A conservative grassroots organization, ACT for America, organized a "March against Sharia" in at least 20 cities across the United States on Saturday, June 10. Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University Asma Afsaruddin explains Sharia and dispels a number of myths about it. This transcript has been edited for length.
What is Sharia law?
Sharia in Arabic means "the way," and does not refer to a body of law. Sharia is more accurately understood as referring to wide-ranging moral and broad ethical principles drawn from the Quran and the practices and sayings (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad. These broad principles are interpreted by jurists to come up with specific legal rulings and moral prescriptions. The body of legal rulings that emerges from the interpretation of Sharia law is commonly referred to as Islamic law, or as "fiqh" in Arabic. It is the result of human intellectual activity and is therefore, by definition, fallible and changeable.
Is it true that Sharia does prescribe harsh punishment for acts such as adultery?
It is much more fruitful to start with Sharia's fundamental objectives. Sharia provides guidance on how to live an ethical life. It lays down guidelines on how to pray and how to treat one's family members, neighbors and those who are in need. It requires Muslims to be just and fair in their dealings with everyone, to refrain from lying and gossip, etc., and always to promote what is good and prevent what is wrong.
Muslim scholars reflecting on the larger objectives of Sharia have said that laws derived from it must always protect the following: life, intellect, family, property and the honor of human beings. These five objectives create what we may consider to be a premodern Islamic Bill of Rights, providing protection for civil liberties.
On the specific question of adultery, Islam, like some other religions, takes a strong position, since it seeks to promote the sanctity and stability of the family. Those found guilty of adultery are supposed to be punished by lashing (based on the Quran) or stoning (based on hadith).
But there is a high bar of evidence that must be met before this punishment can be meted out, and the prescribed punishment for adultery was therefore hardly ever carried out in the premodern world.
This situation is in contrast to the brutal stonings that have been carried out in the modern, post-colonial period in a handful of Muslim majority countries, like Nigeria and Pakistan. From my perspective, the above-mentioned rules of evidence were not given due regard. In many such cases, modern jurists who may have very little training in classical Islamic law and do not understand the principles of Sharia are being asked to implement "Islamic punishments" by politicians who want to appear Islamic. Stoning appears to be a dramatic way of asserting a shallow "Islamic" identity, often in conscious opposition to the West. There are other jurists who have criticized these sensationalist examples of stoning as being in violation of fundamental moral and legal principles within Islam.
Is Sharia anti-women?
Most definitely not. The Quran recognizes the absolute equality of men and women as human beings and proclaims that they are each other's partners in promoting the common good.
Sharia provides women with certain rights that were practically unheard of in the premodern world. It requires that both men and women have equal access to knowledge; it requires a woman's consent before marriage; and it allows her the right to initiate divorce under certain conditions. Muslim jurists allowed abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, especially if the mother's health was in jeopardy.
Above all, Sharia allows a woman to inherit property from her male relatives and to keep this property for herself, even after marriage — her husband cannot lay any claim to it. In contrast, European Christian women were not allowed to hold on to their property after marriage until the 19th century. Muslim feminists campaigning for equal legal rights in Muslim majority societies today draw their arguments and strength from Sharia.
Honor killings and female genital mutilation, that are often described by the media as Islamic, are in fact non-Islamic tribal practices that have no basis in Sharia. Female genital mutilation is practiced by non-Muslims as well.