Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised World.

Date22 March 2020
AuthorShah-Kazemi, Sonia-Nurin

Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised World

Raficq S Abdulla & Mohamed M Keshavjee London, UK: IB Tauris in association with The Institute of Isntaili Studies, 2018

Reviewed by Sonia-Nurin Shah-Kazemi (*)

These days, there are no dying embers in the flames of intolerance and fanaticism. Keying into Google "Sharia law in Canada" will immediately bring up hits fulminating against sharia and calling for it to be "banned" in Canada--as if it were ever "established" in Canada in the first place. In a news report a few weeks before the federal election in October 2019, Nicole Bogart from CTV News wrote:

[O]ver the last week, several memes suggesting that one of Trudeau's "unwritten promises" upon re-election would be to introduce Sharia law have been shared on right-wing social media accounts, garnering hundreds of shares. In fact, a search for the terms "Justin Trudeau" and "Sharia law" on Twitter returns thousands of results, a large number of which accuse the Liberal leader of being a "closeted Muslim" and placing Sharia law above Canadian law. (1) News agencies and sites such as Snopes debunk fake stories concerning the sharia every few months: "'One of the most striking things about the stories about Muslims and sharia law and Islam in general is how persistent the misinformation is'", as Brooke Binkowski, an editor at Snopes, noted. (2) ""The same exact stories get circulated with different names and slightly different details, every few months. If you look at some of the stories we've done you can probably see some of the updates to them, indicating how often they resurface. They are nasty and pernicious.'" (3)

We need no further justification for the book Understanding Sharia: Islamic Law in a Globalised World or the importance of reading it. (4) Does the book answer all our questions? Could any one volume cover subjects such as jurisprudence, the historical development of public and private law, and modern post-colonial discourse and political analysis, as well as current movements for social and global advancement? Well, this book does try to do just that, and, on the whole, it succeeds in delineating the contours for debate, further analysis, and more extensive research. In that sense, it is a remarkable book because it could be presented as essential reading on any undergraduate law course (or indeed within the entire law faculty); equally, the book should be found thumbed at the journalist's desk. One journalist from the British newspaper, the Financial Times, David Gardner, reviewed the book. (5) In response to his review, one of our "educated" Financial Times readers immediately wrote, "So Mr Gardner joins the Defenders of Islam brigade. Who needs to read this book when a 2 week holiday in Saudi will teach you everything you need to know." (6) Another replied, "Sharia is incompatible with secular democracy, and thus is an enemy of the west.... Anyone who thinks Sharia can exist as a shadow system of law in the west is at best a dangerous fool, at worse a spineless traitor." (7)

Use of the emotionally laden word "traitor" exposes the degree to which this debate is fraught with emotion; it seems to elicit responses that question the very nature of western identity, going to the heart of who "we" are. And while emotional responses are not illegitimate in themselves, emotions need to be processed in accordance with facts, so as to avoid a "'bilious reaction to undigested information'". (8) Another response from the Financial Times, which I cannot help citing here, is "the trouble with the Sharia is its rules about women, about non-muslims, about homosexuals, about apostasy, about inheritance, about marriage, about divorce, about parental authority, about certain criminal penalties, about witnesses and many other subjects. These rules are simply not compatible with modern Western societies." (9) But that is what Raficq Abdulla and Mohamed Keshavjee set out to do: demonstrate that the essential aims and values of the sharia, applied with "a new epistemology", are compatible with modern western societies. (10)

It is a very tall order, and the book is logically obliged to start at the beginning. The introduction states that it is a question of "presenting different perspectives rather than prescriptive answers", (11) and that there is "no single monolithic understanding of Sharia followed by all Muslims". (12) With that in mind, the book is comprehensive; it sets out the historical development of the sharia (including a helpful glossary), whilst at the same time informing us about important contemporary debates. In this sense, the book is remarkably informative, signposting many trajectories of modern scholarship and trends in the field, and citing a host of authors spanning the political spectrum. This is amply apparent from the blurbs on the back cover of the book; the fact that both Dr. Maulana Shahid Raza (a traditional imam) and Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini (a feminist academic) endorse the book gives us much cause for hope!

The first four chapters do more than set the scene. There are many medieval manuals of Islamic law which have been translated, and there are modern texts which...

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