Islam's Hard Brand of Law

Rise of Shariah Is Raising Concerns

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 3, 2005 ( Concern over extremist Islamic groups and terrorism has renewed interest in the role played by Shariah, a form of Islamic law. A recent book, “Radical Islam’s Rules,” looks at the influence of what it termed “the rapid growth of a starkly repressive version of Islamic shariah law.”

Edited by Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Washington-based Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, the book contains essays from a variety of human rights activists and experts on the issue of religious freedom.

In his introduction Marshall explains that extreme Islam is only one strand of the religion, which began its modern phase as a reaction to the secularization of Turkey in the early 20th century. He also observes that most people who push for the spread of Shariah are not terrorists, though “such law is part of the terrorist’s ideology.”

Shariah is a combination of both civil and religious matter. It tries to synthesize the Koran, the sayings of Islam’s founder Mohammed, and the life of the prophet and his early followers. As well as being divided into a number of schools of interpretation, Shariah also differs from place to place insofar as it has incorporated local laws and traditions.

The extreme form of Shariah, Marshall points out, seeks to entrench only one version, an extreme literalist view that has a double foundation: one that is based on Wahhabism, the form of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia; and the extreme form of Islamic law introduced by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979, following the overthrow of the shah.

Prior to 1979 only Saudi Arabia was governed by Shariah, but in the last couple of decades it has spread to a number of other countries. In Pakistan, Shariah has been gradually supplanting the previous legal system. Sudan introduced a radical form of Shariah in 1983. Then, in 1994, the Taliban in Afghanistan began to institute a form of Shariah.

Nigeria has incorporated Shariah into the legal system since independence. In recent years some of the country’s northern states have announced that Shariah will be given the leading role in determining laws. In Asia, meanwhile, some states in Malaysia have introduced laws based on Shariah. Similar efforts in Indonesia have been blocked, though at the local level radicals enforce Shariah in some areas, writes Marshall.

Saudi ways

In his chapter on how Shariah operates in Saudi Arabia, author and journalist Stephen Schwartz explains that it has dominated the country since the 1930s, even if pockets of resistance persist. Members of minority groups face stringent penalties. The mere possession of writings that belong to the Sufi school of Islam is a capital offense, and Shiite Muslims face regular persecution.

Characteristics of Shariah as practiced in Saudi Arabia include the prohibition of any public practice of non-Muslim religion and a ban against bringing into the country any non-Muslim religious literature or objects, even for personal use. Women’s rights are systematically denied, including the possibility of driving cars.

Maarten Barends, lawyer and editor of a youth magazine for Amnesty International in the Netherlands, describes the situation in Pakistan. The legal system is unstable and a variety of principles and norms is a feature of its operation, with remnants of the 19th-century British-style penal code still in function.

But in recent times there has been a growing influence of Shariah, especially in the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan. As well, in the last couple of decades Shariah’s influence in the criminal code has expanded. In 1979 Pakistani President Zia Ul-Haq introduced Shariah into the criminal legal code and made major changes in the judicial system. This has led to persecution of non-Muslims and to ill treatment of women. In the last few years Christians and Hindus alike have suffered at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Changes in Sudan

The 1983 introduction of Shariah in Sudan rekindled a civil war that led to more than two decades of conflict. In his contribution to the book, human rights activist Hamouda Fathelrahman Bella describes how the change was accompanied by the sacking of many prominent judges and the creation of new tribunals to implement Shariah. Amputations, public floggings and executions quickly followed.

A 1989 military coup worsened the situation, leading to the domination of “a regime of fanatics.” The government, based in the northern part of the country with a predominantly Muslim population, waged war on the Christian and animist population in the southern regions. This was backed by fatwas, or religious decrees, that were used to justify enslavement and the wholesale destruction of villages, schools and churches.

The legal system underwent various changes after 1983, but a new legal code introduced in 1991 and the 1999 constitution have further entrenched the official role of Islam and the permit the practice of harsh punishments dictated by Shariah norms.

In his chapter on Nigeria Paul Marshall notes that in the short time since the 1999 introduction of Shariah in the state of Zamfara, 12 of the 16 northern and central states have adopted a form of Islamic law.

Marshall draws attention to the role played by foreign aid in stimulating the changes. Representatives from countries such Saudi Arabia, Syria and Sudan have been present in some of the states. The changes quickly led to problems for Christians. Not only have they been denied permission to build churches in some areas, but existing some churches have been destroyed. Non-Muslims have also suffered discrimination in jobs, and Muslim programs dominate the state-owned media outlets.

As in other countries the Shariah criminal code discriminates against women in matters such as adultery, with some women sentenced to death by stoning. Cruel punishments are also allowed, with little chance of appeal. Non-Muslims are subjected to Shariah courts, but are barred from being judges, prosecutors or lawyers in these tribunals.

Problems for freedom

A concluding chapter by Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, notes that the core premise of Shariah is that the law has been given by Allah without human mediation. By thus placing the system beyond any possibility of debate or accountability, serious problems for freedom result.

This premise has led to coercion and repression by governments and, Shea argues, “in country after country, it has had devastating implications for basic human rights.” To the extent that it becomes a method of absolute control, Shariah is better understood as a political ideology, Shea says.

An example of the political effects is the screening of election candidates by Iran’s religious Council of Guardians that, in 2004, disqualified over 2,000 would-be contenders, mostly reformists.

Shea is critical of the lack of attention paid to the phenomenon of Shariah. She also notes that Saudi Arabia is given a free hand to promote its version of radical Islamic ideology, even in Western societies such as the United States. Material financed and distributed by the Saudi regime incites hatred toward Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims, and in Pakistan Saudi-funded religious schools, or madrassas, have become a breeding camp for terrorists. Grounds indeed for concern over where Islam is headed.

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