17 Towards A Reform Of Islamic Shariah Laws?
And What the West Needs to Do in the Meantime
by James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.
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.
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.
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.”
that beliefs and practices that do not harm us monetarily or physically can be
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).
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.
intellectual elites, usually on the left side of the political spectrum, have
critics of shariah just to be brushed off as “Islamophobic”?
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
of us don’t share that naÃ¯vetÃ©.
See Thirty Bad Shariah Laws for the background to this article.
With the Thirty Bad Shariah Laws as the background, this formula becomes
Extreme = inhumane = wrong
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.
people see it.
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.
they acknowledge that reform is needed and take steps to do it, then there will
be some hope for humanity.
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
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
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).
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
8. They must push to eliminate the Quran, authentic hadith, and shariah
as a foundation of modern Islamic constitutions. Religion and state must be
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
do not need to be legislated, because societies have their own modern and
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
foundation of advanced societies is equality before the law. But Islam teaches
a religious hierarchy before its shariah tax law.
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
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
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 â†’ Pursuit of Happiness
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.
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
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
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.
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.
these objective moral and social truths were to be inculcated across the globe,
then we would enjoy much more international peace and harmony.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “¦.
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
 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.