In a recent article appearing in Tablet, Lee Smith takes Newt Gingrich to task for the latter's focus on sharia (i.e., Islamic law). The thrust of Smith's argument is that sharia is a "hopelessly abstract concept" and "a highly idealized version of reality that has little basis in fact"; that sharia is "a catchall phrase for legal principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies"; and that "the notion that something called 'sharia' was widely imposed throughout the lands of Islam is an Orientalist fantasy."
My first observation is — even if all these charges were perfectly true — so? It hardly matters what sharia really is; all that matters is what today's Muslims believe it is. And a great many believe sharia is tangible and codified, and that it can, and should, be implemented in society. More to the point, telling the apostate or adulteress — who are regularly executed "according to sharia"— that they are really being murdered by "principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies" is hardly reassuring.
Smith does acknowledge Islam's famous draconian punishments; he just prefers to call them hudud, and limits them to "Islamist outfits like the Taliban." Similarly, Smith offers a blitz tour on Islamic jurisprudence — including the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi'i madhahib, the differences between usuli and akhbari, fiqh, ijma, 'aql, qiyas, and ahkam sultaniyya — even as the reader wonders how these concepts are relevant to the discussion at hand: Islam in America, from a national security context.