Commentary: The true meaning of Shariah

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A recent article in USA Today addressed a claim going viral on social media — that defunding police departments will lead to Muslim groups hitting the streets with “Shariah patrol forces.”

Such a claim, which the paper debunked, would be truly laughable if it weren’t for the depressing fact that some Americans actually believe canards like this.

No American Muslim organization has ever advocated imposing “Shariah law” in the United States. No group attempting to do so could ever be successful, because the U.S. Constitution prevents the establishment of any religious law in our country. These social media posts have become virally successful only because so few Americans know what “Shariah” actually means.

“Shariah” literally means “the path to water.” In religious terms, Shariah means “the righteous path” or “the path of God.” Shariah also, loosely, can just mean “Islam.”

Shariah also refers to the religious guidelines in Islam. These are derived from the Quran, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, and scholarly interpretations thereof. Therefore, Shariah is not law the way we think of law — rigid and enforceable — but a mass of varying interpretations on Islamic texts, concerning mostly personal religious conduct.

That’s why it makes no sense that militias would be “imposing Shariah.” Imposing what? The path of God? The opinions and debates that make up the scholarly interpretations of the religious texts? Islam?

No, you might be thinking, “imposing Shariah” means forcing women to wear burkas and implementing harsh punishments. That’s what we hear of, say, the Taliban, and they say what they’re doing is Shariah. But using religious rhetoric to justify bad behavior is nothing new in the world.

Today, the Shariah-based legal system, a sophisticated legal system not dissimilar to our own, is gone, dismantled under Western colonialism. Shariah, with its institutions, courts and system of checks and balances, is not the law of the land anywhere in the world. What usually goes under the guise of Shariah is simply a set of Islamic-sounding provisions tacked onto Western-style civil codes or isolated punishments applied without regard to the restrictions that made them fantastically hard to apply.

It’s an election year, though, and Islamophobia spikes in election years. Politicians know that fear-mongering gets votes. Two of this year’s Islamophobic fear-mongers are Marjorie Taylor Greene and Laura Loomer, both endorsed by President Donald Trump. That they’ve won their congressional primaries, in Georgia and Florida respectively, is a sad comment on the rampant ignorance concerning Islam and Muslims.

Greene spreads fabricated tales of a Shariah invasion of the U.S. government, asserting that any Muslim who believes in Shariah shouldn’t be in government. Greene has urged Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the nation’s two Muslim congresswomen (one from Minnesota, the other from Michigan), to “go back to the Middle East.” She falsely claims that Shariah allows men in Muslim-majority countries to have “sex with little boys, little girls, multiple women” and to marry their sisters.

Loomer has been banned by social media platforms for her anti-Muslim hate speech, which has included calling Islam a “cancer on society” and trying to tie Shariah to ISIS. She must have missed the 2014 open letter to ISIS written by over a hundred high-level Islamic scholars, explaining why ISIS’s acts violate Shariah.

It’s in all of our interests to stop mindlessly buying into the notion of Shariah as draconian and violent. Understanding the basics of Shariah, for both non-Muslims and Muslims, is essential to intelligently evaluating political trends, debunking defamatory anti-Muslim rhetoric, and invalidating the positions of Muslim terrorists.

Islam is an American religion. It’s time to demystify it.



Sumbul Ali-Karamali, a former corporate attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law, is a popular speaker and author of the new book, “Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country,” published by Beacon Press. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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