This article is the first of an ongoing series that will examine what shari’ah is, how the media often get it wrong, and how it’s being used to create fear of Islam and Muslims and to justify continued military defense of “American values.”

by Hussein Rashid

Every time I hear someone on TV mention “shari’ah,” I think of the movie The Princess Bride and the line “I do not think it means what you think it means.” I am amused that shari’ah has come to mean “law” as a canonical system for how Muslims are to behave and act. Weak states use the term shari’ah in lieu of “law,” un-inquisitive press use the term the same way, and Muslims ignorant of their own history adopt that understanding, reinforcing the cycle.

Shari’ah literally means a way or a path, usually to a watering hole. Traditionally, it is meant to guide Muslims as to how they should fulfill their religious obligations. The vast majority of criminal and civil issues were handled by state authorities through a systemized code of law. This legal system was called qanun, from the Greek word kanon. With the rise of the modern nation-state, states seeking to be authentically “Islamic” adopted a wide variety of laws and dubbed them shari’ah, even though in the classical system they would be qanun.

Whereas qanun is fixed and relatively static, as it is used for running a state, shari’ah is dynamic. The sources of shari’ah are the Qur’an, the scripture of Muslims, and the hadith, sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad. Less than 10% of the Qur’an is what we would term legalistic, and the hadith genre is highly contested in terms of interpretation. The legal opinions that form the corpus of shari’ah are meant to be constantly negotiated based on time and place.

There is a consensus on certain aspects of what shari’ah is, such as punishments for murder. The most severe punishments, over which there is such a consensus, are collectively known as hudud, or “limits.” Again, however, many of the punishments are theoretical, and have only been revived in the modern period as a quest for “Islamic” authenticity. It would be like looking at Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which calls for the stoning of disobedient sons, and saying that we should fear Jews because their laws are barbaric. We understand that religious communities are in constant change as tradition and modernity interact.

Unfortunately, Muslims are not allowed this common sense courtesy. Instead, we look at Muslims as a static unchanging community, pulling verses from the Qur’an, or historical documents, and applying a meaning to them that Muslims themselves do not have. Muslims, and Muslim nation-states, have undoubtedly contributed to the confusion around the issue by mixing qanun with religious matters, elevating hudud as the prime part of the law, and calling the witch’s brew shari’ah. Unfortunately, reporter’s do not correct themselves once the problem with equating shari’ah with law is pointed out to them. The result of this misperception hinders any real discussion of the place of Muslims in America, as the scare word of shari’ah is hurled to end any serious conversation.

Hussein Rashid is a native New Yorker and Proud Muslim. Currently an instructor at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry at Park Avenue Christian Church and based at Hofstra University, he is deeply committed to interfaith work and is passionate about teaching. He believes we need to start talking more intelligently about Islam specifically, and religion generally.