For critics of Islam,'sharia' becomes shorthand for extremism

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 5:36 PM

Protesters of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero waved signs there Sunday with a single word: sharia.

Their reference to Islam's guiding principles has become a rallying cry for those critical of Islam, who use the word to conjure images of public stonings and other extreme forms of punishment in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan and argue that those tenets are somehow gaining a foothold in the United States.

Blogs with names such as Creeping Sharia and Stop Shariah Now are proliferating. A pamphlet for a "tea party" rally last weekend in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., asked: "Why do Muslims want to take over the world and place us under Shariah law?" Former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich amplified that point in a much-publicized speech a few weeks ago, exploring what he calls "the problem of creeping sharia."

The fact that the word has become akin to a slur in some camps is an alarming development to many religious and political leaders. "We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion," Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, said in a statement this month signed by 40 national religious leaders.

Sharia in Arabic means "way" or "path." Muslims agree that sharia is God's law, but there is little consensus on the particulars. To some, sharia is a set of rules that are codified and unchanging. To others, it's a collection of religious principles that shift over time.

Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and spokesman of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America, describes Muslims as being divided into two camps: "Those who see sharia mandating that we live as Muslims did 1,300 years ago, and those who say sharia doesn't have a specific format as to how you live your life, that Islam gives you paradigms."

This question of how to define sharia has become a more urgent issue for Muslims around the world in recent decades as, according to some estimates, one-third of them live outside Muslim-majority countries for the first time in history. Conferences are held where scholars debate what it means for a government or a person to be "sharia-compliant."

Imam Feisal Rauf, a Sufi Muslim who is spearheading the controversial mosque center, runs something called the _blankShariah Index Project, which seeks to create a more progressive benchmark for measuring the "Islamicity" of a state. Daisy Khan, Rauf's wife, said the couple believe the word "sharia" primarily refers to several broad principles called "maqasid sharia," which include the protection of life, property and religion, among others. These principles are believed to be the foundation of the faith.

Others say "sharia" refers to the specific words of the Koran (Muslims' holy book of God's revelation passed orally to the prophet Muhammad) as well as all the hadith, which are the actions and statements attributed to Muhammad that have been passed down, analyzed, interpreted (and sometimes tossed out) over the for centuries.

Many of the harshest, most controversial writings are in the hadith, such as those giving lower status to non-Muslims and mandates to stone adulterers (including a much-publicized stoning this month in Afghanistan, meted out by the Taliban). Muslims have debated their accuracy for centuries.

Another key source is fiqh, the collection of opinions scholars have written to determine how the will of God can be carried out in daily life. Some people include all fiqh as well when they refer to "sharia" or "Islamic law."

Daniel Pipes, a conservative Middle East scholar controversial for his focus on extremism among Muslims, said sharia refers to something "enormously specific," which he compared to the U.S. Constitution. The danger, he said, is when Muslims "want to implement sharia in every detail on everyone in a stringent way."

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