Views & Reviews

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.

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 (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.

David A Johnson

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