Countries where Religious Law is the Only Law

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

In effect, a judge in a country which only uses religious law is adjudicating by interpretation of what he believes to be God’s will (judges tend to be male in such countries).  In this scenario there is no separate legislature.  If, as in Iran, the executive is also under religious control, there is no separation of powers (5.2.8) and a corresponding lack of checks and balances.  The statement ‘there can be no other law but God's’ has been used to justify the implementation of Shariah law in Iran and elsewhere, but this does not address the question of the administrative rules required to keep a modern society functioning.  An example quoted from Iran shows that this distinction was recognised but not implemented:

"In the ideal the Shi’i community had already provided for a distinction between customary (urf) and canon (shar) law.  Urf jurisdictions consisted of matters affecting the state and its administration, while civil and personal status law constituted the domain of canon law.  'In practice, however, the unstable governments of Iran had defaulted nearly all judicial authority to the Shariah courts.'" [1]

Shariah law was formulated in the ninth century, to interpret the values of the Quran to define a practical set of rules for the society of that time.  Some of the rules and punishments which were accepted in the Middle East at that time are in conflict with modern concepts of human rights.  Islamic communities vary in the extent to which they have allowed interpretations to evolve as the society and circumstances have changed; evolution is compatible with adhering to Islamic principles, as distinct from adherence to a particular historic regional practice, and there is considerable debate within the religion today as to how Shariah should evolve.[2] 

People who adhere to other religions ought to be granted freedom of worship and other internationally-recognised human rights, even in countries which only recognise religious law.  It is perhaps easier to accommodate minorities in a country which allows religious law to evolve.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, pp. 38-9.  The quotation contained within this extract is referenced as having come from Amin Banani, The Modernisation of Iran, 1921-1941, p. 89.

[2] Some Muslim writers advocate a modern approach to some aspects of Islamic law.  Ziauddin Sardar, for example, is critical of Iran’s absolutist approach in chapter 9 of his book Desperately Seeking Paradise. As another example, Tariq Ramadan described his vision of “Western Islam” in chapter 7 of his book What I Believe

Despite their readiness to negotiate, though, both writers have been criticised for continuing to defend Islamic values.  Caroline Fourest’s book Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan is sharply critical of Ramadan’s acceptance of some traditions in the Middle East whilst advocating a Western form of Islam for Muslims living in modern democracies – which can be interpreted as his acceptance of different societies negotiating to find their own solutions.  A description of her book was available in May 2014 at http://www.encounterbooks.com/books/brothertariq/.