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The Islamic Sharia is a system of law. It is a collection of prohibitions, admonitions and commands about human behavior. The Sharia is not an internal matter that only concerns Islam and Muslims. The Sharia includes a large number of provisions about people who are not Muslims. These rules are usually prohibitions that carry severe penalties if violated. These provisions of the Sharia make life unsafe and uncertain for someone who lives under Sharia law and who is not a Muslim.
Under Sharia law, someone who is not a Muslim possesses no inalienable rights. If I am wrong here, I will be relieved, and happy to stand corrected and receive your e-mails pointing out why I am wrong. But if I am right, a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay possesses more rights than a Jew or a Christian who lives under Sharia law.
Unlike the legal systems of most modern nation states, Sharia law is not subject to democratic supervision. Like international law and rabbinic law, Sharia law is an academic affair: experts discuss and debate the rules until they reach an agreement. Sharia law does not know a parliament or a government that acts as legislator, but the rules of the Sharia come into being by being agreed upon by the experts, that is, the Islamic religious leaders, the professional Muslims, the Ulama, Ayatollahs, or whatever these dignitaries are called.
Like me, most of you will be only superficially familiar with international law. The pretensions of international law have never been put to the test of a free and democratic vote. It was, to say the least, interesting to note how often the accusers of Geert Wilders in 2010 and 2011 appealed to what they regarded as generally accepted international law in order to silence Geert Wilders. As international law demonstrates, communities of academic specialists, in their isolation, have a tendency to develop a degree of pedantry that an elected lawgiver could never afford. Up to a point, this is exactly what has happened to the Sharia.
Religions are not democratic even if they sometimes may preach or tolerate democracy. Hence, the way in which the rules of Islamic law come into being is undemocratic. This implies that allowing the Sharia, or a part of it, to be the law of the land in a Western nation will diminish the democratic character of that nation. It means giving away legislative power to unelected self-appointed men, who are unknown and anonymous, who operate from far-away mosques in Pakistan or Afghanistan. In a democracy, this is not the ideal arrangement. One may have legitimate religious reasons to nevertheless prefer such an arrangement, but it entails something worse than taxation without representation; it entails legislation without representation.
Western policymakers do not take Sharia law too seriously because it is an academic and religious affair, a system of law that springs not from the power of a state but from the minds of religious scholars. In the Muslim world, to the contrary, the authority of the Sharia is overwhelming. The colossal prestige of the Sharia in the world of Islam is easy to explain: Islamic theology identifies Sharia law with the will of God; and Sharia specialists are the religious leaders of the Islamic community. No government in the Muslim world can afford to alienate these specialists of religious law if it wants to remain in power.
Each and every Islamic country nurtures its own equilibrium between its government and its religious specialists. This ever-changing equilibrium is the stuff of PhD-dissertations. Nevertheless, most Islamic countries possess legal systems that are influenced by, but not identical with, traditional Sharia law. To the leaders of the radical Islamic movements this non-identity of national law and Sharia law is a permanent source of anger. The smallest discrepancy between Sharia law and the law of the land is permanent fuel to the fire of their propaganda machines since such a difference supplies proof that a human lawgiver wanted to take God’s place, and attempted to improve on Go’ds work, which is blasphemy since God must remain the only law-giver.
Sharia law is not a practical system of law developed in courts. It is the product of the deliberations of scholars, and it does not spring from the practical concerns of judges, barristers, prosecutors or defenders. Consequently, Sharia law is poor on procedure. It is a theoretical, abstract system of law thought out in academies. This explains most of its weaknesses.
Nevertheless, Muslim theology claims that Sharia law is divine. If unfamiliar new questions arise for which the Sharia has to provide an answer, Sharia specialists, at least in theory, put forward a solution that is based upon the four principles or ‘roots’, of the Sharia. These four principles will reemerge again and again in all discussions concerning the Sharia. They are Koran, Hadith, Analogy and Agreement.
The fourth root, Agreement or Consensus, is for all practical purposes the most important criterion. Once a consensus has emerged it becomes unnecessary to consult the other sources. Theory and theology, however, attach the greatest value to the authority of the first of these four roots, to the Koran, but in practice the wording of the Koran may have to be supplemented or interpreted by the other sources, or by another passage from the Koran itself.
Here we meet with an important principle from both Sharia law and Koran interpretation. This principle, ‘abrogation’, naskh in Arabic, is often misunderstood. ‘Abrogation’ means that a verse from the Koran that was revealed early might be repealed, or ‘abrogated’, by a verse that came down at a later point in time. Sometimes even an element from one of the other three sources can abrogate the contents of a verse from the Koran. Muslim scholars analyze all possible cases in depth.
The most famous example of abrogation is of concern to anyone who is not a Muslim: the abrogation of Sura 109, a Sura from the Mecca period that preaches religious tolerance. This Sura is abrogated by later verses from Medina that command the Muslims to fight and kill the unbelievers wherever they find them.
Whatever problem Sharia scholars are confronted with, in a few generations they will work out an agreement; and then Muhammad’s directive applies that ‘God will not permit [his] people to agree on an error.’
This important directive plays a central role in the Sharia system. Its application has a number of unforeseen consequences. Abolishing a Sharia regulation on which agreement had been reached, implies that Muhammad’s umma did go wrong. But according to Islam’s Prophet, it did not. Hence, it is out of the question to go back on regulations once they are agreed upon. Examples of cases where this creates difficulties and embarrassment are numerous: just think of the Sharia punishments for apostasy, adultery or theft.
A famous example of abrogation is the prohibition of wine. In early verses, the Koran speaks well of wine; later verses forbid wine. But how do we know which verse comes first? This we can only know from the Muslim Sharia experts. How do they know? Well, since wine is forbidden, the verse that forbids wine must be later than the verse that praises wine. Outsiders will suspect circularity, but to traditional Muslims this all enjoys the support of the Most High, and reconfirms that they would be at loss without the scholarship and learning of the experts who embody religious authority in Islam.
The friends of Islam see the alleged flexibility of Islamic law as an indication of its humane and liberal character. This, however, is a mistake. Flexible laws are not humane but dangerous, since citizens do not know for what they can be arrested and executed. Islamic law, flexible as it is reported to be, is unanimous on a large number of points. Agreement, consensus, that is what the system is build upon. No important disagreements exist on the points of law that are important to whoever is not a Muslim, whatever the friends of Islam may say. Not respecting the majesty of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, is generally seen as a capital crime. If the courts or the governments do not execute the offender, spontaneous informal volunteers may feel justified to take this task upon their shoulders, whatever the cost to them personally.
Modern Western scholars have called into doubt the origins of the Sharia. They believe that the Sharia is the continuation of Roman provincial law as it was in force in the Roman Empire in the Middle East on the eve of the Arab conquests. A number of 20th century scholars wrote about the relationship between Roman and Islamic law. It is easy to see that the figure of the mufti is a continuation of the scholar of jurisprudence well known from Roman law, and other examples abound.
Strong influence from Talmudic rabbinic law on the Sharia is undeniable, and no miracle, since the Talmud and the Sharia both came into being in Iraq, in roughly the same period, 7th till 9th century AD. Fatwa’s are, of course, the exact functional equivalent of the rabbinic teshuvot, and the responsa from Roman law.
Muslims believe that their religious specialists derived the rules of the Sharia from its four sources: Koran, Hadith, Analogy and Consensus. However, modern Western scholars have come to believe that the rules of the Sharia were not derived from the four ‘roots’, but that the rules and provisions were anchored in these four ‘roots’ only in retrospect. This is again the stuff of PhD-dissertations. These academic questions, however, should not detain us here, we have a more important duty: to explain why we should concentrate on the Sharia, and not on the Koran or Muhammad, when we want to defend ourselves against the onslaught of Islam.
Modern Western scholarship on the Koran and the life of Muhammad has made great progress since the turn of the century. Consequently the traditional positions concerning Muhammad and the Koran have shown themselves to be untenable.
Whether Muhammad really existed, is more uncertain than ever. Two centuries of patient scholarship have created serious doubts about the historicity of the prophet of Islam. These doubts will not go away, no matter how small and insignificant the number of academics that works in this field may be.
The general picture which the Koran and the Islamic tradition offer of the setting in which Muhammad worked, first as a prophet, then as both a prophet and a statesman, the general picture of Mecca and Medina in the beginning of the 7th century AD, is not confirmed by the results of archeological research and inscriptions as far as these are available. This, of course, may change when research progresses but it is not a good sign, especially since what has been found, at first sight appears to contradict the traditional views.
The literary tradition about Muhammad’s biography does look like an unsystematic collection of mutually contradicting sermons that nevertheless all want to convince the audience that a certain Muhammad was the Messenger of God. The literary material that has been preserved does not look like an historical record at all. This is not necessarily fatal, but it is not a good sign. Numismatics does not confirm Islam’s version of the early history of Islam. This by itself is not conclusive, but it is not a good sign. There are discrepancies between what we know about the ancient Arab calendar and the reported stories about Muhammad. This needs not be fatal, but it comes close to being so.
True Muslims, however, do not share these doubts about their beloved prophet. The guild of Muslim religious leaders, on the other hand, will go further than simply not sharing these doubts; they will be infuriated when modern Western scholars unmask the Muslim version of the early history of Islam as a narrative created by theological necessities, as sermons that are disguised as history. It goes without saying that many Muslims will be ready to put on heavy armor to defend their religion against such attacks.
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