What is Sharia?
The word Sharia is understood by Muslims to describe the route toward salvation laid down by God. It is derived from the Arabic for ‘path to water’, and it has parallels in both Christianity and Judaism. The Christian equivalent is ‘the straight and narrow’, while Jews have a similar tradition called the halakha (which also means ‘path’).
Sharia is not a written code like the Ten Commandments, and no body of scholars can authoritatively decide what it requires. It has adapted hugely over Islam’s 1400-year existence, and current interpretations are as diverse as the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
It is true that some foreign governments cite Islam to justify discrimination and repression (though only a dozen of about fifty Muslim-majority states refer to Sharia in their constitutions). But for most Muslims, Sharia is a spiritual concept, based on ethical values such as fairness, charity and dignity. It guides them on day-to-day questions like diet and dress, personal relationships, and rituals of worship.
Since observant Muslims necessarily try to follow the Sharia, they are liable to perceive condemnations of ‘Sharia law’ as hostility toward Islam itself.
Should there be laws to prevent ‘creeping Sharia’ in the United States?
There is not a single occasion when a state or federal court has given permanent effect to an interpretation of Sharia that violates American law by (for example) ignoring the interests of children or discriminating against women. Absent any evidence of danger, anti-Sharia laws are therefore a waste of time and money. They are necessarily overbroad and unrelated to the pursuit of compelling governmental interests. In any event, the US Constitution is not so weak that it needs institutionalized discrimination to survive.
What about restrictions that target ‘foreign laws’ instead of Sharia specifically?
Such measures threaten believers of all faiths. That is why they have been opposed by several Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League. The danger they pose to religious communities was well summarized by Professor Robert Vischer of Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas Law School. Speaking about a recent Kansas law that targets ‘any foreign law, legal code or system’, he said that: ‘These laws just don’t threaten the religious liberty of Muslims. They threaten our commitment to a legal system that is open to all faith traditions.’
Sadakat Kadri, Author and Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers (UK), shared with ISLAMiCommentary the FAQ Factsheet on Sharia (above). He published a thorough history of Islamic law, Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to Streets of the Modern Muslim World, in 2012 (here reviewed by the New York Times and here Kadri interviewed about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air).
More Information about Sharia
UNC-Chapel Hill Islamic Studies Professor Carl Ernst and Duke University Muslim Chaplain Abdullah Antepli discuss Sharia at a public talk at Duke, April 18, 2013, in response to a question about what Sharia means in the U.S. See here for more information about the talk and the panel. WATCH BELOW:
The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President, Interfaith Alliance, moderated a panel that centered on a legal and cultural discussion of what Sharia is and is not, and its treatment in the political arena and by the media. Panelists also looked at how Sharia compares to other religious systems of law practiced in the US and abroad. Julie Macfarlane, Professor of Law, University of Windsor and Fellow, ISPU: Sadakat Kadri, Author and Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers; and Marc Stern, Associate General Counsel, American Jewish Committee; had a lively and engaging debate on these issues. WATCH BELOW:
Footnotes for Sharia Factsheet (at the top):
 Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari‘a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), p. 12.
 It is notoriously hard to prove a negative, of course, but the literature of the anti-Sharia activists cites no case in which a malign interpretation of sharia law was clearly enforced or upheld in American courts: for a discussion in the conservative National Review, see Matthew J. Franck, ‘A Solution in Search of a Problem’, at www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/303028/solution-search-problem-matthew-j-franck.
 See Abraham H. Foxman, ‘Shout Down the Sharia Myth Makers’, online at www.adl.org/ADL_Opinions/Religious_Freedom/20110811-JTA+Oped.htm.
 Quoted in www.osv.com/tabid/7621/itemid/9541/Catholic-experts-criticize-Shariah-law-bans.aspx.