Why the present push for Sharî`a?

We cannot afford to ignore the complicated mixture of motives behind the push for Sharî`a. Commentators have pointed out the political opportunism involved, whether to destabilize the Obasanjo regime, or distract from domestic problems. The people themselves may think of Sharî`a as a divine means of uplifting their economic and social situation. But we cannot deny that many see it as a way of practicing their religion in a more authentic way and thereby win God's favour.

What is Sharî`a

Here it is in these two CD-ROMs. One is the Qur'ân, the other contains all the collections of Hadîth, all of it: Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Nisa'i, Dawud, Maja, Ahmad ibn-Hanbal, Malik ibn-Anas, and Darimi, which amount to 40 volumes on my bookshelf. As for the Qur'ân, all Muslims accept it as the fundamental book of God's rules for Muslims. As for the Hadîth, there is considerable dispute as to which ones are authentic and their status as another form of divine revelation apart from the Qur'ân. I have another book here, the Risâla of Ibn-Abî-Zayd al-Qayrawânî, which I translated and was published by the Islamic Educational Trust in Minna. Many people take this book and also the Mukhtasar of Khalîl ibn-Ishâq as Sharî`a, and that is what they want to implement. But it is not Sharî`a; it is fiqh. Fiqh is a human attempt to summarize and interpret Sharî`a.

A lot passes for Sharî`a which is not Sharî`a, but only fiqh, such as prohibiting women from riding an okada. In matters of fiqh we find Muslims divided in their opinions. This is not a matter of scandal. God's mercy allows for differences of opinion: الاختلاف من الرحمة (Ahmad Ibn-Hanbal, الفقه الأكبر). Let us look at some other examples:

Implications for Christians

The Risâla says: "An apostate (murtadd) should be put to death, unless he repents. He should be given three days to repent." This law is not only against the Nigerian Constitution which recognizes the right of people to choose or change their religion as they like, but it is also against international standards of human rights. The Governor of Zamfara State is quoted as saying that this part of "Sharî`a" cannot be enforced by the Zamfara State, because it is against the Constitution, but the families will carry out this provision and the State will look the other way. Against this criminal attitude, we find another Muslim, Muhammad Talbi, in a text reproduced in this book (Views), arguing that the Qur'ân provides no hadd for apostasy, and that the hadîths which support it are not authentic. He insists on the Qur'ânic principle لا إكراه في الدين -there should be no compulsion in religion, and urges Muslims everywhere to stand by this principle in the matter of choice of religion.

On the matter of women wearing veils and being separated from men, the Catholic Church appreciates and respects Muslims' insistence on chastity and modesty. Here again the books on fiqh are far more detailed and specific than the Qur'ân, and many people, both Muslims and Christians, think that some provisions are extreme, such as prohibiting women from driving or leaving them stranded because they cannot enter transport with men. There are many styles of dress which are modest. My mother never wore a veil, and I think she was a very modest woman. A Muslim woman once explained to me that she does not feel at all immodest without a veil, but she wears it as an identity symbol, like Catholic reverend sisters who wear a veil so that they can be identified. So I respect Muslim women who wear the veil, but I also think they should not look down on other women who do not wear it.

Also in the matter of alcohol, some Christian groups agree with the Muslims that any sip of alcoholic drink is a sin, but the Catholic Church has never been party to that view. The Catholic understanding of the Bible is that there is such a thing as drinking in moderation, and that only drinking to excess or drunkenness is a sin, even though some Catholics will not touch alcohol because they want to do penance or they are afraid they will be carried away by it. From the time Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana to the present day, I have never seen a Catholic wedding where alcoholic wine was not served. So we expect Muslims and others to respect our God-given right to take a drink, and to make, sell and distribute it among ourselves.

There are many other features of fiqh, which most people take as Sharî`a, which discriminate severely against Christians and make them second-class citizens. The texts are given in this book, Views. For example:

`Umar ibn-al-Khattâb wrote that any church which was built after the coming of Islam should be destroyed, and he forbade any new church to be built. He also commanded that the exterior of a church should not be such as to attract attention, and if any cross is displayed outside the church it should be broken over the head of the owner of the church.

What kind of language is that? When Muslims claim that Sharî`a is only for Muslims, Nigerian Christians do not believe them, because they are aware of these provisions and they know that Muslims want the whole of Sharî`a and not a truncated Sharî`a. The only way Muslims can quiet Christian opposition to Sharî`a is to prove that Sharî`a and fiqh are different, and that Sharî`a does not include these ghastly laws. But the politicians who pushed for Sharî`a did nothing of the sort. I dare say they do not even know what Sharî`a is. They simply recklessly plunged ahead without doing any homework as to what Sharî`a includes and does not include, and what exactly are its implications for Christians.

Implications for Muslims

We can ask, why should Sharî`a be institutionalized at a government level? Let us look at the various areas of Sharî`a. Muslims are bound to profess their faith, to pray, fast, give zakât, and go on pilgrimage if they are able. There is no need to bring government into these matters, unless to facilitate pilgrimages and allow time to pray and the construction of mosques. The same applies to dress code, and rules on eating, drinking and good manners.

When it comes to making or breaking marriages, and to inheritance, there is need for some hearing and adjudication, in other words a Sharî`a court. But I ask, why bring in the government? Cannot the Muslim community organize its own non-governmental courts? St. Paul (1 Cor 6:1-2) tells Christians to settle their disputes internally and not bring them to government courts. So the Catholic Church has its own Canon Law courts and appeal courts to handle marriage cases and some other matters. It has judges and other officials who work under the authority of the bishop only and do not receive any salary from the government. In the South where there are no government Sharî`a courts, I should expect Muslims would set up their own internal courts to handle marriage, inheritance and any internal disputes.

Criminal matters are the most controversial. Here again we find the usual confusion between Sharî`a and fiqh. The single Qur'ân verse (5:38) is not clear in its application:

وَالسَّارِقُ وَالسَّارِقَةُ فَاقْطَعُوا أَيْدِيَهُمَا جَزَاءً بِمَا كَسََا نَكَالًا مِنَ اللَّهِ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

If a penalty is expected to be proportionate to the offence, we have to ask ourselves "Is a cow more valuable than a hand?" Do we leave such decisions to the arbitrary judgement of an alkali that may differ from town to town and day to day? Rather than blanket Sharî`a, Muslim countries like Egypt saw the need to draw up a code of laws that would enshrine reasonable and consistent interpretations of Sharî`a. Last December they passed a new family law that gives wider rights to women. It was and still is hotly debated. But without such a law no woman would know what to expect in court. Also Sharî`a has only some broad principles about government, but a modern state needs a constitution that clearly states the divisions of powers, terms of office, qualification for office and voting, and many other things. So many Muslims prefer a Sharî`a inspired code to an undefined, open ended Sharî`a.

I have another question. It is sometimes asserted that even a Muslim is not bound to be tried by a Sharî`a court and according to Sharî`a laws, but he can opt for a magistrate court. I wonder if those who are being lashed in Gusau were given any option. Or is the government being used to enforce religious discipline? There have always been laws and police to curb criminal behaviour. The novelty of state adoption of Sharî`a seems to be that the machinery of the state is being harnessed to force Muslims to remain in their religion and live up to it. It is as if you cannot trust Muslims to be Muslims without someone standing behind them with a big stick. Yet in places like the United States you find the Muslim community prospering and growing without any government chaperoning.

This brings me to the conclusion that government adoption and enforcement of religious laws is a form of إكراه في الدين, compulsion in religion, which the Qur'ân condemns (2:256). Yes, let the laws of the land be inspired by the religious conscience of its people, both Muslims and Christians, but any adoption of religious law as such is a denial of religious freedom to both Muslims and Christians.

Let me close with an inspiring passage from the Qur'ân (27:91-93):

إِنَّمَا أُمِرْتُ أَنْ أَعْبُدَ رَبَّ هَذِهِ الْبَلْدَةِ الَّذِي حَرَّمَهَا وَلَهُ كُلُّ شَيْءٍ وَأُمِرْتُ أَنْ أَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَأَنْ أَتْلُوَ الْقُرْءَانَ فَمَنِ اهْتَدَى فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ وَمَنْ ضَلَّ فَقُلْ إِنَّمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُنْذِرِينَ وَقُلِ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ سَيُرِيكُمْ ءَايَاتِهِ فَتَعْرِفُونَهَا وَمَا رَبُّكَ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ