When outraged commentators pointed out that Kohn, a woman and a liberal, not to mention a lesbian, would personally fare quite poorly under a sharia system they were right as well.
So how can they both be right?
Literally translated, sharia means “a way to water” and refers to the vision of Islam by which a Muslim is supposed to live their life, drawing the follower closer to Allah, as well as to Islamic religious law.
There are many different interpretations of sharia, and different Muslims interpret “the path” differently. Although the interpretations differ, the idea that the “sharia” is what ought to be followed is shared by many if not most Muslims around the world.
The process by which this somewhat nebulous idea is brought down to more specific instructions is called fiqh. Over the past 14 centuries, different schools of Islamic jurisprudence have taken their understandings of sharia, which is based on the Quran, the hadiths (traditions about Islam which include sayings of Mohammed) and the oral tradition of Islam. From these sources have emerged different systems of rules.
Some anti-Islamist scholars, such as Sheikh Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, see the hardening of sharia into set rules rather than a more flexible system as a perversion of what sharia is meant to be.
Where these rules are implemented as state law, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, we see abuses of women’s rights, blasphemy codes that restrict free speech, the execution of homosexuals and adulterers and other abuses like flogging and limb amputation.
Sharia governance is not the same as taking one’s own understanding of sharia and using it as a guide for one’s own personal life. If someone wants to regulate times of prayer, the dietary restrictions of halal food or avoid alcohol based on their understanding of sharia that’s their decision and in a free country, no-one else’s business.
Many progressive Muslims do exactly that.
The problem comes when people seek to impose sharia over others and integrate it into the government, something that is an anathema to the American system of separation of religion and state and which will almost inevitably lead to human rights abuses.
There are currently ongoing debates in different Western countries about the extent to which Muslim communities can use sharia as a guide to conducting their affairs, with a focus on sharia councils, which have been used both as arbitration courts by certain Muslim communities and to conduct Islamic marriages.
Sharia councils in the UK are currently the subject of a controversial government review following revelations of women’s rights abuses meted out by the courts, particularly with reference to divorce cases and custody hearings, where the community courts will often decide matters according to sharia without reference to British law.
Indeed, many Muslim women in the UK will not register their marriages with the state at all, and thus receive no marital legal rights. How to secure the rights of Muslim women who choose to use these courts has been investigated by Clarion Project advisory board member Dr. Elham Manea in her recently published book Women and Sharia Law which assesses the impact of legal pluralism in the UK.
Restrictions on women wearing hijabs to cover their hair and other modesty-based fashion decisions, such as the burkini swimsuit, are another source of controversy, with some in Europe arguing for bans on certain kinds of head covering, especially in state-run institutions such as schools or courtrooms.
Many progressive Muslims with whom Clarion works will tell you they try to regulate their own lives in accordance with their understanding of sharia, the interpretations of which vary wildly. What they will also tell you is they are opposed to sharia in the government and the only way to safeguard both their liberty to practice their religion as they see fit and to safeguard the liberty of others is to keep sharia out of the governmental sphere and make sure that it stays a personal and private code of conduct.
It is this separation of religion and state, and not the buzzword of sharia, that is the issue at hand.
The vital importance of protecting that distinction is hopefully something that Americans as diverse as Sally Kohn and Donald J. Trump can agree upon.