Let’s talk about Sharia. Everyone has heard about the Taliban or the Islamic State rolling into regions and imposing “Sharia law.” It is certainly true that these groups do horrible things in the name of Islam and its supposed code of laws. But it is not true that Sharia or Islam as a whole is any more intrinsically violent, misogynistic or radical than the law of any other religion.
The strict punishments typically attributed to Sharia law are completely separate from the actual principles of Sharia, which is not actually a set of laws. Sharia law, as is commonly discussed, is a Western construct trying blurring the line between fringe groups and mainstream Islamic practice. Christians and those with knowledge of the Christian faith can more accurately think of Sharia as analogous to the Ten Commandments, or more of an understanding of what humans ought to do in their lives.
Sharia is actually quite flexible; prayer requirements are modified to accommodate those with physical disabilities, and even the hajj – the most sacred pilgrimage in Islam – can be waived if someone does not have sufficient economic means. The oft-criticized separation of men and women in mosques is actually intended to help men stay focused through the rather revealing prayer rituals. This practice is heteronormative in its view of sexuality, but it is not an effort to exclude or lessen women from the Islamic prayer experience
By no means am I trying to discount the less palatable parts of Islamic law, but it is important that we keep an open mind and remember that Sharia is not a uniformly oppressive code.
It is also valuable to compare the laws of Islam to the laws of other faiths. Islamic fundamentalists use the word of the Quran to justify horrors like public beheadings, but let’s compare this to a law in the Christian Bible: “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of Sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.” The book of Numbers indicates that this execution will be, specifically, a stoning.
To our modern ears, this punishment seems quite drastic. Death for putting in an extra day of work? A lot of people would be put to death in an exceptionally barbaric way if this biblical law were applied literally. Of course, it is not. The obvious response to what I have just said is that Sharia is often taken quite literally, while Christian law almost never is. Fair point. But an argument about religion just changed into one about fundamentalism.
By misconstruing the phrase Sharia law away from its interpretation in Islamic scripture, we make the religion appear to be inflexible and primitive. We take the actions of the fundamentalist groups that constantly grace our TV screens and associate them with every Muslim everywhere. The phrase is a misrepresentation of the message of the Quran with serious political ramifications. It feeds Islamophobia and the irrational fear that American, or even Western, freedom and democracy will be subsumed in this radically strict code. Finally, it fuels the public view of a monolithic Islam. The word “law” implies that the strictest applications of Sharia are part and parcel of any Islamic society.
If we are truly afraid of fundamentalist Islam and its ramifications in the United States, it would be better to at least call it what it is and not simply blanket such a fear by misusing the term Sharia. And while we are at it, we should talk about fundamentalist Christianity, which is and was the supposed moral code of the Ku Klux Klan, to say nothing of the legacy of the 12th century Crusades.
It is not unreasonable to worry about the dangers of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise. But there is something seriously wrong when we pretend that the most radical interpretations of Islam are normal while entirely ignoring the existence of radical Christianity in our own backyard and history. Honesty in language, by ending the misusage and misinterpretation of Sharia law, will help bring understanding between the multi-vocal nature of Islam and other faiths.
Nick Shedd is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Word Play appears every other Wednesday.
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