I do not think Hollywood could have come up with a more sensational movie plotline: In early July the famous Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Pakistan was raided by government security forces in a crackdown on militant religious seminary students. Both sides got locked in a standoff that lasted several days and had a tragic outcome.

The standoff began on July 3, when clashes erupted at the mosque and 16 people were killed. The mosque was then besieged by government forces, and negotiations began in hopes of ending the crisis.

Hundreds of students surrendered, and the mosque's leader was caught trying to escape wearing a woman's burqa. When negotiations finally failed, the army stormed the compound--dozens of people were killed when it was all over on July 12th. The final death toll is still unknown, with the government saying 108 people being killed, and leaders of hard-line religious parties claiming that at least 400 people died. And the violence continues in the ungoverned tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.

This standoff has dominated the news for a major part of this summer. And it’s because there’s much more at stake here then the control of a mosque. Consider the history of this famous Pakistani mosque:

The Lal Masjid, built in 1965 and named for its red walls and interiors, has long enjoyed patronage from influential members of the Pakistani government. Things changed, however, after the attacks of 9/11. Pakistan officially allied itself with the United States in the "war on terror" while the Lal Masjid’s clerics became fierce opponents. In fact, frequent calls for the assassination of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were made at the mosque.

Starting in 2006--and this is the primary impetus for the crackdown on the mosque--the mosque's students and leadership began a Taliban-like judicial system that instigated scores of incidents, including kidnappings, arson, and murder. Many of their actions were against alleged brothels and sellers of music and movies. Apparently, they felt that if the government and local authorities would not implement "Islamic law," they would take matters into their own hands.

Of course the whole story is much more complicated, and I am sure more details will emerge in the coming days and weeks.

But this got me thinking about the whole issue of Islamic law (known to most as Sharia law), and efforts by Muslims all across the world to implement it in their own legal systems. There are several issues that come into play when the issue of Sharia law comes up, and they are not easily resolved. First of all, what is Sharia law? I suspect that for most people, when the word "Sharia" is mentioned, they immediately think of two things: Cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning an adulterer to death. Yet, it would not surprise me in the least if many--if not most--Muslims conjure up the same two visions about Sharia.

Sharia is much more than that. At its essence, Sharia law is the attempt on the part of human beings to discern and implement the will of God on earth in all aspects of life--not just criminal law. Muslim scholars have outlined five objectives of Sharia law: preservation of religion, life, lineage, wealth, and intellect. Every "rule" in the Sharia harkens back to one of these core principles. But the question is: Is there one set of Sharia "rules" that all Muslims across the globe agree on? Aren’t there differences of opinion as to what the Sharia says about this different aspects of life?

Most definitely. While there is legal consensus on some issues, Muslim scholars around the world hold different opinions regarding practically every aspect of Sharia. There may be a majority who believe in a “rule” regarding some issue, but there usually is juristic dissent, or a "minority report." And this is where the problem lies: How can Muslims implement "Sharia" law--which has a divine connotation--when there so often are differences of opinion about what exactly the Sharia says about a particular matter?

If Muslims were to sit down and write a book of laws based on the Sharia, who’s view should be taken? If the "majority" view of Islamic scholars is taken, is this unjust? Isn't the "minority" opinion also valid? What about the opinions of other schools of law? Which one should be adopted? What factors should determine which opinion should be adopted as the "correct" view?

The questions don’t stop there: If societal norms and other circumstances change with time, should the law change with them? The answer to this question is easy when it comes to secular law, but with Sharia law as understood by Muslims today, this would be interpreted as "changing God's law." How is this tension resolved? It is well known in the annals of Islamic jurisprudence that laws must be re-examined with changing times. But there are too few Muslim scholars who espouse this view, and many hearken back to medieval legal constructs and apply them today. I feel this is simply untenable.

As far as criminal law is concerned, it seems that Muslims are quick to implement the hudud (or limits ordained by Allah) punishments, like the stoning of adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves. But there are so many mitigating circumstances when it comes to these punishments, and they are frequently neglected. A perfect example of this is the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria (a case that many Muslim scholars also found appalling). Lawal was condemned to death by stoning for alleged adultery (even though the man was let go for "lack of evidence"). 

Moreover, a well known principle of Islamic law is that if the conditions in a society do not permit the application of a particular law, it should not be implemented. For instance, if poverty and hardship is rampant in society, the law of amputation for theft should not be applied. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said, "If there is any way (to avoid punishing someone for a legal offence), let that person go. For it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing."

These basic principles, it seems, have been completely neglected and abandoned by many Muslims jurists today. Doesn't this lead to injustice? Isn't that the exact opposite of what Islamic law is all about? So does this justify calls for a moratorium on the implementation of Islam’s criminal penal code, as made by academics such as Tariq Ramadan?

Then there is the whole issue of "There is no compulsion in religion. (Qur’an, 2:256)” How does this play with respect to humans implementing what they believe to be God's law? Although there is some compulsion when it comes to the government imposing law and order (people are "compelled" to drive under the speed limit), some Muslims elevate all sinful acts to the level of criminal law, which was never intended by the Sharia.

For example, the students of the Lal Masjid reportedly harrassed music sellers because they believed music was haram, or forbidden by Islam. Yet, there are a number of Muslim scholars who have said that there is nothing in Islam that prohibits music. If these students have their way and ban all music, isn't this "compulsion in religion"? Aren't they imposing their own personal religious view upon the rest of the community? This isn’t Sharia but vigilantism, which is expressly forbidden by the Sharia law itself.

These are only some of the many questions that need to be addressed when it comes to the implementation of Sharia law, and I do not even pretend to know the answers to these questions. Nevertheless, these questions must be answered and these inherent tensions need to be resolved by the scholars of the Muslim world today. And there should be nothing wrong with raising such questions in the first place.

Many Muslims today, especially after 9/11, operate under a "siege" mentality and feel the whole world is against them because of the intense scrutiny now placed upon Islam, its tenets, and Muslim communities around the world. Add to that the enormous amount of suspicion of the Muslim community by their non-Muslim neighbors because of the acts of a few terrorist criminals. As a result, many Muslims feel that taking a critical eye toward issues such as Sharia law is somehow being "disloyal" to Islam.

But truth does not fear investigation, and the least we can do--especially when it comes to attempting to implement God’s will on earth--is ask ourselves hard questions. If we do it wrong and say "God says thus," we will be lying on behalf of God, something against which He warned us sternly: "Woe, then, unto those who write down, with their own hands, [something which they claim to be] divine writ, and then say, 'This is from God,' in order to acquire a trifling gain thereby; woe, then, unto them for what their hands have written, and woe unto them for all that they may have gained! (Qur’an, 2:79)”

The purpose of the Sharia is to promote justice and the common good. In fact, many people will be surprised to learn that the Sharia serves as the inspiration for the law in many Muslim countries, and there are few problems at all. In a minority of instances, however, the Sharia--as some Muslims have presently applied it--has been an instrument of injustice and intolerance (think Afghanistan under the Taliban and Nigeria in the Lawal case). This was never the intention of the God.

Too many Muslims fail to understand this, and because of this disaster has been handed down in the name of God and His religion. This cannot be allowed to happen again. This is, admittedly, a very sensitive issue, but we cannot shy away from it in the least. Our very salvation is at stake. Yet, in my speaking with numerous Muslim scholars, I see hope. The religious establishment across the Muslim world is working hard to update itself, under their own imperative, and not from any pressure from the West. Hopefully these forces for change will win the day.
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