17 Towards A Reform Of Islamic Shariah Laws?
And What the West Needs to Do in the Meantime
by James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.
This series on Islamic shariah law has been written for the intellectual elites who shape the flow of our national dialogue: educators, legislators, city council members, government bureaucrats, journalists, judges, lawyers, TV and radio talk show hosts, and anyone else who occupies society’s “check points.” They are the policy and decision makers.
This article is the conclusion of the series. It suggests ways that Islam can reform. But in the meantime, whether Islam succeeds or not, or whether it even tries or not, the West and other non-Muslims countries must remember our foundational rights, to prevent the harmful parts of shariah from creeping into our society over the next decades.
Thomas Jefferson said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.”
This means that beliefs and practices that do not harm us monetarily or physically can be tolerated.
However, many parts in shariah have rulings that do indeed pick our pockets and break our legs. Just one example: Shariah says to persecute atheists (who believe in no God) and polytheists (who worship many gods).
Even Thomas Jefferson had his limits. He sent in the marines to take back captured American merchant sailors and to open up the trade routes that were hampered by the Muslim Barbary pirates in North Africa, who had sold the captives into slavery or demanded a ransom. 
Do the intellectual elites, usually on the left side of the political spectrum, have any limits?
Or are critics of shariah just to be brushed off as “Islamophobic”?
Will the elites help Islam reform, or just sit idly by and believe there is no need for reform? Islam is a world religion, after all, so it deserves respect, just as it is.
But many of us don’t share that naïveté.
See Thirty Bad Shariah Laws for the background to this article.
With the Thirty Bad Shariah Laws as the background, this formula becomes evident:
Extreme = inhumane = wrong
The Islamic shariah laws laid out in Thirty Bad Shariah Laws are obviously extreme and inhumane or oppressive by today’s standards. Therefore the laws are morally wrong today.
Reasonable people see it.
But we will explain why these laws are obviously wrong in the next major section on the West. Before then, let’s look at ways Islam can reform.
If Muslim leaders do not admit that their religion is in need of extensive reform and updating, then the world will never know even a modicum of peace.
But if they acknowledge that reform is needed and take steps to do it, then there will be some hope for humanity.
Westerners and other non-Muslims would feel confident that reform is really taking place in Islamic counties, if reformers living there or in the West would follow these steps:
1. They must publicly acknowledge that the Quran and authentic hadith have misguided and oppressive penal, civil, family, and political shariah laws in them (see Thirty Bad Shariah Laws).
2. They must not cover up or pretend or tell the uninformed that everything in the Quran and authentic hadith, the two main foundations of shariah, is perfect, but they are just being misunderstood and misinterpreted. There really are extreme and inhumane passages in them. If reformers withhold the bad parts from the public, the reformers appear deceptive and so lose their credibility.
3. Since there are inherent problems in the Quran, authentic hadith, and shariah, reformers must publicly acknowledge that those problematic verses and passages are no longer valid today and do not guide modern society.
4. They must publicly explain which interpretive theory they use to reject verses in the Quran and passages in the authentic hadith. Sunnis must back away from the belief that the Quran is “uncreated.” No, it really was part of its seventh century culture. All texts, including the Bible, have an historical context. One possible theory all Muslims can use is historicism, which “is a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture” (see the next point).
5. They must publicly acknowledge that original Islam, including the Quran, absorbed too much of its seventh-century culture and does not guide modern society. Even if, hypothetically, Islam improved on its original culture, Islam did not go far enough by today’s standards. Those old laws have expiration dates – back in the seventh century.
6. They must write articles, books, and other works and hold conferences with their fellow scholars who are reluctant to reform, in their native language, explaining why many old shariah laws are no longer valid. If reformers do this already, they should report the results.
7. They must never reference the Quran, authentic hadith, or shariah in any modern declaration of human rights. Those source documents have too many specific outdated laws. Referencing a Creator, from whom humanity itself and our basic rights flows, is fine. But basing a declaration on a specific holy book (the Quran) and outdated religious law (shariah) leads to pitfalls and complications.
8. They must push to eliminate the Quran, authentic hadith, and shariah as a foundation of modern Islamic constitutions. Religion and state must be kept separate.
9. They must tell the defenders of old Islam to drop false labels, such as “Islamophobia” and “Islamophobic” (etc.), which are wrongly thrown at discerning critics of shariah. 
10. They must never try to incorporate, by law, policies, or school curricula (etc.), any part of shariah into non-Islamic societies today. Religious shariah laws, like how to pray, keep a fast, wash or eat properly, do not need to be legislated. And other shariah laws, like the ones listed in Thirty Bad Shariah Laws, do not need to be legislated, because societies have their own modern and better laws.
Points nos. 4 and 5 about the absorption of a text’s historical context needs a little more explanation. Devout Muslims – the kind who wish to impose archaic laws on us – believe the Quran is timeless and universally good for all of humanity and did not absorb its historical context. However, a moment’s reflection shows this to be wrong.
Every text takes in its historical context. The ancient world surrounding Israel commands execution for various sins and crimes, and so does the Old Testament. The ancient world practiced slavery, and the Old Testament assumes it too. The ancient world sacrificed animals, so does the Old Testament.
The Quran follows the same pattern. Seventh-century Arab culture practiced polygamy, so the Quran permits it. Seventh-century Arab allowed males to initiate divorce, and so does the Quran. The list could go on.
Are reformers willing to work on all of these ten suggestions at the same time? If so, please tell us the results, as things go along.
Right now, however, reform seems to be losing ground in many Islamic nations, if it is being attempted at all.
While Islam is undergoing modernization and reform, if it does, we in the West and other non-Islamic countries must not lose our heads.
We must keep (or return) to our rights.
The Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The three universal rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have penetrated our psyche whether we acknowledge them or not. By them, we can discern which rules in shariah are harmful or harmless. So let’s unpack the three rights.
Happiness appears at first glance to be so subjective and so open to a wide interpretation that it is impossible to nail down. However, it is not as subjective as it first appears. At bottom, it depends on life and liberty.
Happiness means functioning in excellence and fullness, living to the highest potential and freedom. If one’s life and liberty is restricted and oppressed, then one cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is.
Pursuing happiness means that an individual creates his own utopia, as he lives in society and follows basic laws, like honoring contracts and respecting other people’s property and person. The government does not create utopia for him. Government is formed to ensure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government clears the path and creates a safe environment for people to be free and have a high quality of life and pursue their own happiness, as they define it.
Life and liberty, though they have a subjective feel to them, are not entirely subjective. Extreme behavior or policies do not lead to life and liberty, whether an individual or an entire society believes this or not, and whether a religious system teaches the opposite – they do lead to life and liberty and happiness. Despite their belief or religious system, when an act or policy does not actually promote life and liberty, then a person cannot be happy by definition, because happiness is built on life and liberty.
A person living under oppression, religious or atheistic, cannot be free and have a high quality of life; therefore, he cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is. He is not the best judge of what happiness is because he does not have a broad perspective.
Specific examples can be tricky. Sometimes we all sense people choose self-imposed oppression and restriction (e.g. the headscarf), but this does not harm society at large, so their choice can be tolerated. Other examples, however, are obviously bad, because they oppress all or many in society (e.g. the second-class jizyah or submission tax), so those shariah laws should not be tolerated.
One man gets revelations that tell his followers how to dress, how to believe, and how to pray. A prophet can teach these things, if he wants. He’s within his political right of religious freedom. If people choose freely to follow them and are allowed freely to walk away from them, then the religious laws do not pick the pockets or breaks the legs of the larger society. These religious rules can be done in private or at the mosque (or church or synagogue).
Yet, a strong case can be made that an extremely large number of religious laws also restricts life and liberty excessively, and therefore they do not lead to the pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless, these religious laws that do not harm the larger society monetarily or physically can be tolerated.
However, if the same revelator gets an allegedly divine message that orders him to impose, by government decree or armed struggle, these beliefs on everyone or to restrict and punish nonconformist beliefs, then religious freedom is not promoted, and this harms society. His religion picks our pockets and breaks our legs.
And certainly a religious theocracy does not create utopia for all of society, to make people conform to a theocrat’s vision of the ideal world. A theocracy works overtime to remove all imperfections. That is why sexual sins are turned into crimes. If corporal punishments need to be applied, even up to execution, then so be it. Those imperfections must be removed. But a theocracy breaks our legs and picks our pockets.
A small-scale example is a woman who believes that wearing a veil that covers her face, except the eye slit (either a burqa or niqab), makes her happy. That’s part of her utopia. Who are we to interfere in her pursuit of happiness? Never mind that vitamin deficiencies can happen from underexposure to the sun, as the article on the veil in this series documents. Though she may not (yet) have come to the realization that a burqa or niqab is an extreme restriction on her liberty and highest quality of life, it still is such a restriction, objectively speaking. Deception does exist, which can be defined as believing or thinking you are right, while in reality you are wrong. And beliefs can be wrong.
Nonetheless, if she still freely chooses to wear a burqa or niqab and can freely choose not to wear it, then her belief should be tolerated. If someone wants to persuade her with words alone, not by force or government fiat, then he can try. But her personal liberty must be respected, after the discussion ends.
However, if a government passes laws that force all women to wear certain religious clothes, then these laws are unjust, because they violate liberty, and violated liberty does not lead to the highest quality of life. And a degraded life does not add up to happiness – or the pursuit of it. In such a repressive environment, individuals cannot create their personal utopia as they define it.
Another example of how shariah restricts life and liberty: shariah today still imposes a submission tax on Jews or Christians or other religious minorities who refuse to join Islam. Defenders of this policy say that it is designed to offer them protection for the privilege of living under Islam.
However, a second-class submission tax based on religion violates the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. It does indeed harm us monetarily and legally. Everyone should be equal before the law; no one is to be discriminated against because he or she may be a religious minority living in an Islamic country.
And now we can judge that this Islamic rule about a religious submission tax is a bad one, for it is incompatible with the progress of humanity. The tax degrades the life and liberty of Jews and Christians and other religious minorities because they become second-class citizens and are deprived of some of their lawful earnings by a specialized religion tax, just for them. When their life and liberty are restricted, they cannot pursue happiness, as they define it.
The foundation of advanced societies is equality before the law. But Islam teaches a religious hierarchy before its shariah tax law.
One major reason Americans fought the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was to free ourselves from taxes imposed on us without our consent. Why would we consent to a second-class religious submission tax, even if the government claims it came from Allah himself?
In all these examples, the general principle is Jefferson’s: if an act or policy does not harm us monetarily or physically, then it should be allowed. But if it does harm us in those two ways (or is on the verge of doing so), then it should not be allowed.
But the bigger principle beyond physical and monetary harm and no harm can be clarified by two formulas (the arrow after liberty means “leads to”):
1. Life + Liberty → Pursuit of Happiness
Those three rights are universally good. They are not merely the product or invention of the arrogant West. The West only discovered them, as the Declaration of Independence says: these truths are self-evident.
The West is learning as it goes, after it made mistakes in the past, and is still making them, though a lot fewer than the ones committed centuries ago. Why cannot non-Western societies learn from them? Isn’t the refusal to learn a kind of arrogance?
Further, if believing that a free society is better than an oppressed society is a sign of arrogance and culturally superiority, then we are denying the obvious. It is obviously true that free societies are superior to oppressed ones – maybe not individual persons within each system, but the systems can be compared and a judgment can be rendered. And if we don’t render judgment, then we have allowed cultural hypersensitivity to wrongly dominate us.
It is true that many societies do not have those three rights. But just because a society does not have them does not mean they are not universal and good. If they are not actually universal in practice, that is, if they are not (yet) applied in various societies, then they should be. But this hit-and-miss application and practice does not deny their universality and goodness.
Sometimes moral truths go undiscovered in some societies, just as natural truths, like the earth being spherical, are undiscovered in certain societies. But the truth still exists. The earth really is round, whether some societies have discovered this fact or not.
But if these objective moral and social truths were to be inculcated across the globe, then we would enjoy much more international peace and harmony.
This series of articles on shariah is about specific extremisms and shortfalls. The major theme, beyond pointing them out, is that we should never submit or inculcate them into our culture or especially into our laws.
The shariah laws listed in Thirty Bad Shariah Laws – however culturally insensitive it may seem to hear – need to be rejected, because they are aggressive and oppressive, not peaceful or benign. These practices are themselves intolerant or fail to respect all humans with full dignity.
They are extreme and thus deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, these harmful shariah laws are wrong. They (should) have expiration dates on them – back in the seventh century.
However, we need to be sensitive about benign customs like prayer, diet (e.g. not eating pork), reading or carrying a holy book in public, washing properly, or wearing a headscarf, even a burka or niqab. None of these things break our legs or pick out pockets.
But we must not be hypersensitive about excessive and harsh shariah rules that we can judge by these three principles – life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By those standards many of shariah rules come up short. We must pass judgment on them.
The West is accused of arrogance, and maybe the charge is sometimes valid. However, the refusal to learn from the West is also a sign of arrogance. We have learned our lesson about our three rights, after centuries of mistakes.
Until Islam genuinely reforms on these matters and follows the ten suggestions and builds up a long track record, intellectual elites in the USA and elsewhere around the world must use extreme caution in assuming that shariah is perfectly harmless or is just misunderstood. They must not form any policy, write any school curriculum, issue any ruling, or pass any law based on or referencing shariah. Islam must bend towards us, not we to it.
The elites must stick to or return to the Declaration’s three principles, which guides (or should guide) the USA and has served us so well: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our civilization will stand on them.
And our civilization will also stand by our outspoken courage to promote them. But it shall fall by our cowardly silence.
 Andrew M. Allison, M. Richard Maxfield et al., The Real Thomas Jefferson: The True Story of America’s Philosopher of Freedom, rev. ed. (National Center of Constitutional Studies, 2008), 602-03.
 Thomas Jewett, “Terrorism in Early America: The U.S. Wages War against the Barbary States to End International Blackmail and Terrorism,” earlyamerica.com, Winter Spring 2002. Using captives as slaves or demanding a ransom is endorsed by the Quran (see the article on slavery, in this series).
 Claire Berlinski, “Moderate Muslim Watch: How the Term ‘Islamophobia’ Got Shoved Down Your Throat,” Ricochet, November 24, 2010. Berlin ski writes:
Now here's a point you might deeply consider: The neologism "Islamophobia" did not simply emerge ex nihilo. It was invented, deliberately, by a Muslim Brotherhood front organization, the International Institute for Islamic Thought, which is based in Northern Virginia ….
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a former member of the IIIT who has renounced the group in disgust, was an eyewitness to the creation of the word. "This loathsome term," ,
is nothing more than a thought-terminating cliche conceived in the bowels of Muslim think tanks for the purpose of beating down critics.
 The U.S. Declaration of Independence references the Creator. However, the U.S. Constitution does not. The reason is the differences between the two documents. The Declaration is a statement to Great Britain that the colonies were about to separate from the mother country. On the other hand, the Constitution is the foundation of our government. Therefore, if an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights references a Creator, then that is fine, but it should not mention the Quran, hadith, or shariah. But Islamic constitutions should not reference any religion at all. Individuals in society or who work in government can be religious (or not), but the government should be secular. Can Islamic civilization learn from the West?
 I am not referring to a woman wearing a veil that covers her entire face, except for the eye slit, in situations like driving a car or taking official photo IDs. The woman needs to compromise, because she potentially puts larger society in jeopardy.