Shari’a Law and North American Muslims

I was fascinated to see a new study ?Shari?a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?? which appeared this past month.

I was fascinated to see a new study published within the last week: “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?” Written by Dr. Julie Macfarlane for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the study addresses a fear that seems to be rising in some quarters. Recently there have been proposals on ballots to ban Shari’a from the American legal system, treating Shari’a as a threat. Dr. Macfarlane deals with the question of what the Shari’a means for North American Muslims.

Shari’a is often used as a slogan in politics in the Muslim world. Calls to “re-instate the Shari’a” echo back and forth on the news. Often it is the most reactionary Muslims, such as the Taliban, who call for the restoration of the Shari’a, filling the media with images of beheadings, stonings and incredible intolerance. Given that image, the fear of some people is understandable, though not justified.

Even the expression “the Shari’a” is misleading. It is easy to get the impression that “the Shari’a” is a thing like the Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter or any given piece of legislation. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is not a body of laws. There are many different ways that Shari’a is applied and interpreted in different countries and even within countries. The expression “the Shari’a” is often used a slogan for a very particular type of agenda, which most Muslims would reject.

Still the question remains: what do Muslims understand by the Shari’a? Since Islam is a worldwide religion, Muslims in different countries, cultures and circumstances have different understandings of it.

Dr. Macfarlane’s study shows that Shari’a does play an important role in the cultural and religious identity of the vast majority of American and Canadian Muslims. Most interestingly, the study shows that “the practice of shari’a [sic] for the vast majority of American Muslims is focused almost exclusively on private, family matters, primarily marriage and divorce.” However, even in this fairly limited area, 95 percent of the (Muslim) respondents said that it was important to have an Islamic marriage contract and a civil marriage license. In divorce cases Muslims frequently have recourse to U.S. courts to settle disputes such a custody.

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