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Asking The Right Questions About Islamic Law And Human Rights

Can the traditions of human rights and Shari'a be reconciled?

Can the traditions of human rights and Shari'a be reconciled?

The recent stoning of a young couple by the Taliban in Afghanistan has prompted another round of discussion around the world about whether Islamic Shari'a law and Western human rights are reconcilable. As a student of Islamic history and philosophy, and as a member of the Baha'i faith, I worry whether certain lines of argument have been thought through.

There's a broad range of opinions on this topic, but they can be roughly situated upon two general spectrums: those who believe Shari'a and human rights are compatible or incompatible at the level of outward form and structure, or at the level of conceptual essence. The first spectrum is the debate politicians, soldiers, and lawyers have, while the second spectrum is the debate philosophers, historians, and, yes, radicals have.

My concern is twofold. First, that the debate over form too often gets confused with, or substituted for, the debate over essence. Second, and more importantly, that there's also no clarity about what we really mean when we talk about "reconciliation." Do we just mean adapting and molding one to fit the other? Or do we mean that they actually share the same conceptual core?

Translated into non-philosophese, it's one thing to convert the jirga and ulema into resemblances of Western-style legislatures, but entirely another to argue that this therefore means Shari'a and Western human rights are reconcilable, even the same. It would be like trying to argue that because certain trees bloom in springtime they are therefore flowers.

I've chosen that metaphor on purpose. As a Baha'i, I do indeed believe that Shari'a and human rights spring from the same root: in this case, transcendental principles. Shari'a calls for submission to divine laws, human rights to inalienable natural laws, and both offer a kind of liberty -- one spiritual, the other material. Ultimately, their origin is with God, Shari'a directly, human rights indirectly.

Yet, just because trees and flowers are both plants, that doesn't make them the same species. I worry that such equating is precisely the assumption underlying the reconciliation debate. The risk is that in the hands of a skilled ideologue, say, Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki, its intellectual shoddiness can be easily disassembled and used to denounce reformers as morally and mentally weak to the temptations of "Westernization."

What's the conversation we should be having, then? For one, we need to be wary of proving the ideologues correct -- that behind the talk of reconciliation is a drive toward Westernization via hermeneutical means. For another, we need be aware that Shari'a and human rights are actually traditions, and what we mean by them today is not what was meant yesterday or what will be meant tomorrow.

The debate, then, shouldn't be about whether Shari'a meets contemporary notions of human rights that could one day be judged as transitory, but whether both traditions measure up to perennial principles of right, wrong, and what it means to be human. Once that's established, then real reconciliation -- as cross-fertilization and synthesis -- can begin.

-- Christopher Schwartz

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at