Shariah hysteria? Calls for banning Islamic law continue

The movement to bar any reference to Islam’s legal code, known as Shariah, from the American judicial system is moving ahead even as it faces legal challenges in the courts.

In August, North Carolina became the seventh state to prohibit courts from considering Islamic law in their rulings, while earlier that month a federal judge in Oklahoma struck down an anti-Shariah state constitutional amendment that voters had overwhelmingly approved in 2010.

Legal and religious experts have tended to discount many of the concerns about Islamic law as overreactions or misreadings of the legal realities. They say Shariah (sometimes lowercase and/or spelled sharia) in the Western context is analogous to the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law or the laws of other religious groups that govern their internal workings. Such religious strictures cannot trump American laws, they say.

Still, arguments over the proper reading and role of Shariah – arguments that are part of any law code requiring interpretation — are sharp even within Islam, as experts differ as to whether Shariah is fair to women, for example, especially in Muslim countries where Islamic law holds sway. Others say these internal Islamic debates have also sharpened as the number of Muslims in the West grows.

The controversy is an opportunity for journalists to explain more about what Shariah is — and is not — and this edition of ReligionLink provides resources to help reporters write those stories.


Shariah is based on the Quran, the Islamic holy book that Muslims believe was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by an angel, and on sayings and practices attributed to the prophet. But Shariah as a body of laws did not develop until several centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D.

According to a backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations, the word Shariah means “path” in Arabic, and it “guides all aspects of Muslim life including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings.” A few governments, such as Saudi Arabia’s, base their legal systems on Shariah, but Shariah is mostly defined by Muslim scholars.

Concern over the adoption of Shariah in Western countries was sparked in 2005 when authorities in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, were considering whether to add Islamic law to a legal arbitration process that allowed Catholic and Jewish faith-based tribunals to settle family law matters such as divorce on a voluntary basis. There was such an outcry that the provincial government decided to scrap the faith-based program for all religions.

In February 2008, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, sparked a similar uproar in Great Britain when he suggested that the adoption of some aspects of Shariah in Britain “seems unavoidable.” Williams emphasized that Islamic law could never supplant an individual’s rights as a citizen, but he noted that other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws and he called for “constructive accommodation” with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

In September 2008 the controversy was revived when it emerged that as many as five Shariah courts were operating in Britain under government supervision.

The latest: articles and posts

Studies and reports


National sources

  • Khaled Abou El Fadl

    Khaled Abou El Fadl is an internationally recognized law professor and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He teaches a course on Islamic law and has also taught about Middle Eastern investment law, immigration law and human rights and terrorism. His books include Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, and he wrote the entry on Shariah for The Oxford University Handbook of Islam and Politics.

  • Abed Awad

    Abed Awad is a New Jersey lawyer specializing in Shariah-related cases. He calls the anti-Shariah movement un-American and unconstitutional.

  • Noah Feldman

    Noah Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School whose specialties include the relationship between law and religion. He gave the keynote address, “Persecution and the Art of Secrecy: An Interpretation of the Mormon Encounter with American Politics,” at a 2007 conference on Mormonism and American politics. He also wrote a July 22, 2007, essay in The New York Times Magazine (subscription required) titled “Orthodox Paradox,” about his drift away from the Orthodox Judaism of his youth. He has a doctorate in Islamic thought and is an expert on Middle East politics and Islamic constitutional law.

  • Robert W. Hefner

    Robert W. Hefner is an anthropology professor and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. Since 1991 he has also directed the institute’s program on Islam and society. His many books include (as editor) Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World and (as co-editor) Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education.

  • Paul Marshall

    Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., and has written or edited many books about religion and politics. He served as editor and contributor for Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law.

  • Khaleel Mohammed

    Khaleel Mohammed is an assistant professor of religion at San Diego State University who specializes in Islam, Islamic law and comparative religion. He teaches courses in world religions, the Quran, sex and gender in Islam, and Islamic bioethics. He has been trained as a jurist in both the Sunni and Shiite schools and posts his writings on the website For People Who Think.

  • Asifa Quraishi-Landes

    Asifa Quraishi-Landes is associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an expert on U.S. and Islamic law.

  • Nina Shea

    Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, based in Washington, D.C. She has been an international human-rights lawyer for more than three decades, and her areas of expertise include Islamic law and human rights. Contact through David Tell, director of public affairs and special projects.

    Shea has written several articles warning about Shariah, including this June 6, 2011, op-ed piece in The Daily Caller.

International sources

  • H. Patrick Glenn

    H. Patrick Glenn holds the Peter M. Laing Chair at McGill University’s law school in Montreal, Canada. His award-winning textbook Legal Traditions of the World includes sections on Talmudic, Islamic and Hindu legal traditions, among others, as well as on reconciling the various legal traditions.

  • Julie Macfarlane

    Julie Macfarlane is a law professor at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She has expertise in Islamic family law and is the author of Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari’a Path in a Secular Society.

  • Ingrid Mattson

    Ingrid Mattson holds the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at Western University in London, Ontario, where she studies Islamic ethics, Muslim women and Christian-Muslim relations. She previously taught at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where she developed the first accredited graduate program for Muslim chaplains in the U.S.


  • Jan Michiel Otto

    Jan Michiel Otto is professor of law and governance in developing countries and director of the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Development at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He is an expert on Shariah and edited the book Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present.

  • Ruud Peters

    Ruud Peters is professor of Arabic law and culture at the University of Amsterdam.  His research includes several books on Egyptian Islamic law.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Kecia Ali

    Kecia Ali is a professor of religion at Boston University. She wrote Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Her areas of expertise include progressive Islam and women, gender and Islamic law and Muslim societies. She taught a class in 2003 on marriage and divorce in Islamic law at Harvard University Divinity School.

  • Talal Asad

    Talal Asad is a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His expertise includes religion and secularism as part of modern Muslim societies, especially in the religious revival in the Middle East, and secular and modern influences on Shariah law.

  • Andrew Bostom

    Dr. Andrew Bostom is associate professor of medicine at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I. He has written several books about Islam, including Sharia Versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism.

  • Jonathan E. Brockopp

    Jonathan E. Brockopp is associate professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. He edited the book Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War and Euthanasia, and he wrote an article on Shariah for the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World.

  • John Esposito

    John Esposito is founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown. He is an expert on global terrorism, Islam and democracy, and international interfaith relations. His publications include Islamaphobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and Islam: The Straight Path; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; What Everyone Needs to Know About IslamWho Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think; and Women in Muslim Family Law.

  • Bernard K. Freamon

    Bernard K. Freamon is a law professor at Seton Hall University in Newark, N.J., where his teaching load includes courses on Islamic jurisprudence; law in the modern Middle East; and slavery, human trafficking and the law.

  • Mary Habeck

    Mary Habeck is an associate professor of strategic studies in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Her areas of expertise include American defense policy; Islamic religion, culture and law; military power and strategy; military history; strategic and security issues; and terrorism.

  • Muqtedar Khan

    Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. He has written about Islamic political thought and about the rise of political Christianity, through the Republican Party, in the United States. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom and Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Khan has said that Shariah is based on the same principles that shape Judeo-Christian values.

  • Kevin A. Reinhart

    Kevin A. Reinhart is an associate professor of Islamic religious studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. His expertise is on Islamic legal thought, primarily in the pre-modern period.

  • Isam Salah

    Isam Salah heads Islamic finance and investment at the New York law firm King & Spalding.

In the South

  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

    Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He is an expert on Islamic law, and his interests also include human rights, reproductive rights and women’s rights in Islam. He is a participating scholar with the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

  • Ihsan Bagby

    Ihsan Bagby is an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert in Islam and its history and practice in North America. He is one of the authors of the research report “The American Mosque 2011.”

    Bagby’s doctorate is in Near Eastern studies, with a specialty in Islamic law.

  • William G. “Jerry” Boykin

    Retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin held many posts during his Army career, including commander of the Green Berets and deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He is now an ordained minister and a conservative Christian political activist, serving as a leader of the North Carolina-based Kingdom Warriors Ministries. Boykin has generated controversy for making anti-Muslim comments and for charactering the war on terrorism in religious terms. He is one of the authors of a book titled Shariah: The Threat to America.

    Contact: 303-408-9992.
  • Vincent Cornell

    Vincent Cornell is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, and he has taught in numerous academic centers of Islam in the U.S. His expertise ranges widely, including Islamic thought, Sufism, philosophy and Islamic law.

  • Mahmoud El-Gamal

    Mahmoud El-Gamal is a professor of economics and statistics at Rice University in Houston and holds the endowed chair in Islamic economics, finance and management. He has published about Islamic transaction law and finance.

  • Brigitte Gabriel

    Brigitte Gabriel is founder and president of Act for America, which describes itself  as a “grassroots citizen action network dedicated to preserving national security and combating the threat of radical Islam.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists it as a hate group for what it terms anti-Islamic sentiment. The organization, which is based in Pensacola, Fla., lists the spread of Shariah as one of its concerns, and it has been active in several state efforts to restrict the use of foreign laws in American courts. Gabriel is a Lebanese immigrant.

  • C. Welton Gaddy

    The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.

    He has been interviewed about Shariah and says the debate boils down to religious freedom. Americans should consider the motivations of politicians who speak out on the subject, he says.

    Contact: 202-238-3300, 202) 466-0567.

In the Midwest

  • Liaquat Ali Khan

    Liaquat Ali Khan is a professor of law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. A native of Pakistan, he focuses his research on terrorism and conflict in Muslim societies. He has written extensively about Islamic law and in 2008 wrote an article for The American Muslim about Islamic perspectives on the economic meltdown.

  • Ahmed E. Souaiaia

    Ahmed E. Souaiaia is associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He teaches a course on Islamic law and is the author of Contesting Justice: Women, Islam, Law and Society.

  • Robert Vischer

    Robert Vischer is dean and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. His research interests explore the intersection of law, religion and public policy, and his books include Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State.

    Vischer wrote an essay on what he says are the dangers of anti-Shariah laws for the March 2012 issue of the journal First Things.

In the West

  • Robert Cochran Jr.

    Robert Cochran Jr. is Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law and director of the Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He is the editor of Faith and Law: How Religious Traditions From Calvinism to Islam View American Law.

  • Sherman Jackson

    Sherman Jackson holds the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, where he is also professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity. He was formerly the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihâb al-Dîn al-Qarâfî and Islam & the Problem of Black Suffering.

  • Russell Powell

    Russell Powell is associate professor of law at Seattle University. His expertise includes comparative religious jurisprudence, with particular interests in Catholic social thought and Islamic legal theory.

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