What is the past, present and future of Sharia law?

By ISHA RAI and WILLIAM EDMONDS | May 2, 2019

Sharia is a term that often evokes confusion, debate or even outright fear. 

Rumee Ahmed, an associate professor of Islamic Law at the University of British Columbia, led a discussion called “Sharia Today,” on Thursday, April 25. It was an event that sought to promote dialogue on the nature of Sharia in the modern era.

Ahmed recently published Sharia Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Sharia Law.

Sharia law has received attention in the media at times when immigration pundits discuss the entry of Muslims into the country. President Donald Trump mentioned Sharia while discussing immigration policy during a Fox News interview.  

“A lot of the people coming in — I mean if they’re into the world of Sharia, you’re talking about from a different planet,” Trump said in the interview.

This view is not rare in America. According to the Pew Research Center, over 40 percent of Americans believe that democracy and Islamic teachings are fundamentally incompatible. 

Ahmed discussed the original meaning of Sharia, countering the assumption that one interpretation of Islamic Sharia law could possibly represent the idea of Sharia in general. 

Ahmed described the multifaceted nature of Sharia today.

“People make claims about what Sharia is: They might say it’s about a particular set of laws, or they might say it’s about a grand ideal, or they might say it’s about a state that works according to certain laws,” Ahmed said. “All of these are valid expressions of Sharia because the idea of Sharia is an aspirational idea that Muslims hold onto of the way the world should be.”

Ahmed described Sharia as a connection with God and claimed that it was never truly possible to reach perfect Sharia, though many have tried. 

“Throughout history, there have been thousands of books written on Sharia in the language of Islamic law. And each one claims to say, ‘No this is really it. I’ve really got it this time,’” Ahmed said. “By nature, human beings are fallible, and we are never going to get to that perfect thing, but you try for it anyway; you keep trying for perfection.”

There is no one set view of Sharia shared among Muslims, Ahmed posits; rather, there are a wide variety of interpretations. While Sharia represents the general concept of enlightenment, there are a number of factors that play into interpreting it. Islamic law, or fiqh, is an ongoing process, a living legal code.

“Sharia is only as representative as the number of people making claims about it,” Ahmed said. “Right now there’s a small group of people making claims about fiqh and making claims about Islamic law, so by definition, we do not have a representative view about Sharia.”

Sharia law is constantly changing and being revised by Islamic scholars in order to mesh better with the modern era. 

“Islamic law today is unrecognizable from Sharia law — forget a thousand years ago — from a hundred years ago, from 50 years ago,” Ahmed said. “But we talk about it as if it captures the Sharia, and we’re able to do that because scholars got together for whatever reason, and they hacked the laws.”

Ahmed noted that, though scholars have revised Islamic law in order to fit with today’s society, these changes are still in accordance with Islamic tradition.

“They showed that the new way we understand Islamic law, which can accommodate the modern financial system or men and women sitting in the same room ... or whatever you can think of, flows directly from the Islamic tradition and is what God and the Prophet would’ve wanted from us,” he said.

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