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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 >
Will Muslims impose Shariah in the West?

One battle cry frequently raised by those who warn that Muslims will overwhelm the West is that Muslims want to impose Shariah in America and Europe. Just as critics of Islam in the West question whether Islam is compatible with democracy and whether Muslims can be loyal citizens, many Muslims, in light of the rise and increase of Islamophobia and threats to their civil liberties, ask if democracy can include Islam. Some Muslims in the West have also questioned whether they could be both good Muslims and loyal citizens in “foreign” non-Muslim states based on Western secular laws. More isolationist and militant Muslims tend to associate Western countries and societies with kufr, unbelief, and look upon their citizens as unbelievers to be avoided, converted, or attacked.

Devout Jews can follow Jewish law and Christians follow their doctrines and laws and at the same time be fully American citizens, but can Muslims? What are the implications of the need to follow Shariah for Muslims living in non-Muslim societies? Is there something peculiar about Islam that prevents a Muslim from living in a secular pluralistic America or Europe?

Although Shariah is often simply and falsely equated with Islamic law, by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it should not be. Shariah refers to God's will, laws, principles, and values, found in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. Islamic law is the product of early jurists who interpreted and developed it during the early Islamic centuries. Therefore, Islamic law is the product not only of revelation but also of human reason and interpretation, an attempt to formulate a blueprint for personal and public life in and for Islamic empires and societies, not for Muslims living permanently in non-Muslim societies.

So what about the role of Shariah today for Muslims living in the United States or European countries? This question is especially important since for the first time in history permanent Muslim communities exist as religious minority communities in nations across the globe. Like followers of other faiths, Muslims can and do fulfill the personal religious obligations of their faith. But what are Muslims to do about the other areas of Islamic law?

The starting point, in order to better meet the needs of the faithful in modern times, is to ask what parts of a religious tradition, in this case Islamic law, must remain unchanged (strictly “religious” observances such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage) and what can be changed (civil/criminal transactions regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, crimes and punishments, and issues of war and peace). Many of these laws can be revised to meet the needs of Muslims in new historical and social contexts.

Muslims have addressed this issue in a number of ways. Many in the West look to religious leaders and muftis (authorities in Islamic law), both here and overseas through their writings, DVDs, and the Internet, for guidance and fatwas (authoritative opinions on specific legal issues). In the United States and Europe there are organizations and institutions like the European and North American Fiqh (law) Councils that address specific questions and issue fatwas on Islamic law and practice. They cover questions ranging from marriage, divorce, abortion, sterilization, and stem cell research to issues of war and peace, the environment, banking and finance, and gender (for example, whether a woman can lead the Friday congregational prayer). Many of these questions are similar to those that Christians and Jews address to their own religious leaders.

Many reformers note that Muslims in the West share an identity informed by multiple subcultures. Muslims are Muslim by religion and French, British, German, American by culture. Like twentieth-century Roman Catholic reformers, who faced similar questions regarding Catholic life and loyalty in a secular society where some laws and cultural practices differed from the teachings of their faith, Muslim reformers argue that to embrace secularism and an open society is not a betrayal of Muslim principles; it enables all citizens to live together and is the necessary condition for religious freedom—for Muslims and others.

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, a European Muslim with a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago, counsels Muslims to recognize that the West does not have a monopoly over values, that universal values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are not solely Western but also Islamic. Moreover, he believes that European Muslims can become an example to Muslims in the Middle East.

A related and contentious question is whether European and American legal systems should accommodate some aspects of Islamic law. The explosiveness of this question could be seen in reactions in the United Kingdom to comments about Shariah law made by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a lecture at London's Royal Courts of Justice. The archbishop set out “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thoughts about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.”

Media headlines blared: “Archbishop calls for implementation of Shariah law in Britain.” The archbishop was not calling for implementation of Shariah law for non-Muslims. Rather he was addressing the question of whether British Muslims should have the same rights and choices that Orthodox Jews and Catholics already enjoyed. For example, as he noted, the London Beth Din Jewish courts adjudicate civil disputes. An award given by the Beth Din has the full force of an arbitration award and may be enforced (with prior permission of the Beth Din) by the civil courts. Parties who submit to such courts agree, as a matter of contract, to accept their decisions. The public courts enforce awards just as they would enforce other agreements as long as they do not contradict or override British law.

The situation in the United States, where the line between church and state is more sharply drawn, is quite different. In Great Britain and some other secular European governments, church and state are not completely separate: the monarch is the head of the church or must be a member of the established church, and government funding is provided for some religious institutions and their activities. In America, Muslims, like members of other faiths, can draw on their religious law to govern internal matters and as a guide in family and social behavior as long as they do not violate civil law. At the same time, there are informal or nonjudicial areas where religious leaders and scholars are consulted by the president, Congress, and other government officials on public issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and health care. Many hospitals and physicians today consult with Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholars on sensitive religious and cultural issues in their treatment of Muslim patients, and some suggest that it might be useful to have religious arbitration councils at the service of the courts to mediate in family law disputes.

But what do Muslims do when in some instances American laws are contrary to their beliefs? The answer is that they will respond in the same way as members of other faith traditions—by recognizing the democratic process and pluralistic nature of society and, if they wish, working within the system to change it through lobbying the government concerning laws and appointments of Supreme Court judges just as many Americans, of all faiths and of no faith, have done on issues like prayer in the schools and abortion.

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