NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, August 28th, 2021

Book Review: It’s worth “Demystifying Shariah” instead of continuing with our ignorant prejudices

When I was orig­i­nal­ly read­ing Demys­ti­fy­ing Shari­ah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Tak­ing Over Our Coun­try, it was July and I was vis­it­ing fam­i­ly in Texas for the first time in a year and a half.

My gut reac­tion was that it was a fine book and did what it set out to do quite ably, but it had missed its oppor­tu­ni­ty to be tru­ly relevant.

Oth­er than per­son­al edi­fi­ca­tion, its main util­i­ty would be under­stand­ing the way that U.S. reac­tionar­ies set their sights on a con­cept unfa­mil­iar to most Amer­i­cans so they could define it as for­eign and scary, and use this ter­ror of the unknown in an attempt to achieve par­ti­san cohe­sion and elec­toral success.

But, while this util­i­ty for under­stand­ing the right-wing fear-mon­ger­ing of “the Franklin School”, Post­mod­ern Neo-Marx­ists, or espe­cial­ly “Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry” may still serve, with the abrupt col­lapse of the U.S.-backed gov­ern­ment in Afghanistan and appar­ent total vic­to­ry of the Tal­iban this month, it’s clear that accu­rate­ly under­stand­ing shari­ah is going to be rel­e­vant again.

For that, we’re lucky that Sum­bul Ali-Kara­mali has writ­ten such a book for us already so we can be pre­pared for the anti-Mus­lim back­lash already under way.

Now, her book is writ­ten to serve as “baby’s intro­duc­tion to Islam”, so be aware going in that the ear­ly por­tions are a lit­tle slow since Ali-Kara­mali has to assume that her U.S. audi­ence will include many peo­ple who know noth­ing about Islam, its his­to­ry, or cul­ture except for the neg­a­tive stereotypes.

book cover of Demystifying Shariah by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Demys­ti­fy­ing Shari­ah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Tak­ing Over Our Coun­try by Sum­bul Ali-Kara­mali (Hard­cov­er, Bea­con Press)

Cer­tain­ly, I did­n’t know going in that even the phrase “sharia law”, as opposed to just “shari­ah”, is fraught and some­thing of a red flag when you see a per­son using it.

Ali-Kara­mali explains that lit­er­al­ly, the Ara­bic word shari­ah means “the path to the water­ing place” but with­in the con­text of Islam it means the path God wants peo­ple to fol­low to be a good and right­eous person.

This is a reli­gious con­cept that leaves a lot of room for dis­agree­ment based on how one inter­prets the Quran and its sev­enth-cen­tu­ry Ara­bic text; which say­ings and sto­ries about the Prophet Muham­mad are reli­able enough to trust (hadiths); which tra­di­tion of ear­li­er judi­cial opin­ions (fiqh) are the best frame­work; and how one ought to weigh all those things as absolutes for all times ver­sus endur­ing prin­ci­ples with­in the con­text of their own time.

For exam­ple, if the Prophet Muham­mad guar­an­teed more equal­i­ty for women than was com­mon at his time, is the les­son of doing as he did that we should ensure exact­ly those same lib­er­ties or to be just as rad­i­cal in rela­tion to our own soci­eties’ inequality?

More con­crete­ly, shari­ah also seeks to answer what is the most right­eous way to han­dle dis­agree­ments with­in fam­i­ly law or inher­i­tance disputes?

Hence, “Islam­ic law” is one of the syn­onyms of shari­ah but “sharia law” is just a way to make some­thing sound strange and for­eign — some oth­er kind of legal pow­er you don’t under­stand and don’t want to be sub­ject­ed to.

In the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly fol­low­ing the hor­rors of the Holo­caust, there has been a desire to steer clear of overt anti­semitism, so you often see the con­cept of “Judeo-Chris­t­ian” evoked by con­ser­v­a­tives to jus­ti­fy this or that reac­tionary, sup­pos­ed­ly “tra­di­tion­al” value.

But under clos­er inspec­tion, you’ll find that it’s just a euphemism for “con­ser­v­a­tive West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty” with an eye toward sound­ing slight­ly more inclu­sive than the Chris­t­ian suprema­cist ideas it’s actu­al­ly perpetuating.

How­ev­er, “Judeo-Islam­ic” has a much stronger case for being a coher­ent concept.

Read­ing Ali-Kara­mal­i’s descrip­tion of how shari­ah worked for hun­dreds of years pri­or to Euro­pean colo­nial­ism, peo­ple who are more famil­iar with Rab­binic Jew­ish dis­agree­ments will note how much Islam and Judaism share in com­mon on this front. It con­trasts the small “o” ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ties flow­ing from Con­stan­tine, with their patri­archs, popes, and hier­ar­chies that are about estab­lish­ing one uni­form way and answer. Even Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions which lacked sprawl­ing hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures have tend­ed to make up for it with an out­look that is uni­ver­sal­iz­ing in juris­dic­tion and righteousness.

Con­sult­ing an imam or rab­bi for an opin­ion on mat­ters of reli­gious law can func­tion more like going to a mechan­ic or doc­tor. They are author­i­ties but because they are experts rather than hav­ing a spe­cial posi­tion beyond that.

In fact, when it comes to pret­ty impor­tant mat­ters such as when a per­son is allowed to eat and drink dur­ing Ramadan, there are com­pet­ing learned opin­ions for how it ought to apply to sit­u­a­tions like the new­ly larg­er pop­u­la­tion of Mus­lims in the Arc­tic Cir­cle dur­ing years where fast­ing dur­ing day­light hours coin­cides with the mid­night sun.

When cul­tur­al­ly Chris­t­ian peo­ple hear about “Islam­ic law”, or that such-and-such poll says that a vast major­i­ty of Mus­lims in a coun­try want their laws to accord with shari­ah, the opin­ion of those polled may not align with oth­er ways of think­ing about the inter­sec­tion of reli­gious soci­ety and civ­il society.

Or it may. Get­ting back to the Tal­iban, when they promise to allow women to be active in soci­ety but “with­in the frame­works of Islam”, clear­ly we know that caveat is so big as to make what pre­cedes it irrelevant.

What Ali-Kara­mal­i’s book is good at is explain­ing how this is not a func­tion of Islam itself, or even an old­er ver­sion of Islam that takes itself more seri­ous­ly than sup­posed “lib­er­als” or “mod­er­ates”, but rather a ver­sion of Islam react­ing to and shaped by mod­ernism, par­tic­u­lar­ly the lega­cy and trau­ma of colo­nial­ism, which invad­ed with more than just armies but also lawbooks.

If you’re still on the fence, there’s a pub­lic excerpt of this book that’s a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how Ali-Kara­mali refo­cus­es any­one who is guilty of Islam­o­pho­bia — which in the Unit­ed States is prob­a­bly most of us — away from ideas born of igno­rance and prej­u­dice toward think­ing about the absolute­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic expe­ri­ence that hun­dreds of mil­lions of Mus­lims around the world endured with the arrival of Euro­peans like the English.

When the British applied their law to Mus­lims in place of shari­ah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip mar­ried women of the prop­er­ty that Islam­ic law had always grant­ed them — hard­ly progress toward equal­i­ty of the sexes.

Eng­lish com­mon law denied wives not only their own prop­er­ty but also their very legal per­son­hood, some­thing that Mus­lim women had had since the sev­enth century.

Ali-Kara­mali goes on to quote Gay­a­tri Spi­vak in point­ing out that, “‘White men sav­ing brown women from brown men’…was and still is one of the great jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for col­o­niz­ing or invad­ing Mus­lim countries.”

We can expect to see a renewed push for the U.S. mil­i­tary to go back to bomb­ing and invad­ing things with the excuse that it’s doing just that, too.

Author Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Author Sum­bul Ali-Kara­mali (Pho­to: Evan Winslow)

There is a back­ground radi­a­tion that per­me­ates Euro­pean and set­tler soci­eties, say­ing “the Ori­ent is exot­ic, back­ward, and bru­tal,” but con­ser­v­a­tives will like­ly be a lit­tle loud­er about all this as they stoke fear about the dan­ger of a metaphor­i­cal “inva­sion” of such peo­ple because, they’ll argue, should we allow in refugees from our lit­er­al inva­sion, those alien peo­ple will prob­a­bly try to sub­ject us to their laws and cus­toms — you know, like the Unit­ed States and Euro­pean nations actu­al­ly did.

For reac­tionar­ies, noth­ing is more fright­en­ing than the specter of turn­about, which is why you’ll notice their accu­sa­tions so often include unin­tend­ed con­fes­sions, too.

While I was read­ing Demys­ti­fy­ing Shari­ah, I thought this book would be good for under­stand­ing the way that con­ser­v­a­tive activists, media, and politi­cians set about turn­ing igno­rance to fear and prej­u­dice, and ulti­mate­ly uti­liz­ing those things to win elec­tions and pass laws intend­ed as much to sig­nal some­thing as actu­al­ly do any­thing: oppos­ing Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry (CRT); Boy­cott, Divest­ment, Sanc­tions (BDS), “antifa”, “sharia law”; yes, it still does those things.

But with the acknowl­edg­ment that the Unit­ed States spent twen­ty years of blood and trea­sure to accom­plish noth­ing much except to kill hun­dreds of thou­sands of Afghans, the back­lash to this nation­al embar­rass­ment is sure to be harsh.

There may be a new wave of anti-“sharia law” bills in Repub­li­can-con­trolled states, but there’s sure to be anger and vio­lence direct­ed at Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, and those of us who are not a mem­ber of those com­mu­ni­ties need to purge our­selves of our own igno­rance so we can be reli­able friends and allies to 3.5 mil­lion of our fel­low Amer­i­cans and counting.

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