Are Sharia Laws and Human Rights Compatible?

In their correspondence, Emran Qureshi, journalist and expert for Islam and human rights, and Heba Raouf Ezzat, lecturer for political science and womens' rights activist, discuss the role of the Sharia in Islamic countries and the West

In their correspondence, Emran Qureshi (journalist and expert for Islam and human rights) and Heba Raouf Ezzat (lecturer for political science and womens' rights activist) discuss the role of the sharia in Islamic countries and in how far sharia laws are compatible with human rights.  

Dear Heba,

Emran Qureshi (photo: private)
Emran Qureshi

​​The Sharia law, as is practiced in many Muslim countries today, is clearly incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today Sharia is a source of injustice that profanes Islam and shames Muslims who adhere to a compassionate and merciful interpretation of their faith.

At the same time I cannot see why a more humane and gentler Sharia law that is confined to the personal realm could not emerge in the future. Traditional Muslims - apart from Salafi and Wahhabi Muslims who are dominant in Saudi-Arabia - have long recognized the legitimacy of multiple schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

This is in addition to latitudinarian Islamic juridical practices, e.g. the borrowing of more liberal practices from other schools of thought. It shows that there is a remarkable capacity in Islam for reinterpretation. Nevertheless, I sadly think that a gentler Sharia is unlikely to emerge since today we are presented with the anti-intellectualism, authoritarianism, and moral depravity of these self-appointed Salafi guardians of Sharia.

Instead one should ask the question: Why has Sharia become the marker of the Muslim state? Thus Islam as envisioned by Islamist intellectuals is simply a penal code, and an Islamic State, a penal colony, which enforces the "pure" Islam. This is an extraordinary failure on the part of modern Muslim thinkers.

Khaled Abou El Fadl, a prominent Islamic intellectual reformer in the United States, has observed of contemporary Islamist intellectuals "Instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West." This is sadly true.

These corrosive ideas do not spring from a vacuum. They arise instead from impoverished Salafi and Wahhabi discourses, which are corroding Islam from within. There is a straight line between the Salafi/Wahhabi interpretations - a puritanical, anti-rationalist, misogynistic Islam with a punitive, intolerant Sharia - and the violence, which now bloodstains our faith.

Those who challenge this moral and ethical perversion of our faith are instead attacked as heretics as we can witness in Saudi-Arabia.


Emran Qureshi

Emran Qureshi is a journalist and expert for Islam and human rights. He is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. "The New Crusaded, Constructing the Muslim Enemy" is his most recent publication (Columbia University Press, 2003). He resides in Ottawa, where he is working on his next book, "A Study of Islam and Human Rights".

Dear Emran,

Heba Raouf Ezzat
Heba Raouf Ezzat

​​The Sharia law is not only compatible with human rights but also the most effective way to achieve human rights. Human rights violations in Muslim countries - whose regimes are usually supported by Western allies - are not due to Sharia law.

The violence in Islamic countries is mainly exercised by the state and dates back to the post-colonial era. There was an attempt to secularize the different laws of the Islamic societies and to remove Sharia. The legal systems of the late French and British colonial powers were seen as a model for the judicial reformation and as a basis for modernising the state.

However, these new secular and socialist regimes were totalitarian. They manipulated the up to then independent traditional religious institutions and appointed the heads of religious bodies and universities. Islam, when reduced to a penal code, was used to violate human rights.

Modern Islamic intellectuals were influenced by this. In their eyes the state was the means by which society and religion were being reshaped. In order to achieve an Islamic renaissance - and that is why Sharia has become the marker of the Muslim state – they tried to get their hands on the state.

In the struggle against the totalitarian regimes they wanted and want to bring back the law of Sharia. For them it is only through the Sharia that the strength of Islam can be recaptured. This struggle is a matter of power, with religion used and abused by both sides. The Muslim Brotherhood that is banned in Egypt advocates Sharia and has been running for elections for more than a decade accepting the rule of law.

The word "Sharia" means path. The road of Islam encompasses belief and morality for an individual, as much as a legal, economic and social framework, to govern a society. Moreover, Sharia is a progressive platform which empowers the people and protects their rights against totalitarianism and utilitarian ultra-capitalism. It can be an egalitarian force for democratic social justice, in the Muslim countries and globally.

Islam's central values are justice and personal freedom. However, they can also threaten Western economic interests when Muslim societies defend not only their cultural values but also aspire for economic independence. Reducing Islam to the individual moral dimension, as you would suggest, means that Islam loses its core as a progressive socialist liberation theology with a vision of a just society.

Ironically, the Islamic groups themselves are far from recognizing that and instead focus on penal codes and some outdated interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. It is true though that some Islamic groups regard Islam as an anti-thesis of the West. However, this mainly results from Western support for some of the most despotic regimes in the Middle East.


Heba Raouf Ezzat

Heba Raouf Ezzat teaches political theory at the Department of Political Science, Cairo University. She is co-ordinator of the Civil Society Program at the Center for Political Research and Studies at Cairo University and editor of the Global Civil Society Yearbook. She also works as womens' rights activist.

Dear Heba,

On the whole I agree with you though with a caveat: Sharia may one day in the distant future be a positive force for change. Though for me it is emblematic of what is profoundly and pathologically wrong with the Muslim world. It seems that existing reality does not filter into the consciousness of this discussion.

Sharia as practised today illustrates injustice and denies human freedom. For example, in parts of the Muslim world like Pakistan and Nigeria, women who are raped are prosecuted under Sharia law for fornication. In Saudi-Arabia the amputation of limbs as a punishment still occurs. Is that an act that is morally defensible?

Finally, women under the reign of the Taliban were denied basic human elementary freedoms such as mobility, education, and healthcare - all in the name of Islam. To their everlasting shame, many Islamist intellectuals remained for the most part indifferent or silent to these crimes.

The ideals of the existing Sharia are imbued with a Salafi and Wahhabi ideology. That's why I do not only criticise Sharia as practised today, but also Salafism and Wahhabism, which provide the intellectual framework for the Sharia. I noticed that you could not bring yourself to say anything remotely critical or even mention these two ideologies by name.

Certainly there is no denying that colonialism was a disaster of epic proportions for Muslims - mostly because of the pathological reactive Islamist ideologies and despotic states that played a role in perpetrating violence that emerged. And I cannot at all disagree with you on Western state support for despotic regimes.

However, it does not alone explain the violence in Muslim lands today or deny the fact that this violence is largely a result of a congealed globalized Salafi and Jihadi ideology. This Islamist globalisation must be resisted. It is a violence that profanes past traditions of Islamic pluralism and tolerance (I know it is Ramadan in Pakistan because that is when Sunni Jihadi organisations best like to firebomb Shiite mosques).

You define Islam as a political ideology and criticise Islam for being relegated to the realm of the personal moral dimension. Islam should apparently not be viewed as a moral vision for humanity, but instead be received as a utopian political ideology one in which the state enforces virtue, and has a socialist inflection.

Thus Islam for Islamists is nothing more than a utilitarian receptacle for their favourite ideologies de jour. I also sense a denigration of ideals that deal with personal liberties and freedoms, but I hasten to note that the human freedoms, which matter the most are those that are the closest to the individual.


Emran Qureshi

Dear Emran,

I do not limit the Sharia to a political ideology, but instead view it as a solution, one that encompasses the public and private spheres and centralizes around civil and individual values. Civil morality and civic virtues have been, and will continue to be, central to the future manifestation of Islam.

These are rooted in a solid system of socio-economic welfare advocated by Islamic jurists over centuries, in which the average citizen is empowered and in which the grass root politics of presence is stronger than the elitist politics of representation.

If today there is an "over-legalization" of the concept of Sharia - I am referring to abuses in the name of the Sharia - one cannot only blame the Islamists. The spread of global capitalism and its impact on human rights should be ignored in this discussion, because for many Islamists - apart from the Salafis and Wahhabis who defend a puritan and exclusive understanding of the Sharia which they want to impose on Muslims and non-Muslims alike - Sharia presents a form of resistance to the global capitalist order which they feel is infringing on their communal and national rights.

If some Islamists resort to violent means in order to impose Sharia we should also remember that for many other millions of civil activists Sharia remains a legitimate source of dignity and freedom and a trigger for global justice and equality. In order to respect the right of Muslims to an alternative world view, a new vision needs to be established between how Muslims and the global civil society interact.

Your reference to the misuse of Sharia in Nigeria or Pakistan is right, but in these cases Sharia was manipulated. Atrocities also occur in non-Muslim where there is no Sharia and where other cultural and religious values get abused.

We need to understand in more depth why humans resort to violence. Otherwise we will continue to look at Muslims and their cultures as barbaric and view their Sharia as the root of all evil. That would mean that Muslims can only hope for the future if they trivialize the role of Islam in their public life and restrict it to personal morality. This is simply not fair.


Heba Raouf Ezzat

Dear Heba,

A democracy offers intrinsic political, economic and social benefits and does not deserve the condescension that you offer by "elite representation".

I have problems with the "civic virtue" that you describe. On the one hand, Islamists, especially Salafis, tend to generalize their interpretations and project it backward into history in order to enforce validity. On the other hand "civic virtue" has historical as well as geographical specificities. In "Islamic" Indonesia civic virtue is shaped by different influences than in cosmopolitan centres of Islam or in agrarian and nomadic regions.

Centuries ago, civic virtues denied women denied the right to education. However, enforcing "virtue" and Sharia are staples of Islamist discourse: Thus Pakistani mullahs obsess about their citizenry watching Indian "Hindu" Bollywood movies and music and this pattern repeats itself elsewhere. Notice how here aesthetic and artistic endeavours are restricted in the guise of "virtue".

I also sense Islamists continue to profoundly define their worldview reactively vis-à-vis the West. Thus Islamism today is both a by-product of globalization. Islamists, as the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are ideologically driven will fail. Against that Islamists parties as you find them in Turkey that attempt to meet the needs and aspirations of its citizenry will be successful.

In effect, these Islamists will help to secularize their societies. Thus, Islamists are the harbingers of globalization: democracy, secularization, and individual rights. So I must congratulate them for this. Iran is a perfect example. There the young people of that country put bluntly want freedom from the Mullahs. Who would but think that possibility would arise from within political Islam?

You also disparage capitalism in the name of Islam, but I suspect would not deny the appeal of the latest capitalist gadgetry (e.g. the laptop computer, cell phone, television, and Hermes scarves). Please remember that Prophet Mohammad and his wife were humane business people that engaged in commerce. Recall the Hadith: "He who accumulates earnings by honest trade is the beloved of God."

Interestingly, it was thanks to mainly Muslim traders that Islam spread into India and South East Asia. That is a kind of Islamic globalization if you will that is not criticized by present-day Islamists.

Finally, the intellectuals are responsible for criticizing their received traditions and practices. But I do not know one - not one single Islamist intellectual that criticizes in a sustained manner Salafism or Wahhabism (a cancer corroding Islamic traditions from within), and is further willing also to acknowledge the corrosive effects of Jihadi "suicide" violence.

To mention this is to not demonize Muslims, as it should be apparent that no people have a monopoly on virtue or vice. I also note that when Islamist regimes engage in genocide or mass murder we see little internal condemnation - witness the reaction to the genocide campaign in Darfur against African Muslims by the fascist Sudanese regime.

What we see today is nothing less than a profound anti-intellectualism and immorality that is corroding the soul of Islam by those that purport to unfurl and defend the banner of Islam.


Emran Qureshi

Dear Emran,

I support liberal as well as Islamic civic virtues as well as the celebration of human dignity and social welfare. But I do not believe that democracy necessitates a specific economic system. As Islam is more of a social democracy than an economically liberal one, it can be viewed as a democracy and platform to tame capitalism.

If we enjoy the fruits of modernity, mainly science and technology as you pointed out, it does not mean that we should not be critical to the ultra utilitarian ideas some modernists advocated. Capitalism is not what we are keen to defend but rather an egalitarian and humanist Islam.

Darfur is a sad story if you wish to give an example of how a regime that advocates a narrow legal notion of Sharia can become so authoritarian and ignore equal distribution of national wealth and social justice as well as true power sharing. Yet allow me to ask: is this a problem of Islamic politics or rather a recurrent policy of African political elites?

Iran is enjoying a dynamic political change and that we can only hope that other regimes in the region would allow the same transparency and openness. I do not advocate an Iran without Mullahs in the public sphere, as the grip of Shii doctrines is strong, but I do advocate a larger presence of progressive voices. We should admit that an Islamic Iran has been relatively more democratic that the secular rule of the former "Shah of Persia" who was an ally of the "liberal" American administration.

Moreover, many Muslims have raised their voice against atrocities committed in the name of Islam. The Wahhabis and Salafis were subject to harsh criticism by Muslim intellectuals such as Yusuf Qaradawy and late Mohamed Ghazali. Both these intellectuals stressed democratic notions of women's rights and minorities' equality. Many other names can be mentioned in other contexts who had critical views regarding the practices of Wahhabis in the domestic politics of many regimes in the Arab peninsula.

It is true there are those who abuse Islam. In the same way we see liberals or socialists abusing the moral core of their respective ideologies, be it individual liberty or the primacy of social justice. In a global age we need to unite across ideologies, religions and cultures to defend us of extremists of any kind.

Through constructive debates we could come to democratic experience that, with time, sweeps away injustice, hegemony and arrogance in each and every corner of this small world and allows the heart of Islam to be recaptured as a message of mercy, justice and power sharing.


Heba Raouf Ezzat


The correspondence was conducted between June and August 2004. The letters were first published in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau on 4 October 2004. The correspondence was initiated by free-lance journalist Monika Jung-Mounib, currently working in Switzerland.