Vi må kræve Sharia tilbage

Det giver ikke mening at tale om "The Sharia of God," hævder Mona Eltahawy. Foto: Foto: Arkiv


This summer at the end of a day-long conference in Copenhagen on freedom of expression in the Arab world a young man with slightly faltering Arabic asked to speak to me.

"Would you give me one example of why freedom of expression and democracy are good things?" he asked after introducing himself as Abdel-Hamid.

He apologized for what he described as his basic Arabic, explaining that he was born and raised in Denmark to Arab parents.

At first I thought his question was a joke. The other conference speakers and I had spent hours explaining how the sorry lack of freedom of expression had harmed Arab civil society. And surely as a Dane he appreciated the democracy and freedoms he enjoyed?

"No, really, tell me," he persisted. "Democracy is the rule of the people. Islam is the rule of the Sharia. So what's good about democracy and freedom of expression?"

When I realized he was serious -- and when I began to see the direction his argument was heading -- I dragged out my usual defence to his line of thinking: whose version of Sharia, I asked him? Iran? Turkey? Saudi Arabia? Egypt, my country of birth?

"The Sharia of God," he adamantly replied.

"There is no such thing," I told Abdel-Hamid.

Which Sharia?

That was essentially the message at another conference that took me back to Copenhagen in November at which speaker after speaker bemoaned the Muslim fundamentalist reduction of Sharia to a set of laws.

It has become fashionable among radical Muslims in the West to long for the application of Sharia. Abdel-Hamid, my summer Copenhagen interlocutor and adherent to the idea that there was only one kind of Sharia -- that of God - identified himself as a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the radical Islamist group that wants to reestablish the Caliphate and does not believe Islam is compatible with democracy.

In many parts of the Muslim world, what the State has deemed Islamic is slapped with the label "Sharia." So when a murderer or a drug dealer is beheaded in Saudi Arabia, it is ostensibly out of adherence to Sharia.

When a dictator or a regime feels the need to burnish their Islamic credentials -- often at a time of growing radical Muslim opposition -- they make their country's legislation "more Islamic."

Take Pakistan's late president, General Zia ul-Haq, who in 1979 introduced the Hudood Ordinances, notorious not so much for making Pakistan "more Islamic" but for punishing rather than protecting women who have been raped.

Under the Hudood Ordinances, a rape victim had to produce four male witnesses to prove the crime or face the possibility of prosecution for adultery.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Dec. 1 signed into law an amendment to the controversial rape statute to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases. Thousands of Islamists gathered at separate events throughout Pakistan to protest the changes.

One has to wonder what kind of Islam those protestors follow and how it came to be so shamefully reduced to an obsession over sex and women.

As the Associated Press reported, under the new law, called the Protection of Women Bill, Pakistan's judges can choose whether a rape case should be tried in a criminal court - where the four-witness rule would not apply - or under the old Islamic law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.

And that is exactly the lie at the heart of the calls for Sharia. Why are there criminal courts in which the old Islamic law does not apply? In many Muslim countries, the justice system has been modernized and has adopted either Roman or Napoleonic law, with the exception of one area which stubbornly remains caught in the cobweb of edicts issued by Muslim scholars who lived centuries ago -- family law.

In other words, in many Muslim countries Sharia is used only to govern the lives of women and children with regards to marriage, divorce and custody of children.

Refreshing voices

How refreshing therefore it was to hear Emory University law professor Abdullahi An-Nai'm point out that lie at the heart of the calls for Sharia by saying it was essentially an attempt to "protect a patriarchal system by calling it Sharia."

"I need a secular state to be the kind of Muslim I need to be," he told the Copenhagen conference.

As Egyptian liberal Muslim scholar, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, noted, "Sharia" these days means nothing more than the "haram" (forbidden) and the "halal" (permissible).

The definition of Sharia as law is based on 500 verses of the Quran, Abu Zeid reminded us -- that is just 16 percent of the Quran.

It was a relief to hear Abdel-Hamid's adamant theory debunked in his own city -- and how I wish he had been there to hear it.

But more importantly, Abu Zeid, An-Nai'm and their fellow speakers were crafting the instruments by which all of the Muslims who were present could take the Sharia argument apart.

In a climate of growing right-wing anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly in Europe, some in the Muslim community find it difficult to stand up to radical Islamist posturing on Sharia.

Such hesitation is often based on a mix of reluctance to openly criticize fellow Muslims -- so as to not contribute to a further demonization of Muslims -- and ignorance as to exactly what the word Sharia means and what the concept entails.

The conference, called "Sharia in a modern context," was organized by Democratic Muslims, a liberal Muslim group that was launched as an alternative to the voices of radical imams in Denmark during the controversy that surrounded publication of cartoons featuring Prophet Mohammed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

The words of exiles

If the talks given by each speaker represented the tools which we could use to dismantle the Sharia argument, then the lives of the speakers themselves were the starkest examples of the danger of Islamist ideology run amok.

None of the speakers lives in his country of birth. That is a sad testament to the dangerously conservative environment in many Muslim countries today. But the speakers' presence at the conference and at the various western universities where they teach, were testament to their courage and determination to continue their fearless work.

Abu Zeid, Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, is former Professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University. In 1995 a Cairo appeals court sided with Muslim fundamentalists who raised a case to demand Abu Zeid divorce his wife on the ground of his alleged apostasy. The fundamentalists accused Abu Zeid of apostasy because of his liberal theories on Islam.

The day the appeals court issued its verdict, I was a correspondent with Reuters News Agency in Cairo. I clearly remember typing an urgent bulletin announcing the verdict while thinking it was time to buy a one-way ticket out of my country.

After the court's verdict against Abu Zeid, Ayman al-Zawahri -- who is today al-Qaeda's number two but in 1995 was head of the Egyptian terrorist group Islamic Jihad -- called for the scholar's murder.

Abu Zeid and his wife, fellow academic Ibtihal Younes, left for The Netherlands where they have lived and taught ever since.

An-Nai'm, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, and Mohamed Mahmoud, who teaches comparative religion at Tufts University in Boston, were both students of Sudanese Muslim reformer Mahmoud Taha who was publicly executed for his liberal views by then President Jaafar Nimeri whose introduction of Sharia was opposed by Taha.

Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born German political scientist who is Professor of International Relations in Goettingen, received a death threat in Karachi when he told a conference that Sharia was not divine.

His points were particularly pertinent to a Europe increasingly struggling with ways to react to radical Islamists. While lamenting European governments' habit of turning to the most conservative in the Muslim community to speak on its behalf, he vowed "In the name of multiculturalism I will not accept cultural rights as a cover for Sharia."

"I believe in Sharia as morality not as state law," he said. "I am not willing to shut up about human rights abuses by Islamists just because of the right wing. They are my enemy too."

"Islamophobia is the weapon of Islamists to silence critics. I do not believe Europe will become Islamist -- that is the fantasy of both Islamists and the right wing," Tibi said. "Are European Muslims committed to democracy or political Islam and Sharia. The debate should take place in Europe."

Majorities and minorities

One of the best ways to stimulate such a debate is to highlight the views of the scholars who spoke at the conference both within the Muslim community and outside it.

It is imperative that non-Muslims hear the vigorous debates that are taking place between Muslims over controversial issues such as Sharia. The argument between Abdel-Hamid and me is the best proof that Muslim thought is not monolithic.

How representative are we? That is the question most often asked of those of us who call ourselves liberal Muslims. I will let An-Nai'm and Abu Zeid reply:

"Is my voice the minority or the majority? That is a value judgment. The question instead should be: is my voice loud enough? Islamists blow themselves up and they make the news. My lecture on human rights doesn't make the news," An-Nai'm said.

"Islamic transformation is underway," he added. "My view is demographically representative of the majority of Muslims but it is not very loud (..) Who defines what Islam is? Islam is what Muslims make of it. Heresy? I celebrate heresy."

Abu Zeid simply asked: "Who said reformation comes out of the majority?"

"We shouldn't be ashamed of being the minority," he added. "Mohammed and his people were a minority at first."

And if you're wondering what example I gave to prove to Abdel-Hamid that democracy and freedom of expression were good things, all I had to do was point to him and say "you are my proof."

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her website is at This article first appeared in