Protesters of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero waved signs there Sunday with a single word: sharia.
Their reference to Islam's guiding principles has become a rallying cry for those critical of Islam, who use it to conjure images of public stonings and other extreme forms of punishment in countries like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan and argue that those tenets are somehow gaining a foothold in the United States.
Blogs are proliferating with names like Creeping Sharia and Stop Sharia Now. A pamphlet for a "tea party" rally last weekend in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., asked: "Why do Muslims want to take over the world and place us under Shariah law?" Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) amplified that point in a much-publicized speech a few weeks ago exploring what he calls "the problem of creeping sharia."
The fact that the word has become akin to a slur in some camps is an alarming development to many religious and political leaders.
"We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion," Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, said in a statement earlier this month signed by 40 national religious leaders.
Sharia in Arabic means a "way" or a "path." Muslims agree that sharia is God's law, but there is little consensus on the particulars. To some, sharia is a set of rules that are codified and unchanging. To others, it's a collection of religious principles that shift over time.
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain leader at Georgetown University and spokesman of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of North America, describes Muslims as being divided into two camps: "those who see sharia mandating that we live as Muslims did 1,300 years ago, and those who say sharia doesn't have a specific format as to how you live your life, that Islam gives you paradigms."
This question of how to define sharia has become a more urgent issue for Muslims around the world in recent decades as, according to some estimates, one-third live outside Muslim-majority countries for the first time in history. Scholars debate at conferences what it means for a government or a person to be "sharia-compliant."
Imam Feisal Rauf, a Sufi Muslim who is spearheading the controversial mosque center, runs something called the Sharia Index Project, which seeks to create a more progressive benchmark for measuring the "Islamicity" of a state.
Daisy Khan, Rauf's wife, said the couple believes the word "sharia" primarily refers to several broad principles called "maqasid shariah," which include the protection of life, property and religion, among others. These principles are believed to be the foundation of the faith.
Others say "sharia" refers to the specific words of the Koran (Muslims' holy book of God's revelation passed orally to the prophet Muhammad) as well as all the hadith, which are the actions and statements attributed to Muhammad that have been passed down, analyzed and interpreted (with some tossed out) over the centuries.
Many of the harshest, most controversial writings are in the hadith, such as those giving a lower status to non-Muslims and mandates to stone adulterers (including a much-publicized stoning this month in Afghanistan meted out by the Taliban). There has been debate for centuries among Muslims over how accurate and how fixed hadith are.
Another key source is fiqh, the collection of opinions scholars have written to determine how the will of God can be carried out in daily life. Some people include all fiqh as well when they say "sharia" or "Islamic law."
Daniel Pipes, a conservative Middle East scholar controversial for his focus on extremism among Muslims, said sharia refers to something "enormously specific," which he compared to the U.S. Constitution. The danger, he said, is when Muslims "want to implement sharia in every detail on everyone in a stringent way."
The Rev. Canon Julian M. Dobbs, who oversees Muslim engagement for the umbrella group of conservative Anglicans who broke away from the Episcopal Church in North America, referred to stonings as being part of sharia.
"Islamic scholars must stop the self-deception which claims that Islam is 100 percent peace, and with honesty, recognize the violence that continues to exist within their religion today," he said.
Geoff Ross, a Navy veteran who organized the tea party event in Florida last weekend, said the word means "the law that practicing Muslims follow to lead their daily lives." He became involved with anti-sharia events last year.
"I study the Koran, I study the Internet. I look at sources on the Internet and try to vet that information," he said. "I'm not anti-Islam. I'm anti-terrorist. But if you take quotes from the Bible and compare them to the Koran, the Bible might say, 'Turn the other cheek,' while the Koran would say, 'Strike your enemies down and kill them.' "
There is also great disagreement -- and sometimes contradiction -- across the Muslim world about what it means to implement sharia, or, to use a popular term, to be a sharia-compliant country.
Recent polling in the Muslim world shows that people can say they believe sharia should be a source for crafting legislation but simultaneously believe religious leaders should play no role in drafting laws.
Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said most constitutions in the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic States "mention sharia as a source of legislation. But that means very different things."
Pipes said three countries claim they are implementing sharia: Saudia Arabia, Iran and Sudan.
Those who decry what they call "creeping sharia" are concerned about Muslims in the West winning more public accommodations. Examples they cite include Harvard University recently creating women-only hours at one of their swimming pools, banks offering products that comply with Islam's ban on interest, and female police officers wearing head coverings when entering a mosque.
"Some Islamists employ mass-murder attacks while others prefer a gradual march through our institutions -- our legal, political, academic and financial systems, as well as our broader culture; the goal of both, though, is the same," Andrew McCarthy wrote in a National Review piece published July 31 called "It's About Sharia."
August 25, 2010, Washington post