The role of Islam in government is a big question in today's presidential election in Egypt.The leading candidates are debating it, and so are people struggling for freedom across the Arab world. Can their largely democratic and human rights-oriented demands be met with Islamic sharia?
The word sharia has at least three meanings with a variety of interpretations. It can refer to the principles of religion – rather than a dictate; the laws expressed by God in the sacred texts of Islam; and the understandings that Muslim legal scholars arrive at through a particular methodology of reasoning (fatwas). Even within these definitions, there are competing interpretations.
Traditionalist readings, which largely reflect the cultural norms and values of patriarchal societies and despotic political systems, dominate in the Muslim Middle East. In countries such as Iran and Saudia Arabia, sharia oppresses women and metes out violent, retributive, medieval justice. This is clearly no option for democratic societies.
Alternative interpretations emphasize the role of law and faith in extending and defending human rights. Such interpretations might offer new possibilities. But what would they look like?
One example is the early process of Islamization of the Iranian government after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 – when freedom-based sharia made a brief appearance, even as it competed with a repressive interpretation.
Still, during the first two years of the revolution, there was a strong showing of sharia based on passages in the Quran that freedom is the essence of all living beings, and that the ultimate purpose of law is to protect both human life and the environment from all forms of despotism and violence.
These views are grounded in three Quran-based principles that are particularly relevant for today’s emerging Muslim democracies.
First, there is to be no compulsion of religious beliefs. While this principle is inspired by the Quran (chapter 2, verse 256), in modern law making it would form the basis for protecting religious freedoms and belief in general, by removing imposition on any type of belief. Or, as the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas has pointed out, there must be freedom of all discourse, including for religious fundamentalists to express themselves.
Second, the guiding principles of “punishment” in the Quran, if read comprehensively, are restoration, mitigation, and forgiveness (Quran, 2:178). In this reading of sharia, capital punishment must be abolished and all forms of cruel, degrading, or inhuman punishment must be replaced with restorative and dignity-based ones.
The third principle is hifzh al-aql, which means the “protection of thought and freedom of conscience.” There is no “apostasy” here, no punishment for those who “leave” Islam or any other faith.
Historically, the concept of apostasy was introduced into Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, during the 7th and 8th centuries by theologians seeking to impose a particularly repressive system of belief. There can be no crime of belief.
Sadly, the vision of freedom-based sharia failed to establish itself in Iran. It was quickly replaced by a violent, power-based version following a coup against President Abulhassan Banisadr in 1981, who advocated these principles. But it set a precedent and represents an unfinished project.
Rising Muslim politicians espousing a democratic interpretation of sharia have a solid foundation to stand on. But they and the supporters of this view will need to work hard for its broader acceptance in traditional Muslim societies.
One way to do that is to encourage a more sophisticated use of Ijtihad, or the independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources, primarily of the Quran.
Another is to revive the three principles we’ve mentioned as viable models for discussion in emerging Muslim democracies. And deeper study needs to be done to understand the relationship between Islamic law and religious and political power, and how certain forms of it led to despotism.
The Arab awakening provides renewed hope that this work can flourish. Non-Arab Muslim states such as Indonesia and Malaysia are experimenting in balancing democracy and sharia, and can also provide hope for countries in the greater Middle East.
If citizens keep demanding human rights, sharia in harmony with such rights can blossom.
Mahmood Delkhasteh is a political sociologist, specializing in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a writer, and democracy activist. Hassan Rezaei works at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, on comparative Islamic law. He is coauthor with A.H. Banisadr of the Persian-language book: “The Koran: Book of the Discourse of Freedom.”