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Jonathan Sumption. Your review has been submitted successfully. Not registered? Forgotten password Please enter your email address below and we'll send you a link to reset your password. Not you? Forgotten password? These political debates — which cite terrorism and political violence in the Middle East to argue that Islam is incompatible with modern society — reinforce stereotypes that the Muslim world is uncivilized. They also reflect ignorance of Sharia , which is not a strict legal code. As such, different people and governments may interpret Sharia differently.

Still, this is not the first time that the world has tried to figure out where Sharia fits into the global order. In the s and s, when Great Britain, France and other European powers relinquished their colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia , leaders of newly sovereign Muslim-majority countries faced a decision of enormous consequence: Should they build their governments on Islamic religious values or embrace the European laws inherited from colonial rule?

Invariably, my historical research shows, political leaders of these young countries chose to keep their colonial justice systems rather than impose religious law.

Newly independent Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia, among other places, all confined the application of Sharia to marital and inheritance disputes within Muslim families, just as their colonial administrators had done. The remainder of their legal systems would continue to be based on European law. To understand why they chose this course, I researched the decision-making process in Sudan, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from the British, in In the national archives and libraries of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and in interviews with Sudanese lawyers and officials, I discovered that leading judges, politicians and intellectuals actually pushed for Sudan to become a democratic Islamic state.

They envisioned a progressive legal system consistent with Islamic faith principles, one where all citizens — irrespective of religion, race or ethnicity — could practice their religious beliefs freely and openly.


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They chose to keep the English common law tradition as the law of the land. My research identifies three reasons why early Sudan sidelined Sharia: politics, pragmatism and demography. Rivalries between political parties in post-colonial Sudan led to parliamentary stalemate, which made it difficult to pass meaningful legislation. So Sudan simply maintained the colonial laws already on the books. Sudanese judges had been trained by British colonial officials.

South Sudan's Muslims welcome secession

So they continued to apply English common law principles to the disputes they heard in their courtrooms. They felt it was simply not sensible to overhaul the rather smooth-running governance system in Khartoum. Then, as now, Sudanese citizens spoke many languages and belonged to dozens of ethnic groups.

Christianity was an important faith in southern Sudan. In maintaining colonial legal systems, Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries that followed a similar path appeased Western world powers, which were pushing their former colonies toward secularism. But they avoided resolving tough questions about religious identity and the law. That created a disconnect between the people and their governments.

In the long run, that disconnect helped fuel unrest among some citizens of deep faith, leading to sectarian calls to unite religion and the state once and for all. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and parts of Somalia and Nigeria , these interpretations triumphed, imposing extremist versions of Sharia over millions of people. In other words, Muslim-majority countries stunted the democratic potential of Sharia by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the s and s, leaving Sharia in the hands of extremists. But there is no inherent tension between Sharia, human rights and the rule of law.

But many scholars of Islam and grassroots organizations interpret Sharia as a flexible , rights-oriented and equality-minded ethical order.