Is Sharīʿa: Medieval or Modern? (NPR Interview with Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl)

In a recent interview aired on NPR, senior scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl disentangles historically-grounded definitions of sharīʿa from public misunderstandings of it. The problems fueling those popular misunderstanding are twofold. First, there is a conceptual problem. Most of the public does not know what sharīʿa means. On a basic level, he defines it as “the law of goodness,” which individuals must struggle to interpret in a way that brings that ideal to reality in their own lives and laws. Second, there is a political fear. The policies that some individuals fear from sharīʿa are artifacts of medieval applications of it that today are simply not feasible or effective, even for Muslims.

Abou El Fadl explains what many conceptualize as “sharia” is in fact the “human extrapolations on the moral law of god.” These extrapolations and interpretations give rise to dissidents, many of whom are unhappy with governmental secularism, and some of whom express this dissatisfaction through violent measures. Justified through an “invented interpretative tradition,” these measures look to an invented fundamentalism for a solution to frustrations attributed to colonialism. Abou El Fadl implicitly undermines these extremists’ hypotheses by citing the short-lived “sharīʿa” policies of countries such as Iran, which experimented with stoning and severing the hands of thieves. They “quickly found it doesn’t work in the modern world,” and replaced these laws with “more modern criminal laws,” ones that do not “turn back time…and reverse human beings on the front of humanitarian thinking.”  With that idea in mind, Abou El Fadl separates the conceptual definition of sharīʿa from its violent image, and points out the modern failures of the states and non-state actors that perpetuate certain medieval policies, which sometimes inform this violent conceptualization. In doing so, he illustrates the fallacy of fearing sharīʿa itself and instead invites listeners to learn more about sharīʿa.