Sharia is intended to judge us. How about turning the tables to judge it? This is Part 17 in the sharia series.
Sharia has socially benign parts to it, like how to pray, how to hold the Ramadan fast, how much money should be donated to the poor, and which foods to avoid or eat.
However, there are socially harmful aspects to it and should be rejected.
Culturally insensitive, sensitive or hypersensitive?
Cultural sensitivity is a virtue and most Americans practice it. When we see a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf that does not cover her face, we let her pass by without comment. That tolerant attitude is good.
On the other hand, insensitivity is a vice, because it has too little or not enough or deficient sensitivity. It would be insensitive to mock or laugh at the Muslim woman. Many of us can spot the moment when we lurch over to insensitivity, and it is easy to fix. We should not say anything. We keep quiet.
But is there such a thing as excessive or too much sensitivity – hypersensitivity? If we can have too little of something, we can have too much of it. When do we leave sensitivity behind and cross over to hypersensitivity? Are there general principles we can use to detect when we do not go far enough, but keep quiet when we should speak up and speak out?
Answering those questions would go a long way to clarify a swirling mass of opinions that seem to bind us to silence and inaction when we should speak and act.
People get confused about these three ranges: insensitivity (vice), sensitivity (virtue), and hypersensitivity (vice).
Applying those two vices and one virtue
Let’s apply them to see how they work.
In sharia, a husband is allowed to hit her when she rebels and he follows three steps before he strikes (correcting her, warning her, and separating from her in the bedroom). In other cases, alcoholics are flogged, and so are fornicators. Adulterers are stoned to death. Thieves have their hands cut off.
We sense intuitively that Islam is wrong to do those things, but where does our intuition come from?
What these rules of sharia have in common is violence and excessive punishments and suppression of freedom. All of them deny the highest quality of life and maximum freedom (without chaos and anarchy).
On the other hand, what do the following actions have in common? A man goes to a mosque or synagogue or church. A woman says her prayers in the way her religion prescribes, quoting her holy book or reading from a book of prayer or speaking impromptu. A man bows in prayer. Another one bobs his head up and down. Some wear unusual clothes and hats. Others wear a long beard. His religion teaches him to live a virtuous life. A young person peaceably shares his faith with words alone to listeners on the sidewalk.
What these actions have in common is that none of them disturbs the peace or hinder others from living an orderly and virtuous life. Even the street preacher does not have a captive audience. They can walk away. If all of these actions do not directly foster maximum quality of life and optimal freedom, they certainly do not prevent them – and a strong case can be made that these actions do foster life.
So, insensitivity (a vice) would lead us to pass judgment on the harmless aspects of sharia.
Hypersensitivity (a vice) would lead us to keep silent about sharia’s harmful aspects, when we instead should speak out.
Sensitivity (a virtue) would lead us to criticize the harmful aspects, but be tolerant of the harmless ones, in a religious diverse society.
When we understand how to apply those three criteria, we can gain wisdom and clarity.
And once we get this wisdom, we can certainly dismiss the silly charge of “Islamophobia.”
Three universal values
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.”
To unashamedly pass judgment on the harmful parts of sharia, we should unpack three universal values that we alluded to, above: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They have penetrated our psyche whether we acknowledge them or not. By them, we can discern which rules in sharia are harmful or harmless.
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 one thinks she is.
1. A young woman believes that wearing a veil that covers her face, except the eye slit (either a burqa or niqab), makes her happy. That’s what she wants to do. Who are we to interfere in her pursuit of happiness? However, deception does exist, which can be defined as believing or thinking one is right, while in reality one is wrong. Beliefs can be wrong. Though she may not have personally and subjectively come to the realization that a burqa or niqab is an extreme restriction on her liberty and highest quality of life, it still is, objectively speaking.
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 entire society believes this or not, and whether a religious system teaches the opposite – that 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.
The first two values are its foundation. A person living under oppression cannot be free and have a high quality of life; therefore, he cannot be happy, even if he thinks they are. He is not the best judge of what happiness is because they do not have a broad perspective. Thus, life and liberty lead to happiness – or the pursuit of it.
However, since her practice does not pick our pockets or breaks our legs, she should be free to wear the veil.
2. Authoritarian theocracy is another example. If one man gets revelations that tell his followers how to dress, how to think, how to believe, how to pray, then so far so good for the larger society. The commands do not harm us monetarily or physically. But if the same revelator gets a divine message that orders him to impose these beliefs on everyone or to restrict and punish nonconformist beliefs, then religious freedom is not promoted, and this harms society.
It does pick our pocket and break our leg. Authoritarianism is therefore wrong.
3. Islam imposes a tax on any Jew or Christian who refuses to join Islam. Defenders of this policy say that it is designed to offer protection for them as they live under Islam. However, a second-class submission tax based on religion violates the principles – life and liberty – laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
And now we can judge that this Islamic rule is a bad one, for it is incompatible with our history and the progress of humanity. The rule restricts our freedom because Jews and Christians are labeled, even stigmatized, by their religious beliefs, and it degrades the life of Jews and Christians because they become second-class citizens and are deprived of some of their lawful earnings by a specialized tax, just for them.
One major reason we fought the Revolutionary War was to free ourselves from taxes imposed on us without our consent. Why would we consent to a second-class religious submission tax?
The foundation of advanced societies is equality before the law. Islam teaches a privileged religious hierarchy before its sharia law.
A simple formula for judging sharia
Simple, but not simplistic.
They are the criteria by which we judge sharia
We can boil things down to equations, the arrow meaning “leads to” or “produces”:
2. Extremism + Oppression → Unhappiness and Misery
The two formulas are opposites. The three values in the first equation are universally good for humankind. The second equation is objectively bad for us humans. In many cases, sharia promotes the latter formula.
Therefore we can judge that those rules in sharia that conform or at least don’t violate the first formula are harmless or beneficial, while the ones that conform to the second formula and contradict the first one are bad.
- Aren’t they merely the product or invention of the arrogant West?
The West only discovered them and is now applying them, learning as it goes and having made mistakes in the past, and still making them, though a lot fewer. But even if these values were hypothetically to come only from the West, why cannot non-Western societies learn from them? Isn’t the refusal to learn a kind of arrogance?
If stating that free societies are better than oppressed societies smacks of arrogance and cultural superiority, then we have allowed hypersensitivity to dominate us because we are denying the obvious. It is obviously true that free societies are superior to oppressed ones – maybe not individuals within each, but the systems can be compared and a judgment can be rendered. One society is better than the other.
If stating the obvious is arrogant, then ignoring the obvious is hypersensitive and foolish and naïve. So which vice should dominate? Arrogance or hypersensitivity? If one has to dominate, we must prefer that which leads to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
2. Isn’t it true that many societies do not have those values? How can they be universal?
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, can be undiscovered by certain societies. But the truth still exists. The earth really is round, whether some societies have discovered this or not.
If these objective moral truths were to be inculcated across the globe, then we would enjoy much more international peace and harmony.
Who is qualified to judge sharia?
The man or woman of reason, prudence, and wisdom is a much better judge of the three values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than is the religious fanatic because the reasonable man or woman enjoys a broader perspective; after all, they live a high-quality of life in a free society and have therefore had the chance to earn and learn reason, prudence, and wisdom. The person of reason, prudence, and wisdom is not an extremist, but he or she lives his or her life in balance and the Golden Mean. She or he has tasted a free life (life and liberty) and has therefore experienced true happiness, not a self-conceived “happiness,” which might actually be a deception or a lower pleasure. This kind of pleasure is not the same as true happiness.
The person who experiences life, liberty and their consequent happiness looks out from a mountaintop and can see clearly, far and wide, while the person who has not experienced them sits in a foggy and shadowy valley and cannot see clearly and into the distance. Thus, those three values lead to reason, prudence, and wisdom. And reason, prudence, and wisdom enable us to judge whether we are living a free life and pursuing true happiness. The more we have of each, the better off we become.
There is nothing strange here. Or better yet, there is something a little strange – in the sense of wondrous – about it. There is a joyous circularity in these virtues as they feed into and off each other. We can grow in wisdom, prudence, and reason. And the best environment where we can grow in them is in a society where liberty reigns, which offers a high quality of life, and where we can pursue happiness. Life and liberty is the environment; and happiness is both a mental state and an environmental state – we produce happiness (e.g. a good family and adequate income) by our life and liberty, and happiness like that is an environmental state. And now we are mentally happy.
Then, as we live in such a society, we enjoy the opportunity to grow in reason, prudence, and wisdom. In this environment, the moral virtues, like courage and sensitivity, have the best chance to grow.
But remember: happiness does not mean hedonism or the relentless pursuit of pleasure. Sometimes to achieve happiness, we must deny our pleasures. Happiness means living to our fullest potential and functioning in excellence.
To repeat, deception does exist. Just because a woman strings words together and says, “I’m happy in my burqa,” does not mean she is actually happy. Beliefs can be wrong, even sincerely held ones.
The main principle is that an oppressed life is not a free life, and oppression does not equal happiness, in real, down-to-earth and undeceived terms.
And the deeper bedrock principle is that the three universal and good values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be used, by exercising reason, prudence, and wisdom, to judge – let’s not be afraid of the word – whether a policy or practice in sharia is extreme and has therefore become oppressive.
But the bottom line is that if a practice does not pick our pocket or break our leg, then we should be sensitive to the practitioner and let her have her way. If we must get her to take off the head covering, let it be by persuasion only.
So many (not all) areas sharia are extreme and offer pitfalls. We should never submit or inculcate the detrimental ones into our culture or especially into our laws. Cultural and religious tolerance about food and clothing and other light commands is harmless, but religious taxes, punishments and harsh views of womankind need to be rejected.
Sometimes they have practices – however culturally insensitive it may seem to hear – which 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 sharia laws are wrong.
We need to be sensitive about benign customs like prayer, diet (e.g. not eating pork), reading or carrying a holy book in public, wearing a head scarf, which does not cover a woman’s face. None of these things break our legs or pick out pockets.
But we must not be hypersensitive about excessive and harsh sharia rules that we can judge by these three principles – life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By those standards many of sharia rules come up short. We must pass judgment on them.
Our civilization will stand on our outspoken courage or fall by our silent cowardice.
This article first appeared at Jihad Watch on September 6, 2012 with the title “Towards a Reform of Islamic Shariah Law?” but has been significantly revised here.
Articles in the Series
Marital, Domestic and Women’s Issues
- Women’s Status and Roles
- Domestic Violence
- Divorce and Remarriage
- Marriage to Prepubescent Girls
Sexual “Crimes” and Punishments
- Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling
- The Law of Retaliation in the Quran and Early Islam
- Thieves, Give Muhammad a Hand!
- Crucifixion and Mutilation in the Quran
 I’m borrowing from Aristotle’s clever idea of balance between two extremes, found in his Nicomachean Ethics: deficiency or too little (vice), mean or just right (virtue), and excess or too much (vice), though he said nothing about cultural sensitivity.
 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.
 I am not referring to a woman wearing a veil that covers her entire face, except for the eye slit. This veil limits her high quality of life and personal liberty, even if she says it makes her happy. It is impossible to be happy when one’s life and liberty is so deeply restricted, whether she believes this or not. Oppression and severe restriction is a contradiction, vis-à-vis life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These three values are not entirely subjective, but must be guided by reason, as a prudent and wise man or woman views and defines reason.