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Sharia doesn't mean what Islamists claim it means

by Rashad Ali and Haras Rafiq

Martin Parsons published a three-part series on this site earlier this week about radicalisation towards extremism - and the ideology or theology that underpins violence.  There was much in it that holds true.  He's correct to argue that tackling violence without also tackling the ideas that create violent individuals and  create a justification for violence missing the point. He's also right to maintain that violence and ideology is partly a result of a very strident interpretation of the textual sources of Islam - the Quran and, for most orthodox Muslims, the Sunna (or Prophetic teachings and practice).

However, it's important to understand that the task of combating this ideology and violence requires a detailed understanding of the issues.  For this reason, we'd like to raise a few clarifications.  The distinctions we're about to make may seem unimportant or a nuance too far, but they're nevertheless essential to make if misunderstanding the problem is to be avoided. 

The term Sharia refers to the speech of God through key textual sources.  The understanding of these sources and jurisprudence is referred to as Fiqh – i.e. the understanding of the rules derived from these sources according to the opinion of the one making the interpretation (who should be a competent scholar.)

Unfortunately today the terms are often used interchangeably, and in a confused manner.  Furthermore, the scope of Fiqh is misunderstood. For some, certainly - such as Mawdudi, Qutb, Nabhani, and Al-Banna - it was read as a totalitarian ideology, which governs every detail of life and law.  They thus wished to impose their one interpretation of the Sharia as a law code over the world.

According to this view, every other socio-political economic order is deemed as "Kufr" or contra-Islam:  states governed by these orders are "lands of war" (dar al-harb), and must be overthrown. This is the fundamental idea that leads to the justification of revolutionary politics, terrorism and, when "moderated", the entry-level form of Islamism - described in detail by Parsons.

For most other Muslims, however, Sharia has a more limited meaning.  It encompasses, for example, the details of prayer, fasting, alms-giving and the pilgrimage (Hajj).  It informs their moral thought and personal ethics.  There are, however, two key distinctions that should be made about Fiqh, the understanding of the rules.

First, the rules themselves are understood as mere individualistic regulations; they are centred on their conduct, and are merely opinions, not definitive rules.

Second, they are subject to different interpretations within both Sunni and Shia schools. Sharia, in this sense, is not a matter for government to rule upon, and turn one particular interpretation into law.  Rather, it is the preserve of the community of scholars to debate. Contrary to the Islamist totalitarians, who want to enforce one particular view over society, Sharia should not be enforced by government. This helps to explain why plurality has been promoted historically by different Muslim dynasties.

Muslims from traditional groupings and communities have recognised all this, which is why prominent modern scholars, such as Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad and Sheikh Ahmed Tijani, have concluded that certain aspects of Fiqh have no application in the modern world.  In a recent Oxford Union debate on Islamic reform, another modern teacher, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf reiterated the view of Imam Al-Ghazali, one of the greatest figures in the history of medieval Islam - namely, that the Caliphate is a long-gone historical ideas.  Human Rights, democracy and citizenship are ideals that Muslims in their political thinking must and can embrace - and this includes abandoning notions of dhimmi.

Most Muslims in their practice don't see Sharia as contradicting either their British identity and British values. Most see their religion as reinforcing their British values and identity. Hence it is important to differentiate between Islamist ideologues and Sharia as understood in traditional circles.  Whilst Imams in seminaries may still study certain texts such as the "Hidaya" - which Parsons referred to - they usually don't see it as a law manual that should be made statute, and contextualize most of the teachings pertaining to corporeal punishments as not being relevant to life in the modern world - and certainly not in the UK.

That is not to deny for a moment that there are those who, like the Taliban, exhibit a primitive and medieval mindset which seeks to enforce one narrow reading of Shariah, Afghani culture, and misogynistic habits. The Taliban were inspired by the Deobandi tradition. However, Syed Hussain Ahmed al-Madani, who advocated nationalist identity politics, was against an Islamist State, and advocated democracy without giving religious privileges to any group in India was also a senior scholar of Deobandi thought. Those with a narrow and literalist approach to their religion are not necessarily Islamists, although such views are potentially a barrier to social cohesion.

Many Muslims in the UK belong to the Barelwi tradition.  In other words, they are followers of Imam Ahmad Raza Khan who authored the famous edict in British India explaining that as Muslims had religious freedom in India, it formed a part of Dar al-Islam - a homeland for Muslims, a land of peace, and a land in which Muslims could live as citizens and play an active role in the community. He wrote a well-known article entitled "Announcing the declaration that Hindustan was an abode of Peace".  This approach was based, in turn on the position of Imam Abu Hanifa, a ninth century scholar

Radicalising factors certainly include a certain totalitarian interpretation of Sharia; a rejection of modernity, secular law, and democratic values; and a cultural and civilizational conflict mindset which rejects all other interpretations of Islam as false, and therefore seeks to impose its view of Islam on the world. It's this mindset that rejects traditional practice and the variety within Islam, and which seeks to make it a homogeneous singular puritanical ideology - usually with a medieval interpretation of the political world.

Its advocates see Islamic practice as a political, revolutionary struggle, which is the preliminary to violent actions.  It is different in substance but not in nature to other totalitarian ideologies of the last century - fascism and communism.  (See the writings of Paul Berman: "Terror and Liberalism"; Tim Winter: "Bombing without Moonlight", and John Gray's "Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern", though the detailed issues are better explained by the first two authors.)

How should we all respond?  We offer a few points to consider:

  • We should and need to be clear not only about what we're against, but what we're for. We believe in the right of people to exercise political, social and religious freedom.  This is what differentiates us from Islamist fascists.
  • We must elaborate clearly what this means in a British context.  Political decisions should be based on the common good - not upon one reading of scripture or religion.
  • Integration must be based upon Britain's shared values and history - in which religion and religious people have certainly played their parts, for example in the struggle against slavery, or during two world wars.
  • Britain's counter-terrorism strategy must be sharply focused and the key political, ideological and theological issues understood in detail.  This necessitates a detailed understanding of the institutions, people, movements and preacher connected with radical ideology - and preachers and terrorist movements, and the ideas that they propagate.  Finally, we must be clear on how their ideas and their influence can be taken on and defeated both in public and individual discourse.

Rashad Ali and Haras Rafiq are Directors of CENTRI, a organisation that specialises in countering extermism.


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