Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 4, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i>, <i>The Awl</i> and <i>Halakha</i>

Maria Bustillos recently published a piece in The Awl on the Tennessee sharīʿa bill. She points out how absurd sections of the bill are. She distinguishes between fiqh and sharīʿa (more on that in future posts), alludes to juridical pluralism, the effect of colonialism on the sharīʿa, etc.

For those unfamiliar with The Awl check out this article.

Bustillos' main source appears to be Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (2005). Overall, Bustillos makes comparisons to Christianity, but doesn't do enough to relate the sharīʿa to other religious traditions, namely Judaism. This brings me to a more general point.

While the anti-sharīʿa cases I have written about consist of polemic and discrimination against Muslims, a further problem is that the sharīʿa is all too often discussed as a monolithic, isolated entity. This is highly misleading, because it suggests strict boundaries which separate Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the reality was far more complex. Therefore, I call for more discussions in the news media to place the sharīʿa in relation to and in dialogue with other religious traditions.

To be fair, the similarities between religious traditions, say, Judaism and Islam, might seem painfully obvious and perhaps trivial to point out; however, my point is that these similarities merit further exploration because they tend to be severely underemphasized.

Rabbi Seth Adelson made a point about the Oklahoma sharīʿa case in November:

On Tuesday there was a ballot question in Oklahoma regarding shari’a law. Did you all hear about this? 70% of voters in Oklahoma voted to “ban” the use of Muslim law, known as Shari’a, by judges in Oklahoma. Now, there are obvious legal problems with this measure, and they will surely be worked through in court.

Shari’a, like halakhah, is an internal Muslim religious matter. It is not binding on non-Muslims, just like halakhah is not binding on non-Jews. The subjects that shari’a law addresses are similar to those addressed by halakhah - religious observances such as diet and prayer, areas of criminal law, torts, family law, and so forth. The Muslim courts that deal with shari’a are similar to what we call in Judaism a “beit din.” The very word shari’a means “the way” or “path,” which is exactly what halakhah means in Hebrew.

Now, how would we feel as Jews if New York State were to “ban” the use of halakhah? I know, it sounds ridiculous, right? But that is, more or less, what the state of Oklahoma has done. Until now, no judge in an Oklahoma court has used shari’a in a court decision, and this law would prevent them from doing so in the future.

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