Washington Post Commentary Engages in Sharia Myth-Making

Writing in The Washington Post’s Outlook section, University of Wisconsin law Prof. Asifa Quraishi-Landes’s Op-Ed “Five Myths on Sharia” (June 26, 2016) offered an at times informative, but too often misleading commentary on Islamic law.

Quraishi-Landes claimed it is a “myth” that “Sharia” means Islamic law. This is incorrect. As writer Immanuel al-Manteeqi noted in The Counter Jihad Report, a Web site on Islam and Islamism, in the Arabic language sharia “does in fact mean Islamic law. Indeed, the word ‘Sharia’ in Arabic comes from the trilateral root, sh-r-a, which means ‘to legislate.’”

Quraishi-Landes asserted that “Sharia is not a book of statues or judicial precedent imposed by a government, and it’s not a set of regulations adjudicated in court. Rather, it is a body of Koran-based guidance that points.” However, later in her Op-Ed, Quraishi-Landes seems to contradict herself by noting that Sharia is “Islam’s legal framework.”

The law professor erred in tackling what she said is the second myth: “In Muslim countries, sharia is the law of the land.” Although conceding that “it’s true that sharia influences the legal codes in most Muslim-majority countries,” Quraishi-Landes then claimed that “these codes have been shaped by a lot of things, including, most powerfully, European colonialism. France, England and others imposed nation-state models on nearly every Muslim-majority land, inadvertently joining the crown and the faith.”

Yet, this deflection fails to take into account that many of these countries, upon gaining freedom from European mandates and trusteeships, either kept such measures or adopted them after the fact. One strict enforcer of sharia law, Saudi Arabia, was never under direct European control.

Additionally, sharia does not merely “influence” the legal codes in most Muslim-majority countries; this misleading description minimizes the extensive role which it plays. As al-Manteeqi noted, both the Egyptian and Pakistani constitutions, among others, state in some form that “Islam is the religion of the state” and “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.”

The third “myth” of sharia, according to Quraishi-Landes, is that “Sharia is anti-woman.” Although the professor admitted that “many majority-Muslim societies have laws that treat women unfairly,” she then said that “patriarchal rules in fiqh [the Islamic systems of jurisprudence; the legal foundation of Islamic religious, political and civil life]” are “human interpretations, not sharia.”

However, al-Manteeqi acknowledged, “there is much in Islamic doctrine that is patriarchal and that infringes on the rights of women.” Some examples in the Quran that are cited by al-Manteeqi and contradict Quraishi-Landes include: husbands are permitted to beat disobeying wives, “the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man’s” and “having female sex slaves” is sanctioned.

Quraishi-Landes claimed that the fourth myth about sharia is that “Islam demands brutal punishments.” Again, the professor obfuscates, asserting that “in the same way that the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics are a poor representation of Christian practice (despite its claims to be a Christian organization), the Islamic State is the worst place to look to understand what sharia says about punishments and the treatment of innocents and prisoners.” However, one doesn’t need to look to ISIS to see how sharia law can be interpreted.
Chapter and verse

Al-Manteeqi, citing Quranic chapter and verse, noted:

“The Qur’an, for example, clearly states that the hands of thieves should be cut off (Q 5:38), and that fornicators are to be publically flogged with one-hundred lashes (Q 24:2). It demands that polytheists be fought and punished for being non-Muslim polytheists (Q 9:5). It demands that Christians and Jews be fought and brought under submission for their beliefs (Q 9:29). It states that the punishment for ‘those who sow corruption on the Earth,’ which can include large swathes of people, is to be executed, crucified or mutilated (Q 5:33). The Quran commands that Muslims be harsh against unbelievers, and merciful amongst themselves (Q 48: 29).”

The final “myth” about sharia, in Quraishi-Landes’ view, is “Sharia is about conquest.” Yet, Islamic law does provide legitimacy for expansionism. As al-Manteeqi highlighted, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to “fight [polytheists] until there is no fitna [i.e, strife] and all religion belongs to Allah.”

Furthermore, the Counter Jihad writer pointed out, mainstream Islam divides the world between Dar al-Harb (The House of War) and Dar al-Islam (The House of Islam). An extension of this line of thinking—repeated in hadiths (sayings and traditions attributed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam) and by jihadists—is that true peace will only come when Dar al-Islam defeats, or conquers, Dar al-Harb.

To bolster her claim that the sharia is not about conquest, Quraishi-Landes noted that the Koran “repeatedly commands Muslims to keep promises and uphold covenants. That includes treaties among nations and extends to individuals living under non-Muslim rule.”

While this is correct, it overlooks the important role which hadiths play, both in Islam and Islamic law. As the historian Daniel Pipes has noted, during the early years in which Islam was spreading, Muhammad made several treaties with other tribes which he later broke. One instance that has frequently been cited by a variety of figures, from Islamists to now-deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Treaty of Hudaybiya in 628, in which Muhammad signed an agreement with leaders of the Quraysh tribe that promised to “remove war…for ten years.” In 630, after building up his forces, Islam’s founder broke this pledge and conquered them (“[Al-Hudaybiya and] Lessons from the Prophet Muhammad’s Diplomacy,” Middle East Quarterly, September 1999.

Quraishi-Landes’ Post commentary on sharia sought to offer a nuanced look at a complex and frequently misunderstood topic—and did provide useful information and detail. Unfortunately, much of what she labeled “myth” has more basis in reality than she apparently was willing to discuss and/or admit. In attempting to address “myths” about sharia law, her Post Op-Ed promoted some of its own.

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