Curtis to Gingrich: Sharia is not what you think

Originally published in the Indianapolis Star, July 18, 2016:

“We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background,” former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich declared during a recent television program. “And if they believe in Sharia they should be deported.”

On the one hand, it is difficult to believe that Gingrich really means what he says.

This kind of religious test would never pass muster in the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative and liberal judges seek to protect First Amendment rights of religious liberty. U.S. law can regulate people’s behaviors, not their beliefs or thoughts.

On the other hand, the more powerful people such as Gingrich advocate for such policies, the more possible they become.

Why are sharia-believing Muslims so dangerous? “These people are opposed to our way of life,” Gingrich asserted. “They are opposed to our value system.”

But that’s not how the majority of Muslim Americans see it. According to Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Muslim Americans “see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.” For comparison, 64 percent of Christian Americans say the same thing.

How is this possible? How can one follow the Sharia and live in a modern society?

Americans have been doing it since before the United States declared its independence in 1776.

For example, when the best-known Muslim American of the colonial era, an enslaved African imam known as Job ben Solomon, was looking for a place to pray on Kent Island, Md., in 1731, there was no mosque to be had. He just prayed in the woods instead. Job also avoided liquor and, when possible, butchered his meat according to Islamic ritual regulations.

It was a challenge, but this enslaved scholar adapted Sharia to his difficult circumstances.

Sharia is not what Gingrich says it is.

Sharia literally means “path.” It is the Islamic way of life that leads to eternal salvation.

The Sharia cannot be found in any one book. It is not a comprehensive legal code, although a small number of Muslim-majority countries have adopted a version of it as such. Other countries limit the application of Sharia to family law, including divorce, marriage and inheritance cases.

Most of the Sharia governs Muslims’ religious obligations. Without the Sharia, Muslims wouldn’t know how to pray, when to fast, what to do during the pilgrimage to Mecca or how much money they should donate to charity.

Sharia is based on the Quran, the sacred scripture revealed to the Prophet Muhammad from 610 to 632 A.D., in addition to his sayings and actions (called the Sunna, or tradition.) But the bulk of Sharia comes from innumerable scholarly opinions and interpretations.

These interpretations can give contradictory information on basic questions such as where to place one’s hands when one prays.

Different schools of Islamic thought see this diversity of opinion as a mercy, not a problem. Sharia, they say, is based on the same roots, but can differ in its branches. Scholars — whether Sunni or Shiite — recognize one another as legitimate interpreters of Islam.

Flexibility is part of sharia’s DNA. Although certain religious obligations such as prayer and charity are non-negotiable, rules governing human interactions can be changed.

The sharia also includes harsh criminal penalties for adultery and theft, which are no longer practiced by most Muslim-majority nation-states.

Muslim leaders in Indianapolis — including  U.S. Rep. Andre Carson — explicitly reject these criminal punishments as well.

Since the 1950s, Muslim Americans leaders have instead stressed the compatibility of Islamic religion and the U.S. Constitution, celebrating their shared values of justice and equality.

In the United States, where there is no Islamic state to enforce Sharia guidelines and no one school of thought to which Muslim Americans subscribe, Muslims debate sharia’s role in discrimination against women, LGBTQ persons, and other historically oppressed populations.

I am not sure if Gingrich knows all this, but I hope, for the sake of the country and especially for its Muslim sons and daughters, that more and more of us will embrace reality rather than fear.

We can acknowledge the long presence of Sharia-practicing Muslims in America, as we also debate the good and bad points of sharia just like Muslim Americans are already doing.

But let’s also loudly condemn horrific proposals to start rounding up our fellow citizens because of what they believe.

Now more than ever, we need to have faith in our American creed of religious liberty for all.