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.