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Sharia as Law

A Pew Research Center report titled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society published last month caused a stir in Indonesian media as it concluded that 72 percent of Muslim Indonesians, including women, prefer the implementation of sharia. The survey included 1,880 Indonesians in 19 provinces.

So, what does the survey indicate?

The fact that a high percentage of Indonesians welcomed the implementation of sharia should not be alarming, considering the semantic differences in the use of the term sharia among Indonesians. These Pew survey results should not be taken as a sign of Indonesian society’s approval for what is often stereotyped as a legal system that enforces harsh corporal punishment, a strict Islamic dress code, and the public classification of non-Muslims.

Islam as a religion, a legal system, a culture, and a lifestyle means many things to many people. One person’s definition of sharia is not identical to another’s, even amongst scholars and religious leaders.

The term sharia is often associated with equality and social justice, as Amaney Jamal, special adviser for Pew Research from Princeton University clarifies. Words mean different things to different people. Sharia in Arabic means “path” or “way.” It is similar to tao in Chinese, which also means “path” or “way.” However, contemporary use of the term sharia has been associated with Islamic law, and to permission (halal) and prohibition (haram). Another meaning of sharia is related to social justice and fairness among those who have lost faith in the government and institutions.

In short, the Pew Research report must be read with this caveat.

Sharia in Indonesia is seen through a particular lens. For example, in a scenario with strict interpretations of Islamic legal principles, non-Muslims are viewed as second class citizens. Yet such classifications don’t occur in Indonesia and violate fundamentals of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, of which Indonesia is a signatory.

Acehnese Sharia Police Officers Check Unmarried CoupleSharia police officers check on an unmarried couple while patrolling in Banda Aceh. (credit: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

Some might point to Aceh, a special territory of Indonesia, as an example of what Indonesians understand as sharia, since it has adopted Islamic legal principles requiring women to wear a headscarf in addition to prohibiting alcohol and gambling and enforcing zakat (an Islamic requirement to give 2.5 percent of one’s income to those in need). While non-Muslims in Aceh aren’t subject to Islamic legal principles, some individuals feel that they are being pressured to adhere to these principles. However, Aceh’s unique views do not match the practices in the rest of the country, which is more syncretic and has elected not to follow Aceh’s model.

According to Asghar Ali Engineer, an Indian scholar of Islam, certain classifications are contextual and thus are no longer valid in a modern context. In a 2010 article distributed by the Common Ground News Service, he referred specifically to the example of slavery which was eventually outlawed in the Qur’an, noting also that concepts of democracy and citizenship today had no equivalent in the Qur’an. By extension, his argument suggests that certain concepts understood to be part of sharia had their time and place are no longer relevant in the contemporary context. His viewpoint is echoed by many Islamic scholars and religious leaders from around the world.

Boston University professor Robert Hefner stated in the 2011 publication of Sharia Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World that among Indonesian Muslims, the support for both sharia and democracy is high. The Pew Research survey also found that 61 percent of Indonesian Muslims prefer democracy over authoritarianism. Thus, sharia in the meaning of a draconian Islamic law enforced under an authoritarian regime is unlikely to occur. It makes more sense for sharia to mean a “fair and just society” within a democracy.

As a sovereign country that has adopted the UN Declaration of Human Rights and is currently considered a rising star among the G20, it would be unthinkable for it to turn into an authoritarian theocracy.

More people should be encouraged to study the compassionate side of Islam. Peace and compassion are required to establish a fair and just society, and were likely the impetus for the high percentage of Indonesian Muslims who supported sharia in this poll.


Jennie S. BevJennie S. Bev Jennie S. Bev is an author and syndicated columnist who writes for “The Global Viewpoint” in Forbes Indonesia and the op-ed section of The Jakarta Post.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on June 11, 2013. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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8 Comments

I understand that "Sharia" may be interpreted differently however my concern is that there is a willingness to force people within their own faith who don't agree with a certain interpretation to obey a certain vision of "Islam". No one has the right to force ANYONE regardless of how "moderate" they may consider themselves to obey a any so called "moral code".

Yes. and it is no different than a small fraction of US congress preventing the greater good of the country, hell bent on making the rule of Obama come to nothing!

This article is only 50% informative. It simply spotlights the so called progressive left's view. I make no attempts at sharing this bully pulpit with the high percentage of Islamic Experts (ulema) who were not self educated or educated in the Western University Model. And God forbid that we the people of the Western world who make up the bulk of Ms. Tippett's audience should hear from an Islamic Revolutionary allam (expert - as opposed to the common translation... "cleric" ) or faqih Lawyer from Iran or Lebanon. If we are going to be real democrats don't you think that a purer cross section of opinion should be aired? Or is democracy's new meaning synonymous with fascist indoctrination?

This study seems very misleadling. Sharla may be differently understood in different countries. but it generally refers to Islamic law in its most strictly conservative form. i find it hard to believe that this percentage of Muslims would vote to have it as the their governing principal.

I would like to see articles showing how the modern Islamic countries are practicing the compassion and peace. I have heard many scholars describe Islam to stand for these two values. All the reports about Islamic countries I have seen do not show tolerance of other religions or other religious practices.

If one were to read about what Marshall Hodgson calls "the Venture of Islam" without the distraction of centuries of "war propaganda" of the kind demonstrated during 2008 US Presidential Campaign when 28 million dvd's of the video Obsession were distributed, one would come to realize that the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill Of Rights have much more in common with Islamic Classical Islamic antecedents than they do with other religious traditions. A reading of Prophet Muhammad's last sermon and the Charter of Medina demonstrates this quite well. The Magna Carta models Saladin's conduct and he was not the only Muslim ruler who could have served as the Model for the document which is often cited as a landmark in the development of good governance and the rule of law. The reason Muslims want the Shari'a is no different than American's wanting to enjoy the protections provided by the Bill of Rights.
As regard the so called discriminatory taxes on non-Muslims living in the countries that were part of the Islamic Venture, one forgets that non-Muslims need not pay Zakat. As noted by the late scholar, Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, the institution of Zakat is less about charity and much more about fulfilling the society's obligation towards the needy, [It will be well worth reader's time to look up the contributions of Muahammad Hamidullah.] If the non-Muslims are not contributing to the needs of the society's needy, and enslaved by various shackles, then it is only equitable that they pay an alternate form of contribution towards the maintenance of a civil society .

That Muslim society seemed to be gripped by rules of dictators, thugs, and others is true--but all people have their "fundamentalists." Even the Buddhists, according to the latest issue of Time magazine.

Ms. Bev's views on Islam and sharia in Indonesia are naïve at best. The one Indonesian state, Aceh, which has officially adopted sharia, now features the expected features of Islamic law: the oppression of women and their removal from public life, public beatings and floggings as routine punishments for petty violations of dress codes and the like, Government-sanctioned pressure on Christians and other religious minorities. Ms. Bev would have to provide evidence and not simply assertions to convince me that sharia in any other part of Indonesia would be any different. Her citing of Indonesia's being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is laughable. Many people said of Iran before 1979 what Ms. Bev now says of Indonesia, that it is 'unthinkable for it to turn into an authoritarian theocracy.' Think again!

in Banda Aceh indeed such rules in order to better establish the religious, particularly Islamic religion.

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