When we in the West think of the term “Sharia Law”, we think of things such as, capital punishment by decapitation for blasphemers, chopping off of hands of thieves, or the stoning of an unfaithful wife. For this reason we tend to be incredulous when the populaces of Muslim countries, including the women, protest, demonstrate, or vote in favor of it. As with all things related to Islam, the image of the West, and especially of America, is skewed by media coverage and relentless visual images.
Muslims understand Sharia differently. The prophetic passion of Mohammed for living a life worthy of the great and merciful Creator, and the key elements of the heart of Sharia law are beautifully described by Sadakat Kadri in his extremely entertaining and riveting book, Heaven on Earth, A Journey Through Sharia Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World:
Whereas Meccans seem to have believed that life after death differed little from life before it, Mohammed began to warn that a great reckoning awaited everyone and that earthly deeds carried eternal consequences. In his telling, God was about to snuff out his stars and set seas boiling, and as creation shuddered to a close, trumpet blasts were going to wake all the dead there had ever been. There would then be a time at which commendable deeds would be weighed against sins – the Final Hour – and all the signs suggested that Meccans were in line for scorching winds, molten brass, and unquenchable hellfire.
The apocalyptic vision was informed by solid moral arguments. The world into which Mohammed had been born was so stratified that clans did not even intermarry, while women were chattels and slaves bore a shameful status that lasted through generations. Vengeance was as valued as mercy was considered weak, and though the Meccans venerated three goddesses, the birth of an actual girl was so inauspicious that custom allowed for female infanticide. Against that backdrop, Mohammed had begun to claim that his followers were morally equal, regardless of sex or social standing, and to teach that clemency was no flaw but a virtue – so much so that compassion (al –Rahman) and mercy (al Rahim) were the first of God’s many names. The killing of a single person was meanwhile tantamount to the murder of all humanity, and at the Hour of Judgment every baby girl ever slaughtered in Mecca would indict her parents from her grave but there was hope. Penitents might yet spend an eternal afterlife in cool gardens of endless delight.
When the Quran was first enunciated by the prophet Mohammed during the 620s, the term “Sharia” conveyed the idea of a direct path to water – a route of considerable importance to a desert people – and at a time when no one systematically differentiated between the world that was and the world that ought to be, Islam’s straight and narrow described as much as it prescribed. Scholars would not write about it for at least another century, and half a millennium would elapse before legal theories settled into definitive form, but Muslims always thought of the Sharia in grand terms – infinite ones, even.
The heart of Sharia Law is social justice. The actual picture of Mohammed the prophet, and of the recitations he received from Allah is that, of the more than 6000 verses encompassed in the Quran, a small percentage are directive, in the form of a specific command, and, properly omitting the passages allowing killing in a defensive struggle, which relate to war, not civil law, “physical punishment was authorized just five times in the entire Quran”, and only addressed four crimes: murder, stealing, adultery, and false accusation of adultery.
Sharia Law example:
Even if she is very wealthy, a woman is never financially responsible for supporting anyone, not even herself. The “complement” to this financial advantage is that her inheritance is a 1:2 ratio to that of her brothers. The rationale for this law is that while a woman may work, she should never be obligated to work. And therefore, her closest male relative is responsible for her financial support. Because her financial responsibility is zero, in theory, and her brother is responsible for his own family and potentially for his mother and other female siblings if they are not married, giving his sister a third of the inheritance may seem unfairly generous to some. Giving women the “same” legal rights as men would obviously do away with the advantages that Muslim women have historically enjoyed. (From, Who Speaks for Islam? By Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito)
Protecting the rights of women in a male-dominated society, standing up for the poor and needy against the oppression of the wealthy and powerful, recommending clemency as a virtue, these are the things that come to mind for 1.5 billion Muslims when they think of Sharia Law, and why it is considered desirable.
To be sure, a strict, austere, and harshly violent version of Sharia Law is practiced by groups such as the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, and ISIS groups. But this teaching bears no resemblance to the teaching of Mohammed (peace be upon him) nor to the practice of over 1.5 billion Muslims.