What exactly is Sharia anyhow? What do Muslims mean when they talk about applying Sharia today? Does a Shaykh addressing an Arabic-speaking audience explain it differently than a Muslim apologist talking to Americans? If so, does that matter?
Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently devoted an entire interview on Al Jazeera TV to this important subject. I would like to summarize what Dr. Qaradawi said, and then add a few comments. For those looking for a quick thirty-second read, I apologize. Dr. Qaradawi is a significant scholar in the Sunni Muslim world, and I want to accurately present what he said and believes.
Moderator Uthman began by quoting from the sura Talaq (Divorce), "These are the Hudud, the set limits of Allah, and anyone who transgresses them harms himself (Quran 65:1). He then posed his first set of questions. Why are people today calling for the application of Sharia? What does that mean? Are the corporal and capital punishments in Sharia relevant today? Can Sharia be applied in Western countries?
For 13 centuries, Dr. Qaradawi responded, Muslims were ruled only by Sharia which can be defined as the judgements of Allah and his Prophet as laid down in the Quran and the Sunnah (the life and teaching of Muhammad). Muftis, judges, and jurists all based their rulings on Sharia. This only changed when 19th century Imperialists entered Muslim countries and replaced Sharia with European law. Since then, Muslim reformers have been calling for the restoration of Sharia. This is to be expected, because Muslims must be governed by the laws that came down from Allah. It is only natural that people today are calling for a return to the rule of Sharia, and we are among those people.
The application of Sharia, however, must be governed by Ijtihad, or creative thought, to determine how it can be enforced today. It would not be helpful to simply take rulings from ancient texts and apply them carte blanche to modern societies. Just as the Ulama, or Muslims scholars, used Ijtihad in the past to determine how to apply Sharia, scholars today must do the same. Sharia is applicable for all societies throughout all time, but the Ulama must engage in Ijtihad to determine exactly how to apply it today. Most Muslim countries today are governed by civil law. This is often compatible with Sharia, with the main difference being that Sharia incorporates the corporal and capital punishments represented by Qisas and Hudud. Qisas is the element of recompense, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and Hudud refers to the limits determined by Allah beyond which which physical punishment is required.
Sharia, continued Dr. Qaradawi, cannot be divided up into sections with some accepted and others rejected. If we are going to apply Sharia, we must apply it all. The controversial elements of Sharia, those of Qisas and Hudud, are contained in the final revelations of Allah to his Prophet (comment: the later suras of the Quran, in Islamic theology, are considered the most important because many of the earlier suras were abrogated or cancelled out by later revelations).
There are five rulings in the Quran that include corporal and capital punishment, including one for Qisas and four for Hudud. The text about Qisas is in Baqarah (Quran 2:178), which stipulates that a murderer is to be killed unless the family of the victim is willing to accept blood-money instead of the life of the killer.
The four rulings for Hudud are sex between unmarried people, falsely accusing women of immorality, opposing Allah and his Prophet, and theft. Sura Nur (Quran 24:2) states that unmarried people who engage in sexual activity, or Zina, are each to be flogged 100 times. The same sura (Quran 24:4) declares that men who falsely accuse chaste women of immorality are to be flogged 80 times. Sura Maidah rules that those who "wage war against Allah and his messenger and do mischief in the land" (Quran 5:33) are to have their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides. The final Quranic ruling, which is from the same chapter, states that both male and female thieves are to have their right hands amputated (Quran 5:38).
These few verses, however, represent only a small part of Sharia. There are thousands of verses in the Quran that lay out the way Allah commands people to live (comment: the literal meaning of Sharia is "the path Allah intends people to follow"). Sharia includes religious, civil, moral, cultural, and commercial rulings. It governs personal, family, national, and international relations. All of these are included under the rubric of "Sharia Law".
At this point in the interview, a viewer noted that videos splashed across Youtube and the Internet showing hands and heads flying off were giving "enemies of Islam" ammunition to attack Allah's religion. Isn't there a problem, the viewer asked, with the literal application of the Hudud of Islam?
The problem, replied Shaykh Qaradawi, is that the Hudud are being enforced before the conditions for their application are met. The first goal of Muslims is to establish true Islam, and then they can apply Sharia with the Hudud. Muhammad fully established Islam in Medina, with its rules for social and economic justice, before ruling the hands of thieves were to be cut off. The Quran states in 2:43 that "prayers are to be conducted and charity is to be given" in the Muslim society, and this refers to establishing true Islam. If this is done in equity, with money taken from the rich and given to the poor, and opportunities for employment given to all, there will be no need for the thief to steal. When a wealthy merchant informed the Caliph Umar that he wanted to cut off the hand of his slave because the slave had stolen his camel, Umar replied, "Had you properly fed and cared for your slave, he would not have needed to steal your camel. Go and meet his needs as his master, or I'll cut off your hand!" Islamic justice must first be established in Muslim countries, and then the Hudud can be applied.
Dr. Qaradawi followed this with an anecdote from an eighth century scholar in Basra, Iraq, named Imam Hasan al-Basri. During one of Hasan's sermons, a clamor arose in the street. When Hasan asked what the noise was about, he was informed that a thief had been arrested. Hasan commented, "So the thief who steals secretly (the government official) has arrested the thief who stole openly." Corrupt businessmen today, noted Qaradawi, who are close to Arab rulers and who steal millions from the national treasury are not prosecuted, whereas an unemployed laborer who steals to feed his family is punished.
It is also important, added Shaykh Qaradawi, to be sure that the accused really is guilty before applying the punishments of Hudud. For the ruler to err by granting pardon to a guilty man is better than his erring by punishing a man who was in fact innocent.
"That all sounds fine," responded moderator Uthman, "But are Sharia and the Hudud really applicable in the 21st century?"
Scholars have argued across the centuries, replied Dr. Qaradawi, whether Allah ordained the Hudud as a deterrent to crime or a purification for crimes committed. In reality they are both. They are a purification and a motivation for the individual who has been punished not to repeat his crime, and they provide a deterrent to others who see the severe punishment meted out upon the criminal. Some people argue that the Hudud of Sharia are overly severe, but what is the alternative? The alternative in civil law is imprisonment, but in reality prison is neither a deterrent nor a punishment. Many thieves who go to prison are released only to repeat their crimes. Even worse, they meet criminals in prison who teach them to become experts in crime. The individual with a high school education in crime gets his BA in prison, and the criminal with a BA gets his PhD! They meet people in prison with 50 years of criminal experience, and learn all the tricks of the trade. The thief who goes to prison because he stole a sheep learns how to steal the whole herd.
The Islamic law of corporal punishment is more severe, but more effective. The basic principle is that the individual must know that if he or she commits the crime the punishment will follow. The Caliph Umar said, "The punishment is only to be given to the person who knew it was coming." If the society does not know the difference between what is Hilal and Haram (right and wrong) in Islam, society must be taught.
Many people do not understand the principle behind the Hudud. They think, for example, that a man who commits fornication should be punished. But Sharia states that he is only to be punished if he does this flagrantly and openly with four witnesses. If a man commits fornication privately and seeks Allah's forgiveness, he does not need to be punished. But if there are four witnesses who testify before a judge that the man committed fornication, he is to be lashed. This is the punishment for a man who has sex with an unmarried woman; if she is married and there are four witnesses they are to be stoned to death.
When Islam has been established in the society, the rules of Hudud are to be strictly enforced. After the Prophet established Islam in Arabia, he commanded that a woman from the Beni Makhzum tribe should have her hand cut off because she had stolen. Her tribe sent spokesman Usamah bin Zayid to plead for mercy for her. Muhammad became angry and demanded, "Are you asking me not to apply the punishment that Allah has commanded? Are we to perish like those before us, who punished only the weak and did not punish the strong? I swear by Allah that if my own daughter Fatimah committed theft, I myself would cut off her hand."
The moderator next asked if the rulings for Hudud were only in the Quran, or were also found in other sources. Dr. Qaradawi replied that many were also located in the Hadith and the Sunnah, the sayings and life examples of Muhammad. The difference is that punishments not specified in the Quran are open to Ijtihad. As an example, the Quran forbids the drinking of alcohol, but does not specify the punishment for imbibing. Some scholars ruled that the punishment for drinking alcohol was 80 lashes, but others said 60 and still others 40. Some scholars, on the other hand, believe that the punishment for drinking alcohol should be merely a slap or a fine.
Capital punishment for the crime of Ridda, or leaving Islam, is also specified not in the Quran but in the Sunnah. Many people know the Hadith narrated by Ikrima, "The Prophet said, If a Muslim leaves Islam, kill him," but there are many similar Hadiths. Abdallah narrated, "The blood of a Muslim can only be shed in three cases: if they commit murder, adultery, or leave Islam."
Abu Musa recounted that after Muhammad sent him to Yemen as a governor, the Prophet sent Muadh bin Jabal to assist him in his duties. As Muadh rode into Abu Musa's court, he saw a man bound hand and foot as a prisoner. Before Muadh dismounted from his horse, he inquired why the man was bound and was informed he was a Jew who had become a Muslim and then left Islam. Muadh refused to get off his horse until the man was killed, saying, "I will not sit with you until he is killed in accordance with the decree of Allah and his Apostle." Only after he was killed would Muadh dismount and sit with Abu Musa.
The Quran also indicates the death penalty is to be applied for those who leave Islam, said Dr. Qaradawi. Sura Maidah (Quran 5:54) says that if Muslims leave Islam, Allah himself will bring people to fight against them. The meaning of this verse is that Ridda is to be resisted in the strongest possible terms, especially when it is a community or society that is turning away from Islam.
The interview concluded with Dr. Qaradawi giving his opinion on various details of Hudud; should the hand of a thief be cut off at the wrist or the elbow? The Shaykh says it is the wrist.
1. A professor I had years ago used to say, "Consistency, thou art a jewel!" If nothing else, Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is consistent. Unlike most Muslim apologists in the West, he does not water down his message to meet the expectations and assuage the concerns of his audience. With Shaykh Qaradawi, what you see is what you get.
2. His message is not only consistent, it is also perfectly logical if you accept his basic presupposition that Allah revealed his perfect and final revelation to Muhammad. If that is true, then whatever Allah told Muhammad is as relevant and applicable today as it was in Medina 1400 years ago.
3. The argument of Muslims in the West (as well as the Archbishop of Canberbury) that parts of Sharia can be adapted to Western civilization while other aspects can be rejected makes no sense in light of Qaradawi's primary argument. If Sharia is from Allah, his followers do not have the right to pick and choose what they want while rejecting the rest.
4. Western Muslim apologists often deny that Islam calls for the death penalty for those who leave Islam, as well as the stoning of married people who commite adultery. Based on the texts provided by Dr. Qaradawi, I don't think these apologists are telling the truth.
4. Media commentators have recently mocked the voters of Oklahoma for voting not to apply Sharia law in any form in their state. In the context of how Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi interprets Islam and Sharia, my opinion is that those voters probably made a pretty good choice.