Laughing at Religion

One of the best segments on the old Daily Show was Stephen Colbert’s “This Week in God” – I wanted to have a clip here but WordPress and Comedy Central’s embedding system do not play well together.

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine asked a question on his feed: Are his religious friends more offended that his atheism means he doesn’t believe in any religion or that it means he doesn’t believe in their religion? I felt I had something to offer to the discussion from a historical perspective. In both pre-modern Christianity and Islam an accusation of atheism was usually considered far worse than an accusation of heresy, false religion, or sometimes even witchcraft, although technically the sin would have been spreading atheism rather than the unbelief in itself. However, instead of just saying that, I decided to be a little cheeky, as one sometimes is on Facebook. I conjured up hyperbolic images of demonic infidels, burnings at the stake, and suffering Presbyterians.

Another friend decided to call me out, calling my comment snarky and unproductive. On reflection, I decided that he was correct. Rather than facilitating the discussion, it put more pious friends, the actual target of the original question, on the defensive, perhaps leading to more guarded answers. I apologized and tried to rephrase my idea in a less dismissive tone. But this raised another question for me: Why did I think that kind of humor could facilitate the discussion in the first place? I actually think it can, but as with any humor, context and timing is everything. We live in an era when much of our substantive social debates, including debates about religion, are conducted by comedians, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Silverman, and Bill Maher. But where I find Colbert hilarious when he talks about religion, I can’t stand Maher, whom I see as a mean-spirited bigot. Why?

Humor is so interconnected with individual taste that you can’t really deduce universal rules. But I think an exploration of examples from across the spectrum might tease out some of the potential relationships between humorist, audience, context, and social effect.

Sam is not amused.


In the classroom, I’ve deliberately used irreverent humor for a pedagogical purpose. Despite all the disrespectful things said about Islam and other religions in certain corners of American culture, I’ve found that on the whole American students are reluctant to ask critical questions of religions other than their own – perhaps even more than they would with their own religions – although my friends in Biblical Studies may beg to differ. In fact, this is what I see as the central flaw in the way religion is discussed in American public space: People who aren’t seeking understanding speak loudly and disrespectfully while people who are seeking understanding avoid speaking up for fear of causing offense. My own response is to de-sacralize the sacred with humor.

The “Sacred” is an important concept in comparative religious studies, although different thinkers use the term in slightly different ways. While some emphasize the sacred as a person, place, or thing experienced as originating from a numinous realm, others, like Jonathan Z. Smith, suggest the idea of the sacred arises not from some passive experience but rather from the active reverence directed toward a sacred object. This accounts for why one person’s sacred object may seem mundane to another. Furthermore, the nature of this reverence means that the sacred must not be subjected to the types of attention given to everyday people, places, or things. You cannot look at it, touch it, listen to it, walk upon it, enter it, talk to it or about it, depict it, question it, or say its name without either being a special person or making oneself special in some way, such as through initiation, purification, education, and so forth.

One of the functions of humor is to take its object down a peg. This is its value as well as its danger. Humor can be used to keep down people already low on the social totem pole, just as it can be used to corrode the prestige of the rich and powerful. As the late great Joan Rivers was fond of saying, laughter can be a way to cope with even the most serious or horrible things. The Onion’s finest moment was its first post 9/11 issue, poking its satirical finger directly into the fresh wound, and it was gloriously healing. In a more everyday setting, humor can “break the ice” by lowering the tenor of a situation, making it less formal or tense. But still, ethnic jokes, blond jokes, fat jokes, and others of that type too often function to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and concrete material inequalities. As I suggested earlier, the difference between the appropriate and the inappropriate humor boils down to taste and context. But in all these cases, humor functions in essentially the same way: it tears things down.

People who teach about Islam tend to get annoyed by the general public obsession with Islamic veiling practices. Titles of news segments about “looking under the veil of Arabia,” “unveiling Islam,” or “removing the veil of secrecy from al-Qa’ida” hint at both assumptions about sexual repression in Muslim cultures and the titillation that comes from wondering what’s underneath. It’s all incredibly creepy when you think about it. Still, we know that the students are going to be coming in with veils on the brain, but yet they won’t necessarily know how to go about asking about it. At the beginning of one segment on gender relations, I started by telling the story of how I once tried on a burqa and proceeded to bump into everything. Everyone chuckles (whether out of true amusement or mere politeness doesn’t matter), but the most profane question is now on the table: How do they even see in those things? From there, the discussion can open up and bring in all sorts of different perspectives. I’ve signaled that the goal is not getting them to like or dislike the veil – and that it’s perfectly OK not to like it – but rather to understand a range of perspectives on the practice. No question will be considered offensive as long as it’s in the service of learning.

When teaching about Muhammad, I like to pull out a hadith (traditional narrative about the Prophet passed down by his followers) in which Muhammad is the butt of a practical joke by his wives. According to the narrative, Muhammad had a sweet tooth and loved honey-flavored drinks, which led him to spend a little bit more time with one of his wives (which one varies in the different versions) who exploited this fact by plying him with honey drinks. A’isha and several other wives decided to nip this in the bud by scheming to convince their husband that the honey beverage gave him bad breath and made him less sexy. He fell for it hook, line, and sinker, swearing off honey until their ruse was later revealed. While perhaps not a rip-roarer, it nevertheless allows us a chuckle at Muhammad’s expense. One of the reasons I like sharing this particular story is that I think it is originally intended to cause exactly such a chuckle. It’s an insider joke as much as an outsider joke. The hadith that highlight the Prophet’s home life paint a portrait of a human, relatable man suffering the everyday travails of married life. A real tension in Islamic thought stems from trying to revere and emulate Muhammad without making an idol out of him. The transmitters of this hadith take him down a notch without actually maligning him (Hadith involving A’isha do this a lot – her acerbic wit comes through so strongly that it’s easy to believe some real trace of her personality has made it through the hagiographies). Likewise, students of Islam ought to feel comfortable talking about Muhammad as a human being and probing what made him tick (to the degree you can based on what sources we have) if they seek to understand him and his followers.

In the classroom, the overall purpose is not the same as in a comedy club. At the end of the day, we do want students to have a healthy respect for the traditions and people they’re studying. At the same time, too much respect, or rather the wrong type of respect, can actually hamper learning. Humor is not the only way to cut through the untouchability of the sacred, but it can be effective, albeit potentially risky. For the downside is that for many within a tradition such treatment is the very definition of blasphemy, even if you’re not taking it to Rushdie-esque levels. I like to think I usually pull off the right balance, but I also freely admit that plenty of attempts fall flat or go too far in one direction or the other.

Religious figures get more than their fair share of lampooning on South Park, but we (usually, sometimes) love them for it


Despite my prodigious comedic talents, my humor in the classroom or on Facebook feeds is incredibly tame compared what you can get away with on cable television these days. The work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone provides some great test cases for how humor can increase or fail to increase understanding of religions and religious sensibilities. South Park is a fascinating litmus test. I doubt there is anyone who has not actually been offended by something in the show sooner or later, but I also doubt if anyone who has seen the show has not been rewarded quite often with deep belly laughs. Religion is one of their favorite targets, and their perspective is certainly not that of believers, but nor is their depiction devoid of human empathy. The genius of Parker and Stone stems from their ability to invert their own inversions, flipping the mirror back at the audience, subverting the attitudes that made the comedy possible in the first place. It doesn’t always work – like all humor – but they’ve developed a very effective formula.

A great example can be seen in the infamous Muhammad episode (Episode 201, April 2010), which was censored by Comedy Central when it first aired and has not been aired at all since then (although leaked versions appear from time to time, I happened to watch it on its original night). Much like The Satanic Verses, the episode strangely explores the very type of controversy that came to engulf its fate in the real world. Stone and Parker received “credible” death threats from a fringe group based on the first part of their story in episode 200, leading the network to heavily edit 201, which in turn resulted in cries of censorship. The plot involves all of South Park’s past celebrity targets (Michael Jackson, Rob Reiner, Mel Gibson, Bono, Pope Benedict, robot Barbara Streisand, et al.) led by Tom Cruise suing the town in order to force them to arrange a meeting with the Prophet Muhammad. Cruise’s scheme is to subject the Prophet to a process that will extract the mysterious “goo” that renders Muhammad immune to ridicule and transfer it to the other celebrities (such a brilliant idea!). Throughout 200, Muhammad only appears hidden in a bear costume to disguise his identity. In 201, he always has a big black bar with “Censored” on it super-imposed on what was presumably the bear costume. There could almost be no better illustration of the concept of the Sacred that I discussed above, that what makes something sacred is not necessarily some inherent trait, but rather how people treat (or don’t treat) it. The South Park crew takes this idea a step further, at least in the uncensored version of the “final lesson” speech that was never aired.

KYLE: That’s because there is no goo, Mr. Cruise. You see, I learned something today. Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.

JESUS: That’s right. Don’t you see, gingers, if you don’t want to be made fun of anymore, all you need are guns and bombs to get people to stop.

SANTA: That’s right, friends. All you need to do is instill fear and be willing to hurt people and you can get whatever you want. The only true power is violence.

The litigants in episode 200: I find it interesting that Mel Gibson is one of the few characters in South Park that, like Saddam Hussein, are animated with a photograph of their heads.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with the premise that respect for the Prophet needs to be predicated on violence (see my take on the Danish cartoons below). But it is true that the idea of the sacred frequently serves as a tool of power and social control. It’s important to note, though, that Muhammad is actually not the butt of the joke in this episode, although he’s certainly not an object of reverence either. Rather it is those who want to avoid ridicule to the point of threatening others. We’re looking at you, Mr. Cruise.

In an effort to combat the local belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, Elder Cunningham *slightly* embellishes the Book of Mormon by suggesting that God told Joseph Smith that all he had to do to cure himself of AIDS was to *ahem* “have intercourse” with a frog.

Their double-edged sword really shines in the musical The Book of Mormon, a long form treatment of religion. It is as crude, profane, and irreverent as South Park (without the bleeps!), but it humanizes religious belief in a way the audience may not have been suspecting. The plot follows a pair of young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, where they encounter AIDS, poverty, female circumcision, and violent warlords. It pokes fun at all the idiosyncrasies of the Mormon Church, such as its attitudes toward sexuality, concept of divinity, and conflicted history with converts of African descent. But unexpectedly, it is religious belief that ends up empowering the characters to face and overcome their obstacles. In what I think is the best song of the show, the main female character Nabulungi speaks of the inspiration she feels after learning of the early Mormons’ trek to the promised land of Salt Lake City.  (Listen to it here.)

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

My mother once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying

I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story Momma told
But a village in Oo-tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to Paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case

The warlords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
The flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy

You were right, Momma
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly

I’m on my way
Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

Although the character seems naïve and unsophisticated, the song is nevertheless poignant and powerful. It hits the balance perfectly, in my opinion. It points squarely at the appeal and empowerment of apocalyptic narratives in which the crappy world we’re stuck in is replaced by a this-worldly utopia or other-worldly paradise. By imagining that things could be different and better, Nabulungi is no longer complacent in accepting the injustices around her, and she becomes a leader and agent of social change. Other numbers highlight the “Top 10” of religious themes, such as the origin of evil, the derivation of ethics from sacred stories, and the tension of differing scriptural interpretations. While it’s certainly not ground-breaking theology, the religious psychology of the characters is surprisingly multi-dimensional.

To my mind, what is most subversive about The Book of Mormon isn’t its skewering of religious faith. In fact, despite its irreverence, I wouldn’t consider it polemical against Mormonism or Christianity in general, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it attempts to get the audience to come out on the other side of the experience with a certain amount of empathy for people and ideas they were simply expecting to be able to mock. This is why I think Bill Maher fails in his critiques of religion. His one-note shtick is basically to say, “Look how stupid those religious people are.” Parker and Stone might also say that, but they don’t stop there, opting instead to humanize and complicate the objects of their satire. Sure, they remain abject and ridiculous, but the audience is prevented from simply adopting an attitude of smug superiority. If they had a credo, I think it might be “Ridiculousness and stupidity are part of the universal human condition.” Interestingly, the Latter Day Saints leadership responded to the production with a good deal of equanimity, even to the point of advertising in the playbill that “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”

LDS Advertisement: Taking it in stride and showing us how it’s done.


While Mormons have certainly experienced oppression and violence in their history, in 21st-century America there is no fear that riled-up audiences will leave a production of The Book of Mormon and start beating up random Mormons on the street or refusing to give them jobs because of their faith. While the show certainly laughs at Mormons more than with them, Mormons exist in a safe-enough social space that they can feel free to choose to laugh with those laughing at them, or not. Even though he didn’t win, the fact that Mitt Romney secured his party’s nomination for the presidency was historically significant, just as Kennedy’s election signaled to American Catholics that they were no longer a maligned minority (or at least, they no longer needed to care if they’re maligned in some quarters).

But I’d like to take a cue from Trey and Matt and invert the inversion. I had a very different reaction to the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005 than most everyone else. Doubtless that was in part because my interests create a certain sympathy for Muslim perspectives. But actually, the first thing that occurred to me was how similar some of the cartoons were to some of the anti-semitic cartoons from pre-WWII Europe I was familiar with. While the question of free speech and the place of blasphemy laws in a free, secular society is a valid and important one, what most struck me was how far right-wing groups throughout Europe gleefully piled on the “let’s ratchet up the offense against Muslims” bandwagon. To be honest, most of the original cartoons were pretty innocuous. The most potentially offensive ones to my eyes were the one with a bomb in Muhammad’s turban and the one in which the Prophet appears with a black censor-stripe across his eyes and wielding a sword barring access to two veiled women with an open stripe that leaves only their eyes visible. While the former struck me as simply mean-spirited, the latter at least had a clever visual hook. Unfortunately, when some Danish imams compiled their dossier of the cartoons to send to their colleagues in the Middle East, they included some very-amateurish images that were over the top-offensive, such as a photo-manipulation that shows a praying Muslim man being sexually mounted by a dog (considered an unclean animal by many Muslims, making it even worse) with the caption: “This is really why Muslims pray prostrate.”

It’s significant that the response of U.S. Muslims was far more muted than their counterparts in Europe. The crazy Islamophobic rants one sees on FOX and weird FBI entrapment schemes notwithstanding, Muslims in the U.S. are not in the same kind of embattled position as in Europe. This is due to numerous factors, including the smaller size of the American Muslim community with respect to the majority, their largely middle-class and educated status, and the fact that American legal institutions protecting freedom of worship are fairly robust (and indeed are more interested in protecting religion from the state than the state from religion, for better or worse. I’d say largely for better). A better, if still inadequate, American analogy for the status of European Muslims would be the case of American Latinos. All the right-wing rhetoric about the dangers of immigrants to “our” language, jobs, culture, and morality are directed at Muslim immigrants instead. Europeans have the additional hurdle that they are less accustomed to imagining themselves as multicultural societies. Laws curtailing Muslim religious expression and practice, such as banning Islamic dress in schools or limiting the construction of mosques are becoming commonplace, and were in fact reaching a fever pitch around the time the cartoons were published. The cartoons thus struck many European Muslims as yet another attack denigrating and marginalizing their place in European society.

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"; Right is a depiction of Muhammad from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; Right is a depiction of the Muslim threat from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

The cartoons, or rather the context and intent behind them, made me think uncomfortably of pre-World War II political cartoons depicting Jews, who were often mocked for trying and failing to assimilate into “mainstream” European society. Even the physicality of the caricatures, such as an exaggerated hook nose, bushy unkempt eyebrows, and lascivious leer were reminiscent of anti-Jewish imagery. In some of the popular political cartoons that appeared in the wake of the controversy that sought to ramp up the level of offensiveness to make a point, much of the imagery seems deliberately cribbed from a century ago. Muhammad menacing a globe, leering at unsuspecting European women, and pulling the strings behind government policies that dilute the power of traditional (white) dominance. In short, unlike the satire of The Book of Mormon, the goal of many such cartoons was to de-humanize Muhammad and Muslims as a clear and present threat.

There’s a limit to such a comparison, of course, and I don’t think we’re on the verge of another genocide, but I believe the storm around the Muhammad cartoons were just as much about racist animus as about critique of religious fanaticism. Censorship or asking for censorship isn’t the solution in such cases. Nor do I think the success of multiculturalism depends on a punitive system of political correctness (in fact, I think it ultimately undermines it). The best response is perhaps to turn the comedic tables, as one of the 12 original Danish cartoonists did by depicting Kåre Bluitgen, the children’s author who complained of his difficulty finding willing illustrators for his children’s book about Muhammad and who thus started the ball rolling, dressed in a turban with an orange with the words “PR-Stunt” written on it – visually similar to the more famous image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.


Silhouettes of Shari’a – Part 1: Herding Classical Cats

A herd of cats (and friends)!

The wave of political Islamophobia that many hoped had reached its crescendo in the 2010 election appears to be alive and thriving. Vitriolic bloggers like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney and their political allies like Michelle Bachmann and Steve King continue to craft elaborate conspiracy theories about how Islam and American Muslims are undermining American security and social values.  (It’s not my purpose here to bother refuting these folks.  I recommend Loonwatch or Islamophobia Today for coverage of Islamophobia.)  One of the most “successful” initiatives to come out of this movement has been the push for anti-shari’a legislation in more than 20 states, which would forbid courts from considering Islamic Law in any cases whatsoever. Although the Oklahoma referendum of 2010, one of the most publicized examples, passed a popular vote, it was ruled unconstitutional and attempts to re-route the proposal through the Oklahoma Senate this year have so far failed.

At issue are a few cases in which judges have considered Islamic Law in inheritance and divorce situations where circumstances were ambiguous or where civil laws had holes (some examples). There have been no cases where shari’a concepts were used to replace or override American civil laws. But the proposed legislation could have sweeping consequences that might render contracts void simply for referring to Islam. So, if I borrow ten bucks from you and promise to pay you back eleven, that’s allowed, but if the contract suggests this was done according to principles of Islamic finance, the courts may have to refuse to uphold it. Most brained-Americans have no problems dismissing such proposals as loony, but these debates have not actually improved the general public’s understanding of what shari’a actually is, effectively ceding much of the definitional power to the loons.

To make matters worse, we are constantly hearing about threatening shari’a abroad, whether it’s the Taliban’s draconian approach to public order, the stoning of adulterers in Saudi Arabia, or the political influence of “Islamist” groups like the Muslim Brotherhood on the Arab Spring. Although I do not wish to diminish our sense the horror at what life is like under the Taliban nor do I wish to campaign for the Muslim Brotherhood, we are often given the idea that these otherwise disparate phenomena are part of some aggregated global conspiracy akin to the Communist Threat in the 50’s and 60’s (itself of dubious aggregated-ness). The logic seems to be that shari’a is shari’a is shari’a. But it may not be – and I won’t even have to redefine “is” to attempt to persuade you. Shari’a means vastly different things to different people in different places, and as a society – in policy, journalism, or education – we won’t really be able to grasp the real situations of those people and places until we beef-up and complicate our collective one-dimensional understanding of shari’a.

Unfortunately, most media outlets have failed at getting a nuanced presentation of shari’a to the public. I chalk this up to the “wikification” of journalism dealing with “other” cultures/people, or in a more academic sense, the notion that “origin equals essence,” which is particularly pervasive in coverage of the Islamic world. Providing a textbook definition of a term or its historical origin, no matter how accurate, crowd-sourced, or hyperlink-referenced, often falls short of providing the needed context for deeper understanding. So, for example, we had countless articles about the sectarian violence in Iraq telling us about the disagreements in early Islam over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad or maybe some doctrines on the Hidden Imam. But the Iraqis were no more fighting about the honor of ‘Ali than the Irish Troubles were about papal infallibility or transubstantiation. A few more responsible journalists delved into Saddam’s policies regarding the Iraqi Shi’a, but hardly any brought in 19th-20th century migration patterns, demographic shifts, tribal dynamics, or other factors in the tensions. As a result, the American public, policy-makers, and military could just throw up their hands and say, “They’ve been fighting over irrational dogma for thousands of years. There’s no solution.” (One finds this argument for inaction in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Contrary to popular perception, Muslims and Jews have not been fighting in the Holy Land for hundreds/thousands of years. But examining current problems or asking who has an interest in keeping the conflict going takes too much risk and effort, apparently. But that is grist for another mill.)

What I propose to do here is contribute in some small way to a more nuanced treatment of shari’a. A universal definition won’t suffice (although we can start with that), because shari’a means different things to different people in different places, and we can’t even begin to understand the debate in this country, or in Egypt, or in Afghanistan without taking into account local attitudes and circumstances. In a series of posts, I want to present a few sketches of Islamic Law in context. After introducing an overview of classical shari’a, I’ll discuss the idea of shari’a in an American Muslim context. I plan to follow-up with posts about “Islamism” as a set of ideologies and the role of shari’a in local village contexts.


Shari’a, literally “path”, is usually translated as Islamic Law, and it is that, at least. But one is often left with a sense that there’s some document out there that contains some kind of fixed code. Islam in Arabic means “submission (to God’s will)” and shari’a is simply the set of answers to the question, “Well, how are we supposed to do that?” As in the other Abrahamic faiths, human beings from the Islamic viewpoint are imperfect while God alone is perfect. Only God fully understands Himself, but even though human beings must fall short of that perfection, they are nevertheless meant to reach for it, to embrace goodness to the best of their capabilities. But because of human imperfection, the existence of multiple interpretations or priorities is deemed inevitable – and perhaps even necessary.

There is no centralized doctrinal institution in Islam – no Vatican or even a Southern Baptist Convention. As in Rabbinic Judaism, doctrine and law are studied and debated by scholars educated in the religious texts. One occasionally finds practical consensus on some issues, but there is no universally-recognized institution to enforce consensus on the community. A certain doctrinal position comes to prominence based on the strength of the argument and/or the perceived authority and authenticity of the scholar, past or present. In Islam, the religious scholars are collectively known as the ‘ulama’. Nearly all attempts of historical Muslim governments to herd the scholarly cats into a hierarchical church have failed. This did not lead to the modern concept of a separation of church and state, but it did result in political and religious institutions in Islamic history that were rarely completely under the thumb of the other type.

That being said, much Islamic legal scholarship ended up coalescing around schools of thought defined by slightly varying methods and traditions. In many ways, what makes the Sunnis Sunnis (literally “followers of the Prophet’s example” – although Shi’is claim to do the same thing. It’s kind of like claiming to be more “orthodox” than your rival.) was the gradual mutual-recognition of four of the legal schools with broad geographical or scholarly adherence. They “agreed to disagree.” Many contemporary Muslim scholars even suggest that in the absence of caliphs and the hidden-ness of the Shi’i Imam (for Twelver Shi’is, anyway), the differences between Sunni and Shi’i legal doctrines are no greater than those between the Sunni schools. Doctrinal and theoretical ecumenism, however, doesn’t automatically translate into social or political reconciliation.

So where do scholars look to figure out God’s will? Obviously, the first source would be the Qur’an, which for Muslims is the unadulterated Word of God transmitted through the mouth of Muhammad. The Qur’an itself typically speaks of God in the first person, unlike the third person perspective found in most of the Bible. However, the explicitly legal material in the Qur’an is very limited. While there are some straight-forward do’s and don’t’s, most of the Qur’an is interested in broader themes of the nature of God, humanity, prophets, and the good society. It is generally closer to Isaiah or Amos in tone and content than to Leviticus. And there is nothing at all laying out the ideal shape of political or legal institutions, other than exhortations to justice and fairness. Countries that claim to use the Qur’an as the basis for their constitutions can only do so in the most vague and symbolic sense.

While lending more certainty to some legal positions, the Qur’an doesn’t provide the breadth or quantity of legal material to divine all facets of God’s will. So a second accepted source derives from the question, “What would Muhammad do?” For Muslims, the Prophet was not divine, but he was uniquely touched and guided by God, so emulating him is a good bet for aligning oneself on God’s path. This led to the emergence of originally oral reports about the Prophet’s words and deeds, the hadith. While there are several written collections of hadith that enjoy general acceptance among many Muslims, the hadith do not form a closed canon, unlike the Qur’an. There are hundreds of thousands of these individual prophetic “sound bites” on topics ranging from dental hygiene to the proper conduct of war and peace. And Muslim scholars, from the outset, realized that these reports vary in accuracy and authenticity. Traditionally, one would interrogate the reliability of the oral transmitters, but there are other ways to weed out the weak hadith from the reliable. But scholars often differ wildly about the validity or even the interpretation of individual hadith, even if thy agree on the methodology of verification. This, by itself, leads to vastly divergent understandings of Islamic Law.

Scholars traditionally draw on some additional sources, but disagreements over which ones can be used were what created the boundaries between the legal schools. Many use some form of rational argument, such as analogy, but this is tempered by a fear of presuming to put imperfect human rationales in the mouth of God. Certain forms of scholarly consensus and local tradition may also influence the shape of Islamic Law in a particular region or case.

In short, there is no fixed shari’a code but rather a set of contested procedures based on sources that themselves might be contested. This doesn’t mean, however, that shari’a is just willy-nilly and can be whatever an individual says it is. Legal scholars earn the respect of believers and build up their authority through a sense of rigor and meticulousness. The ‘ulama’ who “show their work” and explain their process are more likely to have their positions supported by their colleagues.


What might happen if you go out on the green without your qadi

So that’s where shari’a comes from, but how does it work and what does it do? Depending on the situation, the shari’a becomes relevant in expanding circles from the personal, to the social, to the truly legal.

While many believers would say that shari’a is a comprehensive way of life, in practice the daily activities one pursues may reference it to greater or lesser degrees. There are recommended procedures for dental hygiene, for example, but most Muslims don’t have the sense that it’s a mortal sin to skip flossing with an aromatic twig. Likewise, what channel to watch or which gas station to use are probably not situations most would want or need to filter through a religious lens. Still, the most common application of shari’a is personal discipline: how to pray, how to treat others, how to cultivate moral purity. There generally has not been a mechanism for enforcement of these matters, other than one’s own sense of religious merit or social pressure (which can, admittedly, be very great).

Some of these issues might get a little murky, however, so some believers will appeal to muftis, legal scholars whose legal opinions on personal conduct have come to be respected. Some countries have had “national” muftis, who render opinions on larger social problems, but most muftis these days are essentially dealing with “Dear Abby” questions on relationships and manners. A mufti’s answer is known as a fatwa, a non-binding opinion.

When most Americans hear the word fatwa, they immediately think of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for denigrating the Prophet in The Satanic Verses (and/or for providing a deeply scathing caricature of Khomeini himself in the novel). But fatwa does not mean a death sentence, a least not literally. Khomeini opined that it would be morally virtuous for someone to kill Rushdie; he did not order the state or security forces to carry out a legal execution. The effective difference probably doesn’t make Rushdie feel any safer. But my point is to show that a fatwa does not call upon state enforcement and relies instead on the reputation and authority of the scholar in the eyes of the believer.

As I suggested above, however, most fatwas are fairly mundane. In the modern setting, it has not become uncommon for conferences or organizations of scholars to issue joint fatwas on things like bioethics, political situations, or ritual reforms. But even in these cases, compliance with these fatwas is left largely to the believer.  The Fiqh Council of North America is one such organization that issues such joint religious recommendations, although they are not in a position to enforce compliance or even universal regard, as exemplified by the furor over their recommendation to calculate the beginning and end of the fasting month of Ramadan by astronomical calculations instead of the naked eye viewing of the new moon.

Historically and in some modern Muslim countries there are shari’a courts, whose function is to deal with concrete disputes or even criminal cases. The judge, or qadi, can count on the state, who is usually his employer, to enforce his ruling. The jurisdiction of such courts has varied widely in different societies historically. In medieval times, qadis could count on an entire bureaucracy of market inspectors, professional witnesses (public character witnesses cum notaries), and maybe even police or others who would mete out the demanded punishments.

However, the jurisdiction of the qadi was never total in any society, limited or superseded by the decisions of the ruler’s own court. As time went on, the scope of shari’a courts generally shrank in the face of increasingly complex bureaucracies designed to maintain justice and order over legally, religiously, and ethnically diverse populations, such as was found in the Ottoman or Mughal Empires. Even before the rise of European colonialism and the imposition of European legal systems in many places in the Islamic world, shari’a courts had found themselves dealing with fewer types of cases.

Most contemporary Muslim-majority nations, if they implement shari’a at all (and many do not), have limited the enforceable jurisdiction of shari’a to family law: marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. Of course, it is exactly these matters where gender inequities in traditional understandings of Islamic Law stand out. Saudi Arabia and the once-and-maybe-future Taliban regime are among the few that have determined criminal or contract law according to their interpretations of shari’a, not without bending the law here and there to suit the needs of the regime. Even Iran has a complex hybrid legal system that blends secular and religious legal principles and institutions, and thus only partly makes use of shari’a. Others have limited shari’a‘s effective scope but occasionally indulge in a public spectacle such as a stoning or hand-removal to deflect criticism from the otherwise un-Islamic behavior of a given regime. Although still too many, perhaps, the cases of the death penalty for adultery in Muslim-majority countries are surely far fewer than occasions of adultery.

This state of affairs is exactly what some “Islamists” would like to change, although what those changes would look like are another source of contention. My next post will look at the question of shari’a in the U.S., where we can throw most of what I said in this post out the window. But as I hope to have shown, even classical “textbook” shari’a refuses to conform to an unchanging, monolithic code – even less so when you toss modern politics and society into the mix.


The information in this post comes mostly from my experience teaching about Islamic Law, but I wanted to share a few very useful sources for those who want a taste of classical Islamic Law, and particularly those who are interested in learning about the culture of debate and flexibility that characterized pre-modern Islamic jurisprudence.  Two very thorough overviews can be found in N. J. Coulson’s An Introduction to Islamic Law and Wael Hallaq’s A History of Islamic Legal Theory (Hallaq’s substantial body of scholarship on Islamic Law is worth checking out).  For a glance at Islamic tradition legal institutions in practice (such as what qadis and muftis do in a village setting), I find Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State to be a great work that blends history and textual studies with living ethnography.  A good case study of the role of shari’a courts in shaping family law in contemporary Iran and Morocco is Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law.  I’d also recommend the works of Khaled Abou el-Fadl, about whom I will be speaking more in my next post.