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Sharia Law and the U.S. Constitution
This is a divisive topic around which there are considerable differences of opinion, heightened emotion, and deep confusion. One speaker I heard recently explained the difference between Shari’ah and Islamic law better than I had ever heard it explained, and he did it in one short sentence. He said that the U.S. Constitution is to Shari’ah as American law is to Islamic law. What does this short sentence mean?
Before covering the various Muslim attitudes toward Sharia and Islamic law, a distinction needs to be made between those two concepts. There is considerable confusion about them which has contributed to interesting legal steps taken within some states in the United States, e.g., passing state laws preventing “Sharia law” from being implemented.
This is a divisive topic around which there are considerable differences of opinion, heightened emotion, and deep confusion. One speaker I heard recently explained the difference between Sharia and Islamic law better than I had ever heard it explained, and he did it in one short sentence. He said that the U.S. Constitution is to Sharia as American law is to Islamic law.
What does this short sentence mean? The U. S. Constitution sets forth in a general way the values and principles upon which American law is to be formed and evaluated. The Congress, the legislative branch of government, passes a law, whereas the judicial branch of the government checks whether that law is consistent with the values of the Constitution. The Constitution is thus not synonymous with American law, but American law is supposed to be grounded in the Constitution. Similarly, Shari’ah embodies the values upon which Islamic law is to be generated. For example, while there is one Qur’an comprising a major part of Shari’ah, there are multiple schools of jurisprudence in Islam that interpret the Qur’an as they generate Islamic law. So, Shari’ah is not synonymous with Islamic law, but Islamic law is supposed to be grounded in the Qur’an.
Muslim Attitudes toward Grounding Islamic Law Exclusively on the Shari’ah
That distinction addressed, what do Muslims internationally think about whether the Shari’ah should be the sole basis upon which Islamic law is derived? In 2013 the Pew Foundation conducted a survey among Muslims in ten Muslim populated countries about their attitudes regarding the extent to which they think the Qur’an should influence their nation’s law. The results were significant and surprising in light of the prevalent belief among many Americans about the supposed unanimity among Muslims about Shari’ah. The survey found some striking differences among Muslims on whether the Qur’an should influence the law of their country. In Pakistan, Palestine territories, Jordan, Malaysia, and Senegal approximately half or more of the population said laws in their country should strictly be derived from the Qur’an. However, in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Lebanon, and Indonesia less than 25% agreed. Moreover, in countries with significant non-Muslim populations, the various religions differed significantly on the issue.
Within a given country there were many different views. For example, within Jordan 54% said the Qur’an should be followed strictly, 38% said the country’s laws should follow the values and principles of the Qur’an but not follow the Qur’an strictly, and 7% responded that the laws should not be influenced in any way by the Qur’an. In six of the ten countries surveyed, people with at least a secondary education were more likely to say the national law should not be influenced by the Qur’an.
Right now in the United States, the Constitution is the basis upon which laws are judged to be permissible or not. There has been no serious move to remove the Constitution and replace it with another document. There has not been a single effort by Muslims in the United States to overthrow the Constitution. However, there have been attempts by Muslims to pass laws supporting a Muslim’s right to engage in common Islamic practices on issues such as fasting in prison, having the call to prayer announced in communities, custody issues in the family in the face of divorce, etc. More importantly, the U. S. courts do look at international law in cases of trade and treaties, i.e., Islamic law as well as other laws.
In the United States, we have the entire court system with all its levels that reflect upon a given law to determine whether it is consistent with the values of the Constitution. Plus there is public opinion that can and does often inform reflection upon a given law in light of the Constitution. That is to say, laws can come and go; however, the solid basis is still the Constitution.
Muslims and U.S. Social and Political Values
Muslims in America tend to support many progressive policy issues but also embrace conservative values and policies. Roughly 90% of American Muslims support progressive positions on health care, school funding, the environment, foreign aid, and gun control. However, many U.S. Muslims also support more conservative values as witnessed by the following: favoring school vouchers (66%), government funding for religious social service groups (70%), making abortion more difficult to obtain (55%), the death penalty (61%), income tax cuts (65%), forcing U.S. citizens to speak English (52%), and even stronger laws to fight terrorism.
In terms of endorsing a political party, since 9/11 there has been a considerable shift toward the Democratic Party and away from the Republican Party. From polls conducted in 2000 and 2010 there was a marked shift in party endorsement. In 2001, 23% identified as Republican but by 2004, only 12% identified with the Republican Party. By 2011 only 11% identified as Republican.
Clearly, recent Pew surveys find that Muslims have greater diversity in their views regarding the desirability of grounding Islamic law exclusively on the Shari’ah. Their social values reflect considerable diversity with some being conservative and others more progressive in nature. Finally, politically Muslims in America have shifted politically in recent years toward the left, embracing the Democratic Party in greater numbers than the Republican Party.
For more on sharia law see Jayson Casper’s article Sharia and the Separation of Mosque and State.