Taking terms from one language, and transferring them untranslated into another language, can create problems. The untranslated term sounds strange and perhaps scary.
Take the word “Allah”. That’s an Arabic term; it sounds like a strange, false god to English ears. But when the term is translated, it just means “The God”. “Allah” is the one and only God Who is the Creator and Sustainer of all worlds, the Beneficent and Merciful, the All Powerful, All Knowing, All Wise. In other words, “Allah” in English is just “capital G” God.
Again, consider the terms “Islam” and “Muslim”. The untranslated use of those Arabic words tends to strike fear in our hearts over that ‘strange’ and ‘vicious’ religion which is really not a religion but a political ideology. But when the terms are translated into English, we find that “Islam” means “submission or devotion to God”; or even more accurately, it means this “mouthful” of a definition: “the attainment of peace by means of submission or devotion to God”. But besides being such a “mouthful”, that phrase is just not scary enough, is it? And “Muslim” means “a person who is seeking to attain peace through submission/devotion to God”. But it’s much easier to create suspicion and fear if we just use the Arabic term “Muslim”.
Then again, there’s the term “jihad”. We’re all familiar with that term these days, aren’t we? We’re told it means “holy war”: the obligation to attack and kill (or enslave) everyone who refuses to convert to that fearful religion of Islam! Yet in reality, “jihad” just means “struggle”; and in a religious sense, it means “struggle in the cause of God”. It can refer to one’s personal struggle to overcome evil thoughts, words, and actions in his/her own life; or it can refer to struggle within society to overcome prevalent evils by means of teaching/preaching (verbally or in writing), good works such as feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless, peaceful protests, and seeking government legislation in some cases. When it refers to actual physical and military fighting, it is always to be in defense against those who have first attacked you or your nation – or against existing oppression and tyranny. It seeks to establish “freedom and justice for all” in opposition to oppressive violence and attacks. This is something which almost everyone recognizes as legitimate; but it’s a whole lot easier to frighten people if we just use the Arabic term “jihad”. “Jihadist” is a whole lot more evil-sounding than “freedom fighter”! 😀
So what about “Shariah”? There’s another strange sounding Arabic term that many people love to use to stir up fear and hatred. When we hear that term, we have come to think of vicious and oppressive laws that limit our freedom. But what does the term itself actually mean when translated into English?
Literally, it means “the way to a watering hole”. In desert countries like Arabia, locating a watering hole can be a matter of life or death. Water literally represents life and health. When an Arab or Muslim refers to “Shariah”, he or she is saying that God’s instruction and guidance is a great favor and blessing, which brings life and health to the individual and to society. It is an oasis for people travelling in a desert land. It delivers from harm and is refreshing, rather than being oppressive.
I am certainly no expert on Shariah; to be expert would require years of intensive study of the Qur’an primarily, and the “hadith” (sayings) and “sunnah” (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be with him and his family) secondarily. One would come face to face with disagreements within the Muslim community, on occasion, as to some of the things which some Muslims consider part of Shariah and others don’t. (Did you know that Muslims do disagree about some of the things involved in Shariah? I know of some of the disagreements, but I’m a long way from being “expert”).
However, here are some examples of what is included in Shariah. Sura (chapter) 2 verse 177 of the Qur’an says this (Abdel Haleem English version):
Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scriptures, and the prophets; who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travelers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage; those who keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.
Shariah calls for justice, even when acting justly may not be to one’s own benefit, or the benefit of one’s family or friends (4:135):
You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.
Shariah forbids murder, and is designed to protect and defend life. After recounting the story of Cain killing his brother Abel, the Qur’an says this (5:32):
On account of [his deed],We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind…
Even when capital punishment is prescribed for murder, the intent is to preserve life. Even the murderer may have his life saved if the family of the victim is willing to pardon him – accepting a monetary payment in place of the life of the murderer (2:178, 179):
(178) You who believe, fair retribution is prescribed for you in cases of murder: the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, the female for the female. But if the culprit is pardoned by his aggrieved brother, this shall be adhered to fairly, and the culprit shall pay what is due in a good way. This is an alleviation from your Lord and an act of mercy. If anyone then exceeds these limits, grievous suffering awaits him. (179) Fair retribution saves life for you, people of understanding, so that you may guard yourselves against what is wrong.
Prior to the Revelation God gave to Muhammad (peace be with him and his family), feuds and vendettas might arise among the Arabs when someone was killed. If a member of a tribe was killed by someone in another tribe, the tribe of the victim might go on a rampage against the tribe of the murderer. Or if a slave killed a free person, it might be considered insufficient to retaliate merely against the slave who did the murder; he wasn’t ‘valuable enough’ to make up for the loss of the free person. Therefore the offending tribe might be required to hand over someone more ‘valuable’, or several people, to make up for the ‘value’ of the person who was killed. Consequently, God issued this requirement that only the person who committed the murder was subject to retribution: the free man was responsible for the murder he committed; the slave was responsible for the murder he committed; and the female was responsible for the murder she committed. They are commanded: Do not exceed these limits. In this way, lives are saved.
Another basic feature of Sharia is this: (2:256) There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing.
Or as Sura 109 says: (1) Say [Prophet], ‘Disbelievers: (2) I do not worship what you worship, (3) you do not worship what I worship, (4) I will never worship what you worship, (5) you will never worship what I worship: (6) you have your religion and I have mine.
An Islamic (Shariah) government does not compel its subjects to embrace the religion of Islam! 😯
Shariah doesn’t seem so frightening, does it? It does sound like something good and life-giving! 🙂 But of course, that’s not what we think of when we hear the word “Shariah”, is it? We think of a supposed command to kill all non-Muslims; the “command” for husbands to beat their wives; female circumcision; stoning adulterers to death; death for apostasy, etc.
Would it surprise you to find out that most of those evil things which we think of in association with the word “Shariah” are either not at all to be found in the Qur’an, or else there is disagreement among Muslims concerning whether or not those things are there when the Qur’an is correctly understood?
For instance, the command to kill all non-Muslims is simply not to be found in the Qur’an. What is authorized is the killing of non-Muslims who first attack the Muslim community and seek to kill Muslims. That is, self defense is authorized. I have written several blog articles about this: “Does Islam Proclaim That All Infidels Should Be Killed?”; “Islam: A Religion of Hate???”; and “Slay The Infidels Wherever You Find Them”.
The “command” for husbands to beat their wives is not a command; at most it’s a permission. And Muslim scholars are not in complete agreement about the meaning of this permission. While probably most do believe the word we think of as “beat” does indeed mean to “hit” or “strike”, all of those who understand it that way insist that the word means to strike lightly in such a way as to do no harm and cause no pain. One might use a handkerchief or a toothbrush to strike lightly as a symbolic punishment. It would be similar to the way a ‘chivalrous’ person of bygone years might strike someone with a glove or handkerchief as an insult or challenge.
In justification of this viewpoint, one might compare the “wife-beating verse” (4:34) with an instruction to Job in 38:44:
Take a small bunch of grass in your hand, and strike [her] with that so as not to break your oath.
As Muhammad Asad comments on that verse in his English version of the Qur’an: In the words of the Bible (The Book of Job ii 9), at the time of his seemingly hopeless suffering, Job’s wife reproached her husband for persevering in his faith: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die.” According to the classical Qur’ān-commentators, Job swore that, if God would restore him to health, he would punish her blasphemy with a hundred stripes. But when he did recover, he bitterly regretted his hasty oath, for he realized that his wife’s “blasphemy” had been an outcome of her love and pity for him; and thereupon he was told in a revelation that he could fulfil his vow in a symbolic manner by striking her once with “a bunch of grass containing a hundred blades or more.” (Cf. 5:89 – ‘God will not take you to task for oaths which you may have uttered without thought.”)
So God gave Job a way to technically fulfill his oath, while not actually causing pain or harm to his wife. This is how most Qur’an scholars seem to view the permission to strike one’s wife as a last resort.
However there are also many Muslims who point out that the word translated “beat”, “strike”, or “hit” also can have the meaning of “leave” (as in “beat it”, “strike out on a journey”, or “hit the road, Jack”). They point out that there is no evidence in the “sunnah” of the Prophet that he ever struck any of his wives or encouraged anyone else to do so. In fact, as I understood it, there are “hadith” that prohibit such a thing. There are also verses in the Qur’an which insist that husbands must always treat their wives with honor, respect, and love. And the very next verse (4:35) instructs the believers to act to try to preserve the marriage if it appears the couple is about to break up. Divorce is not encouraged, though it is allowed as a last resort if couples just can’t get along any more.
So the verse may mean that the couple should separate or begin the divorce process. But even if the word means “hit”, all Muslim scholars (to the best of my knowledge) insist that it does not mean “beat” as we ordinarily think of it; it is a light painless slap, symbolic in nature – and it is a last resort, not the first thing one does if his wife irritates him.
There is simply nothing in Shariah about female circumcision. In the few places it is practiced, it is a matter of a local custom – completely unrelated to any Law of God – working itself into the practice of a particular group of Muslims.
What about stoning of adulterers? Certainly that was the teaching of the Torah given to the Hebrew people under Moses. And it is also plain that some of the most ‘conservative’ of Muslim states believe in such a punishment (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran). But is this the teaching of God’s Shariah as given in the revelation of the Qur’an? The answer to that question is a resounding “NO!”
The Qur’an is as plain as can be as to what the punishment for adultery should be (24:2): Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times… Some want to contend that this is the punishment for fornication between two people both of whom are unmarried, but that the punishment for adultery is that which is contained in the Jewish Torah. But the context of the passage is quite clear: it is referring specifically to adulterers. Perhaps the word may refer to both fornication and adultery; but in the context it is adultery (where at least one of the sexual offenders is married) which is referred to.
Besides the fact that the case of a man accusing his wife of adultery is specifically brought up, the particular situation which serves as the context for this regulation was when Muhammad’s wife Aisha had been falsely accused of adultery. God issued a reprimand to the Muslim community for even being willing to listen to such an accusation in the absence of 4 witnesses.
When the Qur’an itself specifically calls for public whipping – in an obvious intent to abrogate or ease the punishment provided in the previous revelation of the Torah – how is it that some Muslims began to believe that the Jewish Law was still applicable? Why would they choose the harsher punishment of the Mosaic Law over God’s benevolent lightening of the punishment?
Apparently there are a few ‘hadith’ (sayings) of the Prophet which claim that he took it upon himself to change the punishment back to death. This, however, is completely unacceptable. The Prophet had no authority to contradict or change what God has revealed in the Qur’an.
It is a dangerous thing for a Muslim to appeal to ‘hadith’ or ‘sunnah’ in support for anything for which there is not also Qur’anic authorization. There were huge numbers of “hadith” attributed to the Prophet which all scholars recognize to be spurious. They are simply lies put into the mouth of God’s Prophet by someone needing ‘authority’ for his own ideas and desires. Of approximately 600,000 “hadith”, only about 1% (6000) are accepted as ‘authentic’. And even of those 6000, as I understand it only about 10% or less (600 or fewer) are considered absolutely beyond question by followers of the sunnah.
When a ‘saying of the Prophet’ is produced which is a flagrant contradiction to what the Qur’an says, the Muslim is honor bound to reject it as one of the spurious hadith. And that is precisely the case with the few ‘sayings’ concerning putting adulterers to death. What has almost certainly happened is that some of the Jewish converts to Islam could not accept the idea that God’s Prophet could abrogate the punishment law of the Torah; so they falsely attributed those ‘sayings’ to the Prophet (or to someone else supposedly quoting the Prophet). They then invented the idea that the punishment in the Qur’an was for fornication, while the ‘hadith’ gave the punishment for adultery.
Concerning the punishment of 100 lashes, it is very tempting (for me at least) to refer back to the instruction God is said (in the Qur’an) to have given to Job: take a handful of grass (100 or more blades of grass) and hit the adulterer and adulteress once with that bundle! 🙂 I don’t know that any Muslim scholar or “school of interpretation” has taken that stance though.
But even though a punishment is given in God’s Qur’anic Shariah, the Beneficent and Merciful One made it almost impossible to actually find anyone guilty of the crime – so the punishment is almost impossible to carry out. First, God has required that there be 4 eyewitnesses to the act of adultery. Circumstantial evidence leading to suspicion is simply not acceptable. Even if one has 4 witnesses to the circumstantial evidence, it is not sufficient. They have to be present and witness the act itself.
Now how is it that 4 people will be able to be eyewitnesses to an adulterous act? 24:27 of the Qur’an forbids anyone to enter someone else’s house without permission; and 49:12 forbids spying on others. (The testimony of “peeping Toms” is not allowed). In a society in which a punishment such as provided for in 24:2 is called for – or the even worse punishment of death called for by the Torah – who is going to invite 4 people in to observe the adulterous affair? And if the 4 witnesses were not invited guests, they must have been spying – in which case their testimony would be disallowed and they themselves might be subject to punishment for “invasion of privacy”.
There are other ‘evil things’ which we tend to think of when we hear the word “Shariah”; but what I have given should be sufficient to show that such things are not necessarily actually a part of that “way to a watering hole”.
So Muslim people believe that Shariah is kind guidance from God which directs one to an oasis of life giving water – for thirsty people in a desert land. Because we believe that there is only One God, Who is the Creator and Sustainer of all worlds and is All Knowing and All Wise, we believe what the Qur’an says in 5:50 – … Is there any better judge than God for those of firm faith? God is the best of law givers and judges for both the individual and for society.
Naturally we desire to see all nations willingly submit to God’s guidance; but it is not intended to compel people to accept this wise instruction. Those who refuse do so to their own detriment.
The interesting thing is that Muslims in the USA find that the Constitutional law of this land very closely resembles God’s Shariah – so they do not have any wish to renounce the Constitution in favor of Shariah. They believe that, so far as the Consitutional law is concerned (not necessarily the way of life actually practiced however), the USA is already virtually ‘Islamic’ without realizing it. Even though they might not in general much care for the Christian apostle Paul, they would apply what he said about Gentiles who didn’t have the Mosaic Law to the situation in the USA (Romans 2:14 and 15, New Revised Standard Version): (14) When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. (15) They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts… Should the present 1% or 2% of the US population which is presently Muslim somehow become a ‘super majority’, they would probably not find it necessary to call a Constitutional Convention to revise or replace the current Constitution. If a few things were changed, they would be relatively minor.
Shariah is simply not the evil thing some people imagine it to be; and it provides no ‘threat’ to our nation. It might ‘threaten’ present government policies (both foreign and domestic); but so would the current Constitution if it were adhered to. 🙂