Twenty Pittsburgh attorneys, including many Jews, turned out Monday, Feb. 27, to learn about Shariah law in a one-time, three-hour course offered by the Agency for Jewish Learning, in partnership with the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
The course, which offered continuing legal education credit to its attendees, featured guest lecturer Haider Ala Hamoudi, assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the AJL.
The course was intended to clear up “a lot of misconceptions about Shariah as a legal system,” Aaron said.
For instance, “Most Americans encounter Shariah only through the media, when some extremist issues a fatwa justifying the murder of innocents as an act of Jihad or permitting ‘honor killings’ of women for embarrassing their families,” Aaron said. “This kind of sensationalist perception overshadows the reality that Shariah is a rich, diverse and nuanced legal system for daily Islamic life in much the same way that Halacha is for daily Jewish life.”
In fact, Aaron sees several parallels between Halacha and Shariah:
• Both historically developed in close physical and geographic proximity to each other in a “state of symbiosis;”
• Both are relevant to all areas of human behavior;
• Both distinguish between areas associated with religious ritual and those relating to private law; and
• Both distinguish between matters concerning man and God and matters concerning interpersonal relations.
“In the United States, the parallels between Shariah and Halacha have much to teach us about what we historically have in common between our two ancient communities, which can in turn be used to build a dialogue between our two American communities,” Aaron said. There is a parallel in our shared American immigrant experience that can be informative as well; 100 years ago we were the immigrants and American Judaism developed along denominational paths in response to our immigration and Americanization experience. Now, the Muslims are immigrating here and need to develop their own American Islam in response to their immigration and Americanization experience.
“If we refuse to engage them along the way or hold them at arms length,” he added, “we run the risk of causing the same alienation of this minority by the majority that our own community experienced as we immigrated here. American history teaches us that we all have much more to gain from co-existence here than alienation.”
While Shariah is very “rules-based,” Hamoudi noted in his lecture, the Quran itself, the holy book of Islam, contains only about two dozen rules.
All other rules of Islam have derived through the centuries, Hamoudi said, through two schools of thought: discretion and reason, and Sunnah — an Islamic legal intepretation based on a chain of narrators.
“The idea that took over was that you go by not only by the Quran, but by the Sunnah,” Hamoudi said. “You can’t go by reason or discretion. You do it by a chain of narrators. You try to locate someone who heard from someone who heard from someone who heard from someone who heard from the prophet.”
The problems inherent in this system are obvious, according to Hamoudi.
“Fans of reason had a big problem with Sunnah,” he said, “because if any one of the narrators [in the chain] lies, you have made these authorities a source higher than reason.”
Hamoudi discussed other sources of Shariah law, including rules formed by a consensus among a panel of jurists.
Although there are several methods in Islam of forming and interpreting rules outside of those mandated in the Quran, “there is not a consensus on everything,” Hamoudi said. “Differing interpretations are equally valid. That kind of pluralism is embraced in Shariah.”
The embracing of pluralism in terms of defining the law in Shariah, however, has led to some problems, Hamoudi said, including confusion as to which authority one should turn.
“Disaffected and angry youth,” who do not have a community jurist to which to turn, often seek out answers on the Internet, where inappropriate interpretations are often espoused.
“This is really a crisis in Sunni Islam,” Hamudi said. “Part of our problem is bad press, but part of the problem is internal to us.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)