Shariah Law is based on the Qur’an and the Hadith, the collections of sayings attributed to Mohammed. Islamic fundamentalists believe that Shariah courts should decide virtually all disputes, based on that law. Such courts are a fixture in Islamic countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some fundamentalists even want to see them established in North America and Europe. In fact, there was a serious discussion within Toronto City Hall a few years ago about a proposal to bring in Shariah courts for Toronto’s Muslim population. However, the swift negative reaction caused the proponents of the idea to back down.
The reaction was swift and negative, because we in the West believe strongly in the separation of church and state. The idea that a religious representative — be it priest, imam, or rabbi — should decide on issues that we consider to be clearly secular seems quite preposterous to us. We have just as thoroughly accepted secular, Enlightenment principles, as have people in Pakistan been inculcated with Islamic principles.
So, it might come as a bit of a surprise to some that the west once had its own version of Shariah courts. They were called ecclesiastical courts, and were a fixed part of European legal systems for hundreds of years. These courts did not just concern themselves with religious disputes – in addition to determining all family matters, they even decided on life and death issues. Remember poor Galileo, who was prosecuted by the Church for daring to espouse scientific theories that conflicted with what the Church was teaching?
Religious courts were even brought to the New World with the Pilgrim Fathers, Catholic missionaries and others. These courts settled many issues that today would be dealt with in civil courts (or would not be charges at all – practicing witchcraft, for example). Both Christianity and Judaism still retain “courts” that decide matters of pure religious concern, but gone are the entities that mixed the secular with the religious. Gone as well are notions of “holy war” that sustained the Crusades, apostasy or blasphemy.
So what happened? How did we rid our world of these bad ideas?
In brief, it was the brave men of the Enlightenment who saved our skin. (I say “men”, because western civilization had not advanced sufficiently at that time to allow women to play a major role). It was these people who forced the religious authorities to surrender the power and control that they would surely have kept for themselves, if given the chance. The weapon employed by the Enlightenment thinkers was reason. Against it, their adversaries had no defence.
And it was only when the modern Enlightenment principles had taken a strong hold that western civilization began the steady advance that has brought us to where we are today. But for the bold thinkers who brought in the Enlightenment we would not have the freedom and prosperity we now enjoy – and take for granted. Great thinkers, like Copernicus, led the way, but the brave and robust thinking that brought us into the modern world reached its zenith with the Enlightenment thinkers.
But that has not happened in the Islamic world. The religious authorities have prevented it from happening. They are holding on to their power, and insisting that completely outdated concepts like blasphemy, and apostasy, as determined in Shariah courts, must stay. And they are keeping the deadliest of all of these regressive notions – holy war, or jihad – alive in order to keep an Islamic Enlightenment from happening.
And what about the people -Muslims and otherwise- who are trying to raise awareness of the urgent need for the Islamic world to begin the serious discussion necessary to bring about the Islamic Enlightenment?
According to our Parliament, we are called Islamophobes.