Sharia is a complex, wide-ranging, and ever-evolving set of principles that are meant to help Muslims get closer to God, according to the example set out by Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It's a guide to life that encompasses a whole range of behaviors and faith practices ― from praying five times daily to abstaining from pork and alcohol -- and it's interpreted in vastly different ways by Islam's many sects.
In the United States, politicians and anti-Muslim organizations like ACT for America have tapped into fears and misunderstandings about Muslims and immigrants to give the word “Sharia” an entirely different, more sinister meaning.
To promote this misinterpretation, ACT for America, which was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group, plans to hold a nationwide “March Against Sharia” in cities around the country on June 10.
The basic premise of the anti-Sharia movement is this: Sharia is a concrete set of inherently cruel and barbaric Islamic laws that is slowly infiltrating American courts. It unequivocally demands harsh punishments for the slightest offenses and it fundamentally violates human rights, especially the rights of women and children. Furthermore, anyone who calls the anti-Sharia movement what it really is (a new and insidious form of American nativism) is either willfully ignorant or pitifully daft.
Over the past few years, efforts to ban Sharia law in America (often under the guise of banning “foreign” laws) have gained steam. Ten states have already adopted legislation that prohibits the use of foreign law in their state courts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2017, sixteen states have proposed legislation on the subject.
But the group’s stated intent of “protecting” America from Sharia law betrays a basic level of misunderstanding about what Sharia actually is and how it is interpreted by Muslims today. On the flip side, spreading false information about Sharia actually has negative consequences for American Muslims ― including the “Muslim women and children” that ACT for America claims it is trying to protect.
Below, HuffPost has put together a brief explainer for those who think discriminating against an entire religious tradition will make America great again.
Sharia is primarily about a personal relationship with God.
Sharia is an Arabic word that means a path to be followed, commonly a path that leads to water. This image of a road leading to the sustenance needed for life is a powerful one. Faraz Rabbani, an Islamic scholar, explained to the BBC: “The linguistic meaning of Sharia reverberates in its technical usage: just as water is vital to human life, so the clarity and uprightness of Sharia is the means of life for souls and minds.”
Sharia is drawn from two main sources ― the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and the Sunnah, or the example set by the Prophet Muhammad. It encompasses both a personal moral code and a general religious law that can influence the legal systems of Muslim-majority countries. It’s also a living body of law ― it developed over the centuries and is still being examined with fresh eyes by Muslim scholars and believers today.
Many religions have legal codes that offer ethical and moral guidelines for practitioners of the faith ― from the canon law of the Catholic Church to Jewish religious rules and practices, called Halakhah (which, like Sharia, also means “the path that one walks.”) And just as opinions about these laws vary greatly within each of these traditions, Muslims around the world fall on a vast spectrum when it comes to how to interpret Sharia.
Asking a Muslim to stop believing in Sharia is like asking her to stop practicing her religion. It is a blatant attack on religious liberty.
Much like Jewish Halakhah, which can influence everything from a person’s diet to the clothes they wear, Sharia is a set of laws that covers all aspects of a Muslim’s life, imbuing even mundane acts with a touch of divine significance.
According to the American Muslim scholar Imam Suhaib Webb, there are five main things that Sharia law aims to preserve: Life, learning, family, property, and honor. From these main goals come laws about things like marriage, eating, worship, financial transactions, and many other essential aspects of living in a community.
Sharia is not all about punishment.
Critics like to focus on violent verses from the Quran in order to paint Sharia as a cruel, draconic legal system that is antithetical to American values. It’s true that Sharia does prescribe harsh punishments for acts like adultery, but according to journalist Omar Sacirbey, many of these punishments have been taken out of context, repealed, or require an incredibly high level of evidence.
According to the scholar Qasim Rashid, taking any religious text out of its historical and spiritual context will not result in an “honest legal interpretation.” The Bible also contains verses that could be seen as violent ― such as the verse in the Christian gospels when Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Or the time Jesus told his followers, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you” and, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
Rashid writes, “The most ‘Muslim country’ in the world is likely America, because America guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought—all hallmarks of Shariah Law. Those nations that oppress in the name of Shariah are as justified in their claims, as the slave owners who claimed their right to slavery was based on the Bible.”
No one needs to worry about Sharia dominating American life and courts.
Because nothing trumps the U.S. Constitution. No national Muslim organization has ever called for Sharia to supercede American courts. It’s completely beside the point of Sharia and it’s not something American Muslims want.
And yet, during the run-up to the 2012 election, efforts to ban Sharia law popped up in at least two dozen states across the country. Many claim the initiative was a response to an imagined threat that was more about promoting anti-Muslim sentiment than about preserving American law.
Not only are these anti-Sharia campaigns unconstitutional, they also often end up hurting Muslims. According to Abed Awad, a specialist in Islamic law, banning Sharia law makes it difficult for Muslims to provide cultural context in cases that have to do with divorce and marriage.
One example is Soleimani v. Soleimani, a case that was decided in Kansas, where a ban against foreign law being used in state courts was adopted by state lawmakers in 2012. A Muslim woman had signed an Islamic agreement with her husband that guaranteed that she would receive $677,000 in case of death or divorce. But the jury chose not to factor that contract into its decision about the case, and the woman ended up getting a substantially lower sum.
The anti-Sharia movement that's emerging today is the latest iteration of America's old fear of the "other.
Catholics were once the victim of the kind of religious discrimination now fomented against Muslims. Many of the Founding Fathers were wary of Catholicism. The American statesman John Jay actually wanted Catholics to “renounce the pope and foreign authorities” before they could serve in the government.
During the 19th century, the number of Catholics in the United States tripled because of immigration. This influx led to the rise of anti-Catholic, nativist sentiment, which manifested itself in violent ways, with the burning of convents and churches.
Catholics weren’t the only group that has been targeted on American soil for their religious beliefs. Looking back at the experiences of Mormons, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and atheists in this country, it becomes sadly obvious that hatred of the “other” is as American as apple pie.
A previous version of this article was posted in 2016.