Perhaps no word in today’s political and multicultural lexicon is as explosive and fraught with meaning as shari’a. Many equate the term with terrorism and religious tyranny, while others view it as the only key to justice and rule of law in the Muslim world. Few can argue, however, that the rise of political Islam and calls for the establishment of an Islamic state pose a challenge for the United States and the West. What then is shari’a, and does it have a place in a modern and democratic world?
On May 29th, the Saban Center hosted Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at Harvard University, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and author of the new book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State; and Lama Abu-Odeh, Professor of Law at Georgetown University and a renowned authority on Islamic history and law.
Feldman began by arguing that the classical Islamic constitutional order accorded very closely to the modern understanding of the rule of law. He highlighted the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early-20th century, when law was codified and the traditional role of the ulemaa as a check on the government disappeared, as the beginning of the Arab (and broader Muslim) world’s descent into authoritarianism. Finally, he argued that the rising call for shari’a by Islamist groups is not a call for theocracy and a return to the 7th century, but rather for democratization and a constitutional system that uses the classical Islamic constitutional order as its primary source. Essentially, he concluded, the rising appeal for a return to shari’a is in fact a call for the re-emergence of the rule of law. It is this difference in interpretation, he argued, that is lost on many in the West
Abu-Odeh began her lively critique by situating Feldman in what she called the “liberal, multicultural center” of Islamic law scholarship, whereas she placed herself in the “secular, nationalist left.” She then argued that the rise of authoritarianism in the Muslim world cannot be easily explained away by the erosion of the influence of the ulemaa, as it implies a causality that ignores several historical, economic and cultural factors. She went on to argue that she sees an inherent contradiction between Feldman’s claim that the demise of the ulemaa led to the demise of the Islamic identity, while simultaneously encouraging readers to pay attention to the contemporary Islamists as a source of Islamic identity.