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”
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.”
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
Sharia has five main objectives: to protect life, property, lineage, religion, and intellect. The overarching objective 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.
- 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. For example, civil law prohibits having more than one wife, so American Muslims must abide by this law (since Sharia recommends monogamy, this isn’t a problem).
- 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 aspects of Sharia are not meant to be government-enforced, because Sharia is largely a matter of conscience.
Sharia in the United States
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!
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.
In America, the religious clauses of the First Amendment state 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).
American Muslims can follow Sharia (Islamic values and way of life) in the same way that 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.
According to our understanding of 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 and therefore must respect and uphold that society’s form of government.
Since the Constitution is the supreme “law of the land” in the United States, our understanding of Islamic teachings forbids 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, economic 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.
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.
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
- -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.
“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