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M.W. Balcomb: Religious and Secular Law: How Far Are We Willing to Go?

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2011

On the face of it, these are exciting times for those who believe that interfaith dialogue and cooperation are essential elements in humanity's age-old quest for peace. For example, just last year, the United Nations, long the most secular of institutions, declared that the first week of February should be celebrated as the "Week of Interfaith Harmony."

The idea of the Week, first proposed by the King of Jordan, is that religious leaders should take time to praise the good points of other faiths from their own pulpits, helping their own followers to see other faiths as good and even divinely inspired. This would mark a welcome step forward from the unfortunately widespread attitude that at best, other faiths are inferior and enjoy less complete disclosures of truth than one's own.

The proposal met with a cautious but enthusiastic response, particularly among the NGO community, and the first Week of Interfaith Harmony was celebrated in over 50 nations. The Universal Peace Federation hosted a large international interfaith assembly in Seoul, Korea, and more than 30 chapters observed the week with programs ranging from interfaith prayers, service projects, peace walks, and other activities.

Yet we approach the second anniversary of the Week of Interfaith Harmony, enthusiasm seems at best lukewarm. Even those who normally support interfaith efforts are calling for a more substantive effort that goes beyond simply saying nice things about each other and working for real changes in the daily lives of the faithful.

One of the most controversial such suggestions is that Western societies should make it possible for their growing number of Muslim citizens to choose to live by Shari'a law rather than, or in addition to, the common law of the land.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, was among the first senior religious leaders to seriously consider such an idea with, in early 2008 he caused an almighty stir in British political and religious life by saying the time had indeed come when Britain should consider making a place for formal recognition of Shari’a law in its legal framework, in order to better accommodate and integrate Britain’s large and growing Muslim community:

If what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of diverse and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.[i]

Howls of protest followed from almost all sides. The popular and populist press took the Archbishop to task for ‘selling out’ the fine Christian tradition of the country – notwithstanding the fact their readers are, according to most studies the most un-churched generation ever. The Sunday Telegraph asked its readers:

Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish – art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?[ii]

Members of Parliament called the prelate’s words ‘almost treasonous.’ Some called for his resignation; others for a detailed and unreserved apology. Other lawmakers and civil servants made stern noises about the primacy of English civil law. Even Mr. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – whose job it is to prevent race and religious based discrimination in Britain – said: "I don't believe in multiculturalism. When people come to this country they have to obey the laws of the land."[iii]

Even the Church of England’s governing synod, normally the most passive of bodies, felt constrained to distance itself from its leader’s radical suggestion. And so, the following day, Dr. Williams found himself having to explain and clarify the meaning of his words:

We do not simply have a standoff between two rival legal systems when we discuss Islamic and British law. On the one hand, shari’a depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned. To recognise shari’a is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system.[iv]

Of course, there was also some support for the beleaguered Archbishop. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, agreed that "There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law." The British Islamic community, on whose behalf Dr. Williams might have been presumed to be speaking, was cautious in its response.

More enthusiastic support for the advancement of the Shari’a in Britain came from the United States. Imam Feisal Rauf, a prominent American Muslim, wrote in a Newsweek opinion:

The addition of Shari’a law to "the law of the land," in this case British law, complements, rather than undermines, existing legal frameworks. The Archbishop was right. It is time for Britain to integrate aspects of Islamic law.[v]

Rauf offers three reasons why Britain should embrace the idea. First, as a reality, there are a growing number of Muslims resident in Britain. The society has a vested interest in engaging these Muslims and not letting them feel that they have no say in society, for that could be an invitation to radicalization. Secondly, it would be fair. British law is built on Judeo-Christian principles and moreover provides a special legal position for the bishops of the Church of England – and some Jewish leaders – in the House of Lords, not only the upper house of parliament but also the seat of the final court of appeal. And thirdly, as practical matter, millions of Britons are already observing Shari’a laws regarding the worship of God, fasting, prayer, charity, and pilgrimage, and no one is the worse for it.

Rauf concludes by noting that as Muslim communities in the Western world grow in number from immigration and as a result of family sizes much larger than the European average, the number of people who may wish to be governed by Shari’a law will most probably increase.

What are the objections to this process, and why is it apparently so frightening to many? And what lessons might the Unification community, similarly committed to the vision of a world governed by ‘heavenly law’ draw in considering alternative strategies for promoting what may well be a deeply divisive and unpopular idea?

Misunderstandings about Shari’a law

The first objection is that the Shari’a itself is a primitive and outdated legal system that should have no place in modern society. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury anticipated this objection in his lecture, saying:

And what most people think they know of shari’a is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; … a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role. [vi]

Is this true? The Archbishop argues that this is an ignorant and incomplete view. Shari’a should be seen more as a way of life than a legal system, he argues. After all, the root word in Shari’a – Shar – means not law but the way. Shari’a is seen as the way or command of God to all human beings – not just Muslims – about the ideal way to live life. And what is that ‘ideal way of life?’ For Muslims it is grounded in a conviction once shared by Christianity that God’s divine law should govern human life and activity. Therefore, the Archbishop suggests, it is important to consider where and when these religious laws might supplement common law.

That divine law is divided into two main areas: duties to God, and duties to other human beings. Of these two areas, the duties to God are relatively uncontroversial, and many religions have similar requirements for their adherents. This part of Shari’a includes the five pillars of Islam: the profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat); fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage (hajj).

Since these above-mentioned obligations of Shari’a are in effect capable of being seen as the private religious devotions of individuals, the West has had little trouble with them. The situation is different with the sometimes-added sixth pillar: struggle, or jihad. Originally this meant the struggle to be good and to follow the way of Allah, although of course today it has come to be associated with violent struggle to ‘defend’ Islam, and from there a short step to suicide bombings and terror.

Yet the argument in Britain is not primarily about violent jihad, since the great majority of Muslims in Britain have repeatedly denounced the practice. The controversy rather centers on the ‘duties to man’ aspect that Shari’a requires, particularly over Islamic family law.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury noted in his somewhat urgent response to his critics, Islamic family law unquestionably offered women and children substantial improvements over the status quo when it was introduced more than a thousand years ago. Many agree:

For example, marriage was lifted up as the ideal. Yes, it was true that a man could have up to four wives; but before that there was no restriction on men of any kind. Women were granted a right of inheritance, and due process in the case of divorce, innovations almost unknown in other societies at the time. Women could contract their own marriage, and own their own property.[vii]

However, over the intervening fourteen hundred years, while Islamic law stood still on the subject of women, developments in Western secular law overtook these privileges to women and gave them even more standing, leading ultimately to equal status with men, at least in theory.

One of the most serious areas of concern is the issue of forced marriage, particularly of very young women, still legal under some readings of the Shari’a. A few days after the Archbishop’s proclamation a leading British Muslim woman, Dr. Nazia Khanum, challenged the British government’s official statement that the problem was minor, with no more than 300 cases a year, saying that the true figure was much higher. And Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim member of the House of Lords, said forced marriages should be treated as a criminal offence like domestic violence, to protect young women from ethnic minorities.[viii]

This is one of the major strikes against the adoption of Shari’a: that it has come to be seen, at least by its opponents, as a watchword for oppression of women and the denial of their human rights. Even the veiling and seclusion of women – though welcomed by many Muslim women – is assumed by their Western sisters to be an intolerable repression of their human freedoms.

Suspicion about laws that are ‘divinely revealed’

However, many writers say that debate about whether the Shari’a law treatment of women and children is humane, or whether its laws of inheritance are equitable or not, are beside the point. Rather, the deeper question is about how laws are made at all: by God, or by man? The Western tradition has become, certainly since the French and the American revolutions, decidedly positivist. From this perspective, the only authority of law is of its own traditions and case history, and the deliberations of lawyers and lawmakers. There is no room for a divine intervention.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the early opponents of any form of established religion. He saw too many dangers with the concept that God’s law could be known by some men and enforced upon others, whether or not they believe it:

The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions[ix]

This view of church/state separation has persisted until this day as being the most desirable and the most ‘civilized’ way of accommodating faith and political power. Even in political elections, questions are raised about potentially undue religious influence being brought to bear on a candidate.

The Shari’a stands in clear opposition to this tradition. Fazlur Rahman writes:

At the very root of the Muslim conception of law lies the idea that the law is inherently and essentially religious. That is why from the very beginning of Islamic history, law has been regarded as flowing from or being part of the concept of Shari’a, the divinely ordained pattern of human conduct. It must, therefore, have its basis in the Divine Revelation.[x]

Although many Jews, Christians, and others have little problem with the overall concept of Divine Revelation as the basis for law, the idea has become decidedly ‘incorrect’ in recent times, even in societies that are in fact God-believing. For example, no less a person that the Chief Justice of Alabama had to resign when he insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

The reason is that even those who generally accept the idea of God’s laws having authority in human life have a nagging question, “Who will communicate that revelation?” and “What if I don’t agree with it?”

This would probably be true even if scripture itself was the unequivocal source for interpretation of ‘divine law,’ but in fact the picture is not nearly so clear cut. As Rahman explains, even the Qur’an itself actually contains very little material of a legislative nature. For this reason the Shari’a needed to be supplemented right away by the Sunna (actions) and later the Hadith (sayings) of the Prophet.

However, these non-Quranic additions were from the beginning susceptible to differing interpretations and different challenges to their veracity. A hundred years after Mohammed, there were already very different accounts of what he had said, done, and allowed to be done. Today in Turkey, an Islamic nation struggling very hard to remain a secular state, a vast group of Muslim scholars are revisiting centuries of Hadith tradition in an attempt to disprove and discard sayings that are seen as counterproductive.

This then seems to be a second strike against Shari’a: namely that it is impossible verify its claim – or any such claim by any faith –to be based on divine authority.

Church and state issues

America and the West have generally kept the realms of religion, and politics and law separate. Although this view and practice may be accepted in the Western world, it is not accepted by many others. There are many people who believe with passion that God is to rule on earth and in heaven, and that any attempt to separate God’s power and God’s law from everyday society is in fact the worst kind of atheism and impiety. Rabbi Jacob Neusner writes:

We must all wrestle with the fundamental differences between two disparate worldviews. One is a religiously sanctioned political order in wherein the spheres of politics and religion are, at least theoretically, neatly distinguished from each other. The other is a religiously sanctioned political order incorporating the divine realm and its power, and whose purpose is to achieve the goals set forth and sanctioned by God.[xi]

Neusner also considers Samuel Huntingdon’s 1996 thesis that this fundamental difference could lead the world into a clash of civilizations driven largely by religious forces.[xii] But are we really facing a clash of civilizations? If so Dinesh D’Souza of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University argues that such a clash is not between anything as large as civilizations as a whole, or even between religious philosophies, but something much more personal.

D’Souza says that Muslims are worried – with reason – not by alternative legal systems but by the immediate fact that their young people are being tempted and corrupted by the material, sensual ‘values’ of the West that are being beamed into their homes and across the Internet and that cannot be stopped. Indeed, many of the worst excesses are explicitly protected by such Western concepts as freedom of speech and publication.

Faced with this deluge, many Muslims then have taken but a relatively short step to a conviction that America and the West are godless, immoral nations precisely because they deliberately exclude God from daily life and national governance:

Radical Muslims are going to the traditional Muslims and saying: “Look, this West that we are dealing with is really not a Christian society; it is not worthy of the traditional respect that the Qur’an extends toward Judaism and Christianity. This West is now a pagan society. It has gone through Christianity and come out on the other end. It is now a secular, atheist society. More than that, it is now the enemy of religion and moral values, and it is coming to your part of the world to threaten your values.”[xiii]

How can the conflict be deflected? D’Souza says the answer may lie in the fact that many Americans are just as disturbed by the trend of popular culture as Muslims. The quest for a culture – and laws to protect it – that is friendly to family values may prove to be the meeting ground between Islam and the West.

Heavenly law and the meeting of East and West

The founder of the Universal Peace Federation, Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, has since his earliest days in Korea spoken of his vision of a new global order that transcends all current religious, racial, and political divisions. His position has been controversial because he has declared that for that goal to be reached, existing social structures that stand in the way either be removed or transformed.

In the 1950s, when Dr. Moon's core teaching, the Divine Principle, was first published, the main such obstacle to the new world of peace was atheistic communism. For almost thirty years, the struggle against communist ideology and practice was one of the main distinguishing marks of the movement. And then one day, with the breaking of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the struggle was over.

Even then, Dr. Moon was predicting that the next great ideological struggle would be with Islam. Today his words have already come true. How would or could Unificationists act as mediators in helping the West and the Islamic world come to a peaceful reconciliation?

There are significant similarities between Dr. Moon's view of unification and the Islamic views of what will make for a world of peace. For both faiths, the active rule of God is important. Dr. Moon says that ‘heavenly law’ is not derived from human consensus, or by voting, but that is directly revealed from God. The Divine Principle states:

In every corner of the world, countless souls who had been groping in the darkness are receiving the light of this new truth and are being reborn. As we witness this, we cannot stop shedding tears of deepest inspiration. We desire from the bottom of our hearts that its light quickly fills the earth.[xiv]

Until now understandings of truth – whether religious, philosophical, or political – have made it almost impossible for people to be harmonized under any law or government. Therefore, God himself must take responsibility to send a new, more perfect understanding of the truth to earth so that all people may understand God’s will for themselves:

An ultimate religion will eventually have to emerge in history … if people are thinking according to the wrong standard then eventually God will have to judge that, which is the judgment of words, and point out whatever is wrong. God has a way of sorting out or screening things of greater and lesser value.[xv]

In effect, the Divine Principle declares that God is going to reveal himself in a new and unmistakable way that will be self-evidently right and accurate and that all people will be able to embrace. No one will be exempt:

What is the law which we must recognize as being of utmost importance? The law of love. I speak the heavenly law, but it has not come from me personally. He who speaks the heavenly law must come under it himself. That law is much stricter than earthly law.[xvi]

This confident perspective of a future world governed under the sovereign law of God is not unique to Dr. Moon, of course. In fact it sounds a lot like the ideal of a world under Shari’a law as described by Islamic thinkers such as Seyyed Nasr Hossein:

Such a law is the blueprint of the ideal human life. It is a transcendent law which is at the same time applied in human society.[xvii]

A second parallel to the teachings of Dr. Moon on the religious and legal foundations of an ideal world can be found, interestingly and eerily enough, in the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was an Egyptian cleric who spent much of his adult life in prison and was finally executed for his beliefs and political views. He is today sometimes known as the ‘grandfather of al Qaeda’ because of his continuing influence on radical Islam.

Both Qutb and Moon were imprisoned in the early 1950s for their beliefs. Given this similarity of experience, we should perhaps not be too surprised to hear Qutb proposing a new world order based on religious truth in language very similar to that of the Divine Principle:

It is necessary … to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind. At this crucial and bewildering juncture, the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.[xviii]

Thus Qutb and Dr. Moon both teach that the world can be restored and remade when and only when God’s nation and nations are established on the earth as a substantial, political reality. By implication, this means that all existing political and legal structures must be examined in the light of God’s law. If found lacking – and they will be – then these structures must be dismantled, whether violently by jihad as Qutb suggests, or by what Dr. Moon has called a ‘quiet revolution’ of love.

Both approaches have potential allies. For example, the Western world can broadly be counted on to acknowledge efforts that promote human rights, religious freedom, and democracy. Already organizations like the United Nations and many NGOs are working for these goals. There are thousands of political and social reformers who want to make a world of justice, peace, equity, and environmental balance – all indicators of the rule of ‘heavenly law’ and are willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

However, this same group of innovators is among the most passionately convinced that the road to peace most definitely does not include religion. Knowing that many contemporary conflicts are driven or exacerbated by misplaced religious passions, they want to make sure that religions will never again wield the political power to compel others.

No less daunting is the challenge to win the support of an even larger group who do in fact believe that God should indeed be sovereign over all human life. The challenge here is to develop a working model of partnership between faiths that on the face of it all consider themselves to be owners of the ‘Final Revelation.’

Is religious unity really possible?

Thomas McFaul has suggested that there are three possible outcomes to such a quest for religious unity, based on the three overarching religious perspectives: exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism.[xix]

Of these, exclusivism is both the worst and also the most likely because it requires no real changes, only a continuation of the current wave of exclusivist conflict, with each faith asserting its own uniqueness and supremacy.

The second alternative is pluralism, which might be described as a truce in which all faiths – or most – recognize the right of the others to exist and to develop without persecution or attack. But pluralism is inherently unstable, and the balance is threatened when groups of people want to reject their current religion or, even worse, join a new one.

The third option is inclusivism, which means that the world’s faiths have to come to admit that none of them have the exclusive handle on the truth. This is difficult for all faiths, but especially for those who believe that God has conclusively spoken to them and them alone, and that he will not speak again. This is why inclusivism takes the greatest effort. It will not come about from tolerance but only by a committed search for common ground. And according to Dr. Moon, the starting point of peace and the rule of heavenly law must come not only from external sources, even religious ones, but rather from within each individual and each family:

Peace among nations can never come when those entrusted with the task have not resolved the Cain-Abel relationship between their own mind and body.[xx]

What if individuals can succeed in reaching inner peace? Then they must create peaceful families, he says. If the world of peace is one in which all people live as ‘One Family under God,’ then the human family must literally become one through widespread cross-cultural and international marriages. Only in a loving family can the boundaries of religion, race, and culture truly be transcended and absorbed. When that happens, the current system of laws and courts may be rendered obsolete:

If the world were filled with such true families, that world would be one governed by the heavenly way and heavenly laws, with no need for lawyers, prosecutors or even judges.[xxi]

This is indeed a bold vision, all the more so when one considers the lessons learned from the study of Islam where it is the family law provisions of Shari’a that have been the most divisive. Yet as Dr. Moon observes, “Where there is a will, there is a way: especially if it is the Will of God.”[xxii]

As preparations are made for celebrating another UN Week of Interfaith Harmony, it is to be hoped that religious leaders will rise to the challenge of moving beyond friendly but symbolic gestures to an open examination of the deep-seated changes that must be made if religions are to embrace their joint responsibility as champions of peace.

Dr. Michael Balcomb is the Director of Communications at the Universal Peace Federation, and teaches a doctoral course on interreligious dialogue at the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, New York. 

[i] Dr. Rowan S. Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Lecture on “Islam and British Law” delivered in London on February 8, 2008.

[ii] “Bishop of Rochester Reasserts 'No-go' Claim:” Sunday Telegraph, February 24,2008; Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Williams, ibid.

[v] Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, quoted in Newsweek February 23, 2008. Rauf is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an international multi-faith organization, and author of What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West.

[vi] Williams, ibid.

[vii] John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[viii] As reported in Agence France Presse, February 22, 2008.

[ix] Thomas Jefferson, “The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom,” 1786.

[x] Fazlur Rahman, Islam. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, 1979).

[xi] Jacob Neusner, Ed. God’s Rule (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003).

[xii] Samuel Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilizations (London: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

[xiii]Dinesh D’Souza, “A Global Perspective on the ‘Culture Wars;’” in Michael Balcomb and Joy Pople, Eds., Vision and Leadership in a Time of Global Crisis (New York: Universal Peace Federation, 2007).

[xiv] Sun Myung Moon, Divine Principle (New York: Holy Spirit Association, 1973, 1996).

[xv] Sun Myung Moon, “Unification Church and Heavenly Law,” March 1, 1979, Belvedere. Translator: Sang Kil Han.

[xvi] Moon, op. cit.

[xvii] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966).

[xviii] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, 1958) New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2001. This is a fascinating book. I felt like I was reading an Arabic Divine Principle.

[xix] [xix] Thomas R. McFaul, The Future of Peace and Justice in the Global Village: The Role of the World Religions in the Twenty-First Century (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).

[xx] Sun Myung Moon, God’s Ideal Family and the Kingdom of the Peaceful Ideal World (New York: HSAUWC, 2006).

[xxi] Sun Myung Moon, True Owners in Establishing the Kingdom of Peace and Unity (New York: HSAUWC, 2006).

[xxii] Moon, God’s Ideal Family and the Kingdom of the Peaceful Ideal World.