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Will Sharia law come to the West?

Understanding the Taliban and its goals

Members of the Taliban mark the second anniversary of their takeover of Afghanistan in Kabul on Aug. 15. Associated Press/Photo by Siddiqullah Alizai

Will Sharia law come to the West?
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The phrase “Sharia law” is commonly used in news reports, but “Sharia” is a mystery to many Westerners. The confusion surrounding it grew rapidly when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan two years ago, as its leaders vowed to adhere and apply Sharia by the letter.

In its recent application of Sharia, the Taliban further increased restrictions on Afghan women and girls and executed punishments on twelve Afghanis—three women and nine men—by publicly lashing them in a stadium near Kabul. The twelve were beaten between 21 and 39 lashes each, after a Sharia court accused and convicted them of theft and adultery.

This public implementation of Sharia wasn’t surprising. In a recent interview with one of Taliban’s founders, he stressed that Sharia is the law of the land and declared that “the foundation of Afghanistan’s laws will be the Quran.”

But most people, especially in the West, are confused: What is Sharia, really?

By definition, Sharia is Islamic law prescribed by Allah for humankind. For Muslims, Sharia is Allah’s will for Muslims and non-Muslims. It is a set of religious laws regarding worship and practices. Linguistically, the Arabic word “Sharia” denotes the right path, the correct method, and the satisfying water source—all are arguably positive notions. This is why cultural Muslims view anything related to Sharia in a positive way, without much emphasis on what that actually entails.

While this notion may sound appealing, there is a significant problem.

There is no book in Islam titled Sharia—no comprehensive document detailing the items of Allah’s Sharia. All Sharia-related matters are largely derived from many ancient religious books deemed sacred by Muslims and found mostly in Arabic. The end product is thus a man-made set of precepts and interpretations about life and worship.

But how do Muslims know Sharia in order to follow its precepts? They ask Muslim clerics and largely rely on the claims of the imam (leader) of their local mosque. This is why Muslim clerics are the arbiters of religious matters and laws. They control the knowledge of Sharia and its interpretations. They define Sharia and its rulings and then pass the knowledge to the masses.

Clerics often emphasize and elevate traditions they want to advance, while downplaying others.

Not surprisingly, clerics differ greatly in how they reveal and apply matters of Sharia. It largely depends on their sectarian leaning and political sympathy. Clerics often emphasize and elevate traditions they want to advance, while downplaying others. A cleric in America and another in Saudi Arabia may provide opposite rulings on a particular religious matter, because they are responding to their contexts and advancing the version of Islam they seek to promote. While there are clear areas of consensus among Muslims, many disagreements exist.

There are Muslims who insist that an apostate from Islam should be killed, while others advocate for religious liberty. Some believe gays must be stoned to death, while others claim Islam has no issues against homosexuality. You may even find Muslims who claim that Christians and Jews will be admitted into paradise, and others who contend that the religion for Allah is Islam—and only Islam—and any other religion is unacceptable.

But what about the Taliban?

While Sharia may be sophisticated and complex for many, this isn’t the case for the Taliban. For them, Sharia is absolutely clear and is based on a literal reading and application of the Quran as applied in the sayings of Muhammad. If the Quran states that husbands are a degree above their wives, this is precisely what the Taliban applies and follows. If it instructs that a male gets a double portion of the inheritance over that of a female, then this is the Taliban’s law of the land. If Muhammad reportedly viewed women as deficient in mind, the Taliban won’t miss the point and will adhere to it in public decisions.

This is why the Taliban recently announced that in the new Afghanistan, women will have rights “within the bounds of the Sharia.” This is why they oppress women.

With the growing number of Muslims in the West, many non-Muslims are concerned that Sharia might be possibly coming to their backyard soon. The fact is many Muslims are concerned too—they don’t want to re-live contexts only suitable for a seventh-century Arabian desert.

The Taliban is capable of applying Sharia and its punishments because the militant group is the sole unchallenged ruler of the land. In a time when many—especially in the West—work diligently to present a version of Islam appealing to postmodern norms, the Taliban pines to adhere to ancient texts and their rulings. These aren’t just old books for the Taliban—they are sacred and prescriptive. We have been warned.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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