Shari`a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics

Shari`a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics

Shari`a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics

Shari`a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics


Many Muslim societies are in the throes of tumultuous political transitions, and common to all has been heightened debate over the place of shari'a law in modern politics and ethical life. Bringing together leading scholars of Islamic politics, ethics, and law, this book examines the varied meanings and uses of Islamic law, so as to assess the prospects for democratic, plural, and gender-equitable Islamic ethics today. These essays show that, contrary to the claims of some radicals, Muslim understandings of Islamic law and ethics have always been varied and emerge, not from unchanging texts but from real and active engagement with Islamic traditions and everyday life. The ethical debates that rage in contemporary Muslim societies reveal much about the prospects for democratic societies and a pluralist Islamic ethics in the future. They also suggest that despite the tragic violence wrought in recent years by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq, we may yet see an age of ethical renewal across the Muslim world.


Robert W. Hefner

In recent years many Muslim-majority societies have undergone complex and difficult political transitions. As in Indonesia and Tunisia, some of these passages have been from authoritarian rule to a significant measure of democracy and citizen rights. As in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, however, other transitions began with hope but soon gave rise to a barrage of state and societal violence that left the national landscape anything but civil or democratic.

Whatever the precise course of events, common to all these transitions has been heightened debate over the role of shari`a law and Islamic ethics in politics and social life. Across the world today, prominent Muslim democrats invoke shari`a and Islamic values to justify calls for democracy, pluralist tolerance, and gender equality (see Abou el Fadl 2001, 2004; Moosa 2001; Ramadan 2009). At the same time, however, radical movements such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram in West Africa cite what they insist are shari`a principles to legitimize rejection of democracy, enslavement of non-Muslim women, and mass killing of so-called apostates. Two generations ago, the idea that disputes over the forms and meanings of Islamic law and ethics might figure prominently in Muslim politics would have struck most observers as unthinkable—but no longer. the pervasiveness of appeals to shari`a in today’s upheavals, as well as the existence of conflicting interpretations of Islamic values, shows that understanding the struggles of the Muslim world requires a coming to terms with the varied meanings and uses of Islamic law and ethics.

The chapters in this book aim to provide just such an understanding. They are the product of a two-year collaboration that began in March 2013 with a workshop at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and that ended in early 2015. the collaborators in this project came together in response to modern changes in politics and ethics in the Muslim world. in early 2011, the transitions collectively known as the “Arab Spring” had just gotten under way. Notwithstanding initially encouraging events, reform-minded proponents of democracy and citizenship in many lands soon found themselves challenged by rivals who dismissed democracy as being incompatible with Islam . . .

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