Junk Explained: Here’s Everything Jacqui Lambie Doesn’t Know About Sharia Law

Paging Jacqui Lambie!

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The concept of Sharia law has once again grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons, with public fears of the unknown being amplified lately by elected members of Parliament denouncing the Islamic way of life as a danger to Australian society. Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie has come out strongly against Sharia in recent weeks, saying it “obviously involves terrorism” and telling Muslims who follow it to “get out,” despite not having a huge amount of knowledge on what Sharia law actually is.

Lambie’s not the only politician to use Sharia as an all-purpose boogeyman; in 2006 then-Federal Treasurer Peter Costello said that there was no place for Sharia in Australia and that to live in Australia “you do have to believe in democracy, the rule of law and the rights and liberties of others,” strongly implying that Sharia advocates otherwise.

Since Lambie’s outburst there has been a spate of ‘explanatory’ articles that have shed some light on what Sharia means for the modern-day Muslim. While these have explained part of the picture, it is important to also understand the origins of Islamic law and how it’s changed over the centuries; what most people don’t know is that the misappropriated ‘Sharia’ invoked today by extremist groups and regimes is radically different from the original product, not least as a result of Western colonisation and modern imperialism.

So here it is: a comprehensive, contextual rundown of what Sharia law is, what practising it looks like, and how it was shaped into what it is today.

What Even Is Sharia? 

The word “sharia”, taken literally, is Arabic for “path” or road to a watering hole or place of salvation. The five universal principles that underlie Sharia are ‘protection of life’, ‘mind’, ‘religion’, ‘property’ and ‘offspring’; rulings in Sharia law are based around the protection and promotion of these five areas and, logically, decisions that see their degradation are fundamentally unIslamic.

In practical terms, traditional Sharia is quite unlike any “legal system” as we understand the term in the modern West — a bunch of acts and legislation sitting in a library — but more a constantly changing and evolving process to try and ensure society lived intelligently and ethically. It was not written down in a legislative state-based form like today’s law, giving it the freedom to be able to be constantly revised and improved upon. Sharia was kind of like Java; you need it for everything, but it was always being updated.

Perhaps most importantly, the foundation of Islamic law was not linked to a state’s authority because at the time of its birth in the seventh century, the concept of the “state” was non-existent. Rather, it was about finding a balance for society through a combination of rationalist thought and religious morality, determined by knowledgeable members of the community rather than any government or set of rulers

Because Sharia relies on a large element of interpretation, finding an answer to any one question can be very difficult — at any one time there can be a number of different interpretations of the same set of facts — but this interpretive element allows for a healthy amount of legal pluralism, giving Sharia the flexibility to be relevant to all times and places as long as it adheres to Islam’s original principles.

Where Does Sharia Law Come From, And What Does It Cover?

The main sources of Sharia law are the Islamic holy book, the Quraan, and the Prophet Muhammed’s (Peace be upon Him) sayings and actions, known as the ‘Sunnah’, from which Muslims derive their understanding of how to live a good life. The Sunnah are explicit and largely general, like “pray” and “don’t pray while drunk”.

The practical detail for Islamic law, which goes into a bit more detail, comes from different interpretations of the Quraan and Sunnah and sits under the banner of jurisprudence, or ‘usul al-fiqh’. Usul al-fiqh covers quite a lot, but it essentially means interpreting the broad rules set out in Islam’s two main legal sources into law that is relevant to the current time and place.

This interpretation takes the form of two main methodologies — consensus and analogy. Consensus refers to the agreement of the learned community on particular issues, largely retrospectively; for example, the standard number of extra prayers Muslims pray during Ramadaan (the month of fasting) was a result of consensus.  Analogies are about making common-sense judgments based on what is already known — “don’t drink beer because wine is prohibited”, for instance.

The laws themselves are broadly split into two types — laws relating to an individual’s relationship with God (ibadat) and the laws that govern society (muamalat) — and can be further categorised into four fields: ‘rituals’, ‘sales’, ‘marriage’ and ‘injuries’. They cover almost everything to do with how Muslims live their day-to-day livesPrayer, fasting, food and drink are covered in the first category, followed by sales, loans, cultivating wasteland, and shares in the second. The third looks at marriage, familial support and custody rights, while the fourth illustrates the laws of war and peace, homicide and the Quranically regulated infractions.

The rules about individual actions — ibadat — are pretty uncontroversial, and by following these rules Muslims in Australia practise Sharia without infringing on the rights of others. The rules that govern society are what come to mind when “Sharia” is generally referred to in the media. One of the main rules of this part of Sharia law (which you probably haven’t heard of) is that Muslims must follow the laws of the land they are in, regardless of who is governing. By following the ‘law of the land’ — Australia, for example — Muslims are following Sharia. Muslims aren’t seeking to “impose” Sharia law on Australia — they’re living and practising it already, despite inflammatory and inaccurate depictions to the contrary.

But Sharia has changed over time, and if we’re going to properly understand it, it’s important to examine when, how, and why that happened.

Colonisation Changed Everything, Including Sharia

The advent of modern colonisation, starting with the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch entering India and Indonesia in the late 16th and 17th Centuries, would eventually lead to some pretty drastic changes in how Sharia was practised and understood.  With the arrival of the colonisers in predominantly Islamic communities came the concept of the nation-state — and with it, codifying (translating and writing down) laws.  The colonisers viewed Islam as a threat to the system and civilisation they understood, and began thoroughly remodelling Islamic legal systems.

Started by the Governor of Bengal Warren Hastings in the 1770s and followed by the Dutch in the 1880s, western powers began separate projects to translate, write down and convert the Sharia — as they understood it — into written law.  In doing so they turned Sharia’s fluidity rigid, and hollowed out the interpretive core that Sharia law depended on. Islamic law became unable to do what it needed to do to function.

What’s more, this process actually wound back progressive aspects of Islamic law to conservative Western standards. Sharia and Islamic law had bestowed women with rights and privileges that were advanced and equalising; when the laws were translated into colonising languages, those nuances were removed and the patriarchal colonising culture prevailed, writing the rights women had enjoyed under Sharia out of the system entirely. The “Sharia” notion that a man is the head of the family to be obeyed without question was a post-colonial inclusion that completely changed the original intention of the Islamic ruling, and Governor Hastings, along with his counterpart Governor-General of India Charles Cornwallis, felt like Islamic law allowed criminals to escape punishment too easily, complaining that Sharia was “founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed”.

Given Islamic law’s current reputation, this is kind of ironic.

Sharia law may sound foreign, especially if you don’t know much about it, but it doesn’t need to be feared. At its essence, it’s about finding a way to live a good life, and by practising as Muslims (praying, fasting, eating good kebabs), millions of people around the world are following Islamic law without coming into conflict with the law of the land. By and large, Muslims are well accommodated in the current legal system and there is no reason why this should change. Fear-mongering around Sharia law as a “threat” to Australian society serves only to bolster the damaging and dangerous “us and them” narrative, ultimately helping no one but the terrorists themselves.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an experience junkie and loves not fitting into stereotypes.  She has written for the Griffith Review, Sydney Morning Herald, Fin Review and currently in the process of penning an entire book.  A mechanical engineer and petrol head with a passion for social justice and terrible puns, she tweets @yassmin_a.

Feature image via Danumurthi Mahendra on a Flickr Creative Commons licence.