“Shariah law” has become a politically and culturally loaded phrase in Tennessee of late, stoked by fears of outspoken critics who worry that the world’s most-observed religion is scheming to impose its “laws” upon unwilling U.S. citizens.
Shariah law is a broad term derived from the Quran, the text sacred to the followers of Islam, as well as the teachings of Muhammad, the religion’s most heralded prophet. Thus, the precise meaning of the phrase is multifaceted. Loosely, it translates as “divine law.”
“Shariah law is a group of laws set forth for a Muslim community, not for non-Muslims,” said Ossama Bahloul, Ph.D., imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. “It outlines things as simple as how to wash yourself for purification before prayer.”
But this explanation, given time and again in recent months by members of the Muslim community, has not assuaged the fears of some critics of the religion. Bahloul said there are many reasons for that.
“Some [critics] have the wrong information about Islam,” he told The City Paper. “Some have been mislead; some have a personal or political agenda; some of them are in need of further investigation about Islam.”
Critics fear that Shariah law may one day be adopted in the United States and enforced by governing bodies. This is the case in some Muslim countries, but not all. Turkey, for instance, a country of 79.9 million people — 99 percent of whom are Muslim — scrubbed its laws of Shariah years ago. Which raises the question: If there are countries composed almost exclusively of Muslims that have not instituted Shariah, then how practical would it be to try to implement it in Tennessee?
“Muslims are not seeking to implement Shariah law in Tennessee or any place else in the United States, as far as I’m aware,” Bahloul said.
And even if Muslim leaders lobbied legislators to pass Shariah-based laws in local communities, the math is simply not in their favor. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates that 0.6 percent of Americans are Muslim and that about 60,000 here in Tennessee are Muslim. Compare that to the 80.2 percent who exercise some form of Christianity or Judaism in the U.S., and it doesn’t seem likely that even a fully coordinated push from the Muslim community would have the legislative clout required to generate much interest in lawmakers.
Hypothetically speaking, however, if the imams did muster enough lobbying muscle to persuade legislators to draft a bill or two, would the proposed Shariah-based laws be constitutional?
“No,” said Steven Mulroy, a professor at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis. “Doing so would violate the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Mulroy said people “can voluntarily come together and agree to abide by certain rules as a community,” as is notably the case in Amish communities. But they cannot enact laws that mandate citizens to follow those rules.
“The Constitution would prevent that,” Mulroy said. “The Amish still have to abide by state and federal laws.”