Donald Trump’s “sharia law” Bogeyman is more Islamophobia

By Lena Salaymeh | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump has called for extreme vetting of those who believe that “sharia law” should supplant American law. Newt Gingrich suggested that Muslims should be tested for belief in “sharia law.” To discredit Trump’s unexpected adversary, Khizr Khan, Paul Sperry claimed to have discovered a smoking gun: Khan is supposedly a supporter of “sharia law.”

Sally Kohn recently engaged in a tweeting battle with right-wing Twitter users about “sharia law” and has explicitly stated that Trump does not understand “sharia.” All this attention to “sharia law” during an election year would suggest to the uninformed that the U.S. is facing a serious and formidable menace. Many in the West imagine “sharia law” as a violent, terrorism-promoting, anti-democratic legal code. In actuality, there is no danger and hurling the term “sharia law” is simply a cheap political trick popular among right-wing pundits and anti-Muslim dogmatists.


“Sharia law” could only be a threat if it were real. The word sharīʿah means divine law and it is an abstract concept. The term “sharia law” would have to mean “divine law law” and this is why the term is nonsense. Even commentators who try to clarify (or to defend) “sharia law” often get it wrong because they begin from the incorrect presumption that “sharia law” is an actual legal system. “Sharia law” does not mean Islamic law. Instead, “sharia law” is a Western boogeyman.

In contrast to the “sharia law” boogeyman, Islamic law is the multi-vocal product of Muslim jurists who study and interpret Islamic scriptural sources in an attempt to comprehend the abstract concept of divine law (sharīʿah). Muslims recognize that Jewish divine law (al-sharīʿah al-yahūdīyah) and Christian divine law (al-sharīʿah al-masīḥīyah) preceded Islamic divine law. Muslims also recognize that divine law is interpreted differently by different people. The Islamic legal tradition has been operating for more than 1400 years and is implemented differently (or not at all) by approximately 1.6 billion people. For these reasons, the Islamic legal tradition is pluralistic, with multiple legal opinions and little consensus on any given issue. Islamic legal opinions reflect the time and place in which they were formulated, fluctuating as normative social opinion changes. Simply put, Islamic law is what Muslims (particularly Muslim jurists) believe Islamic law to be. There is no unified Islamic legal code; there is no hierarchical organization that has the ultimate authority to determine the content of Islamic law. Islamic law cannot be reduced to any theme – peaceful or violent, democratic or undemocratic, progressive or conservative. In short, Islamic law, while based on attempts to realize divine law (sharīʿah), is not equivalent to the fanciful, nonsensical “sharia law.”

“Sharia law,” then, is a propaganda term used for political objectives. Believing in – or supporting – a legal tradition is a matter of identity; thus, denouncing a legal tradition is equivalent to denouncing the people who follow that legal tradition. This type of religious prejudice is a timeworn strategy of bigots. Nazi propaganda accused Jews of adhering to “problematic” Jewish laws (rather than German laws), with the potential of creating a state within a state. Just as anti-Semites alleged that observance of Jewish law precluded Jews from being full citizens, anti-Muslim extremists allege that belief in “sharia law” undermines state law and supports terrorism. The comparison of the contemporary vilification of “sharia law” with the historical disparagement of Jewish law exposes it as a dangerous prejudice.

Muslim extremists themselves use the term “sharia” precisely in order to trigger (unfounded) Western fears. Extremist groups intentionally claim that “sharia law” motivates their activities – even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, orthodox Islamic law explicitly prohibits the targeting of civilians during warfare, but extremist groups ignore this unambiguous rule. The notion that Muslim extremists implement Islamic law is as unreasonable as the claim that Christian extremists implement biblical law or that Jewish extremists implement Jewish law. Extremists of any affiliation use whatever tools are available to justify their violence. Belief in or adherence to Islamic law does not cause or promote violence. A clear understanding of Islamic law will help deprive extremist groups, both non-Muslim and Muslim, from using “sharia law” as a political tool.

Lena Salaymeh is Associate Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University, where she teaches law and religion. A member of the California Bar, she specializes in Islamic and Jewish legal traditions in both historical and contemporary settings.

2 Responses


    A Sufi Muslim’s Understanding of Shariah You Won’t Hear About:

    Every creature on earth and beyond follows a pattern that defines it and identifies it as unique with a distinct physics or behavior profile unto itself.

    For example a dog cannot be a cat, a cat a mouse etc. They are limited and defined given the parameters of their design.

    The human being, in his animal self is also subject to this “natural” evolutionary design. The major difference between humankind and the rest of the animal world is the development of the frontal lobe and the evolution and plasticity of the cerebral cortex.

    The overwhelming majority of the life of animals is inbreed, “written” within their DNA and cannot under most ordinary situations be altered. Granted among some animals, especially higher on the evolutionary scale have some learning capacities. Some simple animals seem also to “learn” from experiences, but this is more from repetitive experiences and not from reasoning per se.

    Mankind gifted with these two developments nearly entirely learns behavior, empathy, concepts shaped within him through the experience of life.

    Shariah is the the exemplary pattern lived, modeled and communicated through the emergence in every era of the prime pinnacle of guided human evolutionary mutations. These mutations are known as the Prophets, Messengers and “enlightened” teachers that are known and some unknown throughout the history of human kind.

    Shariah is the attempt to catalog, communicate and contextualize their exemplary life as way through following in their example, humanity as the potential to reach its highest potential as human beings.

    Shariah has been much misunderstood and wrongly practiced and defined by the ignorant, Muslims and non-Muslims. It has become a collection of restrictions, judgments and jurisprudence practiced without self-consciousness and higher referencing. In this form it is mostly a detraction and distraction from the “meaning full” and therefore, quite rightly despised.

    Shariah has to be part of a holistic approach with the intent to surrender one’s habitual behaviors, concepts and notions of existence to the truth that is resident at the core of everything, especially its glory of Light within the human heart.

    In reality, there is nothing but Shariah, in the sense that not even an atom, a quark, an intention, divine or otherwise that is not at it’s core, the very fabric of existence, without which there would have never been a question or questioner regarding Shariah in the first place.

    Question: How do we reconcile this description of the Shariah with the Quranic injunctions and Prophetic traditions that seem to indicate that Shariah is also a set of laws, e.g., in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.?

    All Quranic injunctions and Prophetic traditions that results in “laws” and injunctions are born out of the “original wisdom patterning” that underlies the created world. In present day “Islam” not all the laws and injunctions meet the test and qualify as true to the original patterning. Many have been extrapolated through history as a result of political influence, both secular and “religious”. Many have come about by the best efforts of the scholars and at times they themselves are lost in the influences of their circumstances. That is why the Prophet many times counseled that if you hear something that is attributed to him, to test it against the teachings of the Quran and your own heart!. We all need to reflect on these matters and not leave them solely to the judgment of the Ulema.

    The Divine messaging….through the universal sacred patterning and geometry….is the underlying foundation of all things. From this the Quran….its reality..has always been present in the world. This wisdom is revealed at intervals, when the Creator “sends” His messenger to the world to remind and renew…appropriate to the time and place in history. From this foundation… life carries on in it myriad of expression….we look for what needs we have and apply them to our own contemporary circumstance. Yes there are “clear” laws and injunctions that have come directly out of the Quran and the Prophetic person, but, context, sensibilities, applications and Mercy must be part of the equation or we surely could use these so-called “clear” laws and injunctions to oppress others for power and obedience to corrupt individuals and systems that keep the letter of the law, but not the spirit and since the spirit is ever with us, it must have its voice, lest the Shariah become a hardened hammer than what it was intended to be, a doorway to rebalancing what has become imbalance.

  2. The word “shari’ah” literally means “the path to a watering place”. Without water, we quickly die. The “watering place” for Muslims is the fount of God’s wisdom, knowledge and bidding as revealed to us primarily in the Qur’an (divine revelation) and the life and words of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah).

    God commands us to do to good and to eschew evil and to be just in all our actions in regard to ourselves and others.
    “Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and charity to kith and kin; He forbids all shameful deeds, injustice and rebellion….” (Qur’an 16:90)

    Judges are expected to implement the principles of divine justice on the basis of three axioms:
    (1) The larger interest of society takes precedence over the interest of any single individual;
    (2) Although “relieving hardship” and “promoting benefit” are both among the prime objectives of shari’ah, the former has precedence over the latter;
    (3) A bigger loss cannot be inflicted to relieve a smaller loss or a bigger benefit cannot be sacrificed for a smaller one. Conversely, a smaller harm can be inflicted to avoid a bigger harm or a smaller benefit can be sacrificed fora larger benefit.

    There are also a number of secondary sources of shari’ah, including:
    Consensus of opinions ( al-ijma’) : the interpretation of the entire Muslim community with respect to a matter;
    Analogical deduction (al-quiyas): the use of human faculties to determine the proper course of action for things not explicity mentioned in the Qur’an or Sunnah;
    Known practices and customs (‘urf and ‘adat): Customary or secular laws are valid so long as there is no conflict with the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

    Furthermore, Muslims are expected to obey the civil and criminal laws of the place where the live even if that place is not under Muslim rule. When a person feels compelled to practice civil disobedience, he must nevertheless accept the decision based of the practices and customs of the place as to fines or imprisonment.

    When Muslims talk about shari’ah implementation in the West, they are either talking about some distant time when local laws evolve to be in full conformity with the Qur’an and the Sunnah or they are seeking the adoption of civil laws that will make it possible for them, for example, to conclude civil contracts that are based on shari’ah and that if contested, will be judged according to Islamic legal principles. This no different than Catholic Canon Law courts or Jewish beth din that settle civil disputes (where both parties consent) by a mechanism of binding arbitration. Such arbitration panels are already widespread in secular commercial activities and stipulated as an ultimate dispute settlement mechanism in contracts.

    Generally, Muslims are not calling for the implementation of amputations and beheadings. First of all, those punishments, whichare limited as to scope, are the maximum penalties allowed in the Qur’an. In practice, the judge can impose a lesser sentence where justice would be better served by mercy instead of strict, absolute justice. A man who steals in extremis to feed his family does not deserve amputation if the society has systemic inequalities that prevent all from providing for their basic needs.

    Shari’ah is a philosophical or juridical construct that is also found in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospel, as summarized by Prophet Jesus when he was asked which of the some 600 laws were the greatest. Jesus is reported to have said:

    “Hear O children of Israel, the Lord is our God and God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is the first and great commandment and the second is similar: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law (Torah) and Prophetic Books (nevi’im).”

    That is the gist of shari’ah: obeying God in everything we do, left undone, say or left unsaid and in treating all others with justice and mercy, as we would like to be treated.

    Allahu ‘alam (But God knows best.)

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