Last edited: February 14, 2005

The Many Faces of Sharia, June 21, 2000

By BBC Analyst Michael Gallagher

When many non-Muslims think of the Sharia, they often conjure up an image of a public beheading or amputation.

However, Sharia differs enormously in its various implementations throughout the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia has long practised a harsh form of the law, under which murderers and drug smugglers may be executed, thieves lose their hands, and adulterers may be stoned.

But as Nadeem Kasmi of the Al-Khoi Foundation in London explains, this does not offer a satisfactory understanding of the Sharia.

“Some offences require harsher penalties, but of course, it’s not the case that everyone in Saudi Arabia is walking around with one or other limb missing. Nor are they all in fear of being put to the cane or being lashed,” he says.

Other Muslims add that Saudi Arabia’s judges are the only branch of state over which the country’s royal family has no control, as Sharia makes them fiercely independent of all but their religious obligations.

Yet, as Mr Kasmi explains, not all Muslim societies prevent politics from interfering with the purity of Sharia.

“In Malaysia for example, you have a completely different situation.

“Although the majority there is Muslim, the society itself is very cosmopolitan.

“There are a lot of non-Muslims. And of course the country is economically very successful as well. So it has a completely different set of political social and economic dynamics, and they dictate a completely different interpretation of the law.”

A code for living

Applied fully, the Sharia extends well beyond the sphere of criminal justice. It is a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, including prayers, fasting and donations to the poor.

Women must cover themselves, and the sexes are frequently segregated. In effect, the Koran becomes a country’s constitution.

Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara, referring to this wider role of the Sharia, says: “There’ll be no stealing or corruption, and people’s mental and spiritual wellbeing is going to be encouraged.”

But such wellbeing is, of course, open to argument.

Iran’s Shi’ite Islamic revolution in 1979 led the way to a particular version of Sharia to which even many Muslims do not conform. The “Hadd” penal code of unalterable punishments for certain crimes was firmly applied.

And the Sharia’s call for “jihad”—loosely interpreted as Holy War, but which can also be used metaphorically to mean conversion of the unfaithful—was stressed. In Pakistan too, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for Sharia to be made supreme law in 1998.

But to what extent is it—or has it ever been—properly enforced?

Not much, believes Nadeem Kasmi: “It’s really questionable to what extent Sharia as a philosophy is actually applied.

“One could easily argue that in Pakistan—as in other places—it’s applied rather selectively and that certain interpretations are used simply to gain political points on the part of some administrations.

“It’s used willy-nilly, it’s used ad-hoc. And so there is no systematic Sharia law, in the same way as Saudi Arabia or Iran, where there is a Sharia tradition.”

Sharia has been most consistently applied in those societies without a significant non-Muslim population.

It was completely abandoned in Turkey as part of the country’s latter-day secularisation.

Elsewhere, as in partly-Christian Sudan, it has been seen as divisive by those who do not want to conform to an Islamic lifestyle.

And as such, it remains a potent weapon in the hands of those populist Muslim leaders who want to steal a march on their opponents.

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