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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
Do Muslims today want Shariah law?

The relationship of religion to the state and religion's role in politics and society are critical and contentious issues globally. They are reflected in constitutional debates in America, where there is a “wall of separation” between the religion and government on the one hand, but a strong religious presence in presidential and congressional politics on the other. The Gallup World Poll in 2007 found that a majority of Americans want the Bible as a source of legislation: 44 percent say the Bible should be “a” source, and 9 percent believe it should be the “only” source of legislation. Prayer in the schools, the teaching of creationism, and abortion are among many religious-political issues.

Nowhere has the issue of the relationship of religion to state and society been more contested, and at times explosive, than in the Muslim world. Is the separation of church and state possible in Islam? Shariah (Islamic law) is often characterized as a medieval legal system. This is a common charge and there are good reasons for it. Self-styled Islamic governments in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and the Taliban's Afghanistan have restricted women's rights and in some mandated the stoning of women charged with adultery; they have amputated the limbs of thieves, and prosecuted Muslims who convert to another religion for apostasy and blasphemy. Christians have also suffered under self-styled Islamic governments in countries like Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “Islamic laws” such as Pakistan's blasphemy law have been used to imprison and threaten Christians with the death penalty.

Why, then, do majorities of Muslims regard Shariah so positively, as central to their faith? Despite aberrations and abuses, for many centuries, Shariah has functioned as a positive source of guidance, a law whose principles and values provided a moral compass for individuals and society. Islamic law was developed to serve as the blueprint for an ideal Muslim society. It represents a reservoir of principles and values, created to answer the question “What should a good Muslim be doing” It regulates a Muslim's religious duties to God such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as his and her social obligations and social transactions such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, business contracts, and political issues.

Strong support for Shariah, despite examples past and present of its abuse, is reflected in the Gallup World Polls in 2006 and 2007, which found that large majorities of Muslims, both women and men, in many and diverse Muslim countries from Egypt to Malaysia, wanted Shariah as “a” source of law. While they did not want a theocracy, they did want a more democratic government that also incorporated Islamic values. So what are Muslims who want Shariah as “a source,” but not “the sole source,” of legislation really asking for? The answer to this is as diverse as the Muslim community. Shariah has had and continues to have many meanings and applications. For some, it means that no law should be contrary to Islam, raising many questions such as: Who is to make this decision, and on the basis of what interpretation of Islam? For others, it means Islamic law should be one of the sources of a nation's legal system, along with laws derived from other legal systems and legal philosophies.

Some who have a more conservative and static view of Islamic law press for the restoration of past practice, while others who are more reform-minded see Islamic law as flexible and more subject to change and adaptation.

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