Is Newt Gingrich Wrong to Talk About Sharia?

In a recent article appearing in Tablet, Lee Smith takes Newt Gingrich to task for the latter’s focus on sharia (i.e., Islamic law).  The thrust of Smith’s argument is that sharia is a “hopelessly abstract concept” and “a highly idealized version of reality that has little basis in fact”; that sharia is “a catchall phrase for legal principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies”; and that “the notion that something called ‘sharia’ was widely imposed throughout the lands of Islam is an Orientalist fantasy.”

My first observation is — even if all these charges were perfectly true — so? It hardly matters what sharia really is; all that matters is what today’s Muslims believe it is. And a great many believe sharia is tangible and codified, and that it can, and should, be implemented in society. More to the point, telling the apostate or adulteress — who are regularly executed “according to sharia”— that they are really being murdered by “principles that have rarely, if ever, existed in actual Muslim societies” is hardly reassuring.

Smith does acknowledge Islam’s famous draconian punishments; he just prefers to call them hudud, and limits them to “Islamist outfits like the Taliban.” Similarly, Smith offers a blitz tour on Islamic jurisprudence — including the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi‘i madhahib, the differences between usuli and akhbarifiqhijma‘aqlqiyas, and ahkam sultaniyya — even as the reader wonders how these concepts are relevant to the discussion at hand: Islam in America, from a national security context.

Should Newt Gingrich be required to earn a doctorate in fiqh from Al Azhar before he can utter the word sharia? Or should we understand that he is simply referring to what Muslims themselves, especially Islamists, constantly refer to as sharia? Indeed, if Muslims use the word sharia as a “catch all phrase” (as Smith correctly asserts) should we not, too — if only to ensure that we are all talking about the same things?

In short, Smith’s position is purely academic and, far from clarifying things to the layman, pedantically convolutes matters. That said, it does offer one advantage: it helps differentiate “Muslims” from “Islamists.” Consider: Islamists are precisely those Muslims who insist that sharia is knowable, and that they are obligated to uphold its every minutia, whereas so-called “moderate Muslims” acknowledge, at best, the most general demands of Islam, namely, the Five Pillars. This division also explains the lure of Islamism: surely the idealistic or zealous devotee will be attracted to the tangible, the implementable, the clear-cut, whereas the indifferent and possibly secularized Muslim will be quite content to conclude that anything beyond the basics is “an Orientalist fantasy” to be devoutly ignored.