Like all those nice people who protested about those nasty cartoons in London calling for infidels to be put to death ... can't think how I got the wrong ideaThe Guardian said:A dangerous ignorance
The widely accepted interpretation of sharia in Britain is wrong and would horrify many young Muslims.
February 1, 2007 10:59 AM | Printable version
The very best debates are those in which you learn and which help clarify your understanding of an issue, so I'm delighted by the huge response triggered by the comments of myself and AC Grayling on the role of religion in history, and more specifically the contribution of Christianity to learning and science in western European history. Dozens posted on Comment is free to reply on my behalf to the challenge Grayling put to me - to name one positive contribution made by Christianity. Mendel, Newton, the monasteries of the Dark Ages - I can't better their list.
Now I want to see if there is appetite for debate on another, even more controversial, issue. In the last few days, sharia has been much in the news; David Cameron accused Muslim groups who promote sharia law of being the "mirror image" of the British National party and a poll by the Policy Exchange thinktank, which showed that 40% of young Muslims wanted to live under sharia law, was widely reported.
Just in case readers weren't sure what sharia was, the Times gave a summary: "Sharia covers topics including marriage (allowing a man to have four wives, and stoning to death for adultery), criminal justice (hand amputation for theft) and religious affairs (death penalty for leaving Islam)." Stoning, hand chopping: that just about sums up the widely held view of what sharia is all about.
I've lost count of the number of times I've heard people refer to sharia in this way - as a barbaric ancient set of laws with horrific punishments. But such a definition would horrify many of the young Muslims who were polled. The problem about David Cameron and many, many others is that they have only a Taliban understanding of sharia.
It is a dangerous ignorance because the most crucial debates within Islam worldwide are often around sharia - that huge body of Islamic jurisprudence with wide variations in interpretation from west Africa to Indonesia. Sharia's basic meaning is "path to God"; it is a set of spiritual disciplines, which any serious Muslim abides by. The basics are such things as prayer, fasting and the Haj. But it also covers such instructions as no gambling, no backbiting, no alcohol and no cheating. Any devout Muslim is attempting to follow sharia.
But that doesn't mean they want to impose sharia on anyone who is not a Muslim, nor does it mean they agree with the most extreme interpretations of sharia law. Every faith has its laws - churches have canon law, Orthodox Jews have rabbinical courts - and no one argues that this represents separatism as Cameron did of Muslims this week. David Cameron (and there are plenty of others) and the Policy Exchange are feeding the fantasy fear of Muslims as fifth columnists trying to bring about an Islamic state.
Don't get me wrong, there are some exceptionally horrible elements of how sharia has been interpreted - and still is, in some parts of the world - but reducing this vast body of thought to the barbaric practices of the Taliban is a gross simplification, which will do nothing to assist our understanding of the attitudes of Muslims in this country.