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
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
“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
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
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.