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A Closer Look at Sharia in the United States

With the focus in recent months on the issue of Sharia in the United States, many myths and half-truths have arisen around the topic. The following are a series of questions and answers about Sharia in the United States, including a look at who is behind this campaign, how much of a real threat Sharia really poses in this country, and what exactly Sharia means and encompasses. The answers are revealed by clicking on each question and concealed by clicking on the question again. 

Context and Background on the Islamophobia Network and Who is Behind the “Sharia Scare”

1. Who is behind the “Sharia scare” or “creeping Sharia” narratives?

According to the report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America released by the Center for American Progress, the “Sharia Scare” is part of a larger Islamophobic campaign sponsored by an organized network. This network is made up of a number of conservative foundations, intellectuals, think tanks, grassroots organizations, religious leaders, and various conservative media outlets and politicians. The foundations that fund the Islamophobia network have donated $42.6 million dollars between 2001-2009 to conservative think tanks.

2. What is the Islamophobia network and how does it relate to the “Sharia scare?”

As the report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America  states, “Together, this core group of deeply intertwined individuals and organizations manufacture and exaggerate threats of “creeping Sharia,” Islamic domination of the West, and purported obligatory calls to violence against all non-Muslims by the Koran.” In Fear, Inc. Islamophobia is defined as “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life.”

3. What are the arguments of “creeping Sharia” proponents?

These individuals assert that the “preeminent totalitarian threat of our time” is “the legal-political-military doctrine known within Islam as 'Sharia.'" In particular, The Center for Security Policy report's premise is that Sharia itself is the problem and that observance of Sharia results in extremism. (See: "Understanding Sharia Law.")

The authors, in attempting to show that Sharia is a threat, construct a static, ahistorical and unscholarly interpretation of Sharia that is divorced from traditional understandings and commentaries of the source texts. Their definition and understanding of Sharia is one that is utterly unrecognizable to the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslims.

4. Why are Sharia scare arguments problematic?

Sharia is personal religious law and moral guidance for the vast majority of Muslims and impacts such daily activities as praying, dress, and diet. By defining Sharia itself as a problem and a “totalitarian threat," this assumes all adherents of Sharia to be violent extremists and "threats," and casts suspicion upon all observant Muslims as potential anti-American extremists and a disloyal fifth column. Politically and culturally, this inaccurate framing leads people to believe that Islam, and subsequently all observant Muslims, are not only utterly incompatible with American values, but also a threat to the American way of life.

The hysteria that the "Sharia threat" is clearly intended to provoke will prevent Americans of all faiths from working together for the security of the U.S.  In an increasingly globalized world, Islamophobic rhetoric and actions in the U.S. further endanger our national and global security. What happens on a national level now resonates globally. For example, the recent protests to a defamatory film created by Islamophobes resulted in deaths and protests across the Muslim world. Pastor Jones' "Burn a Quran" day was used as a pretext by violent extremists to justify violence at a UN compound in Afghanistan that left at least 11 dead in April, 2011. Mainstreaming "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Islam" sentiment in America will only strengthen the perverse narrative of violent extremists that the West is indeed at "war" with Muslims, and create a cycle of provocation and response that is harmful to both Muslims and the West.

Even if the most extreme interpretation of Sharia were the correct one, there is absolutely no evidence that the U.S. legal system is in any danger of adopting tenets of Sharia. It is important that these anti-Sharia laws be examined rigorously, in order to understand their implication; as emphasized by Jewish Americans, “a prohibition against "Sharia" and "religious law" in the U.S. would infringe upon the rights and customs of other religious communities, who have relied upon contract law and civilian courts to enforce their arbitrations based upon their religious customs. For example, a spokesman for the Orthodox Union explained that a prohibition on religious law is "problematic particularly from the perspective of the Orthodox community -- we have a beit din system, Jews have disputes resolved according to halakha the mechanism for having those decisions enforced if they need to be enforced is the way any private arbitration is enforced." (Ron Kampeas, "Anti-sharia law stir concerns that halachah could be next," JTA.) 

5. Where have Sharia bans been implemented?

Court bans on international/ Sharia law have been enacted in Arizona, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kansas. In Oklahoma, a federal appeals court in January, 2012 struck down Oklahoma's ban on Sharia law which was passed by voters in 2010, saying that it discriminated against Muslims, and therefore violated the constitution and specifically their First Amendment rights. 

6. Which other states are considering banning Sharia?

Currently a couple dozen states are considering, have pursued, or are pursuing "anti-Shariah" legislation. These can be broken into three categories: 1) states where a court ban on international/Sharia law has been enacted: Arizona, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kansas; 2) states where a bill has passed at least one chamber: Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana; and 3) states where a bill has been introduced to ban international/ Sharia law: Alaska, New Mexico, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Maine.

7. How is taqiyya related to the issue?

Many advocates of the "Sharia threat" also refer to taqiyya, an Arabic word which means concealing one's faith out of fear of death, to mean religiously justified lying. However, the majority of Muslims know nothing about, let alone subscribe to the theological concept of taqiyya; in fact, it is a minority opinion and is generally discussed in the context of a war where one’s life is threatened.

The charge of taqqiya is often deployed by "Sharia threat" advocates when confronted with evidence that refutes their thesis. Under this methodology one cannot trust any practicing Muslim. Even if a Muslim preaches and practices non-violence, these individuals would say that person is either not a true Muslim or is practicing taqiyya. While providing a mechanism for critics to ignore any disconfirming evidence, adopting such an interpretation of taqiyya would almost certainly result in every observant Muslim being branded a liar or suspect simply by virtue of being Muslim.

Primary Concerns about Sharia in the United States

8. What is the primary concern about Sharia in the United States?

Opponents of Sharia argue that it is a totalitarian system because it covers so many aspects of life. Sharia provides rules, recommendations and injunctions on a wide range of topics including religious practice, ritual purity, diet, clothing and modesty, marriage, divorce, inheritance, charitable giving, investments, business contracts, criminal law, etc.

Because Sharia has its foundation in divine revelation (Muslims believe the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, to be the word of God), opponents allege that it is inflexible, takes away human choice, and therefore is contrary to freedom. This portrayal of Sharia is highly simplistic and fails to recognize that there is always a human element in the interpretation and implementation of religious guidance and injunctions. The current rhetoric always focuses on Sharia (divine guidance), yet fails to mention fiqh, the human process of understanding divine revelation which allows also for flexibility and diversity in the application of Sharia. 

9. How does “creeping Sharia” and “Islamofascism” connect with past fears about Nazism and Communism?

Both Nazism/Fascism and Communism are totalitarian systems. If people believe that Sharia is a totalitarian system, they may also believe that Islam is similar to these past enemies of America. Particularly for Americans who grew up during the Cold War, it is natural to see totalitarian regimes as dire threats to their way of life. When trying to make sense of current world affairs, it can be tempting to say “Sharia makes Islam similar to Nazism or Communism.” 

American conservatism began in the 1950s out of extreme anti-Communism sentiment. Communism, in this view, was an external as well as an internal threat. Communist armies threatened U.S. allies, while Communist agents within the West supposedly conspired to impose Communist rule by subverting the Constitution. Similarly, opponents of Islam and Muslims have framed them in the mold of this Cold War view of Communism. To them, Muslim governments and foreign terrorist organizations are the external enemy, while American Muslims are the new “enemy within.” By charging that Sharia is totalitarianism, being Muslim isn't just belonging to a religion, it means belonging to a group with dreams of totalitarian rule. They are framing Islam as an internal and external threat and the internal threat is Sharia law.

10. How does the “Sharia question” relate to Western views on faith and reason?

There is a huge debate in the West over religion and modernity. Some say they are compatible and others say they are not. Long before 9/11, there have been significant disagreements within the West itself over the compatibility of religion and modernity. After 9/11, many people discuss Islam and modernity as if struggles over faith and reason are unique to Muslims. However, this issue has long been discussed in the West, and contrary to “clash of civilizations” language, both Western and Muslim societies struggle over religious traditions in our modern life.

Beginning with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, many scholars and others have argued that religion and modern life are incompatible and that as societies become more modern, they also necessarily become more secular and less religious. There have been many proponents of this view, such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber. Mainstream sociologists and historians have also debated this. In most of the Western world, there have been declining levels of support for religion, as measured by polls on religious belief and attendance at religious services. Jewish and Christian groups have had, and continue to have, serious divisions over modernity and tradition, sometimes resulting in institutional schisms and break-ups.

In American politics, there are also deep divisions over the role of religion in government. Liberals and progressives believe that the religion clauses of the First Amendment teach separation of church and state. Conservatives, on the other hand, frequently deny this, and claim that America is a Christian or Judeo-Christian country. We see this most prominently in the “culture war” issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and prayer in public schools. In general, the West is divided about whether religion should be a purely private affair, or whether it can be a means of guidance for social and political issues. So when we hear discussions of tensions between modernity and religion, we should realize that there are deep-rooted tensions in the West around this topic as well.

Understanding Sharia

11. What is Sharia?

Sharia comes from an Arabic word meaning “path to water.” Sharia is often translated as “Islamic law,” which is not wrong, but incomplete. Sharia is divine guidance that is drawn from the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings and guidance of Prophet Muhammad) for the purpose of helping humanity worship and draw close to God, and live with love, kindness, and justice towards His Creation.

Sharia has five main objectives: to protect life, property, lineage, religion, and intellect. The overarching objective of sharia is to establish social justice, fairness, mercy and security in societies. Sharia rulings or religious commandments are similar to the Ten Commandments. Both claim divine authority, but require human interpretation, are religiously binding, and in that sense are "sacred law." Only some of them are social, and of these, only a very few intersect with government law.

12. What are the sources of Sharia and how is it developed?

Sharia is derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah by qualified scholars who use an interpretative process that includes qiyas (reasoning by analogy), debate, ijma (consensus) as well as precedent. Islamic law is called fiqh in Arabic, which means “deep understanding.” Islamic law is an interpretation of Sharia and, like Halakha (Jewish law), is an ongoing effort and process.

Sharia addresses both civil and criminal issues, and its principles regulate both personal and moral aspects of life. For the most part, Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observance such as prayer, fasting, diet, and other similar issues.

Because much of Sharia is interpretative, it has a degree of flexibility which allows it to function in different societies and cultures. Thus, Islam has historically functioned in diverse areas in the world, generally with a demonstrated record of tolerance and pluralism toward different cultures and religions.

13. What areas does Sharia address?

Sharia can be divided into two broad areas:
  • Guidance in religious worship (ibadat), which is the central focus of Islam.
  • Guidance in worldly matters (mu’amalat) such as visiting the sick, taking care of our parents, marriage, inheritance, investments and business affairs, etc.

It can be further divided into three more specific areas, some of which apply to American Muslims, and some of which do not:
  • Religious worship and ritual. American Muslims practice their acts of worship (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.) or rituals in the same manner as people of other faiths.
  • Private social interactions (marriage, business, etc.) All religions have rules for marriage and ethical economics. These are private and voluntary, so American Muslims follow Islamic standards (Sharia) for these within the limits of American secular law. 
  • Public law issues (criminal law, war and peace, etc.) These have no application in the U.S. Islamic scholars formulated rules in this area for Muslim majority societies in other historical situations. But Sharia requires Muslims to obey “the law of the land” of the country they live in. The “law of the land” in the U.S. is the Constitution. Sharia requires American Muslims to support and follow the Constitution in all matters related to public law. Most of it is not meant to be government-enforced, because Sharia is largely a matter of conscience.

14. Where do people get their negative views of Sharia?

Some people falsely equate Sharia with criminal or hudud laws, which are centuries-old specific punishments for major crimes such as killing, adultery or theft. Hudud laws are only a tiny part of Sharia and can only be applied by an Islamic state; it is questionable if any of the nations claiming to be “Islamic states” actually fit that description morally or structurally, so these laws are generally not applicable in a modern context, let alone in the U.S. Unfortunately, the misapplication of these laws by the Taliban or other contemporary groups or governments generally contradict both the letter and spirit of Sharia and have given it a bad name.

15. What type of Muslims follow Sharia?

Any observant Muslim would consider him or herself to be Sharia-adherent. It is impossible to find a Muslim who practices any Islamic ritual and does not believe himself or herself to be complying with Sharia.

Sharia in the United States

16. Isn't it un-American to follow Sharia in the United States?

The American way, as enshrined in the religious clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of conscience (the right to choose to believe in God or not), as well as religion and religious practices. It allows religious and secular groups to follow any way of life, so long as it is voluntary and they respect the rights of others. America has always had numerous religious groups enjoying their own sacred laws and lifestyles (Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Amish, Buddhists, Quakers, communes, etc).

Sharia is the system of moral guidance for Muslims which includes values, basic norms, and prescriptions for ritual, family and business life in a manner similar to the Magesterium for Catholics or Halakhah for Jews. American Muslims practice Sharia on a voluntary, private basis, just like other religious groups follow their own ways of life. The essential parts of Sharia are practices such as daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, marriage contracts, and rules for charity and investments. Muslims follow these practices without infringing on anyone else's rights. For example, if a Muslim eats a halal or kosher hamburger, nothing prevents someone else from eating a bacon cheeseburger!

17. Are Muslims trying to implement Sharia in the United States?

As previously mentioned, Sharia is divine guidance derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah that informs a Muslim’s daily life in such areas as worship, diet, and many other areas. So if the question is “Are American Muslims following Sharia in their daily lives?” the answer is “yes;” but if the question is “Are Muslims are trying to impose Sharia on others?” than the answer is “No, they are not - neither as individuals nor as organizations.” It is actually against Sharia to impose Sharia on people of other faiths, let alone make it the law of the land where the residents belong to other religious traditions.

Furthermore, as citizens of this country whose rights and safety are protected by the U.S. Constitution, American Muslims have the religious duty of upholding the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and the religious clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion, i.e. making any particular religion’s sacred law into government law.

Finally, Muslims are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population (1-2%). It is an absurdity to believe that they could impose Islam or Sharia on the rest of the population.

18. How does sacred law interact with secular law?

Almost all religions and churches have some kind of sacred law. Sacred law derives its authority from God or its founder, appeals to the heart and conscience, and is a spiritual guide for the believer.

In America, the religious clauses of the First Amendment states that the government must protect itself from the imposition of any religion while at the same time protecting people’s rights to practice their own religion. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) This means that in the United States, individuals, families, and religious and private groups are free to follow their own sacred laws, as long as they do so voluntarily, people are free to join or leave these groups and the freedom and rights of others are respected.

Secular law also provides parameters or limits on following sacred law, to ensure that the public interest is protected (e.g., the United States prohibited Mormons from practicing polygamy).

19. How does American democracy and Sharia relate to each other?

American democracy is based on the Constitution. The Constitution protects rights such as religious freedom, privacy, and private property. The Constitution allows people to follow their conscience as it relates to culture, behavior and lifestyle, so long as they respect others' rights, and their actions are compatible with the common good.

American Muslims can follow Sharia (Islamic values and way of life) in the same way as other religions follow their values, rules and lifestyles. The basic parts of Sharia (rituals; marriage and family life; charity and ethical business practices) are private and voluntary.

If some Americans voluntarily follow Sharia, that is just a part of American religious freedom. On the other side, Sharia states that American Muslims must be loyal to the Constitution, since it protects their rights.

20. Can Muslims be true to America and at the same time to their religion?

Islam makes a distinction between deen (religion) and dawla (civil government). Dawla (civil government) protects basic secular rights, such as life, property and freedom. According to Islamic teachings, anyone living under the protection of a civil government owes obedience to that government. It doesn't matter what type of government it is or whether or not one is living in a Muslim majority country. Muslim minorities living in secular societies or ones where another religion is dominant implicitly enter into a social contract with that government. Islam requires them to respect and uphold that society's form of government.

Since the Constitution is the supreme “law of the land” in the United States, Islamic teachings forbid American Muslims from trying to establish any other kind of government law. Under the current system of government, American Muslims enjoy the same benefits as other Americans: freedom, economc opportunity, access to public schools and universities, America's natural beauty, respect for diversity, etc. Additionally, the Constitution guarantees Muslims freedom of religion so American Muslims have a duty to uphold it.

21. How does Sharia compare with the sacred laws of other religions?

All religions believe in some kind of sacred law. Christianity has the Ten Commandments, natural law, and sometimes canon law. The Old Testament, in different ways, is also a model for Christians. Buddhism and Hinduism have dharma or dhamma. All of these sacred laws have essential or “core” parts (worship, family life, lifestyle practices, charity and ethical business dealings). They also all have traditions of “political theology” (religious rules for war and peace, treating crimes, etc). The political aspects are not on the same level as the core parts.

The magisterium of the Catholic Church is binding for Catholics in a way that is similar to halakhah for Jews and Sharia for Muslims. The primary sources of the magisterium are the Bible and apostolic tradition. These are analogous to Qur'an and Sunnah. The magisterium is the institutionalized process of transmitting, understanding and applying the teachings of the Bible and tradition. Sharia and canon law both emphasize the family and the connection between sex and reproduction, but Islam is somewhat more “liberal” in these areas (for instance it allows divorce and contraception).

In America, one can follow the essential or core parts of a sacred law (e.g., ritual, marriage, etc) within the parameters of civil law. Sharia (Islamic sacred law) and halakhah (Jewish sacred law) are extremely close in a range of subjects, methodology, content, and even specific rulings (eating pork, clothing, circumcision, etc). Banning Sharia would also endanger Jewish practices (halakhah), since they are so similar, which is why some Jewish groups are also concerned about anti-Sharia laws.

22. How do you explain accommodations of Muslim practices? Isn't this an example of “creeping Sharia”?

Accommodation for Muslim practices is no different than accommodations for other religious practices. American law has no “double standards” for Muslims; it treats Sharia just like any other religion's sacred law, values and lifestyle. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for religious practices unless doing so would result in undue hardship. If a shop clerk asks to be able to wear a headscarf (hijab) or to take a prayer break, this does not impose her religion on anyone else. Schools and businesses often adjust working or study conditions, or allow for religious garb for Jews, Sikhs, and others, yet no one claims that these groups are “taking over the U.S.”

When businesses freely tailor products to certain customers (e.g., vegetarian restaurants for Seventh Day Adventists or Buddhists, kosher and halal meats for Jews and Muslims), this doesn't hurt anyone else – it is merely an example of capitalism and the free market in action.

Summary of Brief Answers to Questions about Sharia in the United States

1. What is Sharia?

Sharia refers to the values, code of conduct, and religious commandments or sacred laws of Muslims which gives guidance for different areas of life. Sharia is characterized by flexibility depending on the context and the people interpreting it.

2. What are some examples of Sharia?

There are three main parts of Sharia, in order of importance:
  • -Religious worship and ritual. These include acts of worship such as the five daily prayers (salat), fasting during Ramadan (sawm), and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). This area also includes some lifestyle practices, such as diet (no pork or alcohol) and wearing modest dress (ie. hijab).
  • -Private social interactions. These are mainly family issues (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc) and marketplace affairs (respect for private property, rules for giving to charity and the community, ethical investments, contracts, etc).
  • -Public law issues. These are issues such as criminal law, and some general principles of constitutional government.

3. How do Muslims follow Sharia in the United States?

Muslims follow Sharia in the same way that people of other faiths follow their sacred laws and traditions. The Constitution, especially the religion clauses of the First Amendment, sets the framework for how Americans of various religious persuasions practice their religious traditions. The First Amendment allows complete freedom of belief and freedom of religious practice, so long as believers respect other people's rights.

4. Do other religions have the equivalent of Sharia?

Yes. Most religions have sacred laws or religious standards for the different areas of life. In particular, Jews have halakhah, which is very similar to Sharia in method and content. Catholics have the magisteirum or teaching authority of their Church, which covers things like marriage, business practices, and general political issues.

5. Are American Muslims trying to enforce Sharia in the United States?

No, America Muslims are merely trying to follow Sharia in their personal life just as practicing Jews try to follow Jewish law (halakhah). There is no evidence of American Muslims individually or as a group trying to force Sharia on others. Muslims are obligated to adhere to the law of the land, and any laws that run contrary to the Constitution such as polygamy would be prevented even if they tried to implement them.

6. Why are Sharia bans un-American?

A core American value is religious freedom for all Americans. Trying to “ban Sharia” would mean banning Muslims from performing their daily prayers, going to Mecca, or eating halal meat, etc. All Muslim practices are part of Sharia. Additionally, Sharia bans single out one religion (Islam), and make its adherents (Muslims) vulnerable to harassment and persecution for peaceful religious practices, like praying five time s a day or only eating certain kinds of meat.

7. How would “Sharia” bans hurt Americans who are not Muslim?

“Sharia bans” violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment, and make all people of faith vulnerable. All religions have sacred laws, or rules for living. The First Amendment allows people of all faiths (and none) to live in peace guaranteeing that members of each religion can practice their own traditions, so long as they respect other’s rights. Creating suspicion about one religious tradition creates a precedent for targeting other minority religions.

“Sharia bans” are especially detrimental for observant Jews. Jewish law (halakhah) and Sharia are very similar with common standards of dress (beards and head coverings), daily formal worship, and prohibition against eating pork, circumcision, and marriage and divorce practices. Any ban on Sharia practices could impact many Jewish practices as well.

“Sharia bans” also threaten the American traditions of arbitration. Our democracy allows private parties to settle disputes out of court, following their own arbitrators (within the limits of civil law). American Jews and other groups sometimes engage in arbitration following their religious traditions. Sharia bans would make these illegal.

Finally, “Sharia bans” threaten everyone's economic livelihood, including secular Americans. Our economy depends on international trade. Our trade agreements and business contracts often reference the laws of other countries. “Sharia bans” would make it impossible for American courts to consider those laws when handling disputes about contracts. Foreign investors, therefore, would have less protection in American courts which would result in decreased investment in the United States, causing our economy to suffer.

To learn more about Sharia, please reference the following books:

The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, by Khaled Abu Fadl
The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, by Noah Feldman
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

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