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What the sharia is all the fuss about?



There is a special part of the human brain, so the scientists tell us, that lights up in response to curse words. Every toddler intuits this in discovering the power that speaking a certain combination of syllables holds over mum and dad.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Jacqui Lambie on QandAEvery society has its taboos and dangerous ideas, but they evolve and change over time and place. As Harvard University's Steven Pinker has pointed out, no-one cares these days if you curse Thor's name. Still, there are certain words you cannot use in polite company, during a work presentation to the CEO, or in front of a magistrate.

Most of the obvious taboo words are ones to do with sexual activity and excrement, but I'd like to add a few new suspects: shari'a, halal and jihad. Check your Macquarie and their definitions are ordinary enough. But over the last couple of decades, these words have taken on such negative meanings that it has become impossible to use them without invoking the taboo response in a sizeable proportion of the population.

'Shari'a' has come to mean the forced imposition of medieval punishments on cowering populations oppressed by religious extremists. 'Halal' is the torture of sheep and cows, through cramming in filthy transport ships and horrendous slaughtering. 'Jihad' means war on non-Muslims, murdering unbelievers; happening 'over there' right now and soon on home soil, if demographic projections come true.

The problem is these words have been stolen from ordinary Muslims, the vast majority of the world's second largest religion.

Once upon a time, a proud dad in Dandenong could name his son Jihad, with its ancient meaning of 'striving' in the path of God. When his forebears carried the name, they knew it referred to the religious idea of struggling to do the right thing: to choose honesty over lying for personal gain, to be generous in charity even when in need yourself, and, when the situation called for it, to be willing to serve in the armed forces to defend the weak and oppressed, even if it meant giving your life.

Now, that dad might choose to call his son something less offensive to avoid future discrimination.

When the Prophet Muhammad lived, mass production and consumption of meat was unknown. Most ate a largely pesco-vegetarian diet, and slaughtering a sheep or goat was saved for special occasions, festivals and the like.


"Ordinary Muslims cannot continue to let these treasured and beautiful words lose their original meanings. We must resist the temptation to leave these words as taboo curses in the hands of the hateful."


So the Arabian Prophet recommended that before killing an animal to share in a meal, his followers should remove it from the presence of other animals, calm it down with a drink of water, face it toward the direction of prayer, hide the sharpened blade until the last moment, and in what was the most humane method of his day, slice open the neck to cause a massive haemorrhage and a quick death.

At every point, the aim was to reduce the animal's suffering. This was halal slaughtering in the seventh century. Whether it still exists today in the world of global industrial meat production is questionable.

Shari'a, when not put next to verbs like 'creeping' and 'enforcing', refers to the code of living that Islam calls its believers to follow. Its linguistic meaning is the 'life-giving, desert watering-hole', which from a religious perspective is poetic: God's laws are the fount of life for the spiritually thirsty. Practically, it works like Jewish halakha and Catholic canon law. Just as Jews and Christians are able to live in modern, democratic, secular nations and still be faithful believers, so can Muslims. In fact, they do.

So who has stolen these words and degraded them to the point that saying 'I live by the shari'a' sounds like you want to start stoning Sydney's adulterers? I blame two groups. Well, three actually.

The first are the ideological extremists — whether the Iranian Ayatollahs or ISIS — who use religion as a battering-ram to impose their political ambitions. The next are the alt-right xenophobes, who ratchet up anti-Islam prejudice on the public stage. They need an enemy to castigate: Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Asians and now Muslims. Lastly, ordinary Muslims cannot continue to let these treasured and beautiful words lose their original meanings. We must resist the temptation to leave these words as taboo curses in the hands of the hateful.


Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Main image: Author and media presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied clashes with Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie over the definition of shari'a on the ABC's QandA.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, sharia, jihad, halal, Muslims, Jacqui Lambie, Yassmin Abdel-Magied



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Existing comments

Amongst those who have brought Islam and all its works: Sharia; halal; fatwa etc. into disrepute you should have mentioned the Saudi autocracy with their rigid Wahhabi interpretation of that faith, Rachel. Saudi Arabia provided the majority of the 9/11 bombers and the leadership of Al Quaida. Private Saudi individuals - including, I believe, members of the royal family - were the prime source of funding for that organisation. Saudi Arabia officially funds mosque building and Muslim education outside the country, and, guess what, it's in the Wahhabi tradition. Because of the Kingdom's great wealth very few in either the Islamic World or the West are prepared to denounce them.

Edward Fido | 23 February 2017  

It's a pity the ABC's Q&A forum two weeks ago couldn't shed light on the myths and misunderstandings surrounding sharia - but ended up in a shouting match instead. And even though the young Muslim woman Yassmin Abdel-Magied admits she's not an expert on this topic, she's now been the topic of a series of news stories in The Australian this week, slamming her remarks that Islam is a feminist religion, and criticising her recent taxpayer funded tour of the Middle East. I can only imagine how I'd handle a fiery live TV forum trying to defend Catholicism when I was in my early 20s. But to think that News Corp has tried to much mileage out of this is pathetic and thuggish.

AURELIUS | 23 February 2017  

But, Edward Fido, who’s to say the Wahhabi interpretation isn’t correct? As the Wahhabis are very concerned with idolatrous cultural practices, to the extent of razing historical sites which can become shrines to an illustrious person of Muslim history (the site in Medina of the house of the Prophet’s first wife is now a public toilet block, which is surely saying something about their anti-idolatry fervour), how can Yasmin Abdel-Magied convincingly say that the banning of Saudi women from driving is a mere cultural practice? Wahhabis deserve the respect of assuming that they believe what they do because they don’t want to offend Allah. Which office in the Muslim religious world has the keys to bind and loose, to tell the ordinary Muslims and the alt-rights that the Wahhabis are wrong? Nobody. That’s why ordinary Muslims are rudderless and alt-rights have no reason to abandon some of their fears.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 February 2017  

Both allowed anger to drive the discussion. Yassmin surprised me by appropriating several cultural tonal cliche personas.'Know what I mean?' 'MMMM Hmm.'

Simon | 24 February 2017  

But Muslims are not even trying to transform any Islamic societies. Even modern Islamic societies want strict Sharia law in recent polls - Malaysia for example. At the same time, non-Islamic societies are supposed to accept Sharia law in the way Muslim, in these societies, see what Sharia law is. Are you doing a revolution on Sharia law?

Min | 26 February 2017  

What the sharia is all the fuss about. Well maybe because Sharia law is deeply inhumane in many of its tenants and extremely disrespectful towards women in particular (The evidence of one man is equal to the evidence of four women). For Yassmin Abdel-Magied to claim that Islam is "feminist" is either deeply dishonest or deeply deluded.

David Crowley | 26 February 2017  

Thankyou for this piece/ peace. You have articulated beautifully what I have wondered about.

Anne Gleeson | 26 February 2017  

An interesting point of view, but were the words "stolen" or did some meanings change or expand. And "Jihad" seems to be quite clear. But who are "the unbelievers"?

David O'Halloran | 26 February 2017  

Of your three responsible groups, Rachel, group one is certainly the root cause according to the Muslim community itself. Group two is but a reaction to the inhumanity associated with group one, not a prime mover. Group three represents a Muslim community unprepared to stand up and proclaim its beliefs and denounce those who betray their true Muslim faith.

john frawley | 26 February 2017  

This is really honest article and I much appreciate it. What the Prophet introduced was undoubtedly a major advance for 6th century Arabia. But there are also some really honest responses to the article which I believe are right on the button. Sharia , though I appreciate not the core religion of Islam necessarily, needs an enlightenment, which, for example, Christianity-culture (and Cannon Law) has been through a number of time in history. Indeed, we are going though one again with P. Francis in response to Vatican 2. I just love the diversity of the present Australian community, which is why I immigrated here, but there are core values that everyone needs to sign up to. For me, these include shaking hands and looking at each others` faces, including across genders. I can cope with headscarves and long baggy clothes (especially if colourful) , but lack of certain "civilities" (literally) I find offensive. If "strict" Wahhabists cannot cope with at least that level of integration then they really need to think through whether Australia is a suitable country for them to live happily in. Unfortunately (in my opinion) there are many Wahhabist countries available.

Eugene | 26 February 2017  

My Goodness! It is hard to be a Christian in this 21st century IT world. I agree with AURELIUS - not that he needs my support. He expresses his comments so clearly and succinctly. Modern mass media with its 24/7 news (preferably sensational) cycle make it almost impossible to have calm rational and charitable discussions. Especially on the once never-to-be-raised-at-a-dinner-party topics - sex, religion and politics. Talk shows thrive on conflict. Certain words are used as verbal hand-grenades. They are used not to enlighten but to inflame. Growing up in Northern Ireland in 1940s I learned from my father the importance of words. "If you're asked in the street if you're a Mick, a Tyke, a Papist, a Roman, a Fenian, a Home Ruler, you can say, No. But if you're asked if you're a Catholic, you have to say, Yes, and be prepared to run home as fast as you can. You can't deny your faith but you don't have to stand there and take a bashing for it." Islam is not the only religion to have been brought into disrepute by extremists.

Unncle Pat | 26 February 2017  

"No muslim country is a first world nation". Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Because Islam clings to a medieval mindset, and needs its version of the Nicene Council.

Paul Triggs | 26 February 2017  

To have an intelligent discussion on Wahhabism, Roy, would require a considerable amount of knowledge about Islam and its Schools of Jurisprudence. Sadly, many active Wahhabi believers, including the late Osama bin Laden and Isis followers, would have no wish to converse with you or I. They have more immediate ways of dealing with the likes of us. Hence the 'Wahhabi problem'. You could also look at the internal and external affairs of Saudi Arabia.

Edward Fido | 26 February 2017  

As a woman i was really disappointed with the inability for either Jackie Lambie or Yassmin Abdel-Magied to engage in a reasoned and curious dialogue. BOTH of them did not do a service to civil society in that verbal exchange on Q & A recently. Consequently, it polarises opinions further apart ... and both women are responsible for that. Only 2 years ago in Melbourne I saw an advert on a tram that was marketing "dignity" ... so corruption of terms and language is not solely a muslim issue. I personally don't want Sharia law to dictate my ethics and actions - with Indonesia as our closest neighbour Australia needs to remain vigilant towards ensuring moderation is embedded in all laws. policies and practices in Australia. I'm yet to be convinced otherwise ...

Mary Tehan | 26 February 2017  

Thank you for such an enlightened explanation of these words. They are meant to be life-giving but have been sabotaged by the 'hateful'.

Lucy | 26 February 2017  

Rachel's comments are interesting, but in my opinion there is another contributor to anti Islamic bigotry, and this is from people on the Left who are anti all religions, because of their ultra secularist ideology. As a Catholic I have noticed this sort of bigotry against Christians. Thanks.

Peter Burger | 26 February 2017  

Unfortunately supremacist religions tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. In Iran and Saudi free expression in the arts and media are openly attacked. Free speech, divorce, abortion, debate, education (esp female) are suppressed and the Caliphate is represented as the ultimate guardian of Muslim true values. Dont forget David O'Halloran, we are the unbelievers and please note : "the massacre of 8000 Shia Hazaras and Sunni Uzbeks by (Takfiri Deobandi) Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998 – After the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 the Taliban indulged in the “frenzied killing of shop owners, cart pullers, women and children shoppers”. Women and girls were raped, and thousands of civilians, mainly ethnic Hazaras, were massacred.; murder of 26 Ismaili Shias by Taliban in May 2000 at Robatak Pass, mass execution of Shia Hazara people in Yakawlang District of Bamyan province in January 2001 – The public execution in Yakaolang of at least 170 civilians, mainly from humanitarian organisations. “According to Amnesty International, eyewitnesses reported the deliberate killing of dozens of civilians hiding in a mosque.”; murder of 10 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998. source Nishapuri LUBP Jan 26 2010.

francis Armstrong | 26 February 2017  

Great article so informative!

Ray Delaney | 26 February 2017  

I am a Jewish woman and I was appalled at the behaviour and language of Jacqi Lambie. Yassmin did very well on Q&A. What does Jaqui and many others know about Sharia laws?

Mira Zeimer | 27 February 2017  

Call me any names you wish, but I think any religion which condones domestic violence, apart from being barbaric, is also against Australian laws. Chocolates, roses and a dinner date as a prelude don't change the barbarity. The sad thing is that so much beauty has come from Islam and I'm thinking of the very great beauty of some mosques and yet also there is the converse in the teachings. Both need to be faced.

Jane | 27 February 2017  

The Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia certainly think they are right Roy Chen Yee, and, during the reign of the House of Saud, have established Wahhabism as the official School of Law in the Kingdom. Islam does not see Church and State as being separate, as we do in the West, but being one where the Law of Islam (Sharia) operates. This has been so ever since Muhammad established the first Islamic State in Medina. Traditionally there have been four official Schools of Law in the Sunni world. Wahhabism started off as a sub-branch of the Hanbali School. Since its origin, Wahhabism has distanced itself from what was once the broad general Muslim consensus. Many Wahhabis consider themselves the only 'true' Muslims and regard others as non-believers, who need to be fought and either subdued and converted or killed. This policy was followed quite ruthlessly when the Saudis were gradually taking control of the Kingdom from their base in the northern province of Nejd. Saudi Arabia was a backwater until the discovery of oil. The great centres of Arab Muslim culture were in Cairo and Damascus. In Egypt a broad, tolerant Islam was the norm as taught at the great university of Al Azhar. This broad consensus is being threatened by the rise of Al Qaida and Isis, both of which are heavily influenced by Wahhabism. People both in the Islamic World and the West are right to be very, very afraid of Wahhabism and all its works.

Edward Fido | 27 February 2017  

Like AURELIUS and Uncle Pat, i’m surprised that such a reasoned article attracted some of the comments that it has. Edward, what you say about Saudi Arabia is correct, but remember that the Saudi Kingdom is a creature of the twentieth-century ‘Christian’ West and its extremist character is tolerated because of Saudi oil. Roy, Catholicism may have an autocratic structure but that does not apply to all Christianity. In fact, from a viewpoint well outside both religions, the authoritarian nature of Catholicism, Calvinism, Zionism, etc is not dissimilar to Wahhabism. Min, there are reactionary groups in all societies - Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian etc. who seek to impose strict religious law on all citizens. David, not so long ago, the law in Christian countries would not accept the testimony of black-skinned people, or of women against their husbands. John, some in the Muslim community may be ‘unprepared to stand up’ but to say that of the whole community is a bit of a stretch. Paul, there are a many reasons (including nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonisation by Christian Europe) why ‘no muslim (sic) country’ might now be a ‘first world nation’ but don’t forget the flowering of the remarkably tolerant Islamic civilisation when Europeans were having difficulty in adding one and one together. And Islam is hardly the only religion that still clings to a ‘medieval mindset’. Mary, I too was disappointed that Lambie and Abdel-Magied were unable to ‘engage in reasoned and curious (I think you meant courteous) dialogue’ but the format of Q&A doesn’t really facilitate that sort of discussion. I don't want ‘Sharia law’, Canon law or Halakha ‘dictating my ethics’ but in Australia, I think that I’m more at risk from Canon than Sharia law.

Ginger Meggs | 27 February 2017  

“….Catholicism may have an autocratic structure but that does not apply to all Christianity. In fact, from a viewpoint well outside both religions, the authoritarian nature of Catholicism, Calvinism, Zionism, etc is not dissimilar to Wahhabism.” Ginger Meggs, intellectual autocracy is necessary because sheep have agency. If allowed to believe what they can, they will believe what they want instead of what they should. Even after the belief produces custard. The US Episcopal Church now has a number of firsts, the first bishop to be divorced from his wife of many years in order to become the first gay bishop to be in a same-sex marriage and, later, the first gay bishop to be divorced from his ‘same-sex’ husband, all the same person. Now, what can the ECUSA tell us about the sanctity of marriage, even of so-called same-sex marriage? Nothing. In any case, because the truth of religious belief cannot be scientifically verified because God is intangible, it can only be proclaimed by authority. Catholicism is dissimilar to most other faiths because the Magisterium is a monopoly intellectual autocracy. Just because they are puffed up with agency doesn’t mean the sheep should fool around with things they can’t see.

Roy Chen Yee | 02 March 2017  

Perhaps people might like to think about the fact that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have all had female Heads of State. The US is yet to achieve this, and as for Australia, the way Julia Gillard was treated by Tony Abbott, amongst others, was shameful!

HFA | 02 March 2017  

Francis, no ‘supremacist religion’ is immune from the intolerance you describe. Have you forgotten the European religious wars, or even the European Great War between supposedly Christian nations? Jane, it’s culture, not religion, that condones domestic violence, though religion can set the scene by its attitude to women, and Islam has no monopoly on that. Yes Edward, we should be very wary of Wahhabism, but Wahhabism is not synonymous with Islam. (Perhaps we could begin by an economic and military blockade of Saudi, or even initiate a regime change. But wait, they’ve got oil and they’re an enemy of Iran.) And Roy, don’t you yet see that every religion - including, but not limited to Catholicism - has fundamentalist authoritarian elements which get in the way of the truths and insights that every great religion has to offer to the world, believers and unbelievers alike?

Ginger Meggs | 03 March 2017  

“Roy, don’t you yet see that every religion - including, but not limited to Catholicism - has fundamentalist authoritarian elements which get in the way of the truths and insights that every great religion has to offer to the world, believers and unbelievers alike?” Ginger Meggs, the text is all important because that is the only tangible proof of what a religion is supposed to believe. Believers die but the text remains. “…. fundamentalist authoritarian elements” exist because there is text to justify them. This is very different from the IRA which could never, and never tried to, justify its atrocities in religious terms because no text existed within Catholic teaching which could be used. What Dr. Woodlock should be telling us is how, within the interpretive rules of Islamic jurisprudence, verses that on their face speak of oppression towards those considered to be heretics, apostates and non-Muslims are obsolete today and cannot be re-validated tomorrow.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 March 2017  

I chanced on this article and gained an insight from it and the comments. We the common people just don't have the time. The time to contemplate on what is true, the time to discern and the time to show love to our neighbour. We communicate in short bursts and are fed byte size meals. The result is a black and white discourse. We need time to ourselves, time to acquire knowledge and time to reflect. Sadly time needs to be sacrificed to pay the rent and support the family. The 24/7 life robs us of interaction with our neighbours. We react without thinking, without knowing. Thanks again.

DonaldD | 09 March 2017  

Thanks Roy, you've just illustrated the point that I was making. I rest my case.

Ginger Meggs | 13 March 2017  

Good article.Thank you.

precious Et Al | 11 April 2017  

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