In Defense of Sharia Law

Sharia law gets a bad rap...

Many American citizens and legislators today display a somewhat understandable sense of alarm whenever they hear the term sharia, or Islamic Law (the word literally means “pathway to be followed” in Arabic).

This is understandable not because of any inherent flaw with Sharia itself, as all systems have their pros and cons, but because different legal systems develop over time to align with various local cultural and historical circumstances, and what is intended for societies in the Middle East is clearly different from what would work in the United States.

Yet, sharia is, in many ways, remarkably similar to Anglo-Saxon and American common law, in that it developed organically over time through decisions made by judges, who usually render judgments on a case-by-case basis without the codified universal statues found in civil law countries (however, precedent plays a much smaller role in sharia than it does in common law).

This then is an argument for the United States and Americans to accept, and even embrace, sharia for Muslim-majority countries, if they want it: it is a potentially well-adapted system for a civilization in turmoil.

Accepting Islamic Law in Muslim-majority countries is a position that both Western liberals—big fans of diversity—and conservatives, who support traditional values, can get behind. True tolerance and diversity allows the recognition that this includes an international diversity of social, economic and political systems, and not the development of a global, homogenous, universalism. This is a position reconcilable both with liberal Enlightenment thought and conservatism, as thinkers such as Montesquieu and Burke both noted that the multiplicity of customs and habits among peoples were shaped by their distinct “temperaments.”

Another interesting view comes from the perspective of a Western conservative, British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Family breakdown, drugs, crime and incivility are part of the normal experience of modern Britain. Many British Asians [British Asians is a term that includes Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and East Asians] see a society that hardly inspires them to integrate. Indeed, they see aspects of modern Britain which are a threat to the values they hold dear—values which we should all hold dear. Asian families and communities are incredibly strong and cohesive, and have a sense of civic responsibility which puts the rest of us to shame. Not for the first time, I found myself thinking that it is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around.

There should thus be no opposition from any side of the political spectrum in the United States or Western countries to the idea of another civilization applying its customary laws and values to itself. This applies not only to sharia in Islamic countries but also to other systems like Confucianism, to pick an example. Indeed, the West should stick to its own customary values and traditions.

However, in no way should this argument be construed to exclude the possibility of non-Western civilizations selectively adopting aspects of Western legal, economic, or scientific ideas, if they so choose. In fact, many of the conditions of the modern world will lead to such borrowings or the emphasis of intellectual streams from native traditions that support ideas like individualism, human rights, feminism, and so on.

Sharia is not a primitive, static form of law but a highly developed legal system with multiple schools (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh). There are four major Sunni schools and two important Shia schools, among others, meaning that there is a great amount of variation within Islamic law ranging from rigid to flexible.

Islamic civilization and sharia in particular have acquired a bad rap in the West because of the chaos currently engulfing the Middle East and South Asia. It is true that Islam, more than other religions, contains legal and political elements, but it is hardly unique in this regard. Judaism, with its traditional Jewish Law, halakhah, closely parallels sharia, for example. It is the West, really, that is different from the norm in its approach to religion and politics. As the religious scholar Karen Armstrong points out in her latest book:

 In the premodern world, religion permeated all aspects of life. A host of activities now considered mundane were experienced as deeply sacred: forest cleaning, hunting, football matches, dice games, astronomy, farming, state building, tugs-of-war, town planning, commerce, imbibing strong drink, and, most particularly, warfare. Ancient peoples would have found it impossible to see where ‘religion’ ended and ‘politics’ began. This was not because they were too stupid to understand the distinction but because they wanted to invest everything they did with ultimate value.