Shari'a in the West
Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney (eds)
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010
This is not a critical review. Instead, I would strongly recommend this collection of essays to readers of Sight. Those seeking a Christian political response to the issues that have been raised about minority Muslim communities, whether as migrants or asylum seekers, will find helpful insight and analysis in this book.When I began writing this review, the internet was all a twitter with news of the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. This seemed an apt moment to pen this review, but I should add that this book is not about Al-Qaeda. The notorious terrorist organisation is mentioned once, and in passing, when the two editors describe "The Topography of Shari'a in the Western Political Landscape."
Their focus, rather, is in the book's title: Shari'a in the West. In the initial chapter they discuss the difference between Islam and Islamism, and the prospects for the various reform movements within Islam. So I have no doubt that this book would have been written differently if "9/11" had not happened, but even with the death of Bin Laden important issues of jurisprudence still have to be addressed in our political life in the years ahead.
In particular there is the question of how "western" Muslim adherence to "shari'a" relates to "shari'a" practised in the dar-al-Islam, the lands where Islam prevails. And of course that means we also have to be alert to how "shari'a", wherever it is practised, relates to what has been termed "extreme Sharia", whether of the Saudi Wahhabi variety or that advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini in his Iranian revolution in 1979. Wahhabism seeks to completely remove Islamic tradition from the religion, with threats of death for those who defend tradition. Hence, it engages in ferocious persecution of fellow Muslims. Al-Qaeda's "terror war" against the west is but the "other side" of that ongoing violent purging of Muslim people and communities. Now with Bin Laden's death we hope and pray that Al-Qaeda will shrivel and die - but the question of how the "west" is to respond politically to Muslim people and their religion within its polities is still before us and in need of our consideration.
And that is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev Dr Rowan Williams, was concerned about when he gave his 7th February, 2008, address, "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective". In this now famous speech he stated that it seemed unavoidable that certain aspects of Islamic law (Shari'a) would be recognised and incorporated into British law. The volume includes two appendices: Williams' address and another by Lord Phillips, president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, titled "Equality before the Law", delivered 3rd July, 2008, at the East London Muslim Centre, giving qualified support to the archbishop's views.
This is a topic which demands much effort and concentration. The editors - Rex Ahdar, professor of law at the University of Otago, and Nicholas Aroney, professor of law at the University of Queensland and an ARC Future Fellow - have rendered an important service by collating these 16 commissioned chapters in this absorbing volume. These are issues of jurisprudence that simply cannot be avoided. We need to be rightly informed as we enter into the political debate about the relevance of Islam, Islamism and Shari'a to Western democracies.This book not only advances understanding of Islam as it is lived by Muslim people, it also gives a penetrating overview of how European and Anglo-American polities are currently responding to the political and legal challenges that arise from welcoming significant Muslim minorities into their societies. And so, as we develop our understanding of Islam as a world religion, with its own particular juridical ideas and processes, we also learn to make clear distinctions between Islam and Islamism, and note the way Muslim communities actually form their lives and understand the spiritual principles to which they are committed. We then get a sense of the traditions that keep Muslim people apart from each other, and what unites them as a 'People of the Book' in a common religion. This an exploration of the various concepts of Shari'a that have arisen in different Muslim communities and the various ways in which Shari'a principles are to be adopted in lands where Islam is not observed - the dar al-harb.
Although one can read each of the 16 chapters and two appendices separately and in their own right, these writings together make a significant contribution. They should be read and studied carefully. Our challenge is to grow insight about Muslim rituals, symbolism, beliefs and practices, and deepen our appreciation for what happened almost a decade ago with that murderous act of terror. Our responsibility as Christians is to gain wisdom to understand how many of our neighbours see and understand themselves as participants in this world-wide religion.
To briefly list the essays which comment upon Williams' address:• Tariq Modood is a prominent scholar who defended Williams in the days immediately after he delivered his lecture. For Modood, multicultural citizenship presupposes a 'multilogical' dialogue among equal citizens of all faiths in a secularised civil order which makes room for, and welcomes, various expressions of religion.
• John Milbank's essay examines the argument Williams has put forward, and its reception, in the context of the complex and contradictory place of the archbishop and Anglicanism within the British polity. It is a notable sociological analysis of the political-psyché of the established church in England.
• Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens draws attention to an ambiguities in Williams' argument that suggests the possibility of Muslim people "opting out of state institutions on religious grounds" and at the same time seeking legality for faith-based jurisdictional authorities.
• Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, well-known as the plain-speaking Bishop of Rochester, explores a range of important topics - the role of women, blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, Islamic banking and finance - and with qualified support for Islamic councils of limited jurisdiction, he notes that appropriate and just monitoring will be needed.
• The final essay in this section of the book by James Skillen raises the question whether the Islamic world-view can furnish its adherents with the conceptual resources which will be needed to justify and defend a complex, plural and differentiated social-authority structure.
The second section deals with broader theoretical and policy analyses of the "Shari'a in the West" issue: Jeremy Waldron (minorities), Ayelet Shachar (family law), John Milbank (group rights), Jean-Françios Gaudreault-DesBiens (religious courts) and J Budziszewski (natural law and democracy). The editors note that for Milbank's analysis "readers will need to strap themselves in for an exhilarating ride" since only "a distinctly Christian polity - not a secular post-modern one - can actually accord Islam the respect it seeks as a religion." That is a point worth exploring further.
The third section of the collection examines how Shari'a is, or could be, accommodated within particular jurisdictions. Senator Sophie van Bijsterveld, a member of the European parliament, discusses Dutch responses to Islam. Abdullah Saeed and Ann Black provide perspectives from Australian experience. In a fourth section two essays consider the position and prospects of Islam in western polities. Erich Kolig explains why a 'Shari'aticized' legal system would not be a good idea and John Witte Jr raises the question of Muslim expectations about how marriage relates to civil law. Are Muslim migrant communities going to seek a firmer constitutional grounding for marriage than western legal systems can now provide?
This is a book to be read slowly, re-read and studied carefully.