What we talk about when we talk about shari‘a

Noah Feldman in The Immanent Frame:

No doubt many readers of this blog have themselves dealt with the delicate question of responding to systematic and apparently willful misreading. I am pretty sure that, following the model of my elders and betters, I should try to reply only to substantive objections to my work, not to ad hominem arguments, the fallacy of which should be self-refuting. But how to do it when the criticism relies on vernacular, name-calling versions of once-fashionable jargon (Orientalism, paternalism) without specifying their content or explaining how they may be related to the text under attack? In such circumstances, I suspect, to defend is already to be deflected from what really matters.

With that in mind, a few clarifying points are nevertheless in order regarding an essay of mine in The New York Times Magazine that drew on a new book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, out this past month from Princeton University Press. I began the essay with the recent lecture of the Archbishop of Canterbury to frame an irrefutable and I think interesting contrast: in the West, the word shari‘a is treated as radioactive, while in many places in the Muslim world (I quoted statistics from Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan) substantial majorities say they favor making the shari‘a into the source of law. In the essay and the book, I am interested in exploring the basis for the apparent appeal of the shari‘a, which, I argue, is not properly understood as “Islamic law” but as a richer set of associated ideas connected to the constraint of all human beings under a divine justice that applies to all.

It should be unnecessary to add that the project here is not to “tell the Muslims how good they really are.” In fact, in the essay and at much greater length in the book, I express a deep skepticism about the capacity of the newly revived Islamist call for the shari‘a to succeed in delivering institutions conducive to political justice in the countries where it may be tried.