Lawyer leads talk on the meaning of Sharia

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As a highly accomplished lawyer — and a Muslim woman — Quraishi-Landes’ identity has led her to devote her career to the issues of jurisprudence and the American legal system. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

April 4, students at the College of William and Mary attended a talk entitled “What Sharia Means for American Muslims and American Rule of Law.” The talk was given by professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor of constitutional and Islamic law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

As a highly accomplished lawyer — and a Muslim woman QuraishiLandes identity has led her to devote her career to the issues of jurisprudence and the American legal system. She especially focuses on comparative law and strives to determine how to most meaningfully affect change in the constitutional legal systems of the modern Muslim world.  

Vice Provost for International Affairs and Reves Center Director Steve Hansen introduced Quraishi-Landes and commented on her impressive academic resume before she commenced her lecture. 

QuraishiLandes is a 2009 Carnegie Scholar and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow; those are not easy to get, by the way,Hansen said. “Her current book manuscript is entitled ‘Islamic Reconstitutionalism, in which she proposes a new model of Islamic constitutionalism for today’s Muslim majority countries. 

Quraishi-Landes said that misinformation about Sharia law — religious law informed by Islamic tradition — perpetuates fear when discussing the topic in American contexts. 

…There is a lot of misinformation about Muslims along with the fear that Muslim elected officials are somehow going to infiltrate some foreign law into our system and that they don’t respect the American rule of law.” 

How often do you think Islamic law is going to be a U.S. issue?” Quraishi-Landes said. “The topic of Sharia has come up politically quite a lot lately. It shows up right around election time and in some places, there’s many states that have passed so-called ‘anti-Sharia’ legislation. There is a lot of misinformation about Muslims along with the fear that Muslim elected officials are somehow going to infiltrate some foreign law into our system and that they don’t respect the American rule of law.” 

As these sentiments have become increasingly prominent, QuraishiLandes has sought to educate people on what Sharia actually means. In the dichotomy of the Islamic legal system, the law of the land, or “siyasa, is different from the norms that define people’s values and rituals, or “fiqh.” 

“That distinction is part of the problem in understanding really what Muslims are talking about when they talk about Sharia, because this categorization of Islamic law as law is both over and under-inclusive when talking about Sharia, QuraishiLandes said.  

In Arabic, fiqh means “understanding,” and it serves as an interpretation of the law by Islamic scholars. Due to the multivocal nature of interpretation, there can be countless fiqh understandings which are treated as equally valid. This allows Muslims flexibility in choosing whichever interpretation they desire following. 

 “When people talk about Islamic law, in the context of ‘Oh, Islamic law says this,’ what people are really probably talking about is fiqh, QuraishiLandes said.  

As a constitutional scholar, QuraishiLandes sees Islamic law in Muslim-majority countries as suffering from a lack of creativity in constitutional design 

In modern Muslim-majority states, they haven’t done a lot of creative constitutional thinking,” QuraishiLandes said. They started with the centralized law that was forced onto them by the West and they don’t think much outside of that box when they think about how to bring Sharia back. 

It is due to this consolidation of civil and religious laws that QuraishiLandes sees the modern implementation of Sharia into the legal systems of the Muslim world as fundamentally flawed.  

“Muslim political movements look at the fiqh books and they decide that legislatures and parliaments should legislate fiqh,” QuraishiLandes said. “Sometimes it’s little bits and pieces of different interpreters. The law of the land becomes a weird combination of Western European law mixed with a few pieces of fiqh which is now being enforced by the state on everybody. To me, that is the closest thing to theocracy that the Muslim world has ever seen. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike, a professor of religious studies at the College, explained his perspectives on the proposals set forth by QuraishiLandes in terms of his understanding of Islamic law 

“It seems that the actual construction of the nation state, in particular the modern surveillance state, is incompatible with the diversity of fiqh, and it doesn’t accommodate different ways of life or organizing communities, and yet it seems that for Muslim majority countries the solution would be to go back to siyasa-fiqh, Ogunnaike said.  

Quraishi-Landes said that in a post9/11 world, Sharia law has come under scrutiny within the United States as Islamic laws are viewed by some as a threat to democracy and the American way of life. However, Quraishi-Landes argued that such sentiments could not be further from the truth 

“There is a fear that if you ask an average American Muslim if they follow Sharia, and they say yes, it somehow means that they are not going to adhere to the law of the land,” Quraishi-Landes said. Sharia itself had to deal with the question of Muslims living in non-Muslim societies. There are rules for Muslims on how to live when you’re in a society like that … and the rule is to follow the law of the land that you live in.” 

“There is a fear that if you ask an average American Muslim if they follow Sharia, and they say yes, it somehow means that they are not going to adhere to the law of the land,” Quraishi-Landes said. Sharia itself had to deal with the question of Muslims living in non-Muslim societies. There are rules for Muslims on how to live when you’re in a society like that … and the rule is to follow the law of the land that you live in.” 

Quraishi-Landes then gave examples of how Muslims should act in accordance to Sharia in whichever country they live in. She explained that Muslims should submit to the laws of their land as long as the laws don’t command them to act contrarily to basic beliefs of Islam.  

“For example, a Muslim may not commit hostile acts against the host state and may not commit acts of treachery, deceit, fraud, betrayal or usurpation,” Quraishi-Landes said. A violation of this could be prosecuted in a Muslim territory if one did commit a violation against their Christian host.”  

Quraishi-Landes explained that the idea of Sharia law is misconstrued and misunderstood by individuals who do not follow Sharia law, and who inaccurately believe that followers of Sharia prioritize their faith over any other societal structure. However, Quraishi-Landes argued that this is an incomplete perspective; according to her viewpoints, Sharia law is often set up to work hand-in-hand with one’s host state, and that democracy and Sharia law can work together rather than act as opposing forces.  

The job of the state is to serve the public good, so in my mind, if a state is a democracy, then I, as a Muslim, recognize that my job is to make the state serve the public good as best I can,” Quraishi-Landes said. When I go to the voting booth, my Muslim responsibility is to vote for what’s in the American public good, according to the siyasa structure.” 

As a closing sentiment, Quraishi-Landes showcased meaningful work being done by Muslims in America. Rather than having Sharia codified in American lawbooks, Muslims are working toward the public good by serving their communities as best they can, from Michigan to Quraishi-Landes home of California.   

“Take any public crisis now, you’ll see Muslims coming forward with a way to help solve it,” Quraishi-Landes said. The Muslim communities in Flint organized bottled water drives and are working to de-leadify various things. The collective action case is being led by a Muslim woman lawyer. These are the kinds of things Muslims are doing every day [and] it’s not in the news, but it’s how Muslim Americans behave in reality.”