MUSTAFA AKYOL > Why shariah was once great

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The word “shariah,” which simply stands for Islamic law, is quite toxic in our day and age. Western media is full of condemnations of if, whereas some states – such as the U.S. state of Oklahoma – have passed laws that “preempt” its use. 

I often find this shariah frenzy absurd and tie it to either ignorance or prejudice, but I also admit that it is not totally baseless. For some terrible human rights violations are committed in today’s world by those who claim to implement the sharia: Women can be relegated to second-class status, while “heretics” or “apostates” can be severly punished for their mere beliefs and opinions. Those who condemn these brutal implications of the shariah as “medieval” certainly have a point.

However, if we had a chance to beam ourselves back to the medieval age, shariah would look quite different. It would, arguably, rather look like a very advanced legal system, based on reason, deliberation and a genuine concern for human rights. 

Some of the support for this claim comes from a brand-new book that I have just finished reading: “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World.” Its writer, British lawyer Sadakat Kadri, has done a superb job of explaining how Islamic law has evolved over the centuries and which fateful turns it has taken.

Kadri’s book covers a wide range of topics, but some of the medieval contrasts he points out between Islam and Europe are among the most interesting. One of them is how guilt or innocence was “proven” a millenium ago. “The cutting edge of Norman and German jurisprudence,” for example, was “obliging any man accused of seducing someone else’s wife to prove his innocence by asking God to help him [endure] a red-iron without injury.” 

Islamic jurists, however, had never “thought miracles a sound basis for a judicial system.” Instead, Islamic courts would rely on “elaborate witness qualifications and evidential rules.” Islamic law had also elaborated the rights of the accused, as Kadri states: 

“A treatise written in Seville in the early twelfth century [by Muslim jurists] warned guards against unauthorized brutality and affirmed a right in prisoners to receive visitors and have their cases heard quickly. It also recorded what is arguably the first statement due process in European history: ‘No agent of the state may imprison an individual without the authorization of a judge and governor.’”

The shariah’s “due process” also ruled out torture, which was the standard method of interrogation in Europe until modern times. Jurists from the Hanafi school, the most liberal-leaning of the four main Sunni branches, had even proposed that “a judge who extorted confession in a capital case was himself liable to execution.”

The punishments of the shariah, too, were softer when compared to those in Europe, until as late as the 18th century. That was why the officials of the British East India Company, which colonized parts of the subcontinent in 1750s, would find Islamic law “unduly lenient” and devoid of enough provisions for capital punishment. 

Things, of course, are totally different today, as Western law is often the standard bearer of justice, liberty and civility, in strong contrast to most Muslim-majority countries. But this tragedy is not due to the religious foundations of the Islamic civilization; it is rather due to the failure of modern Muslims to understand those foundations and reinterpret them in a modern context.


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Erik Johansson

6/20/2012 9:57:49 PM

Jon. I think some of the ire stems from the fact that there are actually people today who would want the Sharia to be applied, with its not so pleasant Hudud-punishments and all. Anyone who would propose that the old Westrogothic civil code from 1225 AD should be valid, would probably be considered to be a bit strange.

Jon Goodfellow

6/20/2012 6:26:13 AM

I shouldn't worry too much about what the great American state of Oklahoma legislates. It also gave us such noble Senators as James Imhofe who believe Global Warming is a hoax or conspiracy of communists. I also wonder how much of the ire against sharia does not stem from its use by such extremists as the Taliban in concert with customary law such as Pashtun-wali. A more accurate comparison than "West Gothic" customary law would be the coexistence of Salic Law with the Roman code.

US Observer

6/19/2012 5:30:40 PM

Your argument is basically Shariah is great, if implemented the right way. You concede it has not really happneed yet in modern times. This sounds awful like the Communist who tells you we have not seen true Communism yet, mankind only need to see it work properly to see how great it is. Fact is there is no utpoic solution or perfect society. Human Beings are incapable of perfection! What we can do is create a system for people to worship what they want.

mara mcglothin

6/19/2012 4:33:18 PM

Yes MR AKYOL Shariah is a wonderful system and Fetullah Gulen is Noel Baba. The whole system is all sweetness and light. Democracy is the only way and Shariah is not a part of that. There is no provision for the minority of people who do not wish to participate. The laws should be a minimum standard and then you are free to practice what you wish. It cannot be mandatory in modern society. Simple. DITTO STEPHEN BRUNETTE


6/19/2012 7:31:20 AM

@Ameer. I grew up to believe all people were equal, I was simply paraphrasing from your own laws and why is it that whenever you think Islam is under attack you accuse everyone of ignorance and hate – I don’t hate anyone who wants peace and harmony in this world and can cope with the fact that we are entitled to believe in religion (or not) in our own way. Less aggression and more peace & love, I say!

Murun Buchstansangur

6/19/2012 12:48:07 AM

@Ameer. We can argue about how misogynist Sharia is till the cows come home. But can you name one country where Sharia is practiced extensively that scores well on gender equality of opportunity? The One Law for All campaign in the UK has uncovered damning evidence of the treatment of women in Sharia Family Courts that are operating there.

Erik Johansson

6/18/2012 11:26:52 PM

Ameer. The Sharia seems to have some similarities to our old law of the West Goths from the early middle ages. Males inherited twice as much as females. There was a difference made between "we" and "them": the fines for manslaughter were much higher if the deceased was a Westgoth compared to an Eastgoth. And so on. The difference to the Sharia is that the law of the West Goths don´t originate from a holy book. It is just Middle age jurisprudence.

Ameer Raschid

6/18/2012 2:33:51 PM

@philpot a married woman does not have to spend on herself any of the money she has gotten either from the dowry that a man has to give her on marriage or from her inheritance from her husband and parents. A husband is responsible for his wife,children,'mother,father and sisters. Where does your distorted mind see worth of a woman as half that of a man or a man twice that of a woman? Just Islamophobic ignorance and hate.Good laws have to be interpreted and implemented by good people


6/18/2012 9:50:25 AM

One of the distinguished intellectuals in Turkey asks a central question in one of his books: M. Altan asks: Islam had been mentioned with Sheikh Galip, but today Islam is being mentioned with Taliban. Altan tries to explore what has changed and led to the emergence of such a bad experience. I think Akyol has been trying to find an answer to that question in his pieces and I hope we all can find the answer, then Islam can be again great as it used to be.

Red Tail

6/17/2012 6:32:31 PM

What does sharia say about human rights? Are all humans equal, regardless of religion? What does it say about womens rights? Are men and women perfectly equal? What does sharia say about democracy? Should the people decide, or should the "Men of Good" decide? What does Sharia say about non-believers? Are they allowed to live their lifes as they wish? Well, many questions which Mr Akyol needs to sort out to convince me.
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