(originally published April 15, 2008 - Remember?)
All the trouble the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, got into just for saying something nice about Shariah Law (God's Law based on Quran and Sunnah)?
UK Arch Bishop Calls for Islamic Law? (Shari'ah)
No - Not really. In fact, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Angelican Church's highest priest, really said -
But for many, the idea of Islamic Law, like the Jewish Law of the Torah, conjures up notions of stoning adulters, cutting off hands, public whippings, beheadings and more.
the Archbishop applauds the Islamic and Jewish Law
- Why Shariah? – by Noah Feldman - Law Professor at Harvard University
Recall some time back when, 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; 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. 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.
Mosques in the west cause problems for people desiring the "Worldly pleasures"
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.
In the Muslim world, on the other hand, the reputation of Shariah has undergone an extraordinary revival in recent years. A century ago, forward-looking Muslims thought of Shariah as outdated, in need of reform or maybe abandonment. Today, 66 percent of Egyptians, 60 percent of Pakistanis and 54 percent of Jordanians say that Shariah should be the only source of legislation in their countries. Islamist political parties, like those associated with the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, make the adoption of Shariah the most prominent plank in their political platforms. And the message resonates. Wherever Islamists have been allowed to run for office in Arabic-speaking countries, they have tended to win almost as many seats as the governments have let them contest. The Islamist movement in its various incarnations — from moderate to radical — is easily the fastest growing and most vital in the Muslim world; the return to Shariah is its calling card.
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.
note1 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.
Shariah is best understood as a kind of higher law, albeit one that includes some specific, worldly commands. All Muslims would agree, for example, that it prohibits lending money at interest — though not investments in which risks and returns are shared; and the ban on Muslims drinking alcohol is an example of an unequivocal ritual prohibition, even for liberal interpreters of the faith. Shariah also prohibits bribery or special favors in court. It demands equal treatment for rich and poor. It condemns the vigilante-style honor killings that still occur in some Middle Eastern countries. And it protects everyone’s property — including women’s — from being taken from them. For many Muslims today, living in corrupt autocracies, the call for Shariah is not a call for sexism, obscurantism or savage punishment but for an Islamic version of what the West considers its most prized principle of political justice: the rule of law.
note2 Rights of Humans and Rights of God
So in contemporary Islamic politics, the call for Shariah does not only or primarily mean mandating the veiling of women or the use of corporal punishment — it has an essential constitutional dimension as well. But what is the particular appeal of placing Shariah above ordinary law?
Oil tax paid by the wealthy - not the consumers
What are they really afraid of - Interest Free Banking (required by shari'ah)? - Government paid insurance (not privatized)? - Home and business loans without any usuary? No income tax? No fuel tax? Only wealthy are taxed?
The answer lies in a little-remarked feature of traditional Islamic government: that a state under Shariah was, for more than a thousand years, subject to a version of the rule of law. Islamic government was legitimate, in the dual sense that it generally respected the individual legal rights of its subjects and was seen by them as doing so. These individual legal rights, known as “the rights of humans” (in contrast to “the rights of God” to such things as ritual obedience), included basic entitlements (right) to life, property and legal process — the protections from arbitrary government oppression sought by people all over the world for centuries.
Of course, merely declaring the ruler subject to the law was not enough on its own; the ruler actually had to follow the law. For that, he needed incentives. And as it happened, the system of government gave him a big one, in the form of a balance of power with the scholars. The ruler might be able to use pressure once in a while to get the results he wanted in particular cases. But because the scholars were in charge of the law, and he was not, the ruler could pervert the course of justice only at the high cost of being seen to violate God’s law — thereby undermining the very basis of his rule.
The scholars were agents of stability and predictability — crucial in societies where the transition from one ruler to the next could be disorderly and even violent. And by controlling the law, the scholars could limit the ability of the executive to expropriate the property of private citizens. This, in turn, induced the executive to rely on lawful taxation to raise revenues, which itself forced the rulers to be responsive to their subjects’ concerns. The scholars and their law were thus absolutely essential to the tremendous success that Islamic society enjoyed from its inception into the 19th century. Without Shariah, there would have been no Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad, no golden age of Muslim Spain, no reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul.
For generations, Western students of the traditional Islamic constitution have assumed that the scholars could offer no meaningful check on the ruler. As one historian has recently put it, although Shariah functioned as a constitution, “the constitution was not enforceable,” because neither scholars nor subjects could “compel their ruler to observe the law in the exercise of government.” But almost no constitution anywhere in the world enables judges or nongovernmental actors to “compel” the obedience of an executive who controls the means of force. The Supreme Court of the United States has no army behind it. Institutions that lack the power of the sword must use more subtle means to constrain executives. Like the American constitutional balance of powers, the traditional Islamic balance was maintained by words and ideas, and not just by forcible compulsion.
So today’s Muslims are not being completely fanciful when they act and speak as though Shariah can structure a constitutional state subject to the rule of law. One big reason that Islamist political parties do so well running on a Shariah platform is that their constituents recognize that Shariah once augured a balanced state in which legal rights were respected.
Can Shariah provide the necessary resources for such a rethinking of the judicial role? In its essence, Shariah aspires to be a law that applies equally to every human, great or small, ruler or ruled. No one is above it, and everyone at all times is bound by it. But the history of Shariah also shows that the ideals of the rule of law cannot be implemented in a vacuum. For that, a state needs actually effective institutions, which must be reinforced by regular practice and by the recognition of actors within the system that they have more to gain by remaining faithful to its dictates than by deviating from them.
* Noah Feldman 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.