Last month, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, gave a nuanced, scholarly lecture in London about whether the British legal system should allow non-Christian courts to decide certain matters of family law. Britain has no constitutional separation of church and state. The archbishop noted that “the law of the Church of England is the law of the land” there; indeed, ecclesiastical courts that once handled marriage and divorce are still integrated into the British legal system, deciding matters of church property and doctrine. His tentative suggestion was that, subject to the agreement of all parties and the strict requirement of protecting equal rights for women, it might be a good idea to consider allowing Islamic and Orthodox Jewish courts to handle marriage and divorce.
Then all hell broke loose. From politicians across the spectrum to senior church figures and the ubiquitous British tabloids came calls for the leader of the world’s second largest Christian denomination to issue a retraction or even resign. Williams has spent the last couple of years trying to hold together the global Anglican Communion in the face of continuing controversies about ordaining gay priests and recognizing same-sex marriages. Yet little in that contentious battle subjected him to the kind of outcry that his reference to religious courts unleashed. Needless to say, the outrage was not occasioned by Williams’s mention of Orthodox Jewish law. For the purposes of public discussion, it was the word “Shariah” that was radioactive.
In some sense, the outrage about according a degree of official status to Shariah in a Western country should come as no surprise. No legal system has ever had worse press. To many, the word “Shariah” conjures horrors of hands cut off, adulterers stoned and women oppressed. By contrast, who today remembers that the much-loved English common law called for execution as punishment for hundreds of crimes, including theft of any object worth five shillings or more? How many know that until the 18th century, the laws of most European countries authorized torture as an official component of the criminal-justice system? As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them — hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.
In fact, for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world. Today, when we invoke the harsh punishments prescribed by Shariah for a handful of offenses, we rarely acknowledge the high standards of proof necessary for their implementation. Before an adultery conviction can typically be obtained, for example, the accused must confess four times or four adult male witnesses of good character must testify that they directly observed the sex act. The extremes of our own legal system — like life sentences for relatively minor drug crimes, in some cases — are routinely ignored. We neglect to mention the recent vintage of our tentative improvements in family law. It sometimes seems as if we need Shariah as Westerners have long needed Islam: as a canvas on which to project our ideas of the horrible, and as a foil to make us look good. . .
How is it that what so many Westerners see as the most unappealing and premodern aspect of Islam is, to many Muslims, the vibrant, attractive core of a global movement of Islamic revival? The explanation surely must go beyond the oversimplified assumption that Muslims want to use Shariah to reverse feminism and control women — especially since large numbers of women support the Islamists in general and the ideal of Shariah in particular.
Is Shariah the Rule of Law?
One reason for the divergence between Western and Muslim views of Shariah is that we are not all using the word to mean the same thing. Although it is commonplace to use the word “Shariah” and the phrase “Islamic law” interchangeably, this prosaic English translation does not capture the full set of associations that the term “Shariah” conjures for the believer. Shariah, properly understood, is not just a set of legal rules. To believing Muslims, it is something deeper and higher, infused with moral and metaphysical purpose. At its core, Shariah represents the idea that all human beings — and all human governments — are subject to justice under the law.
In fact, “Shariah” is not the word traditionally used in Arabic to refer to the processes of Islamic legal reasoning or the rulings produced through it: that word is fiqh, meaning something like Islamic jurisprudence. The word “Shariah” connotes a connection to the divine, a set of unchanging beliefs and principles that order life in accordance with God’s will. Westerners typically imagine that Shariah advocates simply want to use the Koran as their legal code. But the reality is much more complicated. Islamist politicians tend to be very vague about exactly what it would mean for Shariah to be the source for the law of the land — and with good reason, because just adopting such a principle would not determine how the legal system would actually operate. (MORE)
Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from his book “The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State,” which will be published later this month.