Islamic Democracy

Reviewed by Geneive Abdo
Sunday, July 27, 2008


By Noah Feldman | Princeton Univ. 189 pp. $22.95


Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im | Harvard Univ. 324 pp. $35

For more than 20 years, Islamists in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and other Muslim countries have campaigned for popular support by presenting sharia, or Islamic law, as the antidote to authoritarian rule, injustice and repression.

Westerners often wonder how Muslims possibly can believe such claims. We recall the Taliban blowing up ancient statues and preventing girls from going to school in Afghanistan. We think of authorities in Saudi Arabia and Iran cutting off hands for theft and stoning women to death for adultery.

Now two distinguished American legal scholars have published books that reflect these sharply contrasting views of Islamic law. One argues that sharia, properly understood and fairly administered, could be a constructive way for religion to find its place in a modern Muslim state. The other says the imposition of sharia by state authorities is inherently repressive and contrary to the Koran's insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam; he urges Muslims to see a secular state as the best guarantor of freedom for people of all faiths.

In an apparent role reversal that may surprise readers, it is Noah Feldman, a Jewish professor at Harvard Law School, who attests to the virtues of sharia, while Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Sudanese-born Muslim professor at Emory University School of Law, warns of its dangers.

Yet their positions are not so unexpected to anyone familiar with their careers. Feldman is known for helping to draft an interim constitution for Iraq and for arguing that an Islamic state is, at least in theory, compatible with democracy. An-Na'im is an independent-minded intellectual who has raised sensitive issues (such as his belief that interpretations of sharia have led to discrimination against non-Muslim minorities in the Arab world) that many Muslims and their advocates would prefer to keep out of public debate.

Both authors help to explain why sharia, which developed during the early years of the Islamic period, from the 7th to the 13th century, is so appealing to Muslims in the modern world, and both attempt to define sharia in all its complexities and ambiguities. Correcting a common misperception, Feldman and An-Na'im agree that the word doesn't refer simply to a body of medieval Islamic laws. Sharia, Arabic for "path," is a broad moral compass, a collection of principles to lead Muslims toward a sacred life. Sharia is also believed to be divinely inspired, since it derives from the Koran and hadiths, the oral sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Muslims today fiercely debate whose opinions count in interpreting sharia, with some of the sharpest conflicts occurring over gender inequality. It is nearly impossible, for example, for a woman to initiate a divorce without suffering severe financial penalties in most countries where sharia is the guide for family courts. Many Muslim women believe this law is pre-modern and are working to alter it through their legislatures, but many (male) religious scholars oppose legislation that would change the traditional understanding.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company