In Egypt elections for president today, the role of Islam in
government is a big question. But a freedom-based interpretation of
sharia can support democracy in the Arab world. Such a form of
sharia in the early stages of the Iran Revolution set a precedent -
before it was snuffed out.
The role of Islam in government is a big question in today's
presidential election in Egypt.The leading candidates are debating
it, and so are people struggling for freedom across the Arab world.
Can their largely democratic and human rights-oriented demands be
met with Islamic sharia?
The word sharia has at least three meanings with a variety of
interpretations. It can refer to the principles of religion - rather
than a dictate; the laws expressed by God in the sacred texts of
Islam; and the understandings that Muslim legal scholars arrive at
through a particular methodology of reasoning (fatwas). Even within
these definitions, there are competing interpretations.
Traditionalist readings, which largely reflect the cultural norms
and values of patriarchal societies and despotic political systems,
dominate in the Muslim Middle East. In countries such as Iran and
Saudia Arabia, sharia oppresses women and metes out violent,
retributive, medieval justice. This is clearly no option for
Alternative interpretations emphasize the role of law and faith
in extending and defending human rights. Such interpretations might
offer new possibilities. But what would they look like?
One example is the early process of Islamization of the Iranian
government after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 - when freedom-
based sharia made a brief appearance, even as it competed with a
Still, during the first two years of the revolution, there was a
strong showing of sharia based on passages in the Quran that freedom
is the essence of all living beings, and that the ultimate purpose
of law is to protect both human life and the environment from all
forms of despotism and violence.
These views are grounded in three Quran-based principles that are
particularly relevant for today's emerging Muslim democracies.
First, there is to be no compulsion of religious beliefs. While
this principle is inspired by the Quran (chapter 2, verse 256), in
modern law making it would form the basis for protecting religious
freedoms and belief in general, by removing imposition on any type
of belief. Or, as the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas has pointed
out, there must be freedom of all discourse, including for religious
fundamentalists to express themselves. …