Getting Their Goat: Imagined Satanisms

Suffer the little children to come unto me. I’m hungry!

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Krampus!!  Wait . . .wait . . .  no it’s not.  It’s a recent design proposal for a Satanist monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol.  Hot on the forked tail of the successful bid to place a Festivus pole and a Flying Spaghetti Monster display next to a Nativity scene in the Florida State Capitol for the holidays, a group known as the Satanic Temple has put forward their proposal as a protest to the placement of a Ten Commandments memorial on state property in Oklahoma.  It’s certainly eye-catching and has prompted the usual conservative outrage and liberal mockery and goating (. . . excuse me, that’s gloating).  Indeed, this is likely just the latest quickly-forgotten salvo in the Culture Wars, an answer to the dog whistle (. . . excuse me, that’s duck whistle) of Phil Robertson.

I’m drawn to this story more than some others because Baphomet, the demon in the design, has such an interesting history, one that highlights so much of the wiring of the minds of contemporary, conspiracy-theorizing, American political evangelicals.  In addition to first amendment issues raised by the proposed monument, I’ve seen many posts around the blogosphere exploring “what Satanists believe.”  This is a valid enough question, but one that’s hard to answer.  “Satanism” isn’t a single cohesive movement and exists at the intersection of neo-paganism (searching for spiritualities historically suppressed by Christianity), occult mysticism, radical materialist individualism (represented by Ayn Rand’s (. . . excuse me, that’s Anton LaVey’s) Church of Satan), and self-conscious parody religions.  What all the philosophies and organizations under the Satanist umbrella seem to have in common is a deliberate adoption of what many Christians throughout history have imagined Satanism to be.

Rather than look at what actual modern Satanists do or don’t do, I’m hoping to highlight a few interesting moments in the history of the specter of Satanism.  Satanism is imagined as an inversion of Christianity, but symbolic inversion can have multiple effects, often simultaneously.  On the one hand, seeing your system rendered upside-down opens up the possibility that right-side up might not be as natural or self-evident as originally thought.  This corrosive effect attracts most of those who would consider themselves modern Satanists as well as eliciting sympathy from the Jon Stewarts of the world.  But on the other hand, feelings of disgust at the upside-down image can sometimes reinforce one’s investment in the right-side up version.  Whose side are you on?  Our side or that of the gay, Muslim, Communist (big-C), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers?  Since inversion can have this reinforcing effect on the intended targets, this proposal will probably do little to move the trenches of the Culture Wars in either direction.



Most historians of the Baphomet image locate its origins not in the fear of Satanism, per se, but rather in Islamophobia version 1.0 during the early Crusades.  The name “Baphomet” itself is most likely a corruption of the name Muhammad in the medieval dialects of southern France.  It was very common, particularly in French writings of the era, to treat Muslims as idol worshipers.  Perhaps the most well-known example of this trope can be found in the Song of Roland, in which the Saracens are said to worship an unholy trinity consisting of Mahound (i.e. Muhammad), Apollo, and Termagant.  Ironically, although the Song of Roland (c. 1150) claims to recount an actual historical event, the original Battle of Roncevaux in 778 was far more complicated than the Christian-Muslim clash of civilizations it presents.  Charlemagne was actually entering Iberia in alliance with the caliph in Baghdad, who was hoping to displace the Umayyad emir in Cordoba, who in turn had an alliance with an army of Christian Basques.  It’s an excellent example of how later purveyors of Crusade-think reduced earlier complex Muslim-Christian relationships to a flat binary.

Interestingly, Christian polemicists who resided in or near Muslim lands, took a very different tack when attacking Islam.  Unable to depict Muslims as simple idolaters, something that would be self-evidently false to them, they turn instead to the image of the False Prophet from the biblical Book of Revelation.  They had to acknowledge that Muslims worshiped the same God as Jews and Christians, so they treated Islam more as a Christian heresy than a form of paganism, attempting to pinpoint ways that Muhammad and the Qur’an had perverted the Biblical scriptures (an interesting mirror image of a common Muslim polemical genre).  One of the most fascinating examples is Eulogius of Cordoba (d. 859), who used his talent for polemical writing to lend his support (and his life) to an unusual martyrdom movement.  Muslim rulers, and particularly Muslim rulers in Spain, were generally very tolerant of Jewish and Christian subjects as People of the Book.  While certainly not equal under the law, Christians and Jews who peacefully accepted Muslim rule and did not try to convert Muslims were left in peace and actually had a good degree of economic, social, and political mobility, short of becoming ruler themselves.  In the absence of persecution, yet yearning for the instant Paradise of martyrdom, the martyrs of Cordoba would voluntarily step forward before Muslim magistrates and insult Muhammad.  For those of you just joining us, this is not generally a good thing in Islamic Law, and, at the time, required execution.  Eulogius records 48 (including himself) in his martyrology of the movement.

For the visual appearance of the goat-headed Baphomet, we need to look elsewhere.  The supposed medieval Muhammad idols were usually not described as goat-headed, although the descriptions we have do seem to focus on the idol’s head with attributes such as three faces or encrusted gemstones.  The image’s origin appears to be more recent, most likely during the rise of popular occultism in the late 19th-century.   That being said, Baphomet’s resemblance to Krampus is likely more than coincidental.  It was fairly common as Christianity spread through Europe for pre-Christian beings, such as fauns, forest deities, and so forth to be re-purposed as demons, fairies, and things that go bump in the night.

One further moment is worth mentioning: the trial and dissolution of the Templars in 1307.  Many Europeans returned from the Crusades with more nuanced understandings of the Middle East than those just starting out on their adventures of Saracen-smiting.  For these and likely more political reasons, groups like the Templars became suspect.  Accused of being gay, Muslim, communist (small-c), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers (I wish I were jesting, but, alas, I’m not), the leaders of the Templars were burned at the stake and the order dissolved.  As any reader of Umberto Eco (who then subsequently delves into less-fictionalized history) knows, this moment has been appropriated as a foundation myth for a majority of European secret societies and occultist movements from the Freemasons, to the Golden Dawn, to, yes, the Church of Satan.


Death Cookie



Ever since a hapless missionary dared knock on the door of my forsaken Catholic household to try and convert my young soul during the Saturday morning cartoons, I have been a collector of Chick tracts.  Most of you have probably encountered these diminutive comic books without even necessarily knowing just how ubiquitous they are or where they come from.  Fortunately for collectors and curious observers, Chick Publications makes most of their tracts free over the Internet.  While the worldview expressed in these tracts might not be generalizable to all American political evangelicals, they do hit on a number of widespread motifs shared in many of their theological conspiracy theories.  Since the 1960’s, hundreds of these tracts have been created and distributed widely among American churches and missionary groups abroad.  Each tract tackles a particular modern evil: homosexuality, witchcraft, Satanism, alcohol, Judaism, Islam, and scary Eastern religions. But the biggest bugaboo is the Whore of Babylon herself, the Roman Catholic Church.

In the text that follows, I’ll link some of the tracts that I think are most representative.  It’s easy to laugh, until you realize that they are a widespread mechanism of many people’s theological “education.”  If I may be so bold, I will attempt to render the predominant threads of Chick’s oeuvre into a coherent theory.  Satan has attempted to undermine Salvation History numerous times.  Beyond the obvious temptation in the garden, he has had his hand in many other significant turns in religion.  After the flood, he turned the inhabitants of Babylon to goddess worship even after they were dispersed for blasphemous architecture (Why Is Mary Crying?).  Meanwhile, he tried to supplement the real Bible with these horrible things known as Aprocrypha (The Attack) and later the Gnostic writings.  Eventually Satan created his most powerful servant, the Catholic Church, which forced these false texts into the Bible and revived the evils of ancient paganism, including sacrifice (Are Roman Catholics Christians?), sun worship (The Death Cookie), and the aforementioned goddess worship.   Later, in the 7th-century, a man named Muhammad had an encounter with Satan, which was almost thwarted if not for his Catholic (?!) wife, Khadija (Men of Peace?).  These evils have subsequently shown themselves in even newer manifestations, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons (That’s Baphomet?), Evolutionism, and Climate-Change-ism (Global Warming).  

To be fair, Chick tracts make an easy target, and many Evangelicals have a far more sophisticated and historically-grounded set of justifications for their particular beliefs.  Nevertheless, most would share a worldview in which Satan represents a clear, present, and material danger, manipulating environmental and social forces to undermine the salvation of individual souls – not just the danger of temptation welling up from an individual psyche.  Opposing the imagined works of Satan thus becomes not a matter of interchangeable “beliefs” but a matter of one’s own salvation.  A “live and let live” pluralistic attitude in fact endangers one’s very soul.  To pluralistic liberal-types, a Baphomet statue is at most an indictment of political Evangelical hypocrisy on the first amendment and at least a harmless joke at the expense of Evangelicals.  But for those that see Satan manipulating contemporary events, the Church of Satan needs no real power for the statue proposal to be a sign of Satan’s influence, if only in the blasé treatment of the issue in the all-too-secular press.  The stakes are high, and liberal Christians or secular humanists fail to recognize that there are any stakes at all.




As an academic-type, I would usually try to avoid a polemical and belittling tone on matters of faith, but the social critic in me finds it too difficult to not point to the pernicious repercussions of finding Satanism around every corner.  All too recently, a couple was released from prison more than 20 years after their conviction for Satanic ritual abuse of children.  We seem to have these sorts of episodes in cycles, the culprits being anything from witches, to Dungeons and Dragons, to video games.  That’s not to say that there aren’t more than enough lunatics who commit horrible crimes in the name of Satan or Satanism, but a vast underground conspiracy of Satanists waiting to take over America just doesn’t exist (unless it does, and they’re paying me to deny it).  To be honest, a Venn diagram of traits exhibited by teenagers enamored of Ayn Randian objectivism and those of teenagers enamored of modern Satanism would probably have a good deal of overlap.  So if you’re looking for the Satanic conspiracy, go scrutinize Rand Paul and Paul Ryan a bit more closely.  (Just kidding, I don’t really think they’re Satanists, just unhinged loons).

One final, more banal, example, but one I found unnerving because of its proximity.  A few years ago, the Knights of Columbus at the Catholic church I grew up in began stationing knights along the path of worshipers after they had received communion.  When I inquired into this practice I was told that Satanists were known to sneak into churches, pocket the host, and take it home to use in ritual sacrifice.  This is unlike the traditional use of the paten to keep the host from falling to the ground and being profaned (See Are Roman Catholics Christian? above – true story: in grade school, I once dropped the Communion wafer, which landed on its side and rolled a good 20 feet down the aisle, with me chasing it thinking, “Why is Jesus running away from me?”  Read into that what you will.).  In fact, I found this notion disturbingly reminiscent of the medieval Blood Libel leveled against Jews, in which Jews were believed to abduct consecrated hosts or even Christian children to torture during Passover.  So while a Baphomet statue with an inviting and utilitarian chair in his lap can be a laughing matter, that fact that it’s not a laughing matter for many Evangelicals should perhaps not itself be a laughing matter for the rest of us.  


Argo between Scylla and Charibdis

I think I might be reading too much Daily Kos and Huffington Post because I went into seeing both Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two A-list Oscar-nominated movies dealing with America’s relationship with the Islamic world, expecting to have my Islamophobia outrage meter go off the charts.  But it didn’t happen either time!  Is Hollywood learning?  Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t want to wade into the strange right-wing politics of the Islamophobia Industry.

Since I wrote a response about Zero Dark Thirty, I thought I’d weigh in on Argo.  First of all, I enjoyed Argo immensely.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  “Enjoy” is probably not the word I’d use to describe my experience with Zero Dark Thirty.  “Disquieting” would be more appropriate.  Strange fellow that I am, though, I like it when my movies disquiet me, make me think and reflect on the world in a new way.  In short, Argo is a little more of a formulaic Hollywood thriller with its beats in all the right places.  It does this well, though.  So, while Zero Dark Thirty was a rough experience that earned my respect after reflection, Argo was a rollicking good time that gave me a little more pause on reflection.

Sahar under examination


Argo really isn’t Islamophobic.  Its depictions of post-revolutionary violence, by all accounts, are fairly accurate.  There were vengeance squads and a generous supply of the Angry Muslim MobTM shouting “Death to America.”  And the movie doesn’t forefront the religious dimension, so I want to give credit where it’s due.  But it does nothing to encourage the audience to reflect on its stereotypes about Iran and Iranians.  We are told, in an animated prologue and in a few opening snatches of dialogue, about the reasons the revolutionaries hated America, reduced mainly to the CIA-backed coup d’état against Mossadeq and (re-)installation of the Shah in 1953.  But we don’t see any of the cruelty of the Shah alluded to in the prologue reflected in the lives of the characters.

In fact, the movie’s main flaw is the lack of character development.  The only character we really learn much about is Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, who is working through his relationship with his estranged wife and son during the plot of the movie (a page from Spielberg, perhaps?)  We learn tidbits about the Houseguests (the six rescued embassy employees), but not really much to make them different from one another, except for the one couple that has doubts about the scheme.  Characters in a narrative are made known through their choices, but very few choices outside those of Mendez are ever shown to us.  Even the Canadian ambassador, who arguably makes the most fateful choice of the plot, does so off-screen.  Why not a scene depicting a discussion with his wife about the pro’s and con’s of harboring American fugitives?

One other choice comes to the fore, and that is the choice of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar.  When questioned by the Revolutionary Guard, she decides to stick to the story that the Houseguests are Canadians and have only been in the house a couple days, thereby throwing the villains off the track.  We see her again at the end of the movie crossing the border into Iraq, so at least we know she got out (on the eve of the devastating Iran-Iraq war).  What a missed opportunity!    She would have been the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicted relationship Iranians have with their revolution.   We don’t know why she made the choice she did.  We know nothing about her family, her background, and how she has been affected by the Revolution, other that the fact that people getting shot makes her upset.   In fact, for most of the movie, we are led to suspect that she might betray the Houseguests.  Surely a dialogue between the ambassador’s wife and the maid would have fleshed out both characters (From what I’ve read, the ambassador’s wife did an awful lot herself to aid the mission, at great risk).

All other Iranian characters are amazingly flat.  The Revolutionary Guard are unambiguously villainous (OK, I’d concede they’re pretty yucky in reality, but universally so?)  And the everyday Iranian is depicted as a volatile fanatic, such as the scene in the bazaar with the enraged photographed man, which apparently did not actually occur.  On a side note, Iranian Shi’ite attitudes toward image making and photography are radically different from those of the Taliban, who only used photography when they felt it would aid their ideology.  Yeah, it adds drama, but it also adds to stereotypes.

Non-aligned hero?


Let’s face it.  The war drums are pounding for a confrontation with Iran, even though many analysts warn against it, even while the current Israeli regime tries to ramp it up.  I don’t think many people doubt that Iran does indeed want nuclear weaponry and that their threats against Israel are credible (although perhaps only in the pressure of desperation).  But while many Iranians are very dissatisfied with their government, violent revolution or foreign invasion is not something most want to go through again anytime soon.  Recent assessments have suggested that the average Iranian isn’t as anti-American as the state-sponsored anti-American chants after state-required Friday prayers would suggest.

The Iranian situation is far more complicated than either Iraq (dictator with small elite class) or Afghanistan (already in a state of civil war).  It’s a theocracy, but its nexus of power is not focused on one person or class, as the tensions between unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and elected populist President Ahmadinejad indicate.  Ahmadinejad’s term limit will end in 2013, when there will be a new elected president.  It’s not clear if the nuclear ambitions of Iran derive from the President’s or the Supreme Leader’s office, but the politics of Iran are complicated and factional.  There are multiple parties, within certain theocratic limits. Will new diplomatic options open up next year?

There have been few opportunities to educate the American public about the incredibly complex situation in Iran.  Argo, as a big-budget A-list actor production, had a real platform to fill this void, and it decided not to.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll chalk this up to lack of vision rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure.  If you want a more nuanced view of revolutionary Iran, take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, also a film.  It represents the view from the Iranian left, a victim of both the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary regime.  I’d also recommend the writings of ‘Ali Shari’ati, a leftist-religious dissident who died before the Revolution, but is certainly one of the fathers of the Revolution.  He’ll make you understand the passion behind the revolution more than anyone else.  Rejecting Khomeini’s vision doesn’t mean we have to make the Shah look great.  Argo, while being a fun time, made the choice to not make us think about this complexity.  Perhaps that tells us something about Affleck’s character.

Half Past Midnight

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty: Who’s really the one in solitary confinement?

I had been reluctant to see Zero Dark Thirty. Despite having seen the glowing reviews, I had also read an awful lot about its severely problematic assessment of the role of torture in uncovering the key intelligence that, after years, eventually led to bin Laden’s courier. Of all the hideous things America has done to itself after 9/11, the rampant use of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo and other places has been the issue that upsets me most – on a daily basis, in fact. So, let’s just say I went into this with a pretty hefty bias, expecting it to be a piece of jingoistic, Islamophobic, triumphalist claptrap. However, I don’t like trashing movies without seeing them, and, boy, did I want to trash this one.

But I can’t. It does have exactly the problems the negative critics and historians say it does. But it’s also a complex, multivalent movie. I’m convinced that what I took away from the movie was profoundly different from what the frat boys and VMI cadets who were in the audience on a Saturday night took away. But I suspect all of us will be thinking about this movie for a long time.

The scene that had Obama’s interview condemning torture playing on the TV in the background was one of the few chuckles offered by this movie.

But let me be clear. The assertion that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden is not just a false premise of the movie. It is the central premise of the movie, reiterated again and again and again, all the way up to one of the final scenes where a child is compelled to identify the dead body of her father, bin Laden. But oddly, this premise is what allows the movie to hold up a mirror to the American audience. For the most part, it doesn’t preach or force you toward a particular stance on torture. My views on torture have certainly not changed or even been challenged, and I suspect that some in the audience more tolerant of enhanced interrogation techniques feel the same way. I don’t even think that is the movie’s intent.

“Zero dark thirty” is a military designation for 12:30 AM, the time of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. But it also designates the amoral tone of the movie: half past midnight. The audience is plunged into an insular world of spooks without context. For the first half of the movie, the only things we see are interrogation scenes, the group of about half a dozen intelligence operatives strategizing interrogation, or terrorist attacks. After the first couple unexpected explosions, you become conditioned to realize that if the camera strays from the CIA universe, something’s about to blow up. Despite being set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rarely do we see any of the characters engaging the locals, who are glimpsed from time to time in the background. Green zone to black site to green zone.

Interestingly, I think it’s this de-contextualization that allows the film to avoid the trap of Islamophobia. The only Muslim religious activity we are shown is a CIA administrator praying in his office. The Angry Muslim Mob just makes one brief cameo appearance. Religion doesn’t even come up in the interrogation scenes, as far as I recall. Other than assumptions brought in by the audience, there is barely anything to even suggest that the terrorists are Muslims. In an era where Hollywood uses a brief shot of a minaret as a cipher for “OMG, terrorists are nearby,” this film deserves a lot of credit for effectively removing Islam from the center of the discussion about terror.

While bin Laden’s followers are antagonists of a sort, the true antagonist in the second half of the film is the very context that had been avoided in the first half of the film. Political roadblocks, bureaucratic (and male) bravado, and the weakening will of the American public to condone torture continue to confound the heroine, albeit indirectly. I say antagonist, and not villain, because the movie permits us to wonder if perhaps applying the brakes might be warranted. Maya may be the heroine, but her obsessive monomania makes Inspector Javert look like a flighty dilettante.

Most reviews talk about the incredibly graphic and incredibly long torture scenes (although I imagine those scenes are barely half as graphic as the real thing), but the early scene that really stuck with me is when Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, arrives at her desk in Pakistan for the first time. She notices the thick dust and grime on the desk, makes a half-hearted attempt to brush it off, sighs, and then sits down. She and the other characters can turn off any sense of ethics like a switch, and it is only the shutting out of context which permits this. The movie doesn’t tell us if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does show us that it has had a very steep price. It asks us if the price was worth it and allows us each to provide our own answer.

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.