Creeping Sharia

Hopefully updates will be more regular from now on . . . at some point I’ll have to update less often because I’ll be finishing the final editing on my doctoral thesis (sidenote: o hai, panic, how are you?!), but that’s not for a little while.  Or so I keep telling myself . . .

At some point in the last year or so, ‘creeping sharia’ has become the new buzz word for people who think Islam is out to destroy everything.  Indeed, in certain corners of the internet (and possibly the real world – it’s been a while since I’ve lived in the US), it seems that the term ‘creeping sharia’ has become short-hand for ‘some worldwide conspiracy that is sort of like Islam except that it’s evil and insidious and out to destroy us ALL!’.  And actually, looking at that written out, I can see why they went with the shorthand.  That is a bit unwieldy.  And SWCTISOLIETIEAIAOTDUA just doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

But the term is nothing but problematic.  Firstly, as I’ve said before, ‘sharia’ doesn’t mean quite what people think it means.  Actually, more correctly, it’s a bit uncertain what it ever means, as there is no clear etymology to the term (but in the oldest instance, appears to mean ‘a path to a watering hole’, although even this etymology is debated).  What people, especially English speakers, generally seem to intend when they use the term ‘sharia’ is Islamic law, that is, the codified system of legal precepts and ritual practices that Muslims are expected to adhere to.  ‘Sharia’ can refer to this system of Islamic law, but it can also refer to the act of adherence to this law (more on this later), and can also be used more generally to refer to behaviours and customs that are ‘Muslim’ without reference to any particular school of law.

‘Creeping’ in this context, I can only assume, is meant to be negative and sound . . . well, creepy (although it has already been pointed out to me that really it just makes it sound as though ‘creeping sharia’ is a cousin of ‘creeping primrose‘).  Bugs creep.  Boogymen creep.  Creepers creep.  Legal systems, of any stripe or denomination, I would argue, do not creep.  Nor do they amble, meander, gallop or saunter.  They are, as a general rule, non-ambulatory.  This is not to say that legal systems are static, but they are stationary.  They’re not designed to be applied everywhere all the time – it’s presumed that they apply to certain places or certain people.  What they do do, from time to time, however, is intersect.

This is where the concept of ‘foreign’ law comes into play – ‘foreign’ law is law that does not apply to the court in which it is heard.  Therefore California state law is just as foreign to Illinois state law as French law or Islamic law.  None of those other legal systems have jurisdiction in an Illinois state courtroom.  But there may be some reason why the judge wants to draw on the ideas of the other legal system to make his decision – indeed, this is part of how the law evolves, by looking at other legal systems and seeing what they do.  This is a point of intersection – it is not that the legal system being subsumed by the foreign law, and it’s not going to start following the other system wholesale.  And when court cases involve members of a religious community, there is every reason for the judge to turn to the legal precepts of that religion (if it has legal precepts) if for no other reason than because the parties will share the ethical system of those religious legal precepts, and so they’re likely to respond positively if the legal precepts are used to guide the judge’s decision.  It’s in this way that Islamic law most often finds its way into American court rooms – not being forced on anyone, but as a tool to help judges make decisions when the litigants consider themselves Muslims and adherents to Islamic law (for more discussion of this (if somehow this wasn’t tl;dr already), see my posts on Florida’s use of Islamic law here and here).

So that’s Islamic law.  It’s a legal system followed by millions of Americans, so yes, of course, from time to time, judges might think about what it says.  But this is not the same as the entirety of Islamic law as being forced onto or subverted into the American justice system/the American way of life/your mother’s recipe for apple pie[1].  And if this is what people are concerned with when they speak of the legal system ‘creeping’, then they should be just as worried about creeping French law, creeping English law, and creeping California law.

Furthermore, I would argue there are two really big reasons why it would be completely unsatisfactory and utterly pointless for anyone to try to sneak Islamic law into American lives – that is, the issue of completeness and that of coercion.

So, completeness – by this I mean that when it comes to religious law, it is not generally acceptable to practice it by piecemeal.  There are degrees to the requiredness (no that’s not really a word) of various aspects of Islamic law, and these can change based on circumstances (so, for example, it is illegal to eat pork, carrion or blood, but if one is about to starve, it becomes permissible, for the greater purpose of saving one’s life), but there is still the expectation that the entire system must be adhered to, not just random bits of it.  In a similar vein, I have heard several Jewish colleagues complain bitterly over the Christian tendency to cite random bits of Deuteronomy or Leviticus to defend their position – from the Jewish position, the Law is an all-or-nothing deal.  Christians have rejected the Law – thus they do not circumcise their sons – so from the Jewish perspective, they have no right to just pick passages of the Law they consider suitable, as this would be both blasphemous and just plain silly.  Even if secular legal systems could creep, there would be no interest in having a religious legal system do so, as there would be too much risk that bits of it would get lost in the process.

Which leads the bigger problem of coercion under the law.  Most religions that have legal traditions have toyed with the question of if people can be coerced into following the laws, and almost all of them have agreed that, no, this would be pointless.  Again, to take a more familiar example, this is why, in the Catholic tradition, confession must be an act of contrition – that is, that the confessor must be legitimately seeking forgiveness for himself and not being forced to do so – because the canon writers realized, quite rightly, that there would be no point in the priest offering absolution to a confessor who confessed under force because he wouldn’t care about being absolved, since he didn’t want to confess in the first place.  In the same way, even if by slow pressure of the judiciary, we could all be subversively or subconsciously tricked into wearing Muslim styles of dress, abstaining from alcohol or performing raka’ whilst we prayed, none of this would make us Muslims unless we had first testified – publicly, freely and in sound mind – that there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.  This statement of faith (the shahada, meaning literally testimony) is always understood in Islam as the first necessary act for a person to be a Muslim, and without it, no amount of commitment to Islamic law or custom matters.

So no, even if elements (or for that matter the whole) of Islamic law can be, for some reason and by some manner, forced on the American people without their awareness or desire, it still would never make us Muslims.  You are a Muslim by choice.

And now I really want to discover a creeping vine just so I can name it ‘creeping California law’ . . .

[1] Just fyi, my mom’s apple pie is better than your mom’s.  Yes, I’ve never tasted your mom’s apple pie.  Yes, I’m sure it’s fantastic.  No, my mom’s is still better. [2]

[2] Every single time I have typed ‘apple’ in this passage, I have typed it a-p-p-l-y in the first instance.  I have no idea why.  ‘Apple’ and ‘apply’ are really not the same thing.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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9 Responses to Creeping Sharia

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Two things (and I’ll start with the trivial one):

    Again, to take a more familiar example, this is why, in the Catholic tradition, confession must be an act of contrition – that is, that the confessor must be legitimately seeking forgiveness for himself and not being forced to do so – because the cannon writers realized, quite rightly, that there would be no point in the priest offering absolution to a confessor who confessed under force because he wouldn’t care about being absolved, since he didn’t want to confess in the first place.

    I’m just wondering exactly what cannon writers do, and how one gets a job as a cannon writer. I’ll bet they use the word “boom” a lot, and that sounds like fun. (I’m a bit short of sleep right now, so all sorts of things – including random typos – are sending my sense of whimsy off in various and strange directions.)

    Second, and a much more serious question: Does Islam have/discuss a Satan-equivalent? If so, how is the Islamic version similar to/different from the (ever-so-very-monolithic… not) Christian view of the Adversary? If not – and if you’re feeling really, really ambitious – how does Islam address the problem of Evil?

  2. Whoops – well spotted! Yes, I expect being a cannon writer would be altogether more fun than being a canon writer (unless they just write manuals for cannon operation, that could be a bit dull – ‘load cannon. ignite cannon. keep hands and feet clear of the mouth of the cannon at all times.’)

    There is a Devil in Islam (called Iblis, which I’ve been told is from some root meaning ‘morning light’, but I’ve never bothered to check), but Iblis plays a decidedly supporting role in Islamic theology. His original sin is refusing to bow down before Adam, as Iblis was made of fire (!) and refused to bow before a creature made of mud/dirt, for which he was cast out of God’s favour. But because Islam is generally more deterministic when it comes to God’s Will than the other Abrahamic faiths, Iblis is rarely blamed for bad things happening. When he does appear, it’s generally in human disguise to try to teach heresy to people.

    As for Evil . . . that’s a very big question in Islam (as in Christianity and any other faith that has the concept), so I think that should probably be saved for a later date!

    • Michael Mock says:

      Interesting… that’s pretty divergent from any of the Christian presentations that I’ve run into.

      As for Evil, well… yeah, not exactly a simple question. But, hey, topic suggestion for a later post!

  3. Effendi says:

    Nice blog. The whole “creeping sharia,” “taqiyya,” “Eurabia,” and countless other conspiracies are getting rather tiresome. Unfortunately most Muslims don’t know how to respond when someone accuses them of “religious lying” or the like. They memorized surahs from the Qur’an but rather obscure medieval jurisprudence is out of their league, for the most part.

    You might want to add that jurists stipulated that only a legitimate Islamic government could apply hudud punishments. The Hanafis (i.e., the followers of the largest Sunni madhab), for example, asserted that “a Muslim dwelling under a non-Muslim government should not be punished in accordance with shari‘a regulations, because proper implementation of a qadi’s judgment requires authorization by a Muslim ruler.” Indeed, Islamic jurists further stipulated “that the rulings of non-Muslims should be accepted as binding by Muslims whenever the latter reside in non-Muslim territory.” [2] If Muslims couldn’t practice their religion, then they were obliged to leave to a land where they could.

    By the way, Prof. Richard Bulliet mentioned something interesting in one of his lectures. The recent talk of an evil foreign law “creeping” into the West is reminiscent of medieval Muslim polemics against the Mongols, where it was claimed that Yassa (the Mongol law) would prevent Muslims from eating halal meat, among other things. (They hate our freedom!)

    [1] Frenkel, Yehoshua. “Peace and Peacemaking.” Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Josef W. Meri. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 2006. 596. Print.

    [2] Shaybānī, Muhammad Ibn Al-Hasan, and Majid Khadduri. The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybānī’s Siyar. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1966. 52. Print.

  4. Uzza says:

    When I hear “creeping sharia” I think of “mission creep”; kind of a different sense of meaning than those other uses. “Sharia law” I just see as the equivalent of Biblical Law not really definable.

    Since the only people who use that term are those who are jealous that somebody might want to impose a theocracy based on the wrong book , I also envision the words as having little string tags that say “I’m a moron”.

  5. Pingback: Newt Gingrich and Islamic Law: why anti-Sharia activism is a red herring | askanislamicist

  6. Pingback: GOP poised to embrace anti-Sharia platform | askanislamicist

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