A Little More (Actually Quite a Bit More) on Shari'ah

I got some fairly interesting feedback, via e-mail, from the post on Shari'ah law earlier this week. I've pulled out two of them--one from an African-American Muslim woman and another from a lawyer who studied in Cairo--after the jump. I considered dropping the issue, as I felt the last discussion fell down on a lack of collective trust. I'm hoping we can try again here, by using the thoughts of some folks more knowledgeable then me as a springboard.

My only request is that we all think before we publish our comments. If something you read pisses you off, consider walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes. I understand the need for cathartic anger, and there are places for that. This, unfortunately, isn't really one of them

Here's the first:

Whenever these types of questions come up, I am usually quite conflicted. I am a Muslim, and one of those Muslims who tries fairly hard to live my life according to the principles of my faith. I am also African American, and a woman. 

In terms of shari'ah law, at least in theory, I generally believe that it is a valid system of law that has quite a bit to offer to the world. It's not for everybody, but that's not the point. Just like systems of law and various legal philosophies the world over, one can find wisdom and value in Islamic law that broadens our perspectives as human beings, even if we are not about to adopt the system wholesale for ourselves. It's just unfortunate that discussions about all things Islam most often either expose deep ignorance and prejudice (even on the part of many "liberals"), and/or degenerate into the latest round of the raging culture war. 

I find that most discussions of Islam in this part of the world are framed exclusively around questions of politics, as if that is all there is to life--world politics or gender politics--and with those blinders on we just continue to perpetuate the stupidity. Case in point: the example given on the blog from the article about the sons getting twice the share of the daughters. In general that is true--but a critical point that is left out is that by shari'ah, men are obligated to support their female relatives and women are not. A man is absolutely responsible for the financial maintenance of his wife (even if she makes more money than he does), and he is also obligated to support any of his female relatives that need it (his mother if she is needy, unmarried daughters, etc). Now in most cases a woman who makes her own money will contribute to the upkeep of her home and family, but the law does not require her to do so in the same what that it holds a man responsible for this. 

Under the same shari'ah law, a woman can take her husband to court for not providing financially for her needs--but he could not do the same to her. Now, from a different perspective, one may question the need for that type of gender categorization, but that's a separate debate. At the very least, if we're trying to understand how this operates, it's important to have a complete picture of how things work rather than taking isolated snippets and severing them from the total context--and then reinforcing our preconceptions based on half of the information. 

 On top of that, there are people in the Muslim world who do incredibly stupid and backward things in the name of Islam and shari'ah, which shari'ah expressly forbids. The reasons behind this are varied, and too complicated to really go into in great detail here. But you have a number of factors generally: the "Muslim world" is not, as a rule, producing the number or quality of religious scholars as it has in past generations; the incredible diversity in the worldwide Muslim population contributes to many differing interpretations of the law, contact with colonialism and a world that has continued to change very rapidly has created some unique dilemmas, and so forth. These are very broad generalizations, of course, but I think are useful starting points from which to begin to think about some of these issues. 

Here's a second:

This is the important thing to know: Islamic societies are often as different from Western societies as Western societies are from nineteenth century China. In its IDEAL realization, every facet of life is centered on, revolves around, or is aimed at the mosque. Want to get a job? Ask at the mosque. Want clean drinking water? In many places, the mosque is the only place. Old, lame, homeless, or hungry? Hang out at the mosque and you'll get support. Need to buy anything? Go to the market . . . which is physically leaning against the mosque. Why? Because when merchants needs something settled, they got to the Imam, who is a trusted party and judge. 

Surveying some land or a road? Square up on the mosque. Need to schedule a meeting? "I'll meet you right after the Maghrib (afternoon prayer)." Need an education? Algebra wasn't invented by a guy named 'Al,' you know. Mosques have been educating people from reading, writing, and 'rithmatic all the way to law school centuries. Want to meet your friends for dinner? Those minarets make a great reference spot. And besides, there might be, for lack of a better term, a back-yard cookout with free/cheap food. Need some advice? The Imam will give it to you if you can find him, or you can just talk to the people you meet at the mosque. Want to meet good, marriageable partners? You'll probably see them headed to the mosque anyway. And so on. This creates a strong, strong communitarian streak in the Islamic communities I have seen. Everyone's well-being is everyone's responsibility. 

The mosque is the center of the community in a way that is not comparable to any institution in the West, at any time in its history. And no, even in the dark ages, the Church was balanced by feudal lords who held tremendous economic and military power. All of the Imams, jurists, and so on that I have met understand this community weight and take it very seriously. Have you ever seen an Imam tell a joke? Much of their day is about solving the problems of their parishioners: so-and-so never seems to be able to keep a job. Let's pair him with X, who did such a good job mentoring the last layabout kid. Mr. Z has a mean streak and won't stop beating his wife and kids, no matter what I say or how much help and shame he is given; its time to talk to Mrs. Z about a divorce. And when am I going to come up with a history lesson for the kids, Inshallah? 

The Imam interprets precedent (just like our judges!) to the best of his training, prejudice, and ability. So, why would a woman prefer to go the Mosque? Because that is where the community solves its problems. Ideally, all of them. Will they be solved there? I don't know. Depends on the people involved. Why would she enter a system where she knows she will get 1/3 the share of her brother? Because the Islamic community she lives in has a duty to care for her in ways that extend past money, and she will typically marry/re-marry anyhow.

The scholars I learned from said that any Imam worth his salt would ensure the women get a home (and thus not be cast out) and the men get the cash (so as to make their way in the world). Her brothers are afforded much less care, and so get a larger share. Going through the English or American system would net her more, but her community would see that as simple greed. 

All that being said: the practice of Islamic Jurisprudence is very different across the world. Islam and Sharia in Pakistan are different from that of Beirut, Riyadh, Dearborn, and Singapore. In the 1500s, Cairo was a renown center of Jewish learning. As was multi-cultural Cordoba. For each Afghanistan, there is a Singapore success story. When it works, it works well; well enough that there isn't a torrent of converts other cultures and faiths. 

This highlights an important fact: a system of laws is only as good as the people want it to be. White Southerners found ways to deny blacks their civil rights for decades, while white Northerners, looking at the same rules, generally did not. It took the combined effort of the civil rights movement, the constitution, the media, and all three branches of government to kill Jim Crow. 

The Muftis at al-Azhar are alarmed at the quality of the students they see who want to be Imams; it seems that most of the smart kids these days are going off to be engineers so that they can work for Western companies. The system is designed to promote fraternity, mutual respect, love, and community. The English courts trust this community, or are at least willing to see if it can produce positive results on its own terms. Imams interpret their precedents to the best of their training, ability, and prejudice, as our judges do.

There it is. The brain-drain question hinted at the end is interesting. I don't know much about it, but would love to read more.

Again, try to keep your heads guys.