Teenage girls who are forced to marry. Hands amputated as punishment for theft. Women who are rarely allowed to leave the house and, when they do, are required to wear oppressive, black burqas covering their bodies, faces, and hands. These are the images that come to many people’s minds when they think of Islamic law. The resulting emotions are often panic, fear, and disgust about Sharia in America, and the conflict that arises between groups is a flashpoint for heated debate: It generates marches and counter-protests, editorials, and counter-editorials.
As an American anthropologist working in the United States, I have watched the opposition to Sharia grow in recent years. It misrepresents what Sharia really is. My work over the past four years shows that people’s fears are largely unfounded. As an American who appreciates the core American values of inclusiveness, liberty, and the rule of law, I think it’s important to help dispel the myths that fuel these reactions.
The commonly held stereotypes about Sharia are illusions conjured up from a reservoir of misunderstandings and half-truths. My work has shown that most of the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims would not recognize the draconian practices described above as being part of the Islamic law they follow. Instead, their Sharia allows them to lead lives that are fundamentally no different than their Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or secular neighbors.
“Sharia” is the Arabic term for Islamic law, and it literally translates as “a path to water where people can drink and seek nourishment.” It is helpful to think of Islamic law less like American criminal law—which tells citizens how to behave and what to do to avoid being thrown in jail—and more like a guidebook on how to lead a life pleasing to God. Islamic scholars see this guidebook as the path and the sweet drink at its end as divine salvation. Sharia lays out how Muslims can become better friends, family members, and citizens.
This aspect of Sharia—those elements of Islamic law that facilitate Muslims’ interactions with society rather than preventing them from fully engaging with it—is either ignored in the face of more radical interpretations or entirely unknown to the general public in the U.S. Instead of seeing how most Muslims are already living in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors and using Islamic law as a way to guide their lives, many people assume that every Muslim who follows Sharia is a radical. For most Muslims, the path of Sharia does not lead down this road at all. Instead it is one of harmony and cooperation.
Paths can be tricky, however, especially when they are meant to lead to God. Just as there are many paths to a well, Muslim scholars hold that there are many valid interpretations of Islamic law—and some paths that might lead one astray. Throughout most of Islam’s history, scholars have interpreted the law. So there is some flexibility in how it is applied: As long as scholars follow the general rules of interpretation and don’t impose unreasonable hardships on people, their rulings are deemed correct.
It is only in more recent times that some interpretations of Islamic law have emerged that are far more intolerant and extreme than most. More radical interpretations claim that there is only one Sharia—just a single path to the sweet water of Heaven—and that only those who follow this path can find divine salvation. This is the path of intolerance, a rejection of democracy, and an exaltation of Muslims above all others.
Islamic law does contain guidance on crime and punishment, but the way it is interpreted in the U.S. does not create a conflict with American law. Most American Muslims and scholars of Islam believe that because their national criminal system is fast, efficient, and humane, they do not need to rely on Islamic law to prosecute crimes. The American judicial system works—it does this job for them—and so the community is relieved of following any penal aspects of Islamic law.
As a result, for American Muslims, Islamic law mostly governs aspects of private life. It has something to say about how people get married (including that the woman must agree to the marriage), buy a first home (Sharia forbids taking out an interest-based loan from a bank), plan a funeral (the body of the deceased must be buried as soon as possible), or come together for a festive meal (alcohol is not allowed). Essentially, Islamic law functions in an identical way to Jewish law, the Halakha, which has had a vibrant existence in the United States for centuries.
But Sharia, as with other religious groups’ laws, does not always perfectly mesh with American society or American values. For example, the Islamic law forbidding the use of interest-bearing financial products means that many Muslims refuse to use credit cards, take out auto loans, or have home mortgages with banks—things many Americans consider necessary and ordinary. For another example, a very small number of American Muslims practice polygamy (as do some fundamentalist Mormons).
Of course, these conflicts are nothing new. Virtually every religious group has had to accommodate U.S. law—and in numerous cases, the U.S. has adjusted to the beliefs of religious groups. In the Amish community, which follows their own law, called Ordnung, conflicts between Amish and American law even created an important Supreme Court decision in 1972: The court recognized the importance of religious freedom and upheld the right of Amish families in Wisconsin to remove their children from school after the eighth grade. Many Mormons have had to change elements of their family practices, including polygamy, to abide by U.S. laws. And American Jews who follow Halakha have courts and institutions that enforce it called the Beth Din. These courts have operated both formally and informally in conjunction with American society for as long as Jews have resided in the U.S.
Some Americans become particularly concerned when they think about Sharia invading their national courts. The fear and alarm driving people’s activism have already led to more than half a dozen states passing some sort of measure to stop their courts from considering foreign, international, or religious law. But panic-stricken rumors that U.S. courts are enforcing Sharia have been blown out of proportion: What is really happening is that the court is allowing U.S. citizens to set their own rules and resolve their own disputes through contractual agreements, as long as these aren’t in conflict with American law.
This happens when, say, two Muslims agree by contract to have some business disagreement solved by an Islamic arbitration committee, several of which exist in the U.S. in states like Texas and New York. If the parties disagree with the arbitration, they might take it to an American court of law, which would likely uphold the original contract and the decision of the Islamic arbitration committee. Virtually every religious group in the U.S. uses private arbitration committees, including the Jewish community and some Christians.
Similarly, the American legal system allows for individuals to create their own rules around things like wills and divorce settlements, so the court will uphold legally created documents that incorporate Islamic (or Jewish) law alongside personal wishes. Traditionally, the political system of the U.S. has viewed such arrangements positively, as extensions of individual liberty.
While Muslims are among the newest religious immigrants to the United States, they are joining a long line of people who have had to accommodate their religious and personal needs to a new cultural and legal environment. Like all who came before them, Muslims have some issues that are difficult to fit into the mainstream. But, like other religious groups, these are challenges they meet with care and thought. Islamic law, far from being a strict, draconian code of medieval discipline, can adapt to new circumstances—a very American virtue. U.S. citizens should accept this Americanization of Islamic law with open arms.