Friday, August 27, 2010

"Sharia" and American secularism

by Peter Henne

It's not often that academic issues like the relationship between Islamic thought and contemporary politics become relevant. So I was excited to see the
Washington Post's story on the nature of sharia. This is connected to the Park51 debate, although the question of whether Muslims must follow sharia like an instruction book--and what this means for American society--periodically arises. The last time was an op-ed by Edward Luttwak claiming President Obama is a Muslim under Islamic law, and that all Muslims will be compelled to oppose him as an apostate.

The story includes blurbs by several experts--including Gallup's Dalia Mogahed--dispelling myths about sharia's totalizing influence over Muslims. And they are right; anyone who has spent even a semester studying Islam will have learned that sharia is not a fixed set of laws, but a set of principles drawn from diverse sources and about which there is much disagreement. Moreover, even if sharia does contain guidelines for Muslims, this does not mean all Muslims will follow it in their daily lives; Muslims are no more likely than Christians to check with their Scriptures before making a decision. This was covered well in the responses to Luttwak's piece.

The renowned Islamic scholar Olivier Roy--in his classic
The Failure of Political Islam--describes sharia as characterized by both autonomy and incompleteness. That is, it exists independently of power structures but is constantly contested. The specific application of sharia in any context is based on contingent political, economic and societal factors, not any inherent aspect of Islam. Saying that sharia will lead Muslims in America to literally follow all aspects of their religious writings would be the same as arguing that medieval Catholic Canon Law not only represents all of Christianity, but drives the behavior of contemporary Catholics.

Of course,
this does not address the question of what the effects may be of the infusion of Muslim values--whatever form they take--into American politics and civil society. This is a question that is worth pondering; we just need to ponder over the right facts.

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