September 23, 2005

Tibi Examines Islamic Law's Role in Politics

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Renowned scholar Prof. Bassam Tibi, international politics, Gottingen University in Germany, spoke in Myron Taylor Hall yesterday about the controversial issue of Shariah and its role in politics and international law. Shariah, the Islamic Law, is based on the teachings of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. However, the relationship between the Shariah, the Qur’an and the degree to which Shariah should be interpreted as a statement of policy or morality is under debate by members of religious and political communities.

Tibi began his talk with mention of the “concept of law.” He claimed that for peace to ever take effect, a universal acceptance of a given law must occur among the affected communities. Tibi acknowledged that for the most part, this common understanding is an “illusion.” However, he asserted that “It is impossible to share peace without the common concept of law.”

Islam, specifically Sunni Islam, has the biggest following of any religion in the world. As Tibi emphasized, the many different sects of Islam make it difficult for one interpretation of any of the religious documents to be evenly understood by all members.

The frequent clashes with regard to the interpretation of the Shariah are among the many factors contributing to the overall dissonance among the Muslim community.

According to Tibi, the Shariah is mentioned only once in the entire Qur’an, and the interpretations of this mention fall in a large range. Fundamentalists, according to Tibi, “think Qur’an is all science.” In this case, the Qur’an would have to be interpreted literally, he continued, and statements would have to be deemed either “right or wrong.”

Tibi himself holds a different view. He interprets the Shariah as “a measure of morality.” He believes that subjectivity in interpreting the Qur’an and the Shariah is important on a personal level as well as a religion-wide level.

The ability of a human being to follow certain teachings more so than others is pivotal aspect of modern Islam, he said. The single mention of the Shariah is in the context of morality, he claims. He summarized the context in the Qur’an by saying: “We have given you Shariah, now live up to it.” This context alludes to a more ethical rather than scientific source of law-making, he continued.

Toward the end of the lecture, Tibi dwelled on the issue of the role of Shariah in the creation of the Iraqi constitution.

“The Shariah is not a law,” he said, “there is no legal system in the Qur’an.”

He continued by saying that “Modern Muslims do not have to live by the provisions in the Qur’an.” He issued the contrasting viewpoint that since “the Shariah comes from God, humans cannot contest. Humans can only contest works of men.”

September 17th’s issue of the International Herald Tribune featured an opinion piece written by Tibi concerning this very issue.

In his article he wrote, “Shariah understood as modern constitutional law is in conflict with individual human rights.” He cited that even though Islam permits its followers to respect other Judeo-Christian religions, it “does not view them as equals.” Thus an implementation of Shariah into the Iraqi constitution would work against the democratic goal of promoting human rights.

Tibi’s final point centered on the idea of multiculturalism versus pluralism, relating the contrast back to his concept of “creating peace through law.”

While multiculturalism implies that people should take part in a number of different cultures and religions, pluralism urges for people to remain faithful to their particular area while accepting other religions and cultures.

Tibi claimed that if people were to practice pluralism in their beliefs, conflicts would begin to resolve themselves between members of the Islamic faith and between the Muslims and the international community, beginning a trend of universality ultimately needed to establish law that would be welcomed by all.

Tibi is currently an A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell. He has had numerous visiting appointments in the United States at schools including Harvard, Princeton and the University of Michigan. He has published a number of books including The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder and Islam Between Culture and Politics.

Archived article by Sara Singer
Sun Contributor