People praying at the Muslim Ban protest in Boston, MA in 2017. (Flickr/Eric Sangurima)

What if we understood Shariah for what it is — a source of compassion?

Author Sumbul Ali-Karamali joins Nonviolence Radio to discuss the true meaning and rich history of Shariah — a profoundly misunderstood and misrepresented term.
People praying at the Muslim Ban protest in Boston, MA in 2017. (Flickr/Eric Sangurima)

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Author Sumbul Ali-Karamali comes to Nonviolence Radio this week to talk about her latest book, “Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country.” Together she, Stephanie Van Hook and Michael Nagler discuss the true meaning and rich history of Shariah, a term which is often profoundly misunderstood and misportrayed in mainstream media.

Far from being a rigid set of religious rules which violently challenge our most basic human rights, Sumbul Ali-Karamali reveals Shariah to be a source of compassionate guidelines to be continually interpreted and reinterpreted, an evolving understanding of Islam itself, which is “meant to be flexible and adaptable according to culture and time.”

Stephanie: This is not your first time being on Nonviolence Radio. You came on about four years ago when you were on tour with your other book, “The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.” I remember talking to you because it was just, I think, the same day that Donald Trump was elected, and it was just a few days before your interview.

We had a very long conversation about the values of the United States at this time and what this all means. Now it’s four years later and you’re back on the show to talk to us about “Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country.” Welcome back.

Sumbul: Thank you so much for having me.

Stephanie: And how have those four years been for you?

Sumbul: Eventful. It’s interesting that you mentioned the election of Donald Trump because my publisher for “Demystifying Shariah” actually delayed the book a little bit so that it would be published in 2020 because, of course, it’s an election year, and because Islamophobia actually spikes in election year, so they wanted to have it come out in 2020 so that it would be sort of an antidote.

Of course, none of us anticipated the pandemic or the wildfires or all the other things that have been happening. But there is certainly also some Islamophobia rising in the background, so it’s apropos that you mentioned the election.

Islamophobia, first of all, is a problematic term. It’s the most commonly used, which is why I use it but phobia tends to put us in mind of an illness or irrationality and so there are problems with the term. A lot of people actually have started to call it anti-Muslim prejudice or anti-Muslim hatred or anti-Muslim racism. And as I’m sure you know, racisms are not necessarily attached to race or to biology, they are constructs. But either of those terms is fine.

The reason that anti-Muslim prejudice or Islamophobia spikes in election years is that politicians know that fearmongering gets votes. This is not a new thing, right? This has happened throughout history in all countries. They know that if they make people fearful then people will rally around them. This certainly happened in 2016 when Donald Trump was scaring people, talking about Mexicans coming over the border who were criminals and rapists — remember, he said that? And he talked about the Muslim ban, and of course, he did implement the Muslim ban. He knows, as other politicians know, that fear means votes. That’s why it spikes in election years.

It often has to do with Shariah. This year in particular, there are two women – and I always hate to mention them because I don’t want to give them any more airtime than I have to — but Marjorie Taylor Greene and Laura Loomer are both political candidates. Greene has said that anybody who believes in Shariah should not be in government. She has told representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib to go home, to go back to the Middle East, even though they are not from the Middle East.

It’s politically useful to talk about Shariah as a scary, draconian, harsh Islamic law that’s going to take over our country, which of course, is impossible.

Stephanie: You said the first title of the book was going to be, “Shariah in America,” and then you said, “Well, that’s a ridiculous title.” Why?

Sumbul: Yeah, it was provisionally titled, “Shariah in America,” and then I envisioned a book full of blank pages because there is no Shariah in America! At least it’s not taking over our country. And the reason for that, of course, is that we have the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits any religious law from taking over the country.

Can I tell you a story? The reason I started writing this book is because, several years ago, I was at a Stanford reunion and there was an alumni author’s event at the bookstore. So, I was standing by a table with a pile of my books on it hopefully, optimistically thinking maybe somebody would come and buy a book and I could autograph it.

This older couple who were there for their 50th college reunion came up to me and they said, “Oh, you look so nice. You look like someone we could talk to. We’re really afraid that Shariah law is taking over the United States.” I thought, “Okay, what part of that do I answer first?” I said, “No, it can’t actually because of our constitution and no religious law can take over the United States.” And they said, “Well, Rush Limbaugh said it could,” and they walked away without buying a book.

So I thought, “I need to address this” — these are educated people and there’s a vast, vast ignorance about this topic, which incidentally, was nowhere in existence in the public discourse when I wrote my first book. My first book came out in 2008 and nobody had heard of this word, “Shariah.” It’s an Islamic academic term, yet in 2010, it was all over the place and there were anti-Shariah protests, and people like this couple were coming up to me at the Stanford bookstore. There’s a reason for that.

People think of these things as accidental, people often think, “Oh, the way that public discourse develops is an accidental thing – spontaneous.” But in this case, it was very intentional. In 2010, which was also the year of the Ground Zero Mosque hysteria, there was a rise in hate crimes against Muslims, and what was interesting is that there had been no terrorism carried about by Muslims. There hadn’t been anything objective that would be a reason for hate crimes to rise. What happened though was two things, and one was the Ground Zero Mosque hysteria.

The other thing was that a man named David Yerushalmi, who is part of the loosely connected Islamophobia network, decided that he wanted to introduce the idea of a scary Islamic law taking over the United States. It’s been documented by several reports, one is called, “Fear Inc.” by the Center for American Progress.

He’s a lawyer, he knows this is not possible, but he wanted to introduce the idea and scare people into fomenting fear about Muslims. He went to state legislatures and said, “You need anti-Shariah legislation to stop Islamic law from taking over the country — that’s what you need.” And he was wildly successful, he made a lot of money. I think to date 14 states have enacted anti-Shariah legislation which is a colossal waste of time because there’s no need for it and it’s unconstitutional.

The American Bar Association has come out very forcefully against these anti-Shariah laws because there are major constitutional problems with them. They also get in the way of the court system, the way the courts interpret treaties and international law and all this other stuff.

So it’s not a good thing, and the purpose was simply to introduce this idea. And David Yerushalmi was really successful; now, everybody knows what Shariah is, and a lot of people, like this older couple, are scared of it. They think of it as something that’s poised to take over the United States. They think that Muslims have to impose Shariah on other people. In fact, USA Today just about a week or two ago, had a report of social media posts going viral. These social media posts were claiming that if police departments were defunded then Shariah militias were poised to impose Shariah law on everyone. It was unbelievable.

Michael: Sumbul this is fascinating. The panel that I was on, one of the speakers was Erica Chenoweth whom you may have heard of. She did ground-breaking work on documenting the success rates of violent vs nonviolent insurrections. Anyway, when she started that work – even recently as 10 years ago — a lot of people were saying that social media were a tremendous help to insurrectionary movements. But by now they’re a tremendous hindrance.

Sumbul: Oh, that’s interesting.

Michael: And it’s because of something she called, “Authoritarian learning.” You know, when progressive people learn how to use a particular technique, non-progressive people are quick to recognize that and take advantage of it. The conclusion that I’ve been drawing — and it’s really kind of something I’ve been saying all along — is don’t think technology is going to make the difference.

Sumbul: Yeah, well that’s interesting because Facebook was integral in the Arab uprisings.

Michael: Yeah, especially in Cairo.

Sumbul: It’s interesting how our media works too, right? We all know that Egypt almost had a democracy yet it didn’t work, but very few people talk about Tunisia. Tunisia has been a success story, pretty much. They had a peaceful revolution. They have a democracy in place. Obviously there’s going to be growing pains, but there have been lots of success stories coming out of Tunisia.

Michael: If I may, Sudan isn’t all that bad either.

Sumbul: Yes, exactly. It’s interesting because there’s a real lack of understanding of the difference between politics and religion and religious politics. It’s interesting to me. I just saw in The Conversation, which is written by academics, about how far-right extremism is much more of a threat right now in the United States than what they call Islamist extremism.

I’m always so frustrated when they say, “Islamist,” because I don’t hear that about people who blow up abortion clinics, I don’t hear them described as Christianist, even though they are acting from religious motivations – I mean, if they said “Muslim terrorists,” that would be acceptable. Islamist implies that they’re extremists who are trying to implement Islam somehow, or to impose Islam, or they’re acting according to Islamic values — which is not true because terrorism violates Islam. And that’s a very clear tenet.

One of the things that I talk about in this book is that many people don’t really understand what Shariah means. When they hear movements, say in the Arab uprisings, where people are talking about bringing back Shariah, they’re terrified because they don’t really know what that means.

Michael: Could you say a bit about what it does mean?

Sumbul: Yes, I would love to. I was listening to the radio a few years ago and I heard a Financial Times reporter who had gone to Syria where he asked some Syrians on the street, “Are you in favor of Shariah?” And they said, “Well, yes.” I mean, they’re Muslim, of course, they’re in favor of Shariah! And this guy said, “Well, what about stoning and cutting off hands?” And they looked at him like, “What are you talking about? Nobody is having their hands cut off.”

And the reporter said, “Oh, these people — they’re Muslim and they don’t even know what Shariah is.” It made me laugh because I thought, “Well, did this reporter know what Shariah was?” There’s this huge disconnect.

Let me describe briefly how it works. Shariah is an Arabic word that literally means, “The road to water,” or, “the road to the watering place.” And of course, if you’re in the desert where Islam originated, then the road to the watering place is the road that you want to be on. In religious terms it means the right path, the righteous path, the path that God wants you to be on. So you might consider Shariah to mean the path of God. So it’s divine, whatever it is – it is the path of God. It’s divine because it’s what God wants.

For early Muslims the question arose: how do we know what the path of God is? How do we know what to do to be on the path of God, to be on the righteous path? So early Muslims started to interpret the religious texts which are the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, and the Sunna, which are the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. They started to interpret these religious texts and come up with new rules. This is actually very similar to the Jewish Halacha.

So you have the Qur’an, which is the holy book, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, and this huge body of interpretive material that interprets the religious texts and comes up with new rules.

And this religious – this interpretative material — is called Fiqh. What’s interesting is the Fiqh is not a set of laws. It’s actually thousands and thousands of books of debates and arguments and opinions about what the answers to the religious questions are. In Islamic history, Islamic scholars actually agreed on very few of these answers.

I think Jonathon Brown is a professor at Georgetown, he says, “Only about 1 percent of issues were agreed upon by all the Islamic scholars.” There was a consensus, in other words, on only about 1 percent. That means that 99 percent of Islamic law is variable, you can go with one interpretation or another or another. And so there’s often more than one answer to questions in the Fiqh.

The problem with the word “Shariah” then is that it doesn’t have a fixed meaning. It could mean the path of God, but it can also mean this whole legal tradition in Islam which is the Qur’an and the words and deeds of the prophet and the Fiqh, and the interpretative writings.

What’s confusing about that is that while Shariah may be divine, being the path of God, the Fiqh which is the interpretive writing, has always developed and changed — and it’s always meant to change. It was always meant to be flexible and adaptable according to culture and time. The people who imply that Muslims are following 8th century, 9th century Islamic law — it’s really silly. It’s like saying that all questions follow 9th century canon law when in fact, religions change and religious laws change. And Shariah is not law the way we think of law, right? It’s a set of religious guidelines, essentially. It’s not meant to be rigid and enforceable.

So it’s a complicated thing. Islamic history for 1,000 years, the legal system was based on Shariah because it was within a Muslim civilization, but even then it was not actually imposed on religious minorities. People followed the rules, that is, a set of sort of administrative rules; rules of taxation and markets and stuff like that. But personal religious rules were followed by people according to whatever their religion was.

Michael: I’ve got a couple things to ask or point out. For one thing, even the Sufis, like Rumi for example, they came from a juridical tradition. They rose as jurists. And of course, their interpretation of Islam, of Shariah was extremely benevolent.

Sumbul: Yeah. When people who are Muslim ask me, “What should I say I people ask me what Shariah is?” I don’t know what to say because we didn’t grow up having to learn these academic terms. What I say is, “If you only have three seconds, then say, ‘Shariah just means Islam.’” Because really, it does. If it means the Qur’an and the words and deeds of the prophet and the interpretative writings on the religious texts, well, that’s all Islam. That’s what Islam is made up of.

And yes, the focus is on the legal tradition, the legal aspect, but that’s pretty much the sum total of Islam. When Marjorie Taylor Greene says that Muslims who believe in Shariah shouldn’t be in government, that’s really silly because it’s just like saying Muslims shouldn’t believe in Islam or else they shouldn’t be in government. But you’d be hard put to find any Muslims who didn’t believe in Islam!

The Sufis have a different direction, rather than being a sect. In Sufism, the focus is on the spiritual, on the mystical. But in history there have been Sufis who have led military campaigns. There’s a lot of overlap and a lot of blurring between these distinctions, but pretty much everybody, all Muslims, believe in Shariah because it’s Islam. It’s the way of God so we have to believe in it. When people are afraid of Shariah, what they focus on are the rules that were in the Fiqh that were really products of the medieval period or the classical period or late antiquity.

The interpretative writings, of course, have old and outdated rules in them — but what religion doesn’t have old and outdated rules? These things change as time changes. And as far as the legal tradition goes, it’s still changing too. One of my professors said that the Shariah-based legal system is the longest in the history of humanity because it still continues. It still continues to change and develop.

It was disrupted by colonialism; about 90 percent of Muslims lands were under colonial rule. What that did was to disrupt the development of Islamic law and it defunded Islamic institutions, Islamic educational institutions. When, for example, Judaism and Christianity were developing in response to the industrial revolution, Islam was subjugated and was unable to do the same. So  there’s some catching up to do.

But there’s reason for hope. Since the 70s, there’s been a lot more development of Islamic law that is happening, there are many more women scholars starting in the 70s. And there’s been sort of a reinterpretation of Islamic texts, kind of rewinding the patriarchal interpretations of the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries.

It’s really interesting what is happening. And I think it’s important – Michael, going to be to your mention of the Sufis, I think it’s important to understand that when we say Islamic law, it’s not really law. Sometimes there’s this dichotomy between the legal tradition and the Sufi tradition and I don’t feel like they’re that different because everything is about how to behave, to be in accordance with God, how to be a good person. Most of Shariah is about personal religious conduct, like how to pray.

Michael: Yeah, it sounds to me, not terribly unlike the Hindu concept of dharma which means exactly that: how a person should behave. But it also has what they call a marked meaning of law, like the Manava Dharmasastra means the laws of Manu and so forth. It has exactly those two ranges of interpretation.

Sumbul, here’s a question that’s really been coming up in my mind: what conditions govern the interpretation in one society or another? Because that’s where the problem really arises, when there are what seem to us, the unduly harsh interpretations.

If we could understand what gave rise to them, it sounds from what you’re saying, like if we could change those conditions, an entirely different kind of interpretation would be just as likely to arise.

Sumbul: Yeah. When most people – when most Westerners — think of Shariah, the first thing that pops into their heads is women in burkas, women being stoned for adultery, people with their hands getting cut off, that kind of thing, right? That’s what you’re talking about?

Michael: Yeah.

Sumbul: First of all, this is a big question. What I want to say first of all is that Shariah, the way it was – like the Shariah-based legal system, the way it was implemented for 1000 years – almost 1300 years of Islamic history with its institutions and courts and scholarly systems — that is gone. There is no Shariah left in the world as the law of the land. I want to just make that very clear. No country in the world has Shariah as the law of the land.

Most Muslim majority countries have civil codes and constitutions. The civil codes are basic – usually based on the civil law system – the French civil law system. Many people assume that if you’re a Muslim majority country, Shariah must be the law of the land, and it’s not. The Saudis will tell you that it is the law of their land, as will the Iranians – so this is the other thing. Most people think of Saudi Arabia and Iran as Islamic states and therefore where there must be Shariah, right?

But let me tell you, Iran, for example, is an experiment. Ayatollah Khomeini, while he was in exile, came up with this brand-new theory of governance by religious scholars. Now keep in mind that in 1400 years of Islamic history, religious scholars had never, ever ruled. In Islamic history, the people – those who made the religion, those who developed the religion — were always separate from those who governed. This is very different from Christian history or European history.

In fact, they were often at odds with each other because the rulers wanted religious authority; it’s always helpful to have religion behind you when you’re ruling. But they never got it. There were big fights about it and they never got it. So the development of the religious law always stayed in the hands of the religious scholars. The rulers were in charge of secular rule-making, like taxation and administrative rules.

Of course, sometimes there was some blurring of these boundaries, but there was never a situation where the religious scholars said, “We are now going to rule the country,” until Iran. So, this was a new thing. And what they did is not implement Shariah as the law of the land, what they did was take their civil code and start tacking on Islamic-sounding provisions to it.

Well, that’s not Shariah. The way Shariah worked was much more complicated, it was much more flexible, there were many, many answers to any one legal question. So there was a plurality, there was legal plurality in Shariah. You might go to one Islamic scholar and he might give you one answer, and if you went to another Islamic scholar, he would give you another legal answer. And yet, they would both be valid. Whereas what’s happened in the modern world is that they have taken Islamic-sounding provisions and made them into a code to be enforced. Shariah was never meant to be enforced that way.

That’s the first thing to understand: Shariah was law from the ground up, not imposed by the government, it was never meant to be imposed as a legal code which is what modern states are trying to do now.

Secondly, what modern states are doing – like going back to, say, stoning — this is something that comes up a lot. For a long time, only Saudi Arabia and Iran had stoning on the books. Now stoning and harsh punishments, of course, originated in early Islam, in late antiquity. And at the time, they were in line with all the other punishments of the time. During the 7th, 8th and 9th, centuries and late antiquity, punishments were harsh because there were no police forces to enforce them. And it’s always the case that where you can’t enforce the law, then you have a harsher punishment because it’s a deterrent.

Michael: Or you think it is, anyway.

Sumbul: Well, that was how it worked in late antiquity and in medieval times. Until the 19th century there were some 200 crimes in England that were punishable by hanging — and that was just 200 years ago! This was very typical of the time. But let me tell you what you needed, even in very early Islamic law, to convict someone for adultery. To bring a case of adultery against a man or a woman – and there’s no difference in how men and women are treated when it comes to adultery — you have to bring in four eyewitnesses to the act of intercourse itself.

Michael: That’s going to be hard.

Sumbul: Yes. I’m a lawyer and I would not want that burden of proof. And it’s not enough to bring four eyewitnesses to say that two people were naked in bed together. That’s not enough to prove adultery. You have to actually show the penetration. This is embarrassing to say out loud, but the Islamic scholars go into great detail about what exactly what you have to show. You have to show that it was just like an eyeliner pen going into its case, that’s what the four witnesses must have seen. In addition to that, you have to prove that the eyewitnesses are trustworthy, each of them. The prosecution has to do this.

Even if you can bring four eyewitnesses, even if can prove that they’re all trustworthy, the defendant, the person accused, has all sorts of defenses. The accused can say they were forced, that it was duress. They can say it was a mistake. In other words, they could say, “Oh, I thought it was my spouse.” That actually was a valid defense in Islamic – in the Islamic legal system.

Women often said that they were drugged with sweets and didn’t know what they were doing. That was a valid defense. You could show repentance, that was a defense for adultery. “Oh, I’m really sorry.” Who can’t show repentance?

Michael: You want repentance, I’ll give you repentance.

Sumbul: Yeah. So even if you could bring the four eyewitnesses, even if you could show that they were all trustworthy, even if they had absolutely no defenses, even then, the judge could set aside the punishment of stoning for any reason whatsoever, if there was any doubt.

[* 00:31:50.8]

In Islamic law, in criminal cases, you actually have to show 100 percent certainty. There cannot be even 1 percent doubt. In our criminal system, you have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty, but in the Islamic system, there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever. And if the judge decided there was any doubt whatsoever, then he would set aside the penalty.

In fact, judges went to great lengths to show doubt because of a very famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad. He said, “Whenever you can, ward off the hudud punishments.” (These are the harsh penalties.) “Whenever you can, ward off these punishments because it’s better to let someone go than to punish them unjustly.”

And so that’s what the judges did. There are amazing examples of what the judges would accept as a defense. I think there’s one story of a woman who said that her dead husband came back to her every Friday and slept with her and that’s how she got pregnant. And the judge accepted this as a possibility and set aside the punishment.

Michael: Oh, why not?

Sumbul: The judges were not stupid, they knew. They also allowed for a woman, if she were pregnant and she was accused of adultery, if it had been five years since the death of her husband, for example, they would still accept that her husband might have impregnated her, even five years later.

And again, they were not stupid. They were just trying to ward off the punishments as the prophet had told them to.

Stephanie: So the law becomes an exercise in spiritual understanding?

Sumbul: There was very much the understanding that these harsh punishments existed because they were a deterrent, but they were not really meant to be implemented. It’s the same thing with theft. There were so many requirements that you had to fulfill, pages of requirements that had to be fulfilled in order to prove theft.

This was definitely seen in practice. In the over 500 years of the Ottoman Empire, only one person was ever executed for adultery — and even that was a politicized and criticized move. The governments now just say, “Oh, stoning. We have to stone people.” They’re not following Shariah. With all these procedural limitations, how can it ever be possible to punish somebody for adultery. It’s impossible.

So I don’t understand how there can be any executions for adultery. The whole point was that these were homiletic punishments to show that it was a bad thing to do. But not to start executing people.

Stephanie: Do you consider yourself an activist with this work, Sumbul?

Sumbul: That’s an interesting question. I guess I think of myself more as an educator. I’ve spent my whole life answering questions about Islam. I don’t remember if we talked about this four years ago, Stephanie, but I grew up in Southern California at a time and in a place where there were just not many Muslims. I was the only – well, I was the first Muslim that most of my friends and teachers had ever come across.

A lot of them mixed me up with the Nation of Islam, which at that time had not become Sunni Muslim which they are now. Well, that’s another complicated topic. What used to be the Nation of Islam, most of it became Sunni Muslim in 1980. Some of the people in that movement stayed the way they had been, and that’s the current Nation of Islam under Louie Farrakhan. That’s a smaller group and it is different from mainstream Islam. But most black Muslims became mainstream Sunni Muslims around 1980.

But this was before that. I was growing up in the 70s, and there was a lot of confusion. Most people didn’t really know anything about Muslims. And so I grew up answering all these questions and I just got used to it. When I went to Stanford, it was like my first interfaith 101 experience where we were all living in the dorm and everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Suddenly I was thinking, “How am I going to pray five times a day without my roommate noticing? She lives six inches away from me. And how am I going to know if there’s pork in the dorm food when nobody knows what’s in the dorm food?”

The first quarter that I was there, there was a progressive drinking party, which as you may know, is not a political thing. It’s when you progress from dorm room to dorm room, drinking a different alcoholic drink, and I thought, “Well, I really want to participate, but I don’t drink alcohol — and so, what do I do?” And my roommate said, “Oh, just get a virgin one.” So, we went to the first dorm room and I asked for a virgin version of the drink. And it turned out to be Kahlua milkshakes.

And so he looked at me and he said, “Well, it’s just milk. Do you want just milk?” It didn’t really make the impression that I was trying to make, but I have been answering a lot of questions for a long time. I was the only Muslim I knew as an undergraduate. I was the only Muslim I knew in law school.

Then when I started work as a corporate lawyer, within a few months one of the partners sat me down and said, “Why are Muslims more violent than other kinds of people?” I guess I feel like the work that I do, rather than being an activist, is just a continuation of answering questions in a way that people can relate to. A lot of Americans still think that if you’re Muslim you must be foreign. The Muslim community in the U.S. is about 1/3 ethnically Middle-East / North African, about 1/3 Asian and 1/3 indigenous African American. In fact, up to 30 percent of African slaves brought to this country were Muslim, but they were not able to keep their religion.

Another interesting fact is that blues music, which we all know about, right? One of its antecedents is Qur’anic chanting because the slaves who were brought to the United States, they couldn’t really practice, but they did chant the Qur’an. That kind of transformed over the generations into African work songs, and that sort of transformed into blues music.

Michael: I’ll be darned.

Sumbul: Yeah, isn’t that interesting? If you superimpose Qur’anic chanting over blues music, you can really hear the similarities.

Stephanie: Interesting. One thing that you addressed in the book is Islam itself and what it is. Shariah means Islam. The way you describe the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, was very beautiful. I’d love to share that on the air. Can you talk about the story in Islam of how Muhammed realized that he was a prophet and how the Qur’an was revealed to him?

Sumbul: Yes. It sort of explains how Muslims think differently of the Qur’an then Christians do of the Bible, for example. In Islam the story goes that Muhammed was born in about 570. He was an orphan, I think his father died before he was born and his mother died when he was very young. He was very conscious of being an orphan, and he was conscious of injustices in his society, and so he had a practice of going up into the caves above where he lived and meditating.

When he was 40, he was meditating in one of these caves. It was dark and suddenly, out of the darkness, he heard a voice. The voice said, “Read,” or sometimes it’s translated as, “Recite.” At the same time, Muhammed felt something squeezing him from all sides. He said, “I can’t read,” because Muslim tradition says that he was unlettered. But again the voice said, “Read,” or “Recite.” And again, Muhammed said, “But I don’t know how to read.” And he felt like he was squeezed from all sides again.

Finally, the third time the voice said, “Read,” Muhammed said, “Well, what should I read?” And the voice said, “Read in the name of your Lord who created mankind from a clot of blood.” These words Muslims believe were spoken by the angel, Gabriel, who brought them to Muhammed from God.

I was telling a friend of mine this, a friend of mine who was a Catholic from Mexico and she kept saying, “The same angel Gabrielle? The same one?” And I said, “Yes,” because Muslims – I mean, Muhammed saw himself as preaching the religion of Abraham, the religion of one God. So Muslims accept Judaism and Christianity as part of their own tradition.

When this happened to Muhammed on this night, he was terrified and he ran down to talk to his wife. His wife must have been a very understanding woman because she said, “It’s okay. I believe you. Let’s go and talk to my Christian cousin who is very learned in the scriptures.”

And so they went and talked to her Christian cousin who said, “Well, you are the prophet who has been prophesied. This is your calling.”

Muslims believe that those words that were spoken by the angel Gabriel, those words actually became the first verse of the Qur’an to be revealed. During the next 23 years, the angel Gabriel would bring the words of God to Muhammed who would speak them out loud and his followers would write them down on whatever was at hand. Within 20 years of Muhammed’s death, these writings, these scraps of paper were all compiled into one book called, “The Qur’an,” which means, “Recitation.”

So Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. That’s why it’s so hard when people say, “Oh, you can just rewrite the Qu’ran or you can just change it.”  It’s really kind of offensive to Muslims because it’s the word of God. However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be interpreted in light of new circumstances. The Qur’an is not static. If it applies to all ages, then it can be reinterpreted in terms of those times and circumstances.

Most of the prayers in Islam are parts of the Qur’an that are recited. But people are often surprised to know that all of the chapters of the Qur’an, except for one, all of the chapters begin with the words, [Arabic] which means, “In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.” In fact, probably that one chapter doesn’t have it because it was attached originally to another chapter. What I think is significant about the fact that every chapter begins with these words, that God is most gracious, most forgiving, most merciful. Sometimes it’s translated as most compassionate.

Islam is often thought of as this harsh religion, and yet, the beginning of every chapter stresses God’s compassion and mercy and forgiveness. I think what’s important to remember is that there are many, many, many more verses in the Qur’an about peace and forgiveness than there are about any kind of fighting; of the 6,236 verses in the Qur’an, only 47 urge fighting. That’s far less than 1%. And even those 47 are always limited by verses that limit the fighting.

Every verse that urges fighting also says some version of, “But do not attack them unless they attack you first.” I think that is something that’s always surprising, God’s forgiveness and mercy and compassion in Islam.

Stephanie: It’s not just Islam that talks about fighting, right?

Sumbul: Yes. There’s a sheikh whom I really admire, Khaled Abou El Fadl, at UCLA. He says, “Any text is only as moral as its reader.” Obviously, every religion has people who interpret its religious texts as justifying violence, right? There are Muslims who use the Qur’an to justify violence just as there are people of other religions who do the same thing. There are countless examples of that. It’s nothing new to use religion as a justification to commit violence or to assume power. But that’s not the majority of the people.

Stephanie: Can you give an example of something that has been reinterpreted in light of society, contemporary society, versus what the Qur’an says?

Sumbul: Yes, there are many things in the Qur’an that can be interpreted. Shariah really limited the violence of the time, which is something that people don’t realize because Shariah is kind of a scare word where people think of all sorts of harsh punishments. But in fact, it limited the violence of the time. For example, it delegitimized all warfare except jihad, and the rules of jihad were extremely strict, more strict than our modern rules of international warfare. At the time, there was no international law. There were no real country boundaries, it was a matter of conquer or be conquered. Borders were shifting all the time and yet, the Qur’an said, “Wars for territory are not allowed.”

The Qur’an also said that, “There’s no compulsion in religion,” which means that you cannot force people to be Muslim. The only time that you can conduct warfare is a legitimate jihad, but jihad is only for self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor so it’s very limited. Even if you do have a legitimate jihad, the rules of engagement are extremely, extremely strict.

For example, you can’t attack anyone but the soldiers, you cannot attack civilians or noncombatants. You can’t kill anyone who is hiding in a holy building. You can’t uproot trees. You can’t poison the water supply. You can’t arbitrarily damage property. You can’t rape or terrorize populations. It’s extremely strict. And keep in mind, this was the 7th century when these things were not quite so strict.

So Shariah really limited the violence of the time, and jihad also limited the rules of warfare of the time.

Stephanie: So it’s really the opposite of the way that the media presents these terms.

Sumbul: It really is. Unfortunately, the media treats as synonymous jihadists and terrorists. This is very, very common, and it’s ironic because terrorism has always violated jihad. Terrorism – even from early Islam–  was punished because, for instance, you can’t commit suicide. That’s not allowed. And you can’t kill civilians, and you can’t arbitrarily destroy property, and there can be no clandestine use of force, and there can be no treachery. All these rules rule out terrorism.

And so I always say that calling jihadists terrorists is a little bit like calling the Ku Klux Klan defenders of Christianity. Terrorism has always been against the rules of Islam. And yet, our media consistently equates jihad and terrorism. It’s really sad and it’s really defamatory.

Stephanie: What’s the most important takeaway that you want audiences to leave this work with? If you could do one thing with your book, “Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our County,” what would that be?

Sumbul: That’s a hard question because when I was writing the book, I felt like just limiting the book to 200 pages was making me pull my hair out because there’s so much to talk about. But Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional law and Jewish law at Harvard, says that for most of its history, Shariah or Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.

And he’s right. It’s so completely antithetical to what we hear in the media that it almost sounds like a joke, right? But for most of its history, that means over 1000 years, Shariah limited violence. As I said, it delegitimized all warfare except jihad. What’s remarkable is not that the Qur’an as a 7th century document specifies corporal punishments, what’s remarkable is that it does so for only four crimes — and that the Islamic scholars made those four punishments nearly impossible to apply.

In addition, Shariah advanced women’s rights further than Europe would for another 1000 years. One of the most remarkable achievements, I think, of Shariah is that it promoted the rule of law. We think, in the West, that the rule of law is one of our great achievements — the idea that everyone is bound by the law, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful you are or how poor you are, everyone is bound by the law.

That’s what makes the United States such a wonderful country, because it has a very strong rule of law. What people don’t realize is that for 1000 years Shariah was the rule of law in Muslim lands, so that everyone from the Khalif to the lowliest peasants was bound by the law. In Islamic lands, the ruler and the religious scholars were different, so the people who developed the religious law – the scholars — were always different and oftentimes opposed to the ruler who governed.

I think that’s another important thing to remember: those who governed and those who developed the religion were always separate in Islam. Muslim lands were never a theocracy. not until Iran in the 20th century.

One more thing that I’d like people to take away is that to me, when I think of Shariah, I think of the Maqasid, which is the goals of the Shariah. When I think of Shariah, I think of how every Islamic rule – all scholars agree that every Islamic rule has to protect the right to life, the right to family, the right to intellect, the right to religion, and the right to resources. And that, to me, is what Shariah encompasses.

Stephanie: I’m sure that people are going to be very interested in learning more and reading the book and asking you questions. So tell us how they can find the book and be in touch with you.

Sumbul: Oh, thank you. My book is available anywhere that books are sold. It’s on Amazon, but it’s also available through your local bookstores. And I have links to booksellers on my website which you can get to either by typing in, or my name, which is

Transcription by Matthew Watrous.

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