That the bill introduced by Senator Bill Ketron exemplifies the irrational fear of Islam is a fact that cannot be denied by anyone generally aware of political, social and philosophical nuances of Islamic law. It is also true that the language and dictates of the bill are prejudiced and outright Islamophobic, likely to cause disturbance among US Muslims. However, even a somewhat perfunctory analysis of the language of the bill shows that it thrives upon more or less similar kind of sensibilities which are prevalent in many Muslim societies as well. These sensibilities are not only popular among masses (educated as well as uneducated) of these societies but also provide intellectual foundations for some famous contemporary religious reform movements. Interestingly though, both the discourses differ in terms of transposition of political realities, i.e., the discourse presented in the Tennessee bill arguably fears the encroachment of Islamic law in the American society led otherwise by a secular constitutional ideal; whereas in many Muslim states the popular political discourse in various manners assumes supremacy of some kind of a higher Islamic ideal.
Lets take, for example, the notion of Shariah being a supreme political doctrine governing affairs of a majority Muslim state like Pakistan. Since moving on from the status of dominion to republic in 1956, Islamic character has officially been an essential part of governing political philosophy of the state, best described by the Objective Resolution of 1949, which states that:
Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.
The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan prolifically manifests that no law repugnant to Quran and Sunnah can be legislated by the parliament, which may also take advice from a Counsel of Islamic Ideology. In fact, Pakistan is perhaps the only Muslim country besides Iran which finds it necessary to literally interject the Islamic character in its official state title. However, in spite of all these statutory vehicles and guiding principles in place, many political parties in Pakistan choose to jump in public arena with an overriding religious disposition. True that they differ considerably in their political and religious outlook and objectives, all of them, in one way or another, thrive upon the promise of religious reform and Shariah based Islamic society without giving a slightest hint as to what that promise objectively means. Besides successful equivocation of religious semantics, this kind of attitude ends up lumping technically distinct categories of religious discourse into one large basket.
In this backdrop, it is hardly shocking that Tennessee Bill defines Shariah as a legal-political-military doctrinal system combined with certain religious beliefs. For instance, when the bill states that,
Sharia as a political doctrine requires all its adherents to actively support the establishment of a political society based upon sharia as foundational or supreme law and the replacement of any political entity not governed by sharia with a sharia political order; […] Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America’s constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia…
it is not very different in its outlook from the manifesto of any ‘Islamic’ political party or a puritanical religious reform movement of a Muslim state like Pakistan, Egypt or Malaysia. What is common in the language of the bill and the prevailing jargon of these Islamist parties is the underlying Orwellian structures in which words are deformed, twisted and intentionally mis-joined to render ideas which are not permitted commonly by the associated communities of meanings. No wonder how, in Pakistan, the concept of Shariah is usually misconstrued with punishments of various crimes prescribed by Quran, prohibition of economic indulgences like bank interest and interest-based loans, or ban on various cultural activities and behaviors not perceived in conformance with popular religious understanding.
In order to have a fair idea of these misapprehended subtleties, it is useful to juxtapose the above understanding of Shariah (as contended in the Tennessee Bill) with the one provided by 14th century Hanbali jurist, Ibn Qayyim
The Shariah is God’s justice among His servants, and His mercy among his creatures. It is God’s shadow on this earth. It is His wisdom which leads to Him in the most exact way and the most exact affirmation of the truthfulness of His Prophet. It is His light which enlightens the seekers and His guidance for the rightly guided. It is the absolute cure of all ills and the straight path which if followed would lead to righteousness. It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. […] If God would wish to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the Shariah which was sent to His Prophet is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.
The above description, albeit quixotically poetic, aptly conveys the most important conceptual nuance: Shariah is a linguistic abstraction employed to point towards the perpetually emanating will of the God; an ideal, that one who submits to it, should incessantly strive to achieve but without the ultimate notion of reaching the terminus. The actual will of the God, consequently, stands distinctly separate from the understanding or implementation of that will; the latter being a totally human dominion and therefore subject to all the usual human failings.
This distinction between the understanding and implementation of Shariah, and the Shariah proper needs to be adequately understood by the predominantly Muslim societies as well as those in which Muslims are in minority. Shariah is not a political or legal doctrine which is always in need of implementation through internal or external formal mechanisms. The concept of its implementation effectively entails that a moral life should always be guided by the Divine will; a search which should naturally encompass all dimensions of individual and collective life without trying slightly to evade the inherent burden of contemporary subjectivities.