
This story is not about Mr. Khan, who is all over the place doing interviews, but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S. Get smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2016
Despite drawing the ire of noted Republican lawmakers, Donald Trump’s comments on the Khans have also been supported by members of the party, as well as members of his constituency. Alabama senator Jeff Sessions has claimed that “millions of Americans are in favor” of banning immigration from Muslims. Khzir Khan’s faith and personal views have also come under attack. Right-wing blogger and famed fake terrorist Wahid Shoebat published an article on his website with his antigay activist son, claiming to have linked Khan to radical Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. In a show of forceful rhetoric, Shoebat said Khan “wants to advance Sharia Law and bring Muslims into the United States.”
That first accusation—that Khzir Khan is an advocate of Sharia Law—and the character assassination it is meant to facilitate, bring us to the subject of this article. For years, the term Sharia Law has been invoked by lawmakers as a sort of legal boogeyman; brutal, misogynistic, the ultimate fusion of church and state. In America, the connotation is such that the words conjure images of terrorism and beheadings. The message being conveyed is clear: Sharia Law is the enemy in written form, and to allow it even one inch of foothold in this nation would mean our downfall.
— Blair Imani (@BlairImani) July 28, 2016
There is one flaw in the argument, however. Most of the time, when Sharia Law is brought up, there is no explanation or elaboration on exactly what it means. Still, fear over faith-based laws have led to bans of “foreign laws” in nine separate states, despite the fact that the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution is already in place to overrule any alternative legal systems. A lack of information on the subject means ordinary citizens have no basis on which to make their decisions other than political rhetoric, which has been shown to have a troubled relationship with fact. It is the purpose of this article to separate the myth from reality, and offer a more objective view on the topic than the public is typically afforded.
A simple question to start out with: What exactly is Sharia Law? Sharia is, at its most basic, the guidelines of Islam, a set of rules meant to govern the faith and its believers. To stop at that definition, however, would be an extreme simplification of Sharia.
While virtually all sects and divisions of Muslims accept the views of Muhammad, as stated in the Qu’ran, the Hadith, and the Sunnah, as being integral to Sharia, there is no one commonly accepted definition of exactly what constitutes Islamic law. The specificities have been debated for well over a thousand years, and a unified outlook is as unlikely as the Christian community accepting a single view of the Bible. Much like the Bible, there are schools of thought in Islam that believe Sharia Law should be derived from a strict interpretation of texts, as well as schools that stress the use of a believer’s personal conscience.
In Islam, Sharia represents divine guidelines as revealed to Muhammad, but is not necessarily the end of the discussion. Another critical term to understand—one less generously offered by mainstream media—is Fiqh, the human interpretation of Sharia. The word Fiqh is an Arabic term that translates to “understanding,” and its use underlines the fact that Islamic scholars are not necessarily trying to speak for God. Furthermore, these guidelines are not meant to govern nations, but instead serve as advice on how to practice the principles of the faith in a Muslim’s everyday life. Fiqh is meant to apply on a personal basis, while an entirely different term, Siyasa, is used when considering the needs of governments and the public. As Asifa Quaraishi, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains it:
“Fiqh distinguishes between the spiritual value of an action (how God sees it) and the worldly value of that action (how it affects others). Fiqh rules might obligate a devout Muslim to pray, but it’s not the job of a Muslim ruler to enforce that obligation. Fiqh is not designed to help governments police morality in the way, say, Saudi Arabia does today.”
Quaraishi’s mention of Saudi Arabian law brings up another key point to understanding Sharia. Detractors like to point to the legal system of Saudi Arabia, which is based on a literal interpretation of the uncodified Sharia, as evidence of the brutality of Islamic guidelines. Saudi Arabia is infamous the world over for conducting public executions for crimes such as homosexuality and witchcraft, as well as the extremely limited rights of women in the country. For anyone looking to paint Islam as a violent religion, despite whoever fights against that interpretation, the policies of Saudi Arabia and ISIS are the staple crops of their argument.
Once again, painting all Muslims and all Islamic legal systems with this same brush avoids addressing the full breadth of the issue. The Saudi’s brand of Sharia comes from the Qu’ran, the Sunnah, and the consensus of early Muslims. Notably, it does not leave room for any analysis or interpretation of laws, and additionally does not adhere to the concept of judicial precedence. Saudi Arabia is unique among nations that adopt Islamic law in any fashion by being the only nation to avoid codifying the Sharia, simply taking the centuries old texts at their literal word. Most Imams and Muslims find their views to be puritanical and overly conservative.
Saudi Arabia, as well as the Islamic State, derive their interpretations of Sharia from a branch of Sunni Islam commonly known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism, which is known as Salafi by its practitioners, is an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam that its supporters claim is meant to restore the original practices of the faith. In many ways, its literal interpretation of Sharia, in which the texts are used without any outside judgement, can be likened to Fundamentalism in Christianity. To equate Wahhabi beliefs with the beliefs of larger populations of Muslims is like claiming the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for all Christians. Wahhabism draws criticism from the rest of the Muslim world by claiming any Muslim that does not adopt a Wahhabi interpretation of the faith is an apostate, and not truly fit to be called Muslim. Their strict interpretation of Islam’s forbiddance of iconography and idolization have led to the Saudi government tearing down 98% of the country’s most sacred sites and landmarks since 1985.
Islamic Calligraphy Representing the Archangel Israfil. Calligraphy is Commonly Used in Islam to Avoid Images of Sacred Figures, Source: Wikipedia, Ibrahim Ebi
By all accounts apart from their own, Saudi Arabia is on the extreme end of the spectrum of Sharia-based legal systems. While the guidelines—albeit with modern interpretation—do significantly influence the laws of most Muslim countries (with Turkey being a notable exception), the only nations where Sharia is the sole legal doctrine are Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The vast majority of nations which have adopted Sharia to some extent limit its authority in areas like child custody and criminal proceedings, while deriving their legal systems from a number of influences.
Map of the Various Legal Systems of the World, Source: Wikipedia, Maximillian Dörrbecker
In addition to examining the legal systems based off Sharia, the specific rules within Sharia must also be examined. American ignorance on the subject has led to the public demonization of Islamic law, and the pushing of a view that Muslims wish to spread their legal doctrine as a springboard for which to overtake Western society as we know it. The media frenzy around so-called Sharia Law has led to acts such as giving alms to the poor, a Pillar of Islam known as Zakat, to technically be considered a crime in nine states. In an article for the New York Times, Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman said Islamic law was for centuries the most liberal legal system in existence, and likened the public view of Sharia to the views of Jewish law that preceded the Holocaust. “The suggestion that Sharia threatens American security,” Feldman said, “is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in nineteenth-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious.”
Imam Zaid Shakir, cofounder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, attempted to rectify many of the misconceptions Americans have about Sharia during an interview with Arsalan Iftikhar. Despite the Medieval punishments enacted in Saudi Arabia, Iftikhar says that Islamic law actually forbids the stoning of women, along with many other practices fearfully associated with Sharia. “For example,” he said, “Sharia forbids members of a Muslim minority from engaging in clandestine acts of violence and paramilitary organizing, or from acting as political or military agents for a Muslim-majority country. Islamic law also forbids the disruption of public safety.”
Upon consulting with an expert on the topic of Islamic law, it is easy to see why a vast majority of Muslims say the terrorists they are often accused of supporting have absolutely nothing to do with their religion. The causes of terrorism in the Middle East are vast, and largely rooted in the political happenings of the last hundred years. Organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have built support by capitalizing, not on religious fervor, but on fear. Crimes against the innocent are expressly forbidden by Sharia, one of many reasons why Muslims scholars consistently denounce the Islamic State and its leaders. Just because American press does not cover it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
A deeper understanding of Islam and Islamic law than is traditionally given to the public yields a result more or less consistent with the party lines being towed about the rest of the world’s religions: Islam stresses peace and tolerance, and the acts of violence that perpetrators claim to commit in the name of their faith have no bearing in either the religious doctrine or the views of the overwhelming majority. While there are still issues to be found within the system, but the same can be said about a fundamentalist interpretation of any religion. The crux of America’s fear of Sharia comes not from the guidelines itself, but a lack of understanding. When these public misconceptions are corrected, patriotic families like the Khans will be able to sleep much easier, safe in the knowledge that their son was, above all else, an American.
Featured Image: Muslims Praying in Mecca at The Kabbah, the Holiest Site in Islam, Source: Flickr, Fezan Raza