this article first published on 2002-by Ali Ahmad-This week, an Islamic court at Funtua, in Katsina State, in northern Nigeria rejected the appeal of a woman convicted of having sex out of wedlock. Her lawyers will likely appeal her conviction to a higher Sharia court, and if necessary, to Nigeria’s Supreme Court, but if the judgment of the Funtua court stands, Amin Lawal will be stoned to death the moment her daughter is weaned.
Muslim-Christian relations are tense all over the world, but nowhere are they more inflamed than in Nigeria, the most populous country where Christians and Muslims exist in roughly equal numbers. The flash point for Muslim-Christian tensions is Sharia, or Muslim religious law.
The spread of Islamic law in Nigeria–since late 1999 ten of the country’s 36 states have adopted Sharia as their public law–has provoked a sharp outcry against the severe punishments it levies, including amputation for thieves and death by stoning for woman convicted of adultery.
As a Muslim lawyer who practices in a Sharia court in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city, the demonization of Islamic law by Christians and human rights activists in Europe and North America angers me. Sharia law is systematically distorted and misunderstood. But as someone trained in American law who has taught at an American law school, I also am aware of the shortcomings in how Sharia is applied, especially in its treatment of women.
No matter how great the outcry against the death sentences imposed on adulterous women, Sharia law cannot be wished away here. Islamic law has long been an integral part of social life in Nigeria. It will remain so. The challenge facing Sharia’s critics is to modernize Islamic law, not banish it from public life.
Sharia law is undoubtedly controversial. Its severe punishments fly in the face of Western legal canons. I have mixed feelings about these penalties. In theory, I accept the death penalty and even amputations, though in practice I believe that implementers of Sharia show little understanding for the reality that much crime stems from poverty and desperation. In my view, amputation for thieves should not be carried out unless and until society’s poor are better provided for.
The process leading to the death penalties imposed by Sharia courts have drawn rebukes from around the world, and for good reason. Sharia law as applied in Nigeria today is insensitive to the welfare of women. Why are only women sentenced to death for adultery, while men go free? Sharia courts contend that unless four witnesses catch a man in the act, he cannot be convicted. This standard of proof is so difficult to meet that men simply are not convicted. Until Sharia can handle adultery fairly, no penalties should be imposed.
But attention to sensational cases of amputation and death by stoning, while justified, obscures the reality that the bulk of Sharia cases involve family matters and ordinary commercial law. Sharia, with its emphasis on swift justice, is often preferable to civil law in a country such as Nigeria, where courts are poorly administered and cases move slowly, when they move at all.
It may surprise non-Muslims, but some Nigerian Christians prefer to file their cases in Sharia courts because of their speed, fairness, and relative unconcern with legal technicalities. Recently, a Christian car buyer drew wide attention in Nigeria when he was duped by a Muslim car seller and took his case to a Sharia court. Within a few weeks, he won–and paid no legal fees.
Too often, however, Sharia law harms Christians. In one Nigerian state, Christian bus operators are discouraged and sometimes prohibited from carrying both men and women in a single trip. Christian businessmen have also suffered because the ban on the commercial sale of alcohol has led to the destruction of their beverage stocks.
Why is Islamic law growing in importance? The end of Nigeria’s military dictatorship and the return to civilian, elected government created countless beneficial freedoms. But freedom of expression resulted in more militant religious positions. The clash of religions is exacerbated by the indecisiveness of President Olesegun Obasanjo. Moreover, Muslim politicians gain popularity by siding with Islamic conservatives while their Christian rivals score political points by complaining about Sharia’s extreme aspects.
The tensions spawned by Islamic law might be justified if it targeted Nigeria’s biggest problem: government corruption. Muslim politicians know that corruption is killing our country and yet Sharia law is not applied to the misdeeds of public officials. Only when the spotlight of Sharia shines on government wrongdoing will we know that Nigeria is on the road to prosperity.
The shortcomings of Sharia, however serious, need not doom Islamic law in a society where Christians and traditional believers roughly equal Muslims in number. Sharia can be reformed in ways that make the law more tolerant, open, and acceptable to non-Muslims.
It is not absurd to speak of a cosmopolitan Sharia. In Islamic tradition, reform of Sharia results from an
, a creative and intellectual effort to apply Islamic law to new circumstances. Sharia first blossomed during a period of creative ferment centuries ago, but stagnated when later generations came to believe that the law need not adapt to changing circumstances.
It is time for another
If Muslims wish to maintain a central role for Sharia in Nigeria, then they must find ways to soften its rough edges and turn it against official wrong-doers.
Copyright: Project Syndicate 2002 – In Defense of Sharia