If sharia law is for Muslims, what is its place in a Muslim-majority nation? If the answer seems obvious, that may be part of the problem.

But another part is understanding sharia law in the first place, and in a helpful article on the blog of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grand Mufti Dr. Shawki Allam elaborates on what it is, and what it isn’t:

“Far from a medieval code of capital punishments, the Shari’ah is a dynamic ethico-legal system designed to safeguard and advance core human values. In fact, just as the US Constitution references the basic human values of unity, justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty, so too each of these is also a fundamental value of the Shari’ah.”

He continues:

“The rules of the Shari’ah are derived from the Qur’an and the model behavior of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, which complements and/or supplements the Qur’an on issues where it may be silent or require clarifying teachings. “Islamic law” is not just the Shari’ah but rather is a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists over the last 1,400 years. That period is marked by a remarkable intellectual diversity with dozens of schools of legal thought at one point.

Interpretation is the endeavor of scholars in each generation. In other words, some rules can change with time and place. The articulation of the Shari’ah is based on built-in mechanisms which aim for articulations of “Islamic Law” to be purpose-driven and considers the prevailing customary, social and political contexts of the time. This makes the system fluid and dynamic.”

And he concludes:

“The flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law is perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of religion to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the Shari’ah that an authentic, contemporary, moderate, and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world today.”

There are many good questions that could be put to the mufti. How would he explain such-and-such behavior of Muhammad? Is Muslim history in this-or-that phase in conformity with sharia, or against it?

But on the whole, his essay is a good reminder that neither Muslims nor sharia are a monolith. As some pull from the Islamic heritage to destroy the current age, others access it in conformity – and presumably both seek first and foremost a fidelity to religion.

But a key question comes to mind.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an institution of the Egyptian state. This state’s official religion is Islam, but it also promotes a concept of equal citizenship independent of religious creed. Why then does the mufti say the following?

Muslims [my emphasis] are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them. The principles of freedom and human dignity, for which liberal democracy stands, are themselves part of the foundation for the Islamic worldview; it is the achievement of this freedom and dignity within a religious context that Islamic law strives for.

His opening sentence is a true principle. But it is true for Egyptian Muslims, as it is for Egyptian Christians and Jews. I am certain there is nothing sinister in the mufti’s words. He has been a staunch defender of the post-June 30 Egyptian state, which is greatly appreciated by the Copts.

But there is a prevalent understanding that equates a nation and its people with a particular religion. For Egypt, this is not wholly inappropriate, as the constitution enshrines sharia as the primary source of legislation.

The mufti’s point, however, is in choosing a system of governance. In this, Egyptians must be referenced, not those of a particular religious creed.

Consider this blog post of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, criticizing Western nations in the wake of the Russian plane crash disaster. In it Galal Nassar, editor-in-chief of al-Ahram weekly, accuses Western capitals of desiring the Muslim Brotherhood to rule Egypt, and makes the following point:

“Centuries ago, the West had its own revolutions, and managed for the most part to separate church and state. Why do they think that we cannot do the same? Why do they hold us to ridicule, rather than show respect?”

Indeed, it is a form of ridicule to assume the bigotry of low expectations that a people Muslim in religion must also be ‘Muslim’ in the application of sharia law, interpreted in its most illiberal form. Sharia can be a guide; it does not have to be a code. For millions of Muslims living in Western nations this is certainly true.

His point is understood that sharia is flexible and consistent with the modern world. But the question is important: Should it be legislated?

This, in fact, would be a good question for the mufti, one he does not directly address. The closest he comes is here:

“Many people are under the impression that Egypt adopted French law. This is not the case. Islamic law was rewritten in the form of French law, but retained its Islamic essence. This process led Egypt to become a modern state run by a system of democracy.”

This suggests his answer is ‘no’. In Egypt, sharia is a ‘source’ of legislation, though it is also ‘primary’. But even within his argument the mufti’s implicit understanding is that Egypt is Muslim.

If asked directly, perhaps he would not say it with such clear generality. But all the same he and Nassar reflect the tension inherent in discussing Islam. Religion … politics … identity … law … they are all mixed up together.

The mufti does a good job reminding us that sharia does not have to be scary.  But it is still complicated.  It always has been.

Jayson Casper is a journalist in Cairo contributing to Christianity Today, the Middle East Institute, Lapido Media, and other publications. You can view more of his writings at A Sense of Belonging.