On Thursday, Jan. 25, Republicans in an Idaho House panel agreed to re-introduce an anti-sharia law legislation for the third year in a row. The goal of this legislation is to prevent Idaho courts from making decisions based on “foreign” legal codes. There is no known case in which an Idaho judge has based a ruling on Islamic law.
In all cases where religious law is brought to bear in secular courts, U.S. civil law takes precedence by default. This would be true whether one is Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Hindu or a member of any other religious affiliation. The United States is a country based on civil law with the principle of separation of church and state found in our Constitution.
So, what is “sharia law,” that it should be singled out? I Googled these words, and obtained two excellent links for demystifying and debunking the meaning of these words which have become part of the daily lexicon in certain circles. I refer the interested reader to snopes.com, an online fact-checking website, and pewforum.org, a website of the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.
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Sharia evolved during a period of Islamic expansion following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD. Its principles derive from four different sources. The first source is the Quran, which is the ultimate authority, followed by the Sunnah of the Prophet, that is, his maxims and customary practices also known as the Hadith. The third source is Qiyas, or analogy, and it is used to interpret legal situations that can be extrapolated from an analogous precedent. The final source, the Ijmah, or consensus of the community, is used to judge or validate new situations for which there is no precedent.
The term “sharia” is an Arabic word which translates to the word “path” in English. For a Muslim, sharia is literally the path to salvation. Much like the principles found in other major religions, sharia represents a moral code of conduct. It is an all-encompassing system of do’s and don’ts to follow in one’s personal life.
For example, the Quran specifically prohibits Muslims from eating pork products. I remember a discussion I had with a professor of mine at the University of Illinois. When he found out that I did not eat pork, he asked me: “Do you eat ham?” I said “no.” He then asked me successively if I ate bacon, pork chops, baby back ribs, sausage, and so on until he exhausted his repertory of pork products that he enjoyed. Looking back, I should have told him that there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, if one is in a life-or-death situation where not eating pork will cause a starvation death, then sharia allows for eating pork during this unique situation.
My example illustrates that, for a Muslim, sharia is a personal system of rules to follow. Most of these rules are not meant to be enforced by a Muslim state on a Muslim, let alone a non-Muslim. This follows from the principle of no coercion in matters of faith (Quran, 2:256).
The human effort of mining these sources and constructing applicable rules from the abstraction of the sharia is known as “Fiqh” in Arabic, which means “deep understanding.” It is the domain of the “Fuqaha” or the scholars who can issue “Fetwas.” It is important to understand that a “Fetwa” in Islam is a legal opinion and not an edict. In other words, a “Fetwa” is not binding on all Muslims who are free to abide by it or not, depending on their interpretation and their level of comfort. Sharia is more than just a code of ethics and morals upon which a legal system of laws can be built, it is a religious way of life for Muslims.
The Idaho Legislature, for the most part, has made previous decisions based on protecting citizen’s religious rights, so it is perplexing to see this attack on religious freedom appear for the third time in as many years. Are on-going attempts to introduce anti-sharia legislation based in ignorance, bigotry, a combination or some hidden agenda? If our Legislature truly believes that civil rights and secular law should prevail over religious practices, then, truly, sharia should be no more of a threat than any other religious doctrine in the United States.
I urge our legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, to vote NO on HB 419. This is a discriminatory bill for which there is no evidence that religious or foreign law is supplanting civil law in Idaho. It has the potential to create significant unintended consequences in the lives of Idahoans who marry abroad, file for divorce, adopt children from overseas, or conduct family matters involving foreign or international law.
This law is also bad for our economy as it will drive away multinational corporations that might settle or conduct business in Idaho. The job of our Legislature is to keep Idaho a welcoming state by passing laws that enhance our quality of life and respect our diversity.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.