How do Islamic and canon law continue to be relevant and dynamic in a rapidly changing world? Where do Islamic, or Sharia law and canon law overlap? How do Catholics and Muslims, as the two largest religious communities in the world, live in diverse, secular democracies around the world, while adhering to their communities of faith?
These questions were explored during an evening of discussion titled "Islamic and Canon Law: Their Interaction with Today's Society," Feb. 23 at Hartford Seminary by Msgr. John J. McCarthy, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hartford, and Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary.
"It's important to understand the role that canon law plays as a foundation for the way the Church relates to society," said Msgr. McCarthy, who holds a degree in civil law and a doctorate in canon law.
The Church, he said, is both a human community "entrusted to human beings" and a divine mystery that is "incomplete and unfinished." Law, then, is a specific instrument in "the process for the community to reach out for authentic values that can perfect the community."
The origin of canon law, he continued, is both in the humanity of the Church and in the divine gifts possessed by that community," which are born from a human need for "order" and achieved through "reason." The purpose of canon law then "is to assist the Church in fulfilling its task … to reveal and to communicate God's saving power to the world."
Also emphasizing the role of the human community, Professor Mattson observed that both she and Msgr. McCarthy pointed to the role of the human interpreter as important when raising new ideas or interpretations.
"The law doesn't directly come from God, but through us; and we can make mistakes," she said. "Our laws can be harmed or helped by the vitality of the institutions of our interpreters. And that's important. We've all had bad laws. Why does that happen?"
According to Professor Mattson, Sharia law is a comprehensive legal and ethical system based on sacred words of the Koran and the inspired guidance of the prophet Muhammad. This guidance is known as the sunnah. The sunnah is known through reports called hadith, which is reflected in books from the early or classical Islamic period.
"It's important to stress that neither the text of the Koran nor the books of hadith are considered law books," she explained. "Law must be derived from these texts by qualified scholars."Sharia, which means path to the watering hole in Arabic, signifies that the divine law shows that God's words are the source of all life and goodness, like water itself, she continued.
The Islamic legal system of Sharia (Islamic law) and Islamic jurisprudence are the most widely used religious law. The majority of rulings are based on jurists who used methods of consensus, analogical deduction, research and common practice to derive legal opinions. Sharia, then, is a broad term that indicates the whole set of laws, ethics, financial dealings, criminal justice, familial and religious obligations, and behavior that is found not in one source but in many, many books, she explained.
"It's not uniform," noted Professor Mattson, who also serves as president of the Islamic Society of North America. "There's a lot of diversity, but with shared underlying principles and sources."
With the period of modernity that came in the mid-20th century, when Islamic countries transitioned from being colonized by empires into individual nations, the considerable cultural change that ensued also began a change in Islamic law among countries.
Both Islamic and canon law share roots in ancient law systems such as the Ten Commandments; and both serve to provide guidelines for the faithful to live in diverse contexts by balancing principles from Scripture, tradition and reason.
"The Code of Canon Law is intended to govern a community united by a common faith," said Msgr. McCarthy. But he asked, "How does the Catholic Church envision its members functioning in a pluralistic society?"
Quoting from Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, he said that "the human person has a right to religious freedom." This means that all people "should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power, so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions…"
The position of the Catholic Church with regard to religious freedom, he said "is grounded in its faith. It is based on the dignity of the human person" and derived from divine revelation.
Therefore, as opposed to coercion, the Church tries to "evangelize members of society to persuade them of the truth of its teachings," he said.
"The goal of evangelization is not to change the law of the State, but to convert the hearts of its citizens," said Msgr. McCarthy. "The supreme law of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls, not the coercive imposition of its norms."
After making their formal presentations, the speakers took questions from the audience and asked questions of each other. "For me, it was a great learning experience," said Professor Mattson. "A big misconception I find is the thought that all Muslims are scriptural literalists. What I wanted to get across is that Islamic legal tradition draws upon many resources and engages human reason to develop laws that are relevant to a changing society.
"It's not a question of just opening up the holy book, pulling out a verse and saying 'this is the law.' That is a violation of proper legal methodology," she said.
This exchange, however, gives an idea of some of the tools of reasoning, the complexities, and some of the universal principles that Islamic law shares with Catholic canon law and other faith traditions, she noted.
Another point of emphasis, she said, "is that in today's world, law does not have to be enforced by the state to be effective.
"There's a great power in the moral voice, in the ethical voice, and in having people voluntarily subscribe to a set of values and ethics that can influence society," said Professor Mattson.
"It doesn't have to be this top- down imposition of law from the State onto people," she said. "But what we really are looking for in both being faithful to canon law or Islamic law is to have a faithful community that voluntarily applies these norms in their life and makes society better for it."