In the West, the idea of Sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam: repression of women, physical punishments, stoning and all other such things. It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word.
It is true that scholars of law and jurisprudence have almost naturally restricted the meaning to their own field of study, that dictators have used it for repressive and cruel purposes, and that the ideal of the Sharia has been most betrayed by Muslims themselves, but this should not prevent us from studying this central notion in the Islamic universe of reference and trying to understand in what ways it has remained fundamental and active in the Muslim consciousness through the ages.
If the idea of “establishing rules” is indeed contained in the notion of Sharia (from the root sha-ra-a), this translation does not convey the fullness of the way it is understood unless its more general and fundamental meaning is referred to: “the path that leads to the spring.” We have pointed out the tone of Islamic terminology, which systematically reflects a corpus of reference that sets a certain way of speaking of God, of defining the human being and of understanding the relationship between them by means of Revelation. We have seen that this corpus of reference is, for the Muslim consciousness, where the universal is formulated: God, human nature, which makes itself human by turning in on itself and recognizing the “need of Him,” reason, active and fed by humility, and, finally, Revelation, which confirms, corrects, and exerts a guiding influence.
Just as the shahada is the expression, in the here and now, of individual faithfulness to the original covenant by means of a testimony that is a “return to oneself” (a return to the fitra, to the original breath breathed into us by God), so the Sharia is the expression of individual and collective faithfulness, in time, for those who are trying in awareness to draw near to the ideal of the Source that is God. In other words, and in light of all that has been said in the first chapter, the shahada translates the idea of “being Muslim,” and the Sharia shows us “how to be and remain Muslim.” This means, to put it in yet another way and extend our reflection, that the Sharia is not only the expression of the universal principles of Islam but the framework and the thinking that makes for their actualization in human history. There can be no Sharia without a corpus of fundamental principles that set, beyond the contingencies of time, a point of reference for faithfulness to the divine will. This corpus of principles, as we have seen, is a fundamental given of the Islamic universe of reference, which asserts, in the midst of postmodernism, that all is not relative, that there does indeed exist a universal, for it is a God, an only God, who has revealed timeless principles, which, while not preventing reason from being active and creative, protect it from getting bogged down in the contradictions and incoherences of the absolute relativity of everything.
By inviting Muslims to accept pluralism by a purely rationalistic approach, to express their faithfulness in a purely private way, or to define themselves in terms of minorities, some commentators have thought to ward off the danger of Islamic universality, which they perceive as inevitably totalitarian. Is this not how the West understands the quasi summons to have to affirm one’s “faith” in the autonomy of reason in order to prove one’s open-mindedness or one’s firm support for the “universal values of the West”; or the new fashion of apologetic for a Sufism so interior that it has become disincarnated, almost invisible, or a fac¸ade with only blurred links to Islam; or, again, stigmatization and the exercise of constant pressure on Muslims driven to adopt the monochrome reaction of minorities on the defensive, obsessed with their only right—to be—and with their differentness? This is all happening as if, in order to ward off the “necessarily expansionist” universality of Islam, either Islam must be refused its claim to universality or Muslims must be pressed to accept this exercise in wholesale relativization.
Some Muslim intellectuals have accepted the imposition of these game rules. Others have opposed it and continue to oppose it by rejecting the West per se, with all it has produced, because it has forgotten God or because all that takes place there is Promethean, if not “satanic.” Between these two extremes, there is a way, I believe, to change the terms of the debate: if, for Muslims, it is a matter of rejecting the insidious process of the relativization of their universal values, it is also incumbent on them to explain clearly in what sense, and how, those values respect diversity and relativity. If the Way to faithfulness, the Sharia, is the corpus of reference in which Islamic universality is written down, it is urgent and imperative to say how it is structured and how it expresses the absolute, and rationality, and the relation to time, progress, the Other, and, more broadly, difference. At a deeper level, the intuition that must feed this refusal of relativization and this presentation of the fundamental principles of Islam in the heart of the Western world is the conviction that this is the only true way to produce an authentic dialogue of civilizations and that this is now more necessary than ever. With globalization at hand, the fear is that the West—helped by an intangible Westernization of the world—will engage in a “dialogical monologue” or an “interactive monologue” with civilizations different only in name but so denatured or so exotic that their members are reduced, taking the good years with the bad, to discussing their survival and not the richness of their otherness. Muslims have the means to enter into this debate on an equal footing, and they should do so, and find debating partners ready for this worthy, enriching, and essential confrontation of ideas and ideals.
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