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Expect Shari'a-based Taliban rule to be harsh, unbending

If you've been paying attention to Afghanistan, you know that the now-in-charge-again Taliban is committed to governing on the basis of Islamic law, called Shari'a.

ShariaA lot of American imagine that Shari'a amounts to heartless brutality, including cutting off the hands of convicted thieves and keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

That's why some efforts have been made in the U.S. to prevent courts and other legal authorities from ever considering Shari'a in their rulings. I wrote about that foolishness several years ago here.

But if you are serious about wanting to know about Shari'a in depth, I point you toward a book by my friend Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas. His weighty 2011 book, Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a), is the definitive look at this subject.

As Bhala notes in the book, calling Shari'a just "Islamic law" "is not wrong. But from an American legal mindset, it is incomplete in two respects." First, Shari'a really means a path, a way and spirit of living to which Muslims are called. And Shari'a isn't limited to just legal matters. As Bhala writes, "Shari'a is to govern all of life."

In some ways, thus, Shari'a is for Muslims what the Torah is for Jews and the teachings of Jesus are for Christians -- a description of how to live in harmony with God's purposes.

All of that said, there are ways to live by Shari'a and then there are ways to live by Shari'a. The Taliban has shown that it is a theologically fundamentalist-extremist group that inevitably picks the most radical and harsh interpretation of Shari'a. So the last thing we can expect from the Taliban is approval of female imams.

Media outlets are starting to offer interpretations of what we can expect from Taliban rule now. Some of it has been misleading, to say the least, as this commentary from Yahoo News indicates. The money line from that piece: "Islam is not a monolith, Muslims represent a sixth of humanity and any simplistic reduction of Islamic law to savage brutality is woefully ignorant and unhelpful." But this USA Today piece, by contrast, tries to help readers understand what Shari'a is and how the Taliban might rule in light of it.

As the story notes, "Shari'a is the set of laws and precepts that govern the daily lives of Muslim people. It is based on a combination of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and teachings from the prophet Muhammad.

"Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, explained to USA TODAY that 'Shari'a law, or the word Shari'a, has, in the context of contemporary culture, become highly controversial and distorted in its understanding." Ahmed, whom I've met and heard speak, is right, and he has spent considerable time and effort trying to educate people about Shari'a.

Again, Ahmed to USA TODAY: “Shari'a means literally ‘the path’. . .All systems and religions have a way to a better, happier, more prosperous and a more pious life.”

Ahmed also told that newspaper that Shari'a “is defined very clearly by the Qur'an,” but interpretation of the text from scholars, governments and cultures have drastically differed.

Afghanistan-leeExactly. And it's important to remember that even though Muslims believe that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over more than two decades, it needs to be interpreted for several reasons, including the fact that every translation of the book from its original Arabic is itself an interpretive act.

It's also important to understand the history of religious practice and interpretation in Afghanistan. As Jonathan L. Lee writes in his 2018 book Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present, ". . .since the 1920s Afghanistan's legal code has been strongly influenced by Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four Sunni legal schools, or muzhabs. Most Afghans are deeply religious and adhere to the beliefs and practices of Islam, though many urban Afghans are not particularly regular when it comes to observing the five daily prayers. Islam, while it is rigorously monotheistic, is far from being monolithic and there are many strands of religious belief and interpretation, ranging from deistic rationalism to the puritanical exclusivism of movements such as the Taliban."

That's just more confirmation that if there is a rigid, humorless, punitive, oppressive way to interpret the Qur'an and Shari'a, you can count on the Taliban to choose that method -- despite recent Taliban leadership claims to the contrary.

Another important point that Lee makes in his book is that "Islamic law is often blamed for (the) restrictive culture, but customary law, known as 'adat or rasm wa rawaj, is equally important when it comes to determining gender roles in Afghanistan and often denies women rights that are accorded them by the Shari'a." Indeed, scholars who study Islam often say that when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to Arabic culture, it was quite liberating for women, giving them, for example, the right to own and inherit property and to maintain control over whatever wealth women brought to a marriage.

Indeed, as Islam in its early years expanded into areas beyond the Arabian peninsula, it often encountered harshly patriarchal societies that simply ignored or defeated the ways in which Muhammad's teachings were supposed to free women from such strictures. The culture, in other words, won out over the religion.

I would love to be proved wrong about what to expect from the Taliban, but anything less than extremist interpretations of Shari'a and the Qur'an will shock me. I hope to be shocked but won't hold my breath.

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The kicky and fascinating Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I heard speak at my Kansas City church a couple of years ago, has been installed as the "pastor of public witness" for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her many fans, including those on her email newsletter and prayer list, will cheer. In some ways, this new designation is simply her denomination's acknowledgement that the work she does anyway is ministry. You can sign up for her newsletter here. But if a few common swear words that she regularly employs offend you, perhaps you should avoid doing that.


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