Sharia’s Incompatibility with Western Values, Explained

Everything you need to know.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | July 25, 2016

The idea that the West is in a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world is one that has been propounded by well established scholars. Indeed, a scholar no less than Bernard Lewis, the widely regarded doyen of Islamic studies, is the progenitor of the idea that Western civilization is in a clash with Islamic civilization (he seems to have first used the phrase in an article published in 1990 by the Atlantic, entitled, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”

The late Samuel Huntington, a professor of Political Science at Colombia University, acknowledging his indebtedness to Lewis, later popularized the idea in his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Making of the New World Order.[2] The clash thesis has had sophisticated defenders; it cannot simply be dismissed as a byproduct of Islamophobic bigotry perpetuated by ignorance—at least not without argument.

In what follows, I will argue that there is indeed a clash between Islamic and Western civilization, between plausibly Islamic principles (and not just ‘radical’ Islamic principles) and Western principles.[3]

Evaluating whether or not mainstream Islam, as represented by the earliest Islamic source texts, is incompatible with Western values, almost invariably elicits passionate responses—especially if the evaluator(s) conclude(s) that the two value systems are indeed incompatible. Words like “Islamophobic” and “xenophobe,” “bigot,” and “racist” are subsequently thrown around; emotions fly high. However, this topic, of vital importance for national security, requires a dispassionate analysis of the evidence. As the well-known conservative pundit Ben Shapiro is fond of saying: facts don’t care about your feelings.

We must set aside our passions and look at the historical evidence as objectively as we can– of course, all the while bearing in mind that no historical researcher can attain complete objectivity.

The ancient books of antiquity say what they say. No modern scholar, no matter what his/her agenda or desires, can go back in time and change what is contained in the early Islamic sources. As the saying goes, the past is history. So let us look at the past, specifically the medieval past, to discern whether Sharia really is incompatible with the liberal democratic principles of the West.

What is Sharia?

Because of the flurry of recent Islamist terror attacks, the term “sharia” is frequently bandied about in the media today. It is therefore necessary to get clear on what is meant by the term. Contrary to what Islamic law professor Quraishi-Landes has stated, the Arabic word “sharia” (شريعة) does mean Islamic law; it comes from the triliteral root, sh-r-a (شرع), which means “to legislate.” This can be readily gleaned from a quick consultation of the most renowned Modern and Classical Arabic-English dictionaries and lexicons.[4]

Sharia has incontrovertibly been understood to mean Islamic law by Muslim ulema (religious scholars) for centuries. So what exactly is sharia or Islamic law?

Well, although definitions vary and we cannot hope for precision here, it is basically the Muslim jurisprudents’ reasoned and regimented codification of what is found in the Qur’an and the Sunna (the way of Muhammad). The sources for the latter include ahadeeth (purported sayings of Muhammed), the earliest tafaseer (Qur’anic exegetical works), and siyar (biographies of Muhammad). The sharia more or less represents what Muslim fuqaha (jurisprudents) have achieved a consensus on vis-a-vis the mandates that are found in the Qur’an and the Sunna.[5] In other words, sharia or Islamic law is merely the regimentation of the voluminous material that is found in the Qur’an and the relatively early ahadeeth, tafaseer, and siyar.

Second, sharia is different from many laws in so far as it legislates a comprehensive way of life. It is not to be compared with something like Catholic canon law, a comparison Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, makes. Catholic canon is not meant to govern all the occurrences of daily life; it is largely relegated to what we Westerners would normally think of as the religious sphere.

Sharia, on the other hand, is meant to encompass all aspects of life, that is, the religious as well as the secular spheres. Umdat as-Salik, or The Reliance of the Traveller, an authoritative manual of Shafi’i jurisprudence written in the 14th century by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, is unequivocal here,[6] pointing out that “the source of legal rulings for all acts of those who are morally responsible is Allah [emphasis added].”[7]

Sharia is supposed to be an architectonic system comprising all ways of life. That this is so is evident from a cursory perusal of the canonical ahadeeth, which cover everything from usury, to how you are supposed to greet someone, to what you should say before copulation, to which foot one is supposed to enter the restroom with first. As Sharia: The Threat to America concludes, “the sharia system is totalitarian. It imposes itself on all aspects of civil society and human life, both public and private.[8]” The late Abu A’la Maududi, an influential 20th century Pakistani and Islamist thinker, concurs, stating that sharia’s rulings encompass

family relationships, social and economic affairs, administration, rights and duties of citizens, judicial system, laws of war and peace and international relations. In short, it embraces all the various departments of human life … The Sharia is a complete scheme of life and an all-embracing social order where nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking.[9]

Third, Sharia is not infinitely malleable. Of course, there  is a wide variety of different regimentations of what is found in the early Islamic source texts,  hence different interpretations of what constitutes authentic sharia. However, the plausibility of interpretations are naturally bound by the contents of the early Islamic sources, which function as the basis of sharia. So contrary to what some apologists of Islam say, sharia is not so fluid and multifaceted that it defies categorization.

Fourth, what is represented in the early Islamic source texts is Islam as it is traditionally understood. Henceforth, by “Islam” I mean those sets of doctrines that are expressed in the early Islamic sources mentioned earlier. Furthermore, when one is talking about what Islam teaches, one is a-fortiori talking about what Sharia teaches (since the latter is rooted in the former).