Sharia law and human rights
THOUGH SHARIAH LAW is widely believed to endorse chopping off hands, stonings, floggings, and persecution of "blasphemers", a leading Islamic scholar argues that the spirit of Islamic law is about fairness and justice and embraces the modern concept of human rights as defined by the United Nations.
Sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam, is not what is seen in Pakistan, where unsubstantiated allegations of blasphemy often lead to imprisonment, vigilante violence and extra-judicial killing, said Prof. Abdullah Saeed, the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
"Sharia, in its totality and if properly understood, is a very fair system of law," Saeed underscored, speaking at the Witherspoon Institute's recent seminar, "The Quran in the Modern World," held at Princeton University. Islamic law has a process. There must be evidence, a judge, and state institutions to implement it, he said.
"Vigilantism is not something Islamic law recognizes. In fact, it's considered a crime in Islamic law," added Saeed, who received his early education at conservative Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The scholar agreed that Islamic law was being used as an excuse for restricting rights as well as vigilantism, things he described as a "distortion of Sharia". Saeed blames opportunist Muslim politicians for twisting the tradition by "the selective misuse of certain laws based on Sharia."
Saeed added that the failure of the secular state in Muslim-majority countries led to a sudden interest in Sharia as the savior. "Sharia is the last resort for people who have lost hope in the existing justice system or governance," he explained.
Saeed said even the calls for wholesale Islamization of societies and nations is a somewhat 20th century idea, influenced by Marxism and other ideologies and developed by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami. "For 1,400 years, Muslims were living their lives in Muslim societies without any need to 'Islamize' their society or polity, in the way Islamization is understood today."
Saeed said the Qur'an and Hadith also set specific conditions under which harsh punishments, such as chopping off of hands and flogging, can be meted out on a convict.
"These conditions," he said, "would make it very rare for such a punishment to actually be given to anyone in real terms." For example, four male witnesses are needed to prove adultery (sexual intercourse), which is very rarely committed in the open, he added.
"The Qur'an is about justice, and so is the purpose of Sharia," Saeed stressed.
While some Muslim political leaders in "Islamic" or Muslim-majority countries regard Western-style democracy and personal rights as an agenda of the "Christian West" being imposed on the Muslim world, Saeed said he sees even Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as compatible with the Qur'an.
Article 18 of the 1948 UDHR states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."