sharia law is not a cultural practice

Too many in the West equate Sharia’ (the road or the way) law to cultural practices. This is incorrect and does a disservice to Islam. Islam and Sharia, after all, are systems that exist very separately from culture, if not antithetical to it. Islam came along in the time of Jahaliyyah, the dark ages of the Arabian peninsula where blood feuds were the way of law and women were treated as cattle and slaves, if not buried alive in the desert. Islam quickly raised up the status of women, children, and the poor in ways unrivaled by the West until less than a hundred years ago. In addition, Islam was an expanding religion and within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death it ruled nearly everything between the Himalayas and the Pyrenees. It’s success was partially due because it would seek to eradicate every injustice done in a system while leaving intact the aspects of culture deemed inoffensive. People kept eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, living their same lives … so long as everything was halal (acceptable in Islam). They kept their own languages and forms of art, their poetry and music, and the basic traditions that kept them whole as a distinct community. In this way, Islam was both throwing out the religions of the fathers while keeping that which made the world diverse. In the Quran it is even mentioned:

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. (43:19)

Indeed, the diversity within the Islamic world – even today in the age of Saudi globalization – is truly breathtaking. However, just because these societies are Islamic in character – meaning, many of their population is Muslim – do not for a second think that Islamic societies represent Islam or Sharia. For instance, despite the fact that a staggering rate of Egyptian women have been vaginally mutilated, this is a practice frowned upon in Sharia’ and Islam, as women are supposed to feel pleasure during sex as a gift from God. Beating women and children is against the Sunnah (way of the Prophet) and suicide of any sort – including self-immolation and suicide bombing – is forbidden as well. Keeping women from leaving the house or learning to read, marrying off children to each other without consulting them at a proper age, and honor killings are all issues people in the West traditionally associate with Islam and Sharia’, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Sharia’ law is a legalistic school of philosophy based around the Qur’an, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), and Sunnah. A very small percentage of the global Islamic community is qualified to make rulings on what Sharia’ is or what it entails, but it basically breaks down into being a set guideline for living life – issues like marriage, inheritance, contracts, etc. It is something designed to bring a set standard of justice to people all over the world, regardless of their culture. Sharia’ law and Islam in general respects the diversity of people and their cultures, but not at the expense of justice.

One response to “sharia law is not a cultural practice

  1. I am interested in how “culture” fits into this discussion. So many people have formed so many definitions of “culture” that I think it is useful to try to nail down some consensus on the term.
    I think some people think “culture” is the symphony or the ballet–making a distinction between high art and low art. In that sense, I can see how equating Sharia law with “culture” would be offensive as it gives an opportunity to put Sharia on the “low culture” end of the continuum.
    However, most who seriously study culture still quibble over how to define it. As with all efforts to establish consensus, coming up with a definition that satisfies everyone requires something that is so broad it means everything to everyone and consequently nothing for practical matters.
    Regardless, I would like to offer, for purposes of discussion, a definition for culture. Bradford ‘J’ Hall defines “culture” as a “historically shared system of symbolic resources through which we make our world meaningful”. We can certainly parse this definition and argue about each and every word, but if we resist that temptation, step back, and agree on it in an effort to understand my perspective, can’t we also see how religion is a system within the system of culture? Hence Sharia law is a cultural system?
    I realize that I may be deviating from the point of your post, however, I think it is important to point out the difficulty of labels. I guess I respond to your post, in part, because I, too, am bothered when I hear people throw around terms like “culture” and “cultural practice” in a context that infers dismissal. The inference is that a cultural practice is not based on anything but superstition and ignorance–an outrageous suggestion. As Hall points out, culture is a highly complex system that enables and constrains. We need systems “in order to share ideas as humans or coordinate our actions to accomplish virtually any social task”. Thus while systems enable us to have meaningful exchange, they also constrain us from seeing possibilities. Those who suggest Sharia is merely cultural practice would likely be offended by the suggestion that the Ten Commandments are merely cultural. People with this view have a cultural system that constrains them from seeing the possibility that Sharia law isn’t “merely” anything.
    This brings me to the point in your post where you say Sharia law is separate from culture–antithetical to it. Based on my perspective of culture–I must strongly disagree. I would argue, as I have suggested above, that the flaw in calling Sharia law a “cultural practice” indicates not only a misunderstanding of Sharia law and Islam but also a serious lack of understanding of what constitutes a cultural practice. The fact is: there are offensive and inoffensive cultural practices but none of them should be dismissed as being “merely”. I believe we cannot separate anything from culture.

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