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Why Islam's law bewilders the West

The Koran did not introduce the principle of retribution, but merely reaffirmed what the Old Testament said
The Sharia, the Muslim code of law, is a complex system of jurisprudence that does not interest the Western man in the street (oops, man and woman!). Understandably, therefore, the Western media does not pay it more than a passing, disparaging nod. Yet when a cause celebre involving Muslims explodes, one finds a sudden interest in the Sharia.

This week, Debbie Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, two British nurses in Saudi Arabia, were charged with the murder of an Australian colleague, Yvonne Gilford. Judging from the reaction of the British media, one would think the incident was one of the most significant developments of the fading year. Of course, it was not. But all the elements of a cause celebre are here: "holy men" sitting in grim judgment; helpless women in "rat- infested" holes, and the grand finale, a public beheading.

One has the sickening feeling that some writers wanted the episode to end in a prophecy-fulfilling-itself beheading. With the media, it is the story that counts. The human suffering triggered by the story is dismissed, in the same way that military commanders dismiss the loss of innocent civilian lives in an air-raid as "collateral damage".

Among the sensational reports, bits and pieces of the real Sharia inadvertently emerged. Readers learnt that it was up to a victim's family to insist on retribution or pardon. No one stopped to ponder this rather strange legal phenomenon, handing the power of life and death to the relatives of the victim.

In fact, murder in the Sharia is a personal crime; the state is bound to respect the wishes of the victim's family. Each year in Saudi Arabia, many killers are pardoned by the families of the victims, but this is hardly noted by the Western media, interested only in the number of executions. All students of Islam know that the Koran did not introduce the principle of retribution, but merely reaffirmed what the Old Testament said.

What the Koran did introduce was the concept of pardon. The Koran gives relatives of a murder victim the absolute right to insist on a "life for a life". Yet the Koran heaps praise on those who forgive and pardon. All this does not sit well with the common media image of a "brutal" Sharia and so it is consistently ignored.

Capital punishment is not the only aspect of Sharia that is not understood because it is never intelligently discussed in the Western media. There are numerous other examples. According to the Sharia, a wife, in the marriage contract, can retain the right to divorce and can specify the financial settlement when a divorce occurs. This is perhaps more advanced than systems that leave such decisions to divorce lawyers and divorce courts.

I have never seen a reference to this right of Muslim women in the Western media. I suspect it is ignored because it contradicts the "bash-the-women" concept of Islam.

Another example has to do with "hand-chopping". Nobody in the media bothers to point out that this punishment is applied only in very specific kinds of theft and under most stringent conditions. No one, for example, would lose his hand for embezzlement, forgery, stealing public money, or helping himself to items not properly protected. During times of famine, the second Caliph, Omar, suspended this punishment altogether. Many modern Muslim scholars argue that unless a Muslim state introduces a comprehensive welfare system, it has no business applying this punishment.

Adultery is also presented in a most misleading way. According to the Sharia, adultery cannot be established unless four witnesses convince the court that they saw with their own eyes "the whole thing". During the early period of Islam, a man appeared in front of a judge to testify in an adultery case. He told the judge that he saw the man on top of the woman, saw the movements, and heard the grunts. The judge asked if he saw "actual entry". The witness grumbled that he would have to be a part of the woman's vagina to witness such an occurrence. Despite the grumblings, the accused were set free and the man was lashed for bearing false testimony. As some acute observers noted, this stringent requirement makes adultery a crime only if practised during an orgy.

My central point is that tensions between Islam and the West have little to do with theology and very much with politics. Western propagandists denounce Islam for not respecting the Western human rights code, circa 1997; Muslim apologists counter by saying that Islam introduced most of these rights 14 centuries ago, thus making them "divine" rights, which no one can take away. Western spokesmen criticise "barbaric" punishments, while Muslim advocates point out that no Muslim society would allow tens of thousands to sleep, homeless, in the streets.

The conflict between Islam and the West is political. This requires some explanation. During the past five centuries, the West's political experience led to the common belief that no progress could be achieved as long as religion, embodied in the Church, dominated public affairs. Thus, there was a steady movement away from religion towards secularisation. The contemporary Western thinker is a by-product of the political evolution. He is programmed to think of any return to religion as radical, reactionary and dangerous. Who would want the persecution of Galileo and witch-hunts again?

No amount of theological debate would convince the secular Western intellectual that religion could be the basis of a modern state. Since Islam presently is the only religion making such a sweeping claim, it inevitably appears to threaten the very foundations of Western civilisation. How long before Western fundamentalists caught the religion-is-state virus? When the Prince of Wales, a very exalted Establishment figure, suggested that the West could learn a few things from Islam, a tremor of fear ran down many spines in the West. What things?

In the Muslim's world, however, the political experience was running in exactly the opposite direction. When Islam was young and vibrant, Muslim civilisation was leading the world. It was only when Muslims "forgot" their religion that disintegration set in. Rightly or wrongly, Muslims blame their decline on the West which not only colonised their lands but sought to impose its own value system upon them.

The past three centuries did see the forceful advance of Western culture and the retreat of Islam everywhere. This trend was reversed only when a Muslim "awakening" started. The contemporary Muslim scholar is, in turn, the product of this particular political heritage. Western slogans of "democracy", "freedom" and "human rights" sound hollow and hypocritical to those who suffered for centuries under Western domination.

No amount of preaching from Amnesty et al would convince Muslims to detach themselves from their religion. To them, religion is a salvation, perhaps the only salvation. Religious scholars in Riyadh, Tehran, Cairo, Islamabad and Jakarta may quarrel over many things, but they are united in the belief that without a return to yesterday, for Muslims, there will be no today or tomorrow.

I honestly think it is about time a thoughtful dialogue between Islam and the West started. What has been taking place so far is not a dialogue, because it did not take place among free agents. Whether they realise it or not, all the interlocutors are prisoners of their political past.

The writer is Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London.