Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country, By Sumbul Ali-Karamali
As the author opens her book, she speaks about a polite couple she met during a college reunion who were “very much afraid that shariah law is taking over the United States.”
They are far from alone. Her goal is to educate the reader about shariah (or sharia), including explaining how “liberal and humane” it truly is. Sharia is the “right path” or “the path God wants us to follow.” The term originated as a term for the path to a watering hole in the desert. Interestingly, early Christianity was also known as “the Way” (Act 9:2), which seems similar.
She explains its origins (Muhammad and the Birth of Islam), the sources of shariah (the Qur’an and Sunna, the words and deeds of Muhammad, as well as legal interpretation of them), various aspects of sharia in practice (including its history), and misunderstandings. Ali-Karamali emphasizes the diversity in the interpretations of sharia, providing an account of the generally accepted principles. She also notes where there is some differences of opinion.
The book is labeled a “defense against stereotypes,” but still “academically reliable, based on established scholarship and facts.” An example of this is her discussion of Muhammad’s overall gentle treatment of non-Muslims, ahead of its time, which is provided in a reliable way with documentation. It is a positive account, but she “has the receipts,” as the kids say.
A somewhat more negative account of modern Islam is Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol. Akyol promotes a cosmopolitan view of Islam and argues it is true to Muslim roots. But, he argues Islam as a whole took a wrong turn a long time ago. His book is an appeal of what can be, but notes that his own view is a minority viewpoint in worldwide Islam today.
At times, Ali-Karamali seems to emphasize the positive without fully discussing the negatives. Still, even here, she provides a negative detail to the reader. And, Ali-Karamali does not paper over the fact that many Muslims today do not follow what she argues is an appropriate interpretation of the basic tenets of the faith. This follows the path of her past books.
Should I Read It?
The book provides a positive explanation of Islam through the voice of a liberal American Muslim woman. One that has a degree in Islamic law. She speaks from experience and educated knowledge. It covers the basics of her Muslim faith, history and practice. This provides a helpful resource, including regarding misconceptions regarding Islam.
There is a summary from my review of The Muslim Next Door, her first book, which is more of a comprehensive guide to Islam. It applies to this book as well. After all, at one point in this book she says “substitute ‘Islam’ whenever you hear the word ‘shariah,’ and it usually makes sense.” The first book and this one has a lot of overlap, including a chapter on Islamophobia.
This book is more specifically about Shariah itself. So, if that is your specific interest, it would be a helpful read. This book is also not as personal as her first book though she at times talks about her personal experience (“We Muslims” etc.).
I also think the writing is a bit more smooth in the last first book, perhaps as she gained more experience writing books for the average reader. She still does not include photographs or charts (helpfully added in her book for teens). This might bother some readers.
The book should be fine for the average reader interested in the subject.
Muslims may seem like aliens, and shariah may seem like a language impossible to understand, but we can be embraced and accepted. We are Americans, after all. And, French and German and Canadian and everything else.
The author is a Star Trek fan and compares its openness to understanding strange new worlds to her own mission in educating people about her faith. Like on Star Trek, others are not as different and scary as they might first seem. And, it has an optimism the author herself has.
Introduction: The author notes how she will deal with “stereotypes, eliminating presumptions, and providing historical background for current events.” This includes how colonialism has affected Islamic history and sharia itself. She will speak as a Muslim, but in an academically reliable way. The net result hopefully is to promote understanding.
Part I: The Basics and Foundations of Shariah
- Sharia in a Nutshell
Sharia is the “way of God.”. The way of God is determined by examining the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) and Sunna (the words and deeds of Muhammad, his prophetic example). The legal interpretation of both is fiqh or “understanding.”
- Muhammed and the Birth of Islam
- The Qur’an: The Primary Source of Shariah [the Holy Book of Islam explained]
- The Sunna: The Second Source of Shariah
- Sunni, Shi’a and Others
These chapters cover the basics — the birth of Islam, the Qur’an — holy book of Islam, and the main groups of Muslims. These chapters overlap some with her first book, but the sources of Shariah and how the different groups apply it are specifically relevant to this book specifically.
Sunni and Shi’a are not really different “sects” of Islam. She argues their differences have been exaggerated. The separation was based on a dispute over who had religious authority once Muhammed no longer lived.
“The others” include an “extremist” form known as Wahhabis, retaining power because of historical developments in Saudi Arabia. She underlines it is not a “pure” or “original” form of Islam. Sufism is a way of finding spiritual awareness.
And, the Nation of Islam is a group — a mix of Islamic beliefs and African-American nationalism — that arose in the 20th Century United States. Malcolm X was a member.
Part II: The Story of Shariah
- What Shariah Is and How It Works
The principles (Maqasid) of Sharia are summarized as the right to life, intellect, religious freedom, property, and family. As an American lawyer, the author feels they strongly resemble the U.S. Constitution. The English common law in fact might have arisen from shariah practices.
The development of Islamic religious law is examined. A “mufti” is a religious scholar and some were women. Traditionally, educational institutions provided an independent means to study Islam, providing much religious freedom and progressive religious developments.
A “fatwa” is a legal opinion. It is not an absolute command or some sort of divine order. The term is often misunderstood, especially because of the so-called “fatwa” against the writer Salman Rushdie. The nuances of the concept are examined.
There was both religious and non-religious administrative law (like our secular law). The “Circle of Justice” principle decreed all elements of society needed to respect and depend on each other, requiring just rule.
- Religious Minorities within the Shariah System
Forced conversion is prohibited in Islam. Non-Muslims were treated very well traditionally when the Muslims had a large empire, especially as compared to Christian Europe’s treatment of non-Christians. “Jihad” is a struggle to make yourself and the world a better place. It is not the same thing as a “holy war.” War, justly fought, has many rules of engagement under Islam. For instance, it would be against Islam to harm innocent non-combatants.
- Shattering a Millennium and Disrupting a Civilization
- Shariah in Postcolonial Muslim-Majority Countries
These two chapters address the results of European colonial control on the Muslim World. Colonialism severely “crushed” the traditional system of religious education and legal institutions. Traditionally, such institutions allowed sharia a flexibility to develop over time. Ending such institutions made it hard for Islam to modernize. Women especially lost out.
Muslim majority countries today have legal systems largely based on European law, a result of colonalization. Iran and Saudi Arabia might be ruled by religious law, but they are not really based on sharia. “Islamists,” those that mix Islam (or what is labeled that) and politics, promise social justice. This makes them sometimes popular. But, the results are much more mixed.
- The Scary Stuff: Punishments
- Shariah in Everyday Life
These chapters discuss various aspects of every day life for a Muslim.
The first chapter notes that the religious punishments (“hudud” offenses) sound very strict, but in practice, actually enforcing them are impossible given all the due process protections required to be met. Applying the punishments without the safeguards is not truly Islamic. Thus, nearly never could sexual crimes actually be enforced following true Islamic rules.
Sharia rules are like rules for other religions. A Christian might be obligated to go to church each week, but they are not struck down dead if they do not. She argues Khomeini’s “fatwa” against Salman Rushdie is wrong for multiple reasons. But, Muslims are not wrong to be upset by things like crude cartoons of Muhammad. Would not a similar picture of Jesus upset people?
Many things are really cultural, including such horrible things like honor killings and female genital mutilation. We should be careful not to confuse cultural practices with Islamic requirements. LGBTQI issues divide Muslims and again they often split along cultural lines.
- The Disinformation Campaign and Shariah in America
After an uptick of attacks, hate crimes against Muslims declined between 9/11 and 2010.
They increased once more as a result of a controversy over plans to build an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center. She explains why this was unfair.
Also, there was a campaign to promote the fear that “shariah law” was threatening to take over American law. This is shown to be a ridiculous argument. She explains how the United States Constitution clearly bans actual religiously based laws.
Shariah can also not be singled out. This is not the same as shariah law “taking over,” but simply treating everyone equally. For instance, a contract or arbitration (private dispute resolution) might involve shariah law, just like it might some other form of law.
Part III: Recognizing the Problem
- Islamophobia and Why We Have the Stereotypes
Islamophobia is anti-Muslim prejudice. There are individuals and organizations that promote misinformation, scaring the public about Muslims. Muslims are promoted, as a class, as dangerous. Their liberties allegedly should be, must be to protect everyone else, taken away. Over a billion Muslims are said not to even have a religion.
She argues this should concern everyone, Muslim or not. It divides Americans, promotes a bad domestic policy based on fear and ignorance, undermines sound foreign policy, and fuels dangerous extremists. We must move from “us vs. them” to an “all of us” framework.
Sharia has lasted so long because it is basically fair. The author is proud of being a Muslim and living in a country where it can thrive. Modernization is an extended process but requires a full understanding and discussion of Islamic principles. We all can have a role in this process.
Points to Ponder
The author quotes E.B. White at one point: “Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.” How much will facts stop prejudice? What are the barriers to obtaining facts? How do you best spread facts over fiction?
The diversity of Muslims is a major theme in the author’s books. “Muslims vary as widely as any other community of people.” She is concerned about stereotypes of “real” Muslims being fundamentalists and not “liberal.” This is true for other religions as well, including Christians and Jews. How does society (or even you yourself) see religious believers in stereotypical ways?
About the Author
Bio: Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up as a first-generation South Asian Muslim in California.
She has a degree in English and law as well as a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She worked as a corporate lawyer, promotes multicultural education, and women’s rights and human rights from an Islamic perspective. She also is a big Star Trek fan.
Further Reading: Her first book was The Muslim Next Door: The Qu’ran, the Media and that Veil Thing. Her second book, Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam, is basically a teen version.
Is Demystifying Shariah a Reliable Book?
The author labels herself as a: “Muslim American and my expertise is in Islamic law.” This book, even more so than the first two more generally about Islam, particularly reflects her special expertise. She follows the basic rule of authors — “write what you know.”
The book has extensive endnotes and a bibliography. I found the book overall reliable.
As with her first two books, Sumbul Ali-Karamali writes from a point of view of a liberal-leaning Muslim. (She seems to push back a bit on that framing, but that is how I would describe her.) At times, a reader might reach different conclusions, but her factual analysis even there provides you with the material to do so.
An example: Ali-Karamali says “all” Muhammad did was destroy pagan idols at an ancient shrine while “specifically” protecting a fresco depicting Mary and Jesus (who are mentioned in the Qur’an). He did not “kill or convert” pagans, but destroyed an ancient cultural landmark that would today be seen as a grave injustice. Some might add that last part to provide full context, but the book still provides all the details of what happened. So the reader can decide.
By Joe Cocurullo