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‘Sharia’ is a much more abstract concept than ideologues—whether Mideast Islamists or Newt Gingrich—suggest

Lee Smith
August 18, 2010
(Wikimedia; Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)
(Wikimedia; Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

With a recent CNN poll showing that 68 percent of Americans oppose the plan to build a mosque in lower Manhattan, close to Ground Zero, it is difficult not to conclude that Americans have begun to take a referendum, not necessarily on their Muslim neighbors, but more generally on what they see as the problems posed by Islam to U.S. liberal democracy. In Washington, Newt Gingrich put a name to it in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute when he identified the problem as “sharia,” or what is commonly translated as Islamic law.

Stealthy jihadis and violent ones, said Gingrich, are “both seeking to impose the same end state, which is to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of sharia.” After quoting the Gettysburg Address, Gingrich concluded, “I would argue that the victory of sharia would clearly mean the end of the government Lincoln was describing.”

You’d think the party of Lincoln was made of stronger stuff, but many on the right have taken up the former Georgia congressman’s call to arms. Gingrich, wrote Andrew McCarthy on National Review Online, “has crystallized the essence of our national-security challenge. Henceforth, there should be no place to hide for any candidate, including any incumbent. The question will be: Where do you stand on sharia?”

By making sharia the focus of his fulminations, Gingrich has taken an almost hopelessly abstract concept and weighted it with an existential presence that it has never had in 1,400 years of Muslim history. Sharia is not a concrete legal code; it is the idealized notion of God’s law. Because there is no way to approach what is ostensibly divine except through human agency, sharia as such does not exist except as interpreted by human beings over the long course of Islamic history. The word “sharia” necessarily means many things to many people. Even though Islam is very simple in its basics, including conversion—you are a Muslim if you testify there is no God but God and Muhummad is the messenger of God—the faith comes with a fabulously esoteric scholarly tradition.

The access that Muslims have to sharia is through jurisprudence, or fiqh al-sharia, the comprehension of sharia. In Muslim history there were at least six major Sunni schools of law, with only four remaining (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i); in Shia Islam there are two major approaches, usuli, based on deriving principles, and akhbari, a scripturalist posture that believes all answers are already written down in the Quran and the sayings of the Shiite saints.

Of course, there is also difference of opinion as to the relevant texts. Except for the Quran, Sunnis and Shiites typically disagree about everything. As for the hadith, or sayings of the prophet, the Sunnis believe the relevant hadith are those of the prophet and his companions, the sahaba; for the Shia, the meaningful hadith are those of the prophet as well as the imams who followed him. To produce fiqh, the Shia also have aql, or intellect, whereas the Sunnis go by the principle of qiyas, or reasoning by analogy, and also ijma, or consensus.

It is doubtful that Islam’s scholastic legal apparatus is what the former House speaker was referring to when he said that sharia “is the heart of the enemy movement from which the terrorists spring forth.” Among other things, he is referring to the notoriously vicious corporal punishments associated with so-called Islamic law as exercised in many Muslim-majority countries. Known as the huddud, these punishments, like stoning and lashing for adulterers, beheading for murderers, and so on, are most famously meted out by Islamist outfits like the Taliban in Afghanistan and also by the terror-propagating Pashtun militia’s two senior state-sponsors, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There is little doubt that both these countries have had a hand in terrorism, including spectacular operations directed against the United States, like the Sept. 11 attacks. But unless Washington intends to make war on them, rather than putting Islamabad on the dole and selling Riyadh 84 advanced F-15s, as it is planning to do, it is counterproductive to associate sharia with our enemy.

Gingrich is also referring to how Muslims tend to perceive of non-Muslims and the fact that Muslim societies have historically treated non-Muslims as second-class citizens, with the status of protected peoples, or dhimmis. While this principle obviously runs against the grain of American culture, it is hard to see how it possibly threatens non-Muslim U.S. citizens, or even American Muslims of the Shiite sect who, since they are considered heretics by the Sunnis, have usually suffered worse fates than Christians and Jews in Sunni-majority lands. When Gingrich argues that “radical Islamists want to impose Sharia on all of us,” I can’t imagine how he sees that happening, short of the largest land invasion in human history of foreign Muslim soldiers, administrators, and religious scholars with the connivance of millions of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and pagan American collaborators. And look out, Mitt Romney and the Mormons!

The stealth scenario is slightly less preposterous—jihadis insinuating their way through our legal and political systems to slowly Islamize a credulous U.S. public degree by degree—but many times more repugnant. It is necessarily premised on the idea of a United States that has lost all faith and confidence in its own values and an intellectual and political elite too stupid to tell the difference between our founding principles and Islamic obscurantism. In this scenario, the same nation that came out of its Civil War a more perfect union is now just a few headscarves and beards away from becoming a Taliban backwater.

If to Gingrich sharia stands for everything wrong with Islam, Muslims associate it with all that is best about Islam—justice, accountability, the rule of law, and even democracy. That is to say, it’s a highly idealized version of reality that has little basis in fact. For most Muslims (moderate and non-moderate alike), sharia is a catchall phrase for legal principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies, where the law of the land is not God’s but the ruler’s. It is not abstract notions of “sharia” but the actual application of the ahkam al-sultaniyya, or laws of the ruler, that have shaped the reality of most Muslim societies over the last millennium.

The notion that something called “sharia” was widely imposed throughout the lands of Islam is an Orientalist fantasy. If Gingrich’s Orientalism—sharia represents an all-encompassing totalitarian force—is of the negative variety, positive Orientalism asserts that Muslim societies were just and well-administered until Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and the colonial legacy that ensued. The driving force behind this positive Orientalism is none other than the Islamist movement. For instance, the Islamists reasoned that the Arabs lost the 1967 war with Israel because they no longer practiced the true religion. Islam had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and Muslim societies needed to return to the essentials of the faith as practiced by the prophet of Islam and the righteous forebears, al-salaf. Those who adopted such ahistorical beliefs are known as salafists, whose ranks include a broad spectrum of Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the hands of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, sharia was another wedge used to divide Muslim populations from the ruling regimes. In time, the regimes adapted so that today the Egyptian constitution names sharia as its principle source of legislation, and the new Iraqi constitution cites it as a fundamental source; but this is essentially window-dressing to placate pious Muslims and ward off the Islamists.

The Islamists are hardly more specific about what sharia means. When Banna spoke of sharia to the Egyptian masses, he meant something similar to the empty Western left-wing mantra of “social justice.” In any case, the Islamist definition of sharia is something very different from the thousand-year-old enterprise that had devoted its scholarly energies to discerning how to understand and implement, if possible, God’s revealed word. Aside from notable exceptions like Youssef al-Qaradawi, almost none of the notables even vaguely affiliated with the Islamist movement are scholars. What they know about sharia is only slightly more than what Newt Gingrich thinks he knows about it.

It is surpassingly strange that a concept revived by Islamists as a political tool may now be serving a similar purpose in the United States, where sharia is no more likely to affect the American way of life than the burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians are likely to influence our funerary rites. When the organizer behind the lower Manhattan Islamic center, Imam Feisal Rauf, says that the U.S. legal system is “sharia-compliant,” he is not preparing the way for a regime of lashings and beheadings; he is engaging in a species of inter-Muslim apologetics—which are also pro-American, even if in a roundabout way.

There is no comparing the Islamic sharia and the U.S. Constitution. The idealized notion of God’s law as derived from the Quran and hadith does not guarantee freedom of religious belief, or freedom of expression, including blasphemy, as the United States does in practice. The same is true for concepts like freedom of association and political rights, including the right to form political parties. Americans have long enjoyed freedoms that many Muslims, including the Islamists, say they have aspired to for more than a thousand years. To claim that Muslim societies—in their idealized form—also promote the freedoms that Americans really enjoy is not a threat to the U.S. Constitution but a relatively shame-free way of engaging a subject that is embarrassing to a society extremely sensitive to shame.

But what’s more embarrassing is that the political leaders of a free country imagine that our freedoms are threatened, not by real men with real weapons who are supported by states that claim to be our allies, but by a scare word whose real-world applications are obscure to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.