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The Sharia as Utopian Discourse?

In the interests of continuing education, I’m taking a class on Sharia and Islamic Law. So far, so fascinating. This explains how I came to read Rumee Ahmed’s Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law (Stanford University Press, 2019), or rather, the introduction and the first chapter of that book.

Except that now it looks like I’m going to have to read the whole thing.

Cover of Sharia Compliant

Ahmed’s thesis is that sharia is far more flexible than the dominant discourse around it in western newspapers and popular debates acknowledges. In fact, it’s far more flexible than the dominant discourse in some Muslim circles acknowledges. He traces the history of the development of the idea of the sharia as a code of Islamic law, almost coterminous with fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), to the needs of European colonial administrations. Colonialists wanted to provide a uniform civil code that could be applied to colonized Muslim communities. What they could appropriate of sharia was squeezed into that mold.

According to Ahmed, then, an 18th or 19th century innovation laid the foundation for a misguided relationship between the sharia and the Muslim community itself. The sharia most properly functions, as he sees it, as a utopian “claim-space,” something like the way (it seems to this reader) the “Kingdom of Heaven” or the “World to Come” function in other religious contexts. That is, it absorbs the longings and hopes of those who are looking towards God for redemption. (That got my attention, of course.) According to Ahmed, again, it can, and always has, changed with the times in response to the perceptions of its makers – the members of the Muslim community – who can see plainly what does and doesn’t lead to better lives for human beings.

Ahmed is adamant that the sharia is not the exclusive property of Islamic legal scholars. It belongs to the Muslim community as a whole; and there is room for that belonging to assert itself more dynamically today. When that happens, it will demonstrate the underlying adaptability of the sharia and its compatibility with forms of Muslim life far beyond the stereotypes familiar in the West.

One implication of Ahmed’s presentation is that the way people talk about using “support for the sharia” as an test or index, to tell anxious white Americans which Muslim neighbors are safe and which ones are scary, is about as ill-informed and fruitless as it gets. Granted, we might not have needed Ahmed to tell us this. But knowing why it won’t work may matter. As he says, that’s like asking people whether they’re in favor of a better world. Who isn’t? That still leaves a lot of room for disagreement about how to get there.

I am no expert on Islamic law (that’s why I’m taking the class). Ahmed’s argument sounds appealing, and plausible, to me as an outsider. It will no doubt have its detractors as well as its supporters, however, within the circles of those who are more expert on Islamic law. It’s a reminder that what participants in the religious community make of the “traditional norms,” the “requirements” of the religion, evolves. The way it evolves is through the conversation, or controversy, between guardians of whatever way passes for “tried and true” in the conversation, and the advocates of whatever way is coming up as a modification, a new possibility. Push and pull. Give and take. Resistance and acceptance and adoption and rejection.

That kind of process is not new and is not the exclusive province of Islam – as anyone who has read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees can attest.

More detailed and well-informed responses to the book are at The Immanent Frame and (soon) Reading Religion.

books on bookshop shelves

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