By Iván Flores
I’d spent time in the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor with a couple of kids from WCC, whose religiousness reminded me more of the evangelical/non-denominational kids I grew up with than anything else. But I’d never had the chance to ask a Muslim cleric about what is probably the most feared and misunderstood aspect of Islam in America.
I drove to Dearborn to meet with an Imam. The man I met was Ibrahim Kazerooni, and he is a Shiite. I thought it was a little odd that the Islamic Center of America, which I think is the biggest mosque in the American continent, would be a Shiite. After all, they only make up 10% of Muslims worldwide.
The Imam was well educated and knowledgeable about Western thinkers. He understood my references to Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theories. And actually, he was the one who started the obscure references to Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, and Descartes. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard or used those names in a conversation, much less their ideas, since high school humanities.
Kazerooni unapologetically dismantled the idealism of American values with clear and concise arguments using the writings of the aforementioned Western philosophers. He was particularly cynical about American democracy, which he called, “a superficial system of democracy that is merely procedural.”
What I really got out of the meeting were his actual apologetics of Shariah, which is what I would expect from any religious leader. (And restaurant suggestions).
He said that Muslims should respect secular laws as long as they do not contradict ethical or moral objectives. That would probably freak a lot of people out. Especially, those who don’t understand what the ethical and moral objectives are. (Come to think of it, Kazerooni didn’t make that clear). But really, how is that different from Martin Luther King’s approach to law and social change? It was St. Augustine who said an unjust law is no law at all.
“But what is Shariah law anyway?”
Few words triggered my Lutheran boss last summer more than “Shariah.” When my coworker and I planted an English copy of the Qur’an in his work truck in hopes that he would read it, he gave us a look that said he might’ve fired us if he had more than two employees.
“Shariah is a set of moral and ethical values Muslims abide by, reserving the right to navigate based on context,” Kazerooni said. “Shariah law has flexibility and fixed doctrine.”
Interpretation of Shariah law is not black and white. The two main sources are the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the verbatim word of God, and Hadiths or Sunnahs, which are sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad. Shariah law covers everything from religious doctrine, to interactions with other people (marriage, commerce, crime, etc.) and personal growth.
However, there are passages in the Qur’an that raise alarm in Western cultures. For example, the command to kill “infidels,” apostates, and the condoning of Muhammad’s marriage to a seven year-old girl.
Muslim apologists argue that these passages are taken out of context, and have parallels in other religious traditions. For example, there is human sacrifice, stonings, polygamy, and religious war both in the Torah and Old Testament.
Shariah law is interpreted differently across the Islamic world. In places like Saudi Arabia, which has a particularly fundamentalist interpretation, Shariah is harsh. Women are famously forbidden from driving or going out unaccompanied by a man. There are floggings, amputations, and beheadings as punishments for crime.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, interpretation is much more relaxed. Some people don’t even fast for the duration of Ramadan. They consume alcohol and smoke, both things traditionally prohibited by Shariah. Then there’s Turkey, which is a secular country in which Shariah technically has no place in the legal code.
However, Kazerooni believes Shariah is not the real issue in American discourse. He said the word “Shariah” frightens people because humans dislike anyone perceived as inherently different.