Maya Evans' diary

IssueJune 2008
Comment by Maya Evans

The recent media frenzy over Islamic law has produced the common reaction from non-Muslims in this country - a collective shudder and the assumption that sharia means stoning women and beheading criminals, an idea that the archbishop of Canterbury was trying to challenge.

I couldn't help feeling the response to Rowan Williams's speech was just another example of the double-standard reaction the mass media usually displays towards Islam.

An old school friend who is a practising Muslim pointed out to me that the hardline interpretation of sharia law is just never going to happen in a non-Muslim country.

She thought allowing people to use some laws relating to marital disputes and financial matters would be useful, and to an extent this already happens.

Indeed this is more or less what the archbishop was saying and, after all, orthodox Judaism has similar powers in this country with the beth din rabbinical courts.

For hundreds of years orthodox Jews have been able to deal with divorces or litigation through the beth din, which can make binding judgements in civil (but not criminal) disputes.

Double standards

There are those like Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who responded to Rowan Williams's speech by saying: “Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another.”

But, as the archbishop said, there are already other practicing religious legal systems in this country. Equality means treating everyone the same; Muslims should have the rights as other religious groups.

British Muslims should have the right to choose to deal with some civil matters in a sharia court, if they want to, as happens with the beth din courts.

Rowan Williams also made the very sensible point that “adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law could help social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.”

At a point in history where most of this country's aggressive foreign policy is directed towards Muslim countries and much domestic legislation more often than not directly affects Muslims in particular, I think something definitely needs to be done to help social cohesion.

Practical religion

I think what struck me most about Islam when I first encountered it in my early teens was how practical it was. In terms of everyday living Islam has the most detail of all the major religions.

This could be due to text being written down while Muhammad was still alive, or perhaps because, relatively speaking, it's the newest of the world religions, or, as I like to think, it's because Muhammad was a highly practical individual who liked to cover every eventuality.

Indeed the story of how the Qu'ran (“Koran”) was revealed fits in with this theory; Muhammad prayed for revelations when a problem was placed before him.

A code for living

I have a colleague who lives by the gospel “never take the risk of doing an arrestable action unless you're completely willing and prepared to be arrested”.

Very wise and practical thinking but if carried out to the letter it makes for a rather restricted lifestyle.

I feel that in some ways the originators of Islam were so conscientious in providing a guide to living that some measures which today seem rather extreme were the result of someone trying to produce a foolproof method of living, ensuring against bad things happening before they happen.

As it says on the BBC website, sharia is actually much more than criminal law, it's “a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, including prayers, fasting and donations to the poor.”

Having said that, in the Qu'ran, there are extreme punishments for people who commit adultery, theft and so on. I don't condone them in any way but I feel they were intended as deterrent punishments, not to be used day-to-day.

I think the idea was that crime just wouldn't happen if you had a population of practising Muslims in a practising Islamic country. (I don't think there are now, or have ever been, any countries that actually represent what Muhammad intended.)

Why would you commit adultery if your spouse is a good practising Muslim? Why would you steal when it's obligatory in Islam for Muslims to provide charity to the poor?

In theory, crime in an Islamic country should never occur - as in all utopias.

Muslims for freedom

I'm reading a book based on Gallup polls called Who Speaks for Islam - What a Billion Muslims Really Think (by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed) which reports that majorities in most of the ten Muslim-majority countries surveyed do want “sharia” as at least “a” source of legislation.

But, at the same time, a majority in all these countries also supports freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.

Only a minority of Muslims in each country wanted religious leaders to be directly in charge of drawing up constitutions, determining legislation or setting foreign policy.

The majority of the Muslims polled also supported a woman's right to vote, drive and work outside the home.

So most Muslims understand “sharia law” in a more complicated and less oppressive way than non-Muslims seem to think.

The Muslim “Live 8”

A few months ago, with the same Muslim friend, I went to an event described as “the Muslim Live 8”. Several Islamic music acts played at Wembley Arena with Sami Yusuf - “Islam's rock star” - headlining. There were televised speeches by David Cameron and Gordon Brown who said how proud they were of British Muslims, and how much they wanted to help Muslim countries like Darfur.

The reactions from the 60,000-strong crowd was fairly mild with some low-level booing. It felt like I was the only one shouting: “What about Iraq and Afghanistan”.

The mood of the crowd was won back by compère Sarah Joseph who argued that we needed to work with our government in order to make things better for Muslims in this country and abroad.

The evening had an extremely positive feel to it, interestingly. It was used as an opportunity for Muslims to say: “We are British Muslims and proud.”

The greater jihad

When thinking back to my experiences of Islam as a teenager I remember the feeling of compassion I encountered from the Muslims I knew.

I was also struck by their honesty and sincerity in trying to be good Muslims; probably most of all I remember their constant striving for humility.

The prophet Muhammad once said: “The greater jihad is within,” and isn't that the truth, the struggle to overcome bad things within ourselves.

Topics: Islamophobia
See more of: Maya Evans diary