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Want to argue about 'sharia'? Here's what it means

caption: Asifa Quraishi-Landes, law professor at the University of Wisconsin.
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Asifa Quraishi-Landes, law professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Shirin Tinati

There was an “anti-sharia” rally at Seattle City Hall on Saturday — part of similar rallies around the U.S.

The organizers claimed sharia condones practices like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and oppression of the LGBTQ community. But Islamic scholar Asifa Quraishi-Landes says these people are misinformed.

Quraishi-Landes is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies Islamic and U.S. constitutional law. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm that westerners are often confused about what sharia encompasses.

“Sharia is the way that God tells us to live,” she said. “It’s a sort of a life path, guidelines, rules for right action for someone’s life.”

Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does sharia cover? What spheres does it govern in modern Muslim life in the U.S.?

One of the challenges is it's often translated as “sharia law,” which right away confuses the issue. So sharia covers lots of things that we in the West would consider law. But it also covers a lot of things that we would not call law, like manners or good behavior or ethics or morality or even ritual worship. So it covers a whole lot of things.

Q: Can you give some examples where folks might confuse it with their understanding of law per se?

A: There are rules of a marriage contract, for example, what are the rules of a husband and a wife in a Muslim marriage. These are articulated in detail by private scholar experts, not by the state, in a classical Muslim context. Many people confuse that because it sounds like a law, the husband must do this, etc.

The scholars who did this interpretation spoke about what they were doing in a very honest way. They identified themselves as fallible human beings, so they acknowledge they could be wrong in their interpretation.

Sharia is this idea of what God tells us to do. But the particulars of what that means in everyday life are articulated by these scholars, who understood they were fallible and not speaking for God. It naturally creates diversity of interpretation, because they acknowledge that I could be right, you could be right, maybe I'm wrong. So you end up with these many, many different schools of thought.

Q: Here in the United States there is this constitutional principle of separation of church and state. How does sharia fit with that?

A: It fits more closely than you might think if you are listening to the rhetoric of Muslim rulers around the world.

Before the modern era, Muslim societies operated with a very, very strong distinction between the kinds of law that the state made and the kinds of law that were religious rules for people to live their lives. And so Muslims are very comfortable with that separation.

It's only in the very modern time that these have been merged in Muslim majority countries largely as a result of colonialism. So when Muslims in the United States say they want sharia, they are not talking about the state law. They're talking about what they want to govern their lives in their private sphere, for example, their religious marriage. They want their marriages to be valid under God and there's various procedures that they have to do to follow. They're not talking about taking over state law.

In fact it is part of sharia for Muslims to follow the law of the land wherever they are, even if it's non-Muslim land.

Q: Looking ahead to this weekend: The people organizing the protest claim that sharia oppresses women and people in the LGBTQ community. What do you make of that claim?

A: I'm tired of it, because it's an old trope that has been used to justify a lot of oppressive behavior toward Muslims. It's really a code for anti-Muslim behavior in most cases.

On the question of is Islam oppressive to women: You need to look at what Muslims are saying on this topic, and Muslim women activists have been working on the areas of the religious rules that might be problematic for women's rights today. But they're operating from a Muslim-centric perspective to challenge that.

There have been many innovative and persuasive changes in some of the classical rules that we today might think were unfair to women. And there's actually many classical rules that are more advanced for women's rights than our Western rules.

It's usually said by people who don't very know very much about the details of what women's rights are within Islamic law.

Q: Can you give us an example of where people misunderstand that sharia is oppressive of women?

A: Female genital mutilation is often identified as one of those examples. It's in the news again because there has been a case recently of, a doctor who is being prosecuted for FGM here in the United States.

Almost immediately after that news hit, several Muslim organizations around the country got together and wrote a statement condemning female genital mutilation from a Muslim perspective.

Q: And on the LGBT topic …

A: This is a topic of conversation among many religions as to what are the rights of same-sex relationships, queer relationships, queer identity. These are things that are a modern phenomenon that everyone is wrestling with and Muslim scholars and public are wrestling with it in the same way that the other religious communities are.

So you'll find a lot of range of opinions within the Muslim community around all of the LGBTQ issues just as you will in a Christian or Jewish community.

Q: If you could explain one aspect of sharia to the protest organizers, what would you tell them?

A: I would say we agree on more than you think.

What you’re complaining about is a misunderstanding of what sharia means in my life. There’s a fear that if sharia is important to me as an American Muslim, then that is somehow threatening or incompatible with my following of American law. And that’s just not true. I agree with the constitutional structure that we have in the United States, and nearly every American Muslim you ask would say the same thing.

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