There is no controversy amongst Muslim scholars as to the meaning of Sharia—it is Islamic law.
Asifa Quraishi-Landes writes frequently on Sharia– and always from a very positive, promotional point of view. While an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin School of Law and a frequent speaker affiliated with the Islamic group Karamah, she wrote a story for the Islamic Society of North America’s Islamic Horizons magazine in 2013 arguing that,
When it comes to dealing with diversity, America could learn a lot from Islamic law, if only it could stop painting it as something that it is not.
Interestingly, Prof. Quraishi-Landes’ article, “How to Talk About Sharia,” appeared on the magazine’s cover. Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna graced the cover of a 1999 issue of the same Islamic Horizons magazine, heralded as, “A Martyr of Our Times.”
On June 24th, Quraishi-Landes penned an article for the Washington Post entitled “Five Myths About Sharia.” The “myths” that she delineates and attempts to refute are as follows: (i) Sharia is “Islamic Law”; (ii) in Muslim countries, sharia is the law of the land; (iii) Sharia is anti-woman; (iv) Islam demands brutal punishments; (v) Sharia is about conquest. These so-called myths, with the possible exception of (ii), are not myths at all; they are verifiable truths.
1. Sharia is “Islamic law”
The first “myth” that Quraishi-Landes mentions is the “myth” that “Sharia” means Islamic law. For her to call this identification a “myth” is very strange, and frankly nothing short of absurd. It is linguistically incorrect—period.
In the Arabic language, “Sharia” (شريعة) does in fact mean Islamic law. Indeed, the word “Sharia” in Arabic comes from the triliteral root, sh-r-a (شرع), which means “to legislate.” This can be readily gleaned from a quick consultation of the most renowned Modern and Classical Arabic-English dictionaries and lexicons. Quraishi-Landes’ statement here is factually incorrect on a very basic level. Sharia has incontrovertibly been understood to mean Islamic law by Muslim scholars for centuries. To take but one of innumerable examples, IslamQA.com, run by the Saudi cleric Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid, has the following answer posted in response to the question, “what is Sharia?”:
Shariah is all of [Islamic] religion. It is what God gave to his servants in order to bring them from the darkness into the light. And it is what God legislated to his servants [the translation is mine], consisting of commands and prohibitions, what isharam (forbidden), and what is halal (permitted).
There is no controversy amongst Muslim scholars as to the meaning of Sharia—it is Islamic law.
However, to support the proposition that Sharia does not mean Islamic law, Quraishi-Landes attempts to drive a wedge between “law” and “Sharia,” stating that the latter “isn’t even ‘law’ in the sense that we in the West understand it.” She does this by emphasizing that Sharia is understood by Muslims ultimately to originate from God rather than the state. But this is hardly evidence that Sharia is not understood to be “law” in the “Western sense”—as if the general concept of law differs between East and West—rather, it is evidence that Sharia is understood by Muslims to be divine law.
But not only is Quraishi-Landes grossly mistaken in calling this a myth, she seems to be inconsistent: for only a few sentences earlier—in her same article—she states that Sharia is “Islam’s legal framework.” One wonders how Quraishi-Landes believes that Sharia is “Islam’s legal framework” without simultaneously believing that Sharia is Islamic law. Either she is being flagrantly inconsistent, or she is using a definition of “law” that is so idiosyncratic as to make her central claim here—viz., that it’s myth to say Sharia is “Islamic law”—utterly irrelevant to the public discourse on Islam.
All this being said, the idea that Sharia means Islamic law is, far from being a myth, a rock solid truth.
2. In Muslim countries, Sharia is the law of the land
The second “myth” that Quraishi-Landes seeks to bust is the “myth” that in “Muslim countries, sharia is the law of the land.”
However, her statement of the so-called myth is ambiguous; whether or not this is a myth will depend on what she means by the proposition in question. Does she intend the proposition “in Muslim countries, Sharia is the law of the land” to mean that (i) in Muslim countries the law is greatly influenced by Sharia? Or does she intend the proposition to mean the bolder statement that (ii) in Muslim countries Sharia, tout court, is the law of the land?
If the latter, then she is surely correct in describing it as a myth. There are many secular provisions in the laws of most, if not all, Muslim countries. Indeed, because of the practicalities and realities of modern life, it would be surprising if a Muslim country could be ruled by pure and authentic Sharia.
However, if she intends the proposition that, in Muslim countries the law, is greatly influenced by Sharia, then she is not correct to say that it is a myth. In most, if not all, majority Muslim countries, the legal system is greatly influenced—and to some extent governed—by Sharia law. For example, Article 2 of the 2014 Egyptian constitution explicitly states that “Islam is the religion of the state,” and that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.”
To take another example, the introduction to Pakistan’s constitution reads “Islam shall be the state religion.” Furthermore, the following is stated in the Pakistani constitution’s preamble:
Wherein the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed; Wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah;
Even Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which the Iraqis received help from the Americans in drafting, contains such totalitarian Islamic provisions. The first section of Article 2 of the Iraqi constitution reads as follows:
Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation.
(1) No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam; (2) No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy; (3) No law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution.
Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq are only three Muslim majority countries, but there are many who have such provisions in their legislation. While it is true that virtually no Muslim majority country is ruled strictly (only) by Islamic principles, sharia does purvey the legislation of many Muslim majority countries. There does not seem to be any mythology here.
3. Sharia is anti-woman
The third myth that she seeks to blow out of the water is the idea that Islam is anti-woman.
While Prof. Quraishi-Landes grants that, in many Muslim majority countries, the rights of women are infringed upon, she downplays the connection that this has been due to Islamic doctrine. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that “on a range of issues, Islam can fairly be described as feminist.” As examples of this Islamic feminism, she cites how some fiqh scholars (i.e., Islamic jurisprudents) believe that first-trimester abortions are permissible.
Most comical is when she favorably cites how fiqh scholars “have concluded that women have the right to orgasm during sex and to fight in combat.” Can you imagine a group of Catholic cardinals coming out and saying that that in Christianity wives have the right to be sexually pleasured by their husbands? Of course not—it would go without saying. That Islamic jurisprudents or fuqaha even have to conclude this is in and of itself evidence of the low status accorded to women under sharia.
The “patriarchal rules in fiqh,” she says, is a byproduct of human interpretation, and not of Islamic doctrine. But this is just false.
There is much in Islamic doctrine that is patriarchal and that infringes on the rights of women. For example, according to Q 4:34, husbands are allowed to beat their wives if they “fear disobedience;” according to Q 2:282, the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man’s; according to Q 4:11 and Q 4:176, a woman should only inherit half as much as a man does; according to Q 2:223, women can be “plowed” at the whim of their husbands; according to Q 65:4, sexual relations with females who have not yet had their menstrual cycle (i.e., prepubescent girls) are permissible; according to Q 4:24, having female sex slaves, “those whom your right hand possess” (ما ملكت ايمانكم), is permissible. These verses are all from the Qur’an, the most authoritative source for Islamic doctrine and praxis.
However, such anti-woman teaching is also found in the ahadeeth, which, it must be remembered, are the sources of most Islamic praxis. The following hadith from Sahih Al-Bukhari, the most authoritative Sunni collection of ahadeeth, is instructive:
Once Allah’s Messenger [i.e., Muhammad] went out to the Musalla [place of prayer] (to offer the prayer) of `Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” [emphases are mine].
All these texts speak for themselves. Sharia is, in fact, anti-woman. Not surprisingly, Quraishi-Landes does not even bother to mention any of these texts in her attempt to refute the “myth” that sharia is anti-woman. The simple truth is that women are not equal to men in mainstream Islam—they are considered inferior.
4. Sharia demands brutal punishments
This one is no myth at all. Islam does demand brutal punishments.
The Qur’an, for example, clearly states that the hands of thieves should be cut off (Q 5:38), and that fornicators are to be publically flogged with one-hundred lashes (Q 24:2). It demands that polytheists be fought and punished for being non-Muslim polytheists (Q 9:5). It demands that Christians and Jews be fought and brought under submission for their beliefs (Q 9:29). It states that the punishment for “those who sow corruption on the Earth” (الذين يسعون في الارض فسادا), which can include large swathes of people, is to be executed, crucified, or mutilated (Q 5:33). The Qur’an commands that Muslims be harsh against unbelievers, and merciful amongst themselves (Q 48:29).
Further, according to a well-known, though by no means universally accepted hadith, those who engage in homosexual acts are to be put to death. So brutal is sharia that the great Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126 – 1198 A.D.), states that there is disagreement among Islamicists as to whether it is allowed in time of war to “slay hermits who have retired from the world, the blind, the chronically ill and the insane, those who are old and unable to fight any longer, peasants, and serfs.” He cites as-Shafi’i (c. 767 – 820 A.D.), the founder of one of the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as being in favor of slaying all such people. In Sahih al-Bukhari, Muhammad clearly and unambiguously lays out the penalty for leaving the religion of Islam—execution.
Furthermore, the idea that apostates should be executed is not a fringe view; rather, it is the view of the five greatest schools of Islamic law—the Sunni Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools, and the Shi’i Ja’fari school.
5. Sharia is about Conquest
This last so-called myth is ambiguous, due to Quraishi-Landes use of the word “about.” However, it seems like Quraishi-Landes intends this proposition to mean that “sharia prescribes conquest.” But if this is the case, which it seems to be, then she is once again mistaken.
Islamic law does, in fact, seem to legitimize expansionism. One can point to Q 9:5 and Q 9:29 as evidence, which seem to imply that fighting non-Muslims (polytheists and “People of the Book”) because of their beliefs is God-ordained. One can also point to Q 8:39, where the Qur’an mandates Muslims to “fight [polytheists] until there is no fitna [i.e, strife] and all religion belongs to Allah.” Furthermore, there is a notorious sahih (correct) hadith where Muhammad seems to outright command that all non-Muslims should be fought. The notorious hadith is as follows:
I have been commanded that I should fight against people till [حتى] they declare that there is no god but Allah, and when they profess it that there is no god but Allah, their blood and riches are guaranteed protection from me except where it is justified by law, and their affairs rest with Allah [emphasis is mine].
The straightforward interpretation of this hadith is that non-Muslims are to be fought until they become Muslims—and only then will their lives and property be spared from Muhammad. Indeed, in mainstream Islam, the world is divided into two main blocks: Dar al-Harb (The House of War), and Dar al-Islam (The House of Islam), indicating a design for permanent war and expansion to the lands of non-Muslims. Classical jurists even argued that truces can only last for so long, perhaps as long as Muhammad’s treaty of Hudaybiyyah, after which Muslims must continue their expansionist jihad against the infidels occupying Dar al-Harb. As the Dutch Islamicist Rudolph Peters notes,
The crux of the doctrine [of jihad] is the existence of one single Islamic state, ruling the entire umma. It is the duty of the umma to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people under its rule as possible. The ultimate aim is to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam to extirpate unbelief.
The fact is that if one looks soberly at Islamic history, one cannot help but conclude, along with Samuel Huntington, that since the 7th century Arab conquests or “futuhat,” Islam has had “bloody borders.”
As we have seen, none of these so-called myths that Quraishi-Landes mentions, with the possible exception of the second one—depending on what it means—is in fact a myth. Rather, they are demonstrable truths based in reality.
In any case, it should be noted that even if Islam apologists like Quraishi-Landes are correct–that Sharia is not, actually, a bad thing, and that some Islamists have merely misinterpreted it for their own ends–that does not mean that there does not exist a certain type of Sharia that is a threat. The Sharia that is common to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbollah, ISIS, Al-Qa’ida, and others is still a threat—and it is not one that is outside the interpretive parameters of Islamic tradition.
 Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, ed. J. Milton Cowan (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrasowitz, 1979), 541; Edward W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, ed. Stanley Lane Poole (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1984), 1534.
 Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Clasiscal and Modern Islam (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996), 33.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid, 39.
 Ibid, 3.