Sharia law: is it brutal or just misunderstood?

Aug 23, 2010
David Cairns

Briefing: Reports of two shocking judgments have put Sharia law in the dock again. So, what is it?

Two harsh court judgments made in Muslim countries – with a Saudi judge asking a hospital to paralyse a man and a Taliban tribunal ordering the execution of a pregnant widow for infidelity – are just the latest cases to bring Sharia law to world

Amnesty International on Saturday urged the Saudi judge not to impose a punishment requested by the victim of an attack involving a meat cleaver. Left paralysed, the victim, seeking "an eye for an eye", had asked that his attacker be sentenced to paralysis – and the court is understood to have contacted hospitals asking if it was technically possible.

Earlier this month, an equally shocking report emerged from Afghanistan. A 35-year-old woman, Bibi Sanubar, died after being shot three times in the head by a Taliban commander. She had earlier been lashed 200 times in public. Her crime was adultery – despite the fact that her husband was long dead.

These latest reports come two years after the Archbishop of Canterbury provoked controversy by saying it was "inevitable" that Sharia law would one day be integrated into the UK.

WHAT IS SHARIA?The word derives from archaic Arabic, meaning "the clear path to the watering hole". As these words – which might be paraphrased as "the right way" - suggest, it is broader than just a legal system.

Rather, Sharia is a set of precepts governing every aspect of a Muslim's life. Islam sees no separation between law and religion or between church and state.

A judge in a Sharia court is also a religious leader and he may make pronouncements on any aspect of life as well as rulings in criminal cases and civil disputes.

WHO MAKES THE RULES? The ultimate source of Sharia is the Koran, which most Muslims believe to be the infallible word of God as it was revealed to Mohammed. Also important is the Sunnah, a collection of sayings by - and stories about the life of - that prophet.

But, of course, the Koran and Sunnah do not cover every possible eventuality. For instance, Mohammed clearly proscribed alcohol – but had nothing to say about drug use. For this reason, Sharia judges often appeal to secondary sources: case histories and previous pronouncements by Imams, known as fatwas.

WHAT ARE FATWAS? A fatwa is an opinion given by a religious figure. Different Islamic states have different views on the extent to which they must be obeyed.

Earlier this month, the king of Saudi Arabia decreed that from now on the only scholars allowed to issue fatwas will be those given the royal stamp of approval. This was an attempt either to bring order to a chaotic system or to stamp out freedom of thought and action – depending on your point of view.

In any case it may halt the tide of 'joke fatwas' – attention-seeking, outlandish rulings on bizarre issues. One Saudi imam recently ruled that an adult man can be considered to be a woman's son if she breast feeds him.

DOES SHARIA DIFFER FROM COUNTRY TO COUNTRY? While the fundamental sources of judgments – the Koran and the Sunnah – remain broadly the same, the extent to which Sharia is applied differs widely.

Saudi Arabia and Iran rely on their Sharia courts for all legal judgments – but other Middle Eastern and north African
countries allow them only to handle marital and inheritance law.

Some Muslim countries – including Indonesia and Turkey – have declared themselves secular and maintain only a few Sharia provisions in family law.

IS SHARIA LAW OPERATING IN THE UK? Yes – both unofficially and officially. Many British Muslims resolve disputes relating to financial or family matters by
consulting unofficial Sharia courts across the country. 

But Sharia courts have also been put on an official footing by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which operates under the 1996 arbitration act. Its rulings on subjects such as inheritance and neighbour disputes can be enforced in both county courts and the High Court, if both parties submit to its judgment.

WHAT PUNISHMENTS ARE PRESCRIBED BY SHARIA? Best-known in the West, perhaps, is the Sharia penalty for theft, which comes directly from the Koran. A convicted thief's hands can be amputated – if several other requirements are met, for example that the theft must not be a product of hunger or necessity.

Married men or women who commit adultery can be sentenced to death by stoning in accordance with the Sunnah – but, again, several requirements must be met, including that four witnesses must have seen the act take place. The Koran says that unmarried people should be punished with 100 lashes.

Converting to another religion, described as apostasy, is also punishable by death under most – but not all – interpretations of Sharia.

IS SHARIA LAW BRUTAL? Apologists for Sharia often claim the media seizes only on cases where it has been misapplied or misunderstood by the judges enforcing it. Judges should take mitigating circumstances into account, show mercy and follow the letter of the Koran and Sunnah.

But, just as under British law some judges are overly strict or make rogue judgments, not all Sharia courts deliver reasonable verdicts. The situation is clouded by the lack of a canonical charter of law: the bulk of Sharia is essentially a wide and diffuse body of opinion – and many, many different interpretations are possible in every case.

But the fact remains that some of the fundamental prescriptions of Sharia are illiberal and at odds with secular Western society. Then again, so is the death penalty - and the USA executed 52 people last year.

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