Shariah hysteria? Some in U.S. call for ban on Islamic law

Anxieties over Muslims in America emerged in a spate of hate crimes as well as in high-profile controversies like the one over the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in 2010. Some politicians and activists said Islam’s legal code, known as Shariah, was another threat to the United States that had to be countered.

On Election Day in 2010, for example, voters in Oklahoma voted on a ballot measure to ban judges from using Shariah in reaching their decisions. In Nevada, Sharron Angle, a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, made controversial claims about Shariah’s influence in America, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had for months been voicing objections to what he sees as the threat of Shariah law.

Legal and religious experts tended to discount many of these concerns as overreactions or misreadings of the legal realities. They said that Shariah (sometimes lowercase and/or spelled sharia) in the Western context is analogous to the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law or the laws of other religious groups that govern their internal workings. Such religious strictures cannot trump American laws, they say.

Still, arguments over the proper reading and role of Shariah — arguments that are part of any law code requiring interpretation — were sharp even within Islam, as experts differed as to whether Shariah is fair to women, for example, especially in Muslim countries where Islamic law holds sway. Others said these internal Islamic debates were also sharpened as the number of Muslims in the West grows.

The controversy is an opportunity for journalists to explain more about what Shariah is — and is not — and this edition of ReligionLink provides resources to help reporters write those stories.


Shariah is based on the Quran, the Islamic holy book that Muslims believe was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by an angel, and on sayings and practices attributed to the prophet. But Shariah as a body of laws did not develop until several centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D.

According to a backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations, the word Shariah means “path” in Arabic, and it “guides all aspects of Muslim life including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings.” A few governments, such as Saudi Arabia’s, base their legal systems on Shariah, but Shariah is mostly defined by Muslim scholars.

Concern over the adoption of Shariah in Western countries was sparked in 2005 when authorities in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, were considering whether to add Islamic law to a legal arbitration process that allowed Catholic and Jewish faith-based tribunals to settle family law matters like divorce on a voluntary basis. There was such an outcry that the provincial government decided to scrap the faith-based program for all religions.

In February 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, sparked a similar uproar in Great Britain when he suggested that the adoption of some aspects of Shariah in Britain “seems unavoidable.” Williams emphasized that Islamic law could never supplant an individual’s rights as a citizen, but he noted that other religions enjoyed tolerance of their laws and he called for “constructive accommodation” with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes.

In September 2008 the controversy was revived when it emerged that as many as five Shariah courts were operating in Britain under government supervision.

Additional information

Related source guides