As the newly liberated Muslim countries from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya form new governments and institutions, one of the key questions becomes how far they will go to placate hardline Muslim forces.
The early signs from Libya are disappointing. Speaking today, Libya’s Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said the country’s legislature would have an Islamist tint and that any existing laws that contradict the teachings of Islam would be nullified. He outlined several changes in a major speech, including putting caps on interest rates on bank loans and lifting restrictions on the number of wives Libyan men can take. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, allows men up to four wives.
Sharia, which means “path’ in Arabic, is more than a legal code; it’s a guide for all aspects from Muslim’s life, from how to marry to how to eat. It’s derived from the Koran, and from Sunna’, the practices of the Prophet Mohammed.
Its rules have many interpretations, ranging from the hard-line Hanbali school, which, for instance, calls for stoning for such crimes as adultery, to the more liberal Hanafi school. The more liberal interpretations have been molded fairly successfully into otherwise secular and democratic countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The hard-line versions are virtually the law in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, where you will still hear of people having their hands cut off for stealing.
There are five hadd offenses – sex outside of marriage, false accusation of sex outside of marriage, alcohol drinking, theft and highway robbery, which bring specific punishments under the Koran. The punishments for those offenses are medieval: flogging, stoning, amputation, exile or execution. The case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the mother in Iran sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, attracted huge media attention worldwide, which likely helped lead to the commutation of her sentence by the Iranian judiciary.
But in practice, even countries that have those punishments on the books very rarely enforce them. Some Muslims, however, take the enforcement into their own hands, meting out cruel punishments, even against family members, with governments either encouraging the behavior or looking the other way. The U.N. estimates that thousands of women die every year in honor killings for alleged violations of traditional Islamic law.
The critical debate inside the Muslim world and out is how much, if any, of sharia law, is acceptable as the basis for modern legal systems.
Some countries, such as Indonesia, have gotten the balance much better than, say, Saudi Arabia. For some Muslims, it is no different than the Judeo-Christian ethic forming the foundation of Western law. One very prominent example is sharia’s ban on paying or charging interest on loans. The financial products that get around this rule to allow Muslims to get mortgages or credit cards is an enormous global business growing every year, with many of the firms based in Dubai.
The question remains whether Muslims newly free from dictatorship will have the same freedom from ancient religious law.