Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


What the sharia is all the fuss about?

  • 24 February 2017


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.

Every 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