Understanding Shariah Law — Tennessee Experts Say It’s Not For Amateurs

Nov 21, 2015

Shariah law — what it means and how it should be interpreted — has been a major topic of debate, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A forum Thursday night attempted to shed a little light on what it means.

Two local scholars — one Jewish, the other Muslim — shared the microphone at the Green Hills branch of the Nashville Public Library, in a talk called "Understanding Shariah." 

But one of the big takeaways was it's not for beginners, not even those who practice Islam.

"Some of them assume they are in the position of Muhammad, and they can say this is what God wants us to do from this text," Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, told the audience of about 25. "This is dangerous to me, as far as Shariah. This is why we are dealing with all of this killing."

Bahloul said the problem is not with Shariah law. It's that writings are often read and cited outside the context of history, precedent or intent.

"Now we have young people, assuming that they can read the text. They might not even have any ability to read in Arabic."

The forum was sponsored by the Faith and Culture Center, a nonprofit that tries to promote dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. Organizers put it together weeks before last weekend's attacks in Paris, though they acknowledged such events have inspired intense interest in the meaning of Shariah.

"The timeliness of this event could not be more appropriate, given the events in our world today," said project coordinator Brooke Baker. "In the midst of fear, uncertainty and mistrust, it's important more than ever to learn what Islam actually teaches from credible sources."

Also speaking was Vanderbilt University professor Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman. He teaches law students and undergraduates about Shariah, and he backed Bahloul's point up. 

Yes, said Ackerman-Lieberman, discrimination and violence have at times been justified using Shariah, but so too have religious tolerance and compassion.

"It doesn't fit into a TV spot, right?" he said. "I hope that by the time they've sat in my class for a semester, they understand where the text is coming from and what it's relationship is to Islamic practice throughout history."