Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Shariah law - A Current Affair Update

This week saw A Current Affair produce a piece on ‘Shariah law’ in Australia. This is an area that has both confused and alarmed Australians – and in fact most Westerners. ACA managed not only to increase the alarm, but also completely misrepresent what Muslims believe and practice in this area.

There are three things that I think most worry Australians – Shariah represents a way of life that is based on the 7th century, Muslims aim to replace Australian law with Shariah law, Shariah law is an inflexible and harsh system that is totally incompatible with Australian values and the Australian way of life.

All of these are totally and absolutely wrong or inaccurate.

Firstly, let’s look at what ‘Shariah law’ is in comparison to ‘Australian law’. Like Australian law – which is based on the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 and is a reflection of British law dating back centuries, Islamic law has a basis in the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophets). While Islamic law or Shariah is much older and more continuous than Australian law, no one wants to live under the same law that applied in the year 1900 in Australia, or in the year 1850 in Britain, or in the year 750 in Mecca. That is because all law changes to reflect the current situation, the local culture, and local needs. If we look today at the limited application of Shariah through any court system (and mostly in the Muslim world it is post-colonial French, British, Italian systems – not Shariah any more) we would see a huge difference between its application in Iran, Mecca, or Malaysia. This is the same for all applied law – it has to be relevant to its time. And Islamic law is no different.

So, let’s clarify again – Shariah law is like Australian law, in that it is based on concepts that are quite old, but has to be applied in context (in Islam this is part of what is called the Maqasid) and has to be relevant to the time it is applied in. Both Australian law and Islamic law have a long history of scholars/ judges/ lawyers who interpreted it (Islamic law had 14 centuries of scholarly interpretation). Most importantly, this same Shariah law states a Muslim must respect the laws of the land that he or she lives in. It is not up to the individual to change the law – only the State. So Muslims – by reason of Shariah law – have to respect Australian law.

So what is it that the Shariah actually deals with? Is it all about chopping off hands, marrying four wives or beheading? In some countries it does include this. Our ally Saudi Arabia, which has a particularly harsh and narrow interpretation of Shariah law, regularly implements the death penalty through beheading – which is something our diplomats seldom bring up, never complain about, and should be campaigning against. Most Muslims in Australia would not want to live under such a harsh penal code – and would never try and bring such a system to Australia. Just as most Australians do not want the death penalty or their gun laws to be brought in from our ally America.

In reality, for most Muslims, Shariah law is more concerned with how a Muslim prays, how they fast, what rights their children/neighbours/parents etc have. This is not to say that even here there is One Immutable Law as ACA tried to present by saying that Shariah was ‘God’s word’. This is rubbish! (Only the Quran is God’s Word and that is not definitive in how law should be applied). In the early centuries of Islam there were many, many scholars who set about establishing laws for a just and fair society that was based on the principles and (very few) rulings of the Quran. Their many ‘schools’ were eventually condensed into 4 schools from about the 16th century in the Sunni tradition. There are different Shariah applications/schools again in the Shia tradition. And highly Western educated and traditionally educated scholars today are trying to figure out how to apply these same principles to modern issues – genetic technology, modern economics, environmental issues, family law - to name a few. These Muslim scholars know how much they have to catch up – traditional scholarship was decimated by the replacement of traditional law with Western law throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South East Asia. This resulted in the loss of most of its scholars, teachers, schools and even its books of knowledge.

Now let’s deal with the last concern – Shariah law is inflexible. Again, this is not true. If it was inflexible, then we would see the same laws applied in Indonesia, in the Maldives, in the UAE and in Senegal. But these countries have very different applications of Islamic law. Those lawyers and judges who seek to apply the law have to take into consideration the following key principles – protection of faith (including churches, synagogues etc and their religious followers), life (all the people under their jurisdiction), wealth, intellect (the freedom to think which is akin to freedom of speech), family and honour (respect for the individual). These are very broad concepts. Most importantly, in protecting these 6 areas, jurists also have to respect the local culture. This is one of the main reasons why there is so much difference in the application of Islamic law from one country to another.

Considering that the population of Muslims in Australia is only 2% - why do we even care about ‘Shariah law’? It’s not likely that even with massive immigration, Australia will be at any risk from this area for a very long time. But Australia can benefit from being aware of Shariah law. Why?? Because it involves areas where Australia can gain economically. Between one fifth and one sixth of the world’s population is Muslim. Many of our trading partners are Muslim majority countries. In Australia we are benefitting hugely by being aware of and catering for the needs of those billions of Muslim people – through economics, food and fashion. Australia has begun to implement Islamic finance for some of our wealthy trading partners. Interest – or Usury as it was described for hundreds of years amongst Christians – is condemned because it makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer. Our global economy demonstrates this every day – most countries allocate most of their income into paying off accumulated interest loans, and in some cases it has caused the potential bankruptcy of whole nations. Islamic finance shares both the risk and the profit – and eliminates this unfair system of interest or usury.

In the area of food, Muslims must take the life of an animal only while remembering its Creator and following similar practices to those of the Jewish community. This has resulted in a huge halal trade – some of which has indeed been controversial. In fact, any deliberate or negligent mistreatment of an animal renders its slaughter not halal. Which actually means that educated Muslims in Australia also condemn much of what is currently happening in our halal export of animals. The next step in our halal industry is to focus on animal welfare – at all stages of their lives - which would make Australia truly a leader in the global halal industry. Lastly, Islamic fashion has really taken off in Australia and now represents a growing source of exports to many different parts of the world.

I hope in this (probably too long winded) blog, to try and address what I attempted to say in my half hour interview with ACA. And I’ll summarise it below:

  • Shariah law is far more concerned with the personal ethics and behaviour of a practising Muslim than it is with harsh punishment 
  • Shariah law is flexible, is based on principles that are contained in the Quran and Hadith, and must respect the local culture 
  • The principles that underpin Shariah law are largely the same as ‘Australian values’ although they are much more clearly defined
  • Muslims in Australia do not want the type of law that exists in a country like Saudi Arabia to be implemented here 
  • Part of the principles of Shariah law require that Muslims must respect the law of the land – they cannot take the law into their own hands -especially where it permits Muslims to fulfil their religious obligations of praying, fasting etc. 
  • There are only 2% of Muslims in Australia – there is no threat to Australia from such a tiny minority 
  • Australia has already and could increase its significant financial benefit from being aware of Islamic law in engaging in trade with its global trading partners. 
  • Australian Muslims do not want to implement 7th century legal practices in the 21st century

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