Experts unpack the mythology of Sharia law

21 May 2013

In response to the growing prominence of political Islam and calls for the imposition of Sharia in the wake of Arab Spring elections, the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society organized a conference last week to unpack the mythology surrounding Sharia and assess the socio-political consequences for the Middle East and the wider geopolitical implications.
The event was opened on 16 May at the Oxford Department of International Development by Professor Robert Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Exeter, whose keynote lecture addressed one of the central reasons for the controversy surrounding Sharia – that, since it is conceived as the rule of God, it is inherently unknowable, and therefore open to competing interpretations by Western commentators and Muslim jurists alike.
Drawing on Wittgenstein’s ‘beetle in the box’ theory to illustrate the nature of these multiple interpretations of Sharia law, Professor Gleave demonstrated the current importance of the issues at stake, both in his prediction of the likely rise of Islamic law in a post-Assad, rebel-held Syrian state, and in the debate over whether Sharia should be given any legal status in the UK.
Recent examples of constitution-making in Islamic states such as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated a reluctance by the constitutional framers to make explicit reference to the word ‘Sharia’, as to do so, would, Professor Gleave argued, leave them open to an host of theological and legal problems, owing to how disputed the rules of Islam are.
Describing the Arab Spring as producing little blossom and few flowers following uprisings, Professor Gleave argued that the popularity of Sharia in the wake of the Arab uprisings is attributable to the fact that Sharia represents the core Muslim values that offer an alternative to the injustice and corruption that fuelled popular anger.
Professor Gleave’s lecture raised a number of issues that were further investigated in the workshop held at Wolfson College the following day. A panel of experts explored the contemporary relevance of Sharia Law through the prism of recent constitution-making in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East; the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the influence of Sharia on social reform and in family life.
Podcasts from the debate are available from the links on the right, and policy briefs and opinion pieces on the issues discussed will be published over the summer months.