Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Sharia in the West

This research projects wants to know what Muslims in the West do and mean by ‘Sharia’, and how the Western legal system responds to that. The focus is on Sharia as an informal practice by Muslims in the West, i.e. other than through state law or state courts.

Maurits Berger

The extent to which these practices conform to scripture or not, is of no relevance to this project. With regard to the Western response to sharia, it is argued that these are two-fold: either of a political-legal nature (e.g., liberty, freedom, equality) as enshrined in constitutions and laws, or of a religious-cultural nature, which relates to strongly entrenched local customs. The project provides insight in, on the one hand, the nature of the Islamic rules that are considered important to Western Muslims, and to what extent these rules are non-negotiable or adaptable or to be rejected and, on the other hand, the complex nature of the Western responses and how these responses lead to opposing views on what position sharia can(not) take in the West.

The question this project wants to answer is: what is this sharia that we are so concerned about in the West? Opposing views of two respected European institutions – the European Court of Human Rights and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales – illustrates that there is quite some controversy as to what sharia actually means. The same contradiction can be witnessed in the practices of Muslims, some of whom participate in annual Ramadan charity for Muslims as well as non-Muslims as a matter of observing sharia, while others support the Sharia4Belgium. It is striking that a term is used with such self-evident assurance – by politicians, lawmakers, journalists, Muslims and non-Muslims alike – while at the same time it is completely unclear what it actually means.

Even in academics, where the notion of “sharia in the West” is becoming an academic field of research in its own right, comprehensive models of what this notion entails are absent. Recent literature on the subject discusses sharia either as the century-old legal discipline of Islam, or as contemporary practices and laws applied in Muslim majority countries, whereby some scholars focus on the practices in these countries, while others study the ways these national ‘sharia’ laws are applied in Western courts through international private law.

Our interest here is of a different nature, for it will address the domestic practice of sharia by Muslims in the West. Research on this topic is gradually emerging, but is still quite scant and focuses predominantly on specific issues of Islamic family rules, either as praxis among Muslims, or by means of so-called Muslim arbitration tribunals, or in rulings of western national courts (mostly related to issues of the headscarf and full face veil). Another field of research is the fatwas issued for the benefit of Muslims in the West and the ‘Fiqh for minorities’ ( fiqh al-‘aqalliyat), but while they may yield novel insights on changing concepts in Islamic jurisprudence, these studies fail to indicate the extent to which these changes are actually practiced by Muslims in the West.

The overall picture of sharia in the West is therefore fragmented in qualitative terms (the interpretations and manifestations of sharia) and almost absent in quantitative terms (the actual practices of sharia, and how many Muslims adhere to them). In this project we will develop a comprehensive approach to study and contextualize the phenomenon of sharia in the West. We will do so by identifying its three components: the different ways sharia is practiced and interpreted by Muslims in the West; the legal, emotional, cultural, and other Western responses thereto; and the results of the interaction between these two.

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