Sharia Compliant
A User's Guide to Hacking Islamic Law
Rumee Ahmed

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Chapter 1

What Is Sharia? What Is Islamic Law? What Is Hacking?

In this book, we’re going to learn the ins and outs of an ancient Islamic legal practice that I call hacking. Before we start, however, we’ll have to answer some basic questions, like, What is sharia? I’d love to say that there’s a quick answer to that, but sharia has become so politicized in recent years that defining the term itself is now a political act. People from different ends of the political spectrum want you to believe that sharia is one particular thing or the other. Some say that sharia is the ancient, unchanging law of Islam and Muslims; others counter that it is just an ideal for good living that can never be reduced to specific laws. Some warn that sharia will be the downfall of civilized society; others insist that it will usher in peace and justice. Some describe sharia as oppressive; others say it is liberating. Some say it should be incorporated into state laws; others caution that it should be kept as far away from the state as possible. Some say it is central to every Muslim’s life; others say it is peripheral. Sharia is backward; sharia is progressive.

How can we tell which sharia is the real one? They can’t all be true at the same time, so how do we distinguish fact from hype? To answer that, we might try to identify some objective source of knowledge that will give us a straightforward, unbiased take on sharia. There are two sources that are commonly called on to provide objective information about the sharia: Islamic legal texts and Muslim beliefs and practices.

Some people argue that looking at texts written by Muslim scholars will give us an inside look at sharia that’s free from spin and political correctness. Others argue that we should instead look to Muslim beliefs and practices to see how everyday Muslims understand and implement sharia in their daily lives. Beliefs and practices, in that way of thinking, should show us how sharia functions regardless of what elite Muslim scholars wrote in their texts. These presumably objective sources—texts, beliefs, and practices—should move us beyond punditry and give us a clear picture of what the sharia really is and how it works.

Unfortunately for us, these sources do not help us determine a single, objective definition of the sharia because texts, beliefs, and practices can all say opposite and conflicting things. These “objective” sources can be used to “prove” that the sharia is static and unchanging, but they can also be used to “prove” that it is highly flexible and dynamic. They can show us that sharia is central to Muslim life, and they can also show us that most Muslims couldn’t care less about sharia. That might sound ridiculous: after all, how can the same sources be used to prove opposite points?

Let’s take the example of Islamic legal texts. We might think that by reading what Muslim scholars wrote about sharia, we will get an unmediated look at what sharia is supposed to be. Even though most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims don’t read Islamic legal texts any more than they read local zoning codes, legal texts might still help us get a basic definition for the sharia. That makes sense, except that different Islamic legal texts say different things about sharia. Take, for example, the following text from the renowned legal scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). In his view, sharia is a law that was devised many centuries ago, one that is unchanging and totalizing:

No statement or action or intention is worth anything unless it agrees with [Muhammad’s] Prophetic practice. That is the sharia, and it is what God and Muhammad commanded. Statements and actions and intentions that do not agree with Prophetic practice are innovations, and God does not love them or accept them.

Ibn Taymiyya’s message is pretty clear: follow the sharia, which is contained in Muhammad’s practices, and don’t act otherwise or else God will be unhappy. Ibn Taymiyya makes sharia sound like an ancient, unchanging law laid down by the Prophet for all Muslims to follow in all times and places. But Ibn Taymiyya is just one voice among many. If we turn our attention to a different legal text, this one written by Ibn Taymiyya’s star student, Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350), we find the exact opposite:

Indeed, the sharia is founded upon wisdom and welfare for worshippers in this life and the afterlife. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, welfare, and wisdom. Any matter that abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, welfare for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness cannot be part of the sharia.

Ibn al-Qayyim described the sharia as elastic; it is defined not by set practices but by “justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom.” Just to be clear, Ibn al-Qayyim added that

Allah the Exalted has made clear in the sharia that the objective is the establishment of justice between worshippers and fairness among the people, so whichever part leads to justice and fairness is part of the religion and can never oppose it.

For Ibn Taymiyya, sharia is fixed and never changes, but for his student, Ibn al-Qayyim, the sharia always changes to meet the demands of justice and fairness. This kind of divergent thinking is common. Muslim legal scholars throughout history have offered up different and conflicting versions of the sharia, and their diversity of thought is captured in their legal texts. So, it seems that Islamic legal texts will not help us come up with a single definition for the sharia.

Since texts don’t give us a definitive answer, some have turned to Muslim beliefs and practices. Maybe everyday Muslims could tell us what they think about sharia, especially since most of them don’t read Islamic legal texts anyway. Do Muslims believe that sharia is central to Muslim life or that it is peripheral? Is it fixed, or does it change? Several polls have been taken over the last decade to answer exactly these kinds of questions. A recent Pew poll, for example, asked approximately thirty thousand Muslims around the world about their opinions on sharia law. About 70 percent thought that sharia should be the law of the land. That figure seems pretty clear. One could reasonably conclude that sharia is incredibly important to Muslim life and practice, so much so that it should be the official state law and, like most official laws, should be a fixed entity that is very difficult to change.

A trip to almost any Muslim-majority country, however, will challenge that conclusion. Mosques mostly sit empty; Islamic laws are rarely, if ever, enforced; and Muslims do not seem engaged or even interested in sharia law. When asked, the majority of Muslims in that same Pew poll admitted that they do not pray even once a week (let alone five times a day), that they prefer democracy as a system of government, and that religious freedom is a good thing. So, while they support sharia as the law of the land, they also support democracy and religious freedom and do not follow sharia in their daily lives. If you were to ask your average Muslim about sharia, they would likely tell you that it’s a good thing but would be unable to provide any specifics about what sharia actually is. They would likely say that it is incredibly important but not important enough to do anything about.

We quickly see a recurring problem with probing either legal texts or Muslim public opinion to understand sharia: different Muslims have different definitions for and different relationships with sharia. What’s more, a single individual might use the term sharia differently in different contexts. In legal texts, for instance, the same author might refer to sharia as a specific legal system in one chapter and as an ambiguous moral code in another. If you’re not reading carefully, it’s easy to get confused. Similarly, when Muslims talk about the importance of sharia, they are sometimes referring to a system of justice and other times referring to a personal law that is between them and God; still other times, they are referring to a system of religious governance. And sometimes, the term sharia has nothing to do with laws or governance at all.

Even people who study sharia for a living have a complicated relationship with it. A friend told me about taking his father, a Muslim legal scholar, to meet his new daughter-in-law. When they got to her house, she let them in, seated them, and then left the room. My friend’s father was incensed:

“What kind of girl is this?” he demanded. “She didn’t even offer us tea!”
“Well,” my friend reminded him, “according to the sharia, she doesn’t have to give us tea.”
His father, the scholar, thundered, “Well, the sharia can go to hell!”

The man wanted his tea.

In the lives of Muslims around the world, sharia means and represents many things. It is all the more peculiar, then, that popular discourse about sharia today narrows it into a kind of law that might or might not apply on a state level. Muslims and non-Muslims alike appear on television and write books that debate whether to adopt sharia as state law, effectively ignoring all the other ways in which Muslims understand the sharia. This is largely because over the last century, sharia has taken on an increasingly important and very specific role in many Muslim-majority states. Some states now tout the fact that they implement sharia on the state level. Many Muslim activists and reformers object to that and insist that sharia should be kept out of statecraft. Some Muslims say state-based sharia is not so bad, whereas other Muslims say it is an abomination.

This very specific debate tends to take up all the airtime devoted to sharia, and we hear about sharia only when people are insisting that it will either nurture or destroy civilization. As a result, we think about sharia only as related to law, and we overlook the fluid and dynamic ways in which most Muslims interact with it. Here, we need to stop and understand how we got to this place. That is, how did it come to be that sharia, if it is so expansive and diverse, is now spoken about in only narrow, purely legalistic terms? There are two connected topics that we will need to examine to answer that; the first has to do with recent Muslim history, and the second has to do with persistent myths about Islam and Muslims.

We should look at recent Muslim history first, because it feeds into the myths about Islam and Muslims that we have today. To do that, we’ll have to quickly review the development of Islamic law over the last six hundred years. Through a recap of modern world history, we’ll see that the experiences of colonialism and anticolonialism and the rise of Muslim nation-states have skewed the conversation about sharia into one that is obsessed with state practice and law, even as Muslims around the world continue to have varied and complex relationships to sharia.

The Last Few Centuries: A Quick Review

After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, the small Muslim community that he founded in Arabia expanded very quickly, and within a few hundred years Muslim groups were ruling large swaths of North Africa, southeast Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. The collective fortune of the Muslim community steadily increased, and by the mid-1400s, Muslims controlled Mecca, Cairo, Constantinople, Cordova, Fes, Isfahan, Samarqand, Timbuktu, and many other major cities. When you read Islamic texts from that era, it’s clear that Muslims thought they ruled the world. Never mind that these places were ruled by different dynasties that often hated one another; all that mattered for Muslims writing in that time was that the most important places in the world—the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, Andalusia (for a long time), India (not all of it), Palestine (more or less), Persia, and key parts of the Silk Road (kind of)—were ruled by Muslims. Muslim writers took great pride in that fact. They occasionally mentioned pale barbarians in the Northwest and uneducated marauders to the east, but on the whole, those groups were treated as curiosities. All the action was in Muslim lands, and Muslim writers assumed that everyone wanted to be there.

That started to change with European colonialism, which was aided by a leap in European military technology and a papal bull. In the 1450s, Pope Nicholas V decreed that God had granted Christians command over all the earth. The church thereafter deputized Catholic countries to claim for themselves newly discovered lands in the name of Christendom, allowing them to enslave local populations, especially Muslims, pagans, and anyone else they deemed to be “infidels.” With church sanction, several European countries raced to colonize these lands, especially those that had vast natural resources, poor defenses, and weak central governments. Colonizers found many such lands in Africa and the Americas, and so they concentrated much of their early efforts there.

As Catholics were colonizing and enslaving, the Protestant Reformation was gaining steam in Europe, undermining the theological and political authority of the Catholic Church. Protestants battled Catholics for power throughout Europe; each group condemned the other for various heresies, and Protestants began to establish colonies of their own to challenge the hegemony of the Catholic Church and to augment state coffers. With the aid of guns and germs, Catholic and Protestant powers vied with one another to colonize newly discovered lands. When lands were not so easily colonized—as was the case with Egypt, China, India, and Indonesia, which all had relatively strong central governments and armies—Europeans would set up coastal outposts that funneled resources out for international trade.

Except for the relatively rare case in which people fled to a colonized region in search of religious freedom, the colonial enterprise was primarily about control over Europe. Catholics and Protestants fought with one another across Europe, and the colonial enterprise funded their bloody, protracted, and expensive wars. Oftentimes, colonies served as sites for proxy wars between European nations, where colonial powers would engage in increasingly costly battles over trade routes.

To dominate trade routes that were now moving vast amounts of wealth, European countries initiated a naval arms race. In 1588, the English navy, representing Protestant interests, won a decisive victory over Catholic Spain’s Armada. The Protestant Dutch, too, scored several victories over the Catholic Portuguese in Southeast Asia, allowing them to set up ports there and reap enormous profits. The reverberations of these military victories were felt throughout the world as Protestant nations became far more confident in their dominance over trade routes. They began to consolidate their power in coastal ports, assuming full control over several port towns, establishing army outposts therein, and asserting colonial jurisdiction over nearby cities and towns. Many Muslim polities at the time found that, despite having Muslim figureheads as rulers, their economic output was increasingly being controlled by Europe.

By consolidating coastal port towns and putting them fully under colonial control, colonial powers intended to boost returns on trade without having to actually conquer the land. They did not wish to absorb the colonized country altogether; the messy process of governing a new land would divert precious resources away from trade. Colonial powers had a vested interest in limited governance that maximized production while minimizing investment. Much of the work of governance was outsourced to the private sector through agencies such as the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. These companies worked with their respective Crowns to establish a system of vicegerency in which the company would enforce certain criminal laws and economic policies to ensure economic dominance without interfering with the local customs of colonial subjects. In this system, criminal cases (involving crimes like murder and embezzlement) would be adjudicated by colonial law, and civil cases (involving interpersonal issues like marriage and divorce) would be adjudicated by local, often religious, laws in local courts by local judges.

Colonial powers figured that it would be simple enough to develop a criminal code based in colonial law, which they did through a mash-up of the Law of England, the Napoleonic Code, and, oddly enough, the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825. They then set about developing a separate civil code that would be wholly based on local religious laws. The problem was that, in Muslim lands, as in most colonized lands, there was no such thing as a set of “local, religious laws.” Instead, there were many different laws, some of which were based in local practices and others that were contained in thousands of various Islamic legal texts. These legal texts were not really codes of law; they were highly theoretical works that often contained multiple rulings on a single subject. Plus, different legal texts often disagreed with one another.

To complicate matters further, these legal texts were not legally binding and were not enforced by authorities. Judges, for instance, were not bound to rule based on any of these texts, and although judges might have personally preferred one legal text over another, they were ultimately free to rule based on their own discretion. Theoretically, a Muslim living in India could have gone to a court in Delhi and gotten one ruling and then gone to a court in Agra and gotten a completely different ruling on the same case. This was not a problem for the Muslims of India; it was just how things were done.

This system, however, was anathema to colonists. Based on their understanding of law and justice, they thought that only one law ought to apply equally to all cases within a colony. To correct what they saw as legal anarchy, vicegerents in different colonies commissioned European scholars to work with local populations to develop a single, codified civil law. Each major colony would have its own codified civil law based on its particular history and the beliefs, practices, and customs of its inhabitants. But as noted above, there was no single law that governed all Muslims; instead, there were legal scholars who would argue about the law through theoretical legal texts and judges who would apply the law at their discretion.

Colonists could have borrowed from the then popular Muslim practice of collecting a range of acceptable legal opinions from various legal texts and presenting them as options that judges could choose from when adjudicating civil cases. That would have been laborious and time-consuming but would have better captured how Islamic law functioned in Muslim society. They decided not to do that. Instead, they simply singled out some popular precolonial Islamic legal texts and proclaimed that they contained “the sharia.” Colonial officials and scholars then translated those books, edited them, and imported whatever was related to civil law into official codes that would thereafter apply to all Muslims in the colony. This was a bizarre move, because even a cursory look at precolonial Islamic legal texts will reveal that they were never intended for that purpose; they were written not as state laws but as theoretical arguments. They were not law books in the modern sense; they were full of hypotheticals and counterfactuals, and they opined about laws with the understanding that judges might refer to them but would rule using their discretion.

For colonists looking to fill out a legal code, though, these precolonial Islamic legal texts looked perfect. They were full of what looked like laws, and they proved useful for creating official civil codes. In India, for instance, long passages from the twelfth-century legal text al-Hidaya were simply lifted and inserted into the colonial civil code, with predictably disastrous consequences, some of which we will see later in this book. Once these civil codes were in place, if someone wanted to obtain a divorce in Heliopolis, she would theoretically go through the same process and get the same ruling as she would have in Cairo, all based on the musings of a man who wrote a legal text in the medieval period. Judges were no longer supposed to use their discretion when deciding cases; they were instead instructed to stick to the letter of the precolonial civil laws codified by colonists. With codification, judges did not even have to be Muslim to rule based on the new Islamic code, and in many cases, they were not. Muslim legal scholars were effectively sidelined; with the law already codified, they were no longer needed to make theoretical arguments about the nature and content of the law.

Colonists did all this in the name of religious accommodation. They claimed that by codifying law in this way, they were incorporating sharia into the civil code and therefore respecting the Islamic legal tradition. The fact that they broke from that tradition by codifying laws that were never meant to be codified seems not to have occurred to them. Many colonial writings suggest that they thought they were doing Muslims a favor and that they were giving the sharia its proper due.

An interesting thing happened when the new civil code was implemented: some Muslims started to believe that the sharia was supposed to be a codified set of laws implemented on a state level. Some Muslim scholars echoed the colonists’ way of thinking and argued that the sharia was, in fact, found in precolonial Islamic legal texts. Some began to think of sharia as a book, complete with all the laws that God and Muhammad laid down centuries ago. And even though colonists had codified only civil laws up to that point, some Muslims started to argue that all laws should be codified and that codified sharia should be used in both civil and criminal courts.

I should note that, although the colonial codification project certainly advanced this way of thinking, codification was not an entirely colonial invention. Muslims had been slowly moving toward a kind of codification anyway, most notably in South Asia and in the Ottoman Empire. But previous attempts at codification had still given judges a good amount of discretionary power, providing a range of possible judgments from which they could choose and acknowledging that different rulings might apply in different times and places. The particularly colonial innovation was to decree that only one law would be applied in all courts across the land in the interest of justice and fairness. By equating that single codified law with sharia, colonists wittingly or unwittingly encouraged the idea that the sharia is a fixed legal entity that is just and fair precisely because it does not change.

Not everyone was on board with this way of thinking about sharia, and many Muslims objected. Critics of the codified-sharia model argued that the sharia is not a set of rules that can be written down in a book but rather a method of decision-making that privileges ideas and values found in the Qurʾan and in the practice of Muhammad and thus always leads toward justice. The individual laws that result from this decision-making method might therefore change based on time, place, and conceptions of fairness. These two factions—one arguing that sharia should be codified and the other saying that it could never be codified—argued and debated with each other in academic forums. For the most part, no one other than Muslim scholars took part in or even cared about this debate. But then several colonial powers embarked on economic experiments in their colonies that would give the codified-sharia crowd a huge boost.

Unlike colonial legal policies, which at least incorporated some input from locals, colonial economic policies were completely unconcerned with the thoughts and well-being of colonized peoples. When it came to economic policy, colonists tested horribly immoral theories that would have been impossible to deploy at home. The most notorious of these was the use of Malthusian economics in many parts of the British Empire. Malthusian economics is named after Thomas Malthus, who identified a persistent problem with agrarian economies: in order to work the land and create more output, families need many children. But more children mean more mouths to feed, requiring that agricultural output be diverted away from trade and toward feeding children. Trade, Malthus concluded, suffers when the population increases. For Malthus, nature provided a tidy solution to this problem in the form of natural disasters like droughts, monsoons, and plagues. When such natural disasters occur, he reasoned, the state should not intervene and should let the population die down naturally. The result would be fewer mouths to feed and thus more agricultural output going toward trade.

The British, along with several other colonial powers, embraced Malthusian economic theory in the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. During that time, especially in the last decade of the nineteenth century, regular El Niño and La Niña cycles led to widespread flooding, drought, and pestilence throughout the colonized world. The British saw this as an opportunity to experiment with Malthusian economics, and they refused to intervene, instead setting up concentration camps in which they fed already malnourished subjects less than they needed to survive, ensuring that they would slowly starve to death. Between 1875 and 1902, an estimated thirty to sixty million colonized people died in the service of Malthusian economic theory, a time that historian Mike Davis calls the “Late Victorian Holocausts.” Amid this unfathomable level of famine and death, grain exports from the colonies tripled. The colonies were exporting crops in record numbers, all while colonized people died of starvation. The desperation among colonized people reached a fever pitch in the early part of the twentieth century, as they looked for any and all means to repel the colonists as a matter of life and death.

Muslim anticolonialists found a rallying cry in the sharia, which was seen as a panacea that would replace the tyranny of colonialism with, in the words of Ibn al-Qayyim, “justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom.” Many Muslims believed that the sharia held the key to social, political, and economic justice and that if the sharia were implemented properly, injustice would disappear. Muslims who supported the codification of civil law started arguing that if sharia had also been codified into the criminal code and had been implemented on the political and economic levels, the Late Victorian Holocausts would have never occurred. They reasoned that since sharia enshrines justice, applying it to all levels of society would have prevented the death and destruction wrought by the colonists. This reasoning tapped into the growing Muslim interest in a codified sharia and the growing existential anxiety about colonial economic policies. A popular sentiment emerged that establishing sharia as the codified law of the land in all legal codes and implementing sharia on all levels of society would bring political and economic justice for all, Muslim and non-Muslim. This sentiment grew so popular that even many non-Muslim anticolonialists supported sharia; it became synonymous with self-determination and social justice, and it galvanized large swaths of the populace against the colonizers.

During the mid-1900s, after mass agitation and even more atrocities, colonial powers began gradually withdrawing from the colonies. They left behind nation-states with new borders and little capacity for governance. These nation-states were forced to quickly create governing bodies, institutions, and legal codes or risk devolving into anarchy. They threw together constitutions—usually modeled on existing European constitutions—that would serve as founding documents for their new countries. Ideologues, plutocrats, and the military vied for power in the vacuum created by the colonial retreat, and many states experimented with various forms of dictatorship, socialism, and democracy. As these nations struggled with internal corruption and external exploitation, the religious elite repeated the rhetoric popularized by the anticolonial movement: justice will be served when sharia is established at all levels of society. This message was repeated in Friday sermons, in print media, and on TV programs around the world. The failures of a Muslim nation, the rhetoric contended, could be traced back to that nation’s failure to recognize sharia as the ultimate source of law. Tens—if not hundreds—of millions of Muslims were told on a regular basis that establishing sharia was the cure for all of society’s ills.

In the second half of the twentieth century, movements popped up in different nation-states demanding that sharia be the constitutionally recognized law of the land. Again, this was a very modern idea; Muslim nation-states with constitutions did not exist prior to the twentieth century. But the paradigm had shifted, and Muslims had a new and sincere view that sharia must have a central role in state governance. Several Muslim-majority countries responded by injecting language into their constitutions that reflected the primacy of sharia. There are two types of constitutional provisions that countries adopted; one is called a sharia source law, and the other is called a sharia guarantee/repugnancy law. A sharia source law means that sharia will be the ultimate source of all laws in that country. A sharia guarantee/repugnancy law ensures that no law is passed that violates the sharia. Today, about thirty Muslim-majority countries have adopted these constitutional clauses, and the governments of those countries thereby claim to have established sharia.

Of course, none of these countries say exactly how they define sharia or who determines whether something is in line with or violates the sharia. They do not specify which sources of law the sharia is based on or, perhaps more importantly, whose interpretations of those sources count. Several countries have tried to institutionalize sharia through ministries or councils stocked with state-sponsored legal scholars who tell the populace what is and what is not sharia. In this way, ruling regimes can claim that they have established the sharia and that citizens should therefore obey them. As an added bonus for rulers, whenever citizens agitate for greater rights, ruling regimes can say that those agitators are acting contrary to sharia and should be denounced on religious grounds. Many states now regularly use sharia to claim religious legitimacy for state policies and to stifle criticism of the regime.

Muslim citizens, for their part, seem unimpressed with these clumsy attempts to codify and institutionalize the sharia. Polls suggest that despite rhetoric from ruling regimes and their adoption of sharia source laws, most Muslims believe that their governments do not abide by sharia. That is because codified sharia captures only one part of the revolutionary spirit and rhetoric of the anticolonial movements and their appeals to sharia. The anticolonialists promised that applying sharia at the state level would bring about justice and equality. That spirit of justice and equality can never be captured in a law or in a constitutional clause. Rather, it lives in the souls of people who wish for a better society. For them, sharia represents an ideal that must always be worked toward, and it is never realized until there is absolute justice and equality on Earth. Sharia, in that sense, is always in the future tense; it is always just on the horizon, and believers must continually strive for it. Sharia is God’s promise for true believers who struggle and sacrifice for the greater good. This religious aspect of sharia can never be reduced to a set of laws.

The Redemptive Power of Sharia

From a religious perspective, sharia describes a utopia in which everything is right and good. Ask religious Muslims what a sharia state looks like, and they will say things like, “There is free electricity,” “No one goes hungry,” and “Everyone is equal before the law.” Sharia is aspirational, symbolizing everything that humanity can be but isn’t yet. In an interview, a British citizen advocating for sharia law was asked what a sharia state would offer. He responded that sharia guarantees a slew of social-welfare programs, such as free health care. When reminded that health care is already free in Britain, he responded, “Not really. Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”

When sharia is established, there will be free vision care. There will be full employment; children will take care of their parents; crime will be nonexistent; political corruption will disappear; all potholes will be filled. These are all claims that I have heard first-hand, including the one about potholes. It is part of a religious mind-set in which the world can always be better, and God’s help will come when Muslims work to make the world a better place. This is part of the aspirational logic of Abrahamic religions, in that they look toward a brighter future. For many Muslims, sharia is the word that expresses that aspiration. The moment it is codified and implemented in some way, it loses that aspiration; it must always be in the future if it is to be religiously fulfilling. The details are less important and can always be figured out later.

I am intimately aware of sharia’s aspirational power, because, before becoming a scholar of Islam, I spent many years in an international organization that was trying to establish sharia law on the state level. For me and my compatriots, sharia represented social and spiritual justice. Without knowing any of the details, I was sure that, if implemented properly, sharia would fix all of society’s problems, from boom-and-bust economic cycles to psychological depression. I would preach this to whomever would listen, and, if pressed for details, I asked the person to trust that God would step in if we all worked toward establishing sharia. Religious—or magical, depending on your point of view—reasoning sometimes means that you trust in things without understanding exactly what they are.

Sometimes, people I was trying to convince were concerned that implementing sharia might result in extreme forms of punishment, such as stoning adulterers or executing apostates. I would reply with something like this:

That might have been true at one point, but Muslim scholars have dealt with all that so that, in practice, no one will actually get hurt. I mean, such laws were operative at one point, and they still are now, but not really. And there’s, like, a loophole or a caveat so that adulterers and apostates get forgiven, or pardoned, or something. In fact, I think that in Muslim history, no one really got stoned or killed, and that was because, under sharia, everyone was so happy that they didn’t want to commit adultery or leave Islam. Or wait, maybe it did happen once or twice, but that was because people weren’t applying sharia properly. Look, sharia used to be applied in the Muslim world before colonialism, and everything was great. God wants us to work to reestablish sharia, and if we don’t, we will be responsible for our own misfortunes. Everything will be great once again when we reapply sharia, because when we do, God’s mercy will rain down upon us. Trust me.”

My infatuation with sharia as humanity’s only hope might sound silly and incredibly naive, but it’s no sillier than the “sharia will be the death of us all” camp. Both assume that correct Muslim belief and practice center on a certain version of sharia. Both require good Muslims to be homogeneous automatons who dance only to the rhythm of sharia. Most importantly for our purposes, both discourses try to pinpoint a specific thing that is sharia, toward which all Muslims must work.

But sharia’s power is precisely that it never is something but always will be something. It is an idea that is always just coming into being. Whenever someone makes a claim about what sharia is, that claim is inherently suspect, because claims about what the sharia is automatically lose the power of something that will be. For most Muslims, sharia lives in the future, and claims about it in the past or present will therefore always be contested. So even though we hear lots of noise about sharia and its potential implementation at the state level, that is not how sharia is discussed and experienced in the day-to-day lives of most Muslims. The far more important function of sharia is in positing a religious utopia that awaits all those who work toward it. For some, that utopia looks like a representative democracy; for others, it looks like a theocracy; and for still others, it is a community in which everything is shared. Utopias are unique to each believer, and that is exactly the power of sharia. It offers hope and promises a form of justice that reflects the needs and beliefs of each individual. The more injustices fill daily life, the more sharia can grant redemption.

It is only within this redemptive framework that Islamic legal conversations make any sense, and it certainly the only way that Islamic legal hacking makes any sense, as we will see. Outside of the context of redemption, sharia conversations are sterile, uninteresting, inaccurate, and unhelpful. Yet we find that most analysts, scholars, and observers discuss sharia not in terms of redemption but in terms of a legal code. That is partly because of the historical events recounted earlier and partly because those events brought with them a series of myths about sharia, Islam, and Muslims. These myths are persistent and deep-seated in our collective consciousness, and they oversimplify the debate on sharia. In order to engage with the sharia as a dynamic source of redemption and to enter into the hacking conversation, we will need to dispel these myths.

There are five major myths that are most in need of debunking, and they are that: (1) there is only one official sharia; (2) the sharia never changes; (3) only learned scholars may discuss the sharia; (4) Islamic law is found in the Qurʾan and in the sayings of Muhammad; and (5) all Muslims live according to Islamic law. These myths work together to sterilize conversations about sharia. They are championed by those who would demonize the sharia as well as by Muslim elites who claim a monopoly on sharia. Addressing these myths is an essential first step to unlocking the sharia’s potential as a source of redemption for Muslims today. Let’s start with the first myth.

Myth #1: There is only one, official sharia

Debate is a constant feature of the Islamic intellectual tradition, and Muslims have always debated the nature and content of the sharia. Some believe that sharia is nothing more than the moral imperative to do good in the world and that it does not have any fixed content. Others believe that it can be pinned down with careful study. Some Muslim scholars have tried to capture the sharia using legal language. When they do so, they tend to use a particular discourse known as either “Islamic law” (fiqh) or, rarely, “sharia law” (ahkam al-sharʿiyya). Fiqh is an attempt to determine how God wants human beings to live in order to achieve salvation. Using a series of interpretive methods, some Muslim scholars have tried to describe exactly how Muslims should behave, in everything from paying taxes to drinking water to getting married. Scholars refer to these as laws, but each law is highly debatable—there are, for example, many different theories about the right way to pay taxes. As a result, there are innumerable interpretations of sharia that are made using the language of Islamic law.

These different interpretations are found in thousands of books that Muslim scholars have written on Islamic law. The authors of these books each claim to have captured the one true sharia. It is as though each author is saying, “Even though there are thousands of books claiming to capture the sharia in legal language, I’ve actually done it!” But that is only a claim. Obviously all the books on Islamic law can’t all be right; some books might be right about some laws and wrong about others. Since God stopped speaking directly to humans over 1,400 years ago, we can never really know for sure which books, if any, are right and which are wrong. To gain some measure of uniformity, some Muslims count themselves members of larger groups with internal hierarchies. Twelver Shiʿas and Ismaʿilis, for instance, have leadership structures that can tell you which laws are right and which are wrong. Sunni Muslims developed more fluid hierarchies, providing Sunnis with multiple versions of Islamic law from which to choose. Even among Twelver Shiʿas and Ismaʿilis there are subgroups with different leaders who advocate different laws; and, of course, a Sunni can always become a Shiʿa and vice versa. The upshot is that there are many different versions of Islamic law, each one claiming to capture the sharia, and Muslims pick and choose the ones that serve them best.

There is, therefore, no one set of laws that authoritatively comprises the sharia. Instead, there are multiple versions of Islamic law that each claim to represent the sharia. This, in fact, must be the case. Recall that sharia always lives in the future; it always will be, and once you make a claim about what the sharia is, it loses its aspirational power and becomes Islamic law. By definition, the sharia can never be a single thing, and it will never be agreed upon.

In light of this fact, Anver Emon calls sharia a “claim-space,” which is a very helpful way to think about it. People make claims about the sharia, and they argue for the relative authority of their claims. Some might say, for instance, that stoning adulterers is part of the sharia, but others will say that stoning has no place in the sharia. Both of these are claims about sharia that can be made using the language of Islamic law. But we should not confuse the claim, which is Islamic law, with the aspirational ideal that always lives in the future, which is sharia. Equating sharia with a specific book of Islamic law is a bit like saying that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is economics. Wealth of Nations is a book that makes claims about economics, but it is not economics itself.

Of course, when people make claims about the sharia, they don’t say, “I am making a claim about sharia, which lives in the future and can never be captured in the language of Islamic law.” Instead, they say, “What I am claiming is the sharia.” That’s the way religious arguments are made. Strong language is rewarded, and besides, no one wants to believe that their version of Islamic law might lead them to heaven; they want to believe that it will lead them to heaven. Muslims regularly make claims about the sharia as though their claims are the truth. They tend to understand that these strong claims are rhetorical rather than coercive, since, especially among Sunnis, there is no clerical hierarchy and people are free to follow whatever version of Islamic law they deem fit.

This idea of sharia as a claim-space is important to keep in mind, particularly when we consider modern nation-states with sharia source laws. Many states have used sharia source laws to come up with their own versions of Islamic law, each state claiming that its version accurately captures the sharia. To hear these states tell it, there is only one version of sharia, and it is the state’s version. It is in the interest of the state to say that its version of sharia is the correct, official version, but we should know better than to take such a claim at face value. Just because someone claims to rule according to the one true sharia does not mean that they are actually doing so. Regimes use the term sharia to demand obedience from their citizens, insisting that those disputing the law or the regime are actually disputing God. In giving themselves exclusive rights to the sharia, states are claiming to officially represent God on Earth. That’s an enormous claim, and we should take it with an equally enormous grain of salt, as we do with most state rhetoric. We do not, after all, think that North Korea is a democracy simply because its official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

We can easily dismiss state claims to rule by the one true sharia by pointing out that different countries with sharia source laws implement different versions of Islamic law. For example, the minimum age to marry without parental consent is nineteen in Algeria, eighteen in Egypt, and fifteen in Yemen. All of these countries have sharia source laws, and all claim that their marriage ages are based in the sharia. So, which one is it: nineteen, eighteen, or fifteen? It can’t possibly be all of them if there is only one sharia. But it is all of them, because sharia is a claim-space that different parties appeal to in order to give their claims religious legitimacy. The laws themselves are not the sharia; they are claims made about the sharia in the language of Islamic law.

Muslim legal scholars historically recognized that they could never pin down the sharia and that they could only ever attempt to approximate it in the language of Islamic law. This, they said, was the nature of religion: one is always trying to figure out God’s will but can never be sure to have gotten it right. There is a common refrain among scholars, based on a reported saying of Muhammad, that when you come up with an Islamic law that is actually in accordance with the sharia, God will reward you twice. If you come up with an Islamic law that does not fully accord with the sharia, God will reward you once. Either way, you get rewarded. Legal scholars understood that they were not expected to come up with the actual sharia; that’s impossible. Instead, they tried to come close through Islamic laws.

The difference between sharia and Islamic law should always be kept in mind. In shorthand, sharia is the divine ideal, and Islamic law is a human attempt to capture the ideal. The distinction is crucial.

Myth #2: The sharia never changes

The sharia looks different to every person, since we all have different ideas about what the world is supposed to look like. Some people think the sharia should have a strong public presence, whereas others think that it should be restricted to personal life. Muslims who believe in the importance of sharia can champion a theocracy, a secular democracy, or anything in between. The sharia is unique to each individual and therefore is always changing.

The interesting question for us, then, is not whether sharia changes, but how those changes are expressed in the language of Islamic law. In chapter 2, we will learn about a paradox that underpins all discussions of Islamic law: the law must be ancient and contemporary at the same time. That is, the law has to be rooted in a historical past for it to have authority, but it also has to be relevant to new times and circumstances.

Muslim scholars navigate this paradox when making legal claims about the sharia, and they have developed rather sophisticated methods for doing so. I discuss these methods in chapters 4 and 5, especially two methods that I call patching and hacking. Patching is when historical laws are modified to account for some urgent need. Hacking is a term that refers to finding a solution to a problem by working within an existing system. Patching can provide temporary fixes, but lasting changes require hacks.

In the computing world, hacking is when a programmer wants to change a piece of computer code in order to make a system work differently. To do so, the programmer must work within the existing computer language to change one part of the code without affecting the entire system. A good hack will make the system work better without anyone even noticing that a hack was made. A bad hack will result in bugs so that one part of the system works well but other parts lag. A really bad hack will bring the whole system down.

Hacking used to refer only to some kind of malicious activity, such as when someone would break into a computer system for nefarious purposes. Today, hacking is used more broadly in everyday language to describe ingenious solutions to persistent problems. Websites and magazines regularly propose life hacks, travel hacks, study hacks, and the like. Whenever a problem is solved or a process made more efficient using only existing tools, we now call that a hack. That is how we will use the term in this book with respect to Islamic law. The sharia can never be hacked, since it lives in the future and exists in the present only as a claim-space, but Muslim scholars hack Islamic law all the time to accommodate changing claims about the sharia. When a good hack is made and historical circumstances make it advantageous, the hack changes prevailing conceptions of Islamic law in lasting and abiding ways.

Chapter 6 gives several examples in which social, political, and economic circumstances lead Muslims to adopt or discard hacks. We will see that Muslim scholars are remarkably adept at hacking even deeply entrenched laws to accommodate for changing times. Actions that were previously thought unquestionably forbidden—for example, using money not backed by precious metals, studying in a mixed-gender classroom, and abolishing slavery—are now widely accepted. We will learn how Muslim scholars made hacks like these, and in chapter 7, we will learn how similar hacks can be made in the future.

Myth #3: Only learned scholars may discuss sharia

The sharia belongs to every Muslim. From a purely religious perspective, every individual has her own personal relationship with the sharia and must answer to God for herself. One might take guidance from a particular religious leader, but one is encouraged to learn and make decisions about sharia for oneself whenever possible. In previous generations, such personal study was nearly impossible, because literacy was low and centers of learning were few and far between. Now, literacy is widespread and knowledge centers are an internet connection away. As we will see in chapter 3, many, many Muslims now meet or exceed the minimum requirements for deriving and interpreting Islamic law for themselves. Islamic law, therefore, is no longer in the hands of an educated elite but is now the property of most Muslims around the world.

From a political perspective, this is now doubly true with the introduction of sharia source laws. Something deeply ironic happened when these source laws were instituted: by putting sharia clauses into democratic constitutions, regimes unwittingly gave all citizens the right to debate sharia laws. Democratic nations, in which the majority of Muslims live, require citizens to ratify their constitutions. Citizens, therefore, technically vote on whether to have sharia laws. They could, ostensibly, vote to have sharia taken off the books or to have it expressed in different ways. This means that, at least in theory, every citizen has a say in sharia and its workings.

Sharia source laws have, in a sense, ended up democratizing sharia and have led to the rise of groups and individuals who are looking into sharia on their own and are coming up with new and interesting interpretations of sharia using the language of Islamic law. Perhaps the most visible and timely of these are Muslim feminists, who are using their constitutional right to interpret the sharia and to voice their own interpretations of what sharia should be. As citizens of the state, they are allowed—just like anyone else—to express their opinions on sharia, and they are interpreting it to empower women. This may not have been the intention of those who were advocating sharia source laws, but it certainly is the consequence. In the words of Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, “Islamic feminism is the unwanted child of political Islam.” In the modern era, every citizen has the constitutional right to discuss sharia, despite state claims to exclusive authority over its content.

Myth #4: Islamic law is found in the Qur'an and the sayings of Muhammad

In fact, very little of Islamic law is found in the Qurʾan and the sayings of Muhammad (hadith). The Qurʾan focuses on three main topics: monotheism, social justice, and life after death; it is mostly comprised of stories of prophets, calls for acting justly, and vivid descriptions of the life hereafter. Less than 10 percent of the Qurʾan has anything to do with what we might call laws, and those, too, are often general exhortations to act righteously and avoid doing evil.

The sayings of Muhammad, known as hadith, are similarly composed mostly of stories and wise sayings. There is a great deal of controversy over which sayings of Muhammad are trustworthy and which are dubious, as we will see later in this book, and Muslim scholars devised different methods for determining whether hadiths were authentic or not. Scholars famously disagree about which hadiths are more authentic than others, how they should be interpreted, and whether they are applicable in law.

Most laws are based not in the Qurʾan or in hadith, but in the opinions of Muslim scholars living in the early generations after Muhammad, who themselves often disagreed with one another. When legal texts do reference the Qurʾan and hadith, they are usually cited only to justify the opinion of one of those early Muslims over another. We will learn more in the next chapter, but for now it suffices to say that although the Qurʾan and hadith form the moral and intellectual backdrop for Islamic legal discussions, they are neither the source for most laws nor the source to which most Muslims turn to learn Islamic law. The Qurʾan and the hadith are ever-relevant, foundational sources whose various interpretations can provide guidance in different times and places, but they are not themselves books of law, and one will not understand Islamic law and Islamic legal debates by going directly to the Qurʾan and hadith.

Myth #5: All Muslims live according to Islamic law

This myth is part of a larger idea—a racist one—that all Muslims think and act as one. In this myth, Muslims get their marching orders from Islamic legal scholars who themselves follow the Qurʾan and the hadith word-for-word. Muslims then try to order their societies according to Islamic law and cannot abide any separation between church and state. Secularism as a project is itself inconceivable to the “Muslim mind,” and Muslims all want to live in an Islamic state that enforces medieval Islamic laws. These broad generalizations about Islam and Muslims are so pervasive that they are found in academic scholarship, media reports, political analysis, and even some modern Muslim rhetoric.

It should go without saying—but unfortunately doesn’t—that the term Muslim describes a diverse group of 1.6 billion individuals who have complex and varied relationships with their religion. Some are deeply religious, while others are not. For some, Islam is a way of viewing the world, whereas for others, it is more of an identity marker. The term Muslim tells us next to nothing about a person’s beliefs and orientation. Nowhere is this more apparent and easily observed than with the topic of sharia. People have widely differing conceptions of sharia, some of which have nothing to do with Islamic law, and there is a huge gap between rhetoric and practice.

It’s fascinating that while polls suggest that Muslims tend to support the implementation of sharia on a state level, those same polls show that most Muslims don’t actually abide by Islamic law. As mentioned earlier, polls suggest that most Muslims don’t pray five times a day and that only a minority go to the mosque for Friday prayers. The Friday prayer is performed in congregation, and while all prayers are important, Friday prayer is considered especially so; missing it is a big sin. Yet, despite businesses being closed during prayer time and many countries taking Friday off, Muslims, for the most part, find other things to do. Attend a Friday prayer in most Muslim-majority cities, and you’ll hear sounds of life outside the mosque—honking, trading, laughing—going on as usual.

Poll numbers aside, there’s simply no way that most Muslims attend Friday prayer, if only because there is not enough mosque space to accommodate them all. In the United States, for instance, there are about 2,100 mosques, which simply cannot hold the country’s 3.5 million Muslims. The average US mosque has a Friday-prayer attendance of 353 congregants, confirming estimates that only about 25 percent of US Muslims attend Friday prayer.

And it’s not just the United States. Dubai, for instance, has 507 mosques that offer Friday prayer for their 1.6 million Muslims. To accommodate them all, each mosque would have to hold over 3,000 worshippers. But the largest mosque in Dubai, the Khalifa al-Tajer, can hold only 3,500 people, and the second largest, the Blue Mosque, can hold only 2,000. They just get smaller from there. We can reasonably conclude that most of Dubai’s Muslims are not attending Friday prayer.

We can play this numbers game with any country that has reliable mosque and population records to get a sense of how many more Muslims there are than mosques. Malaysia’s 5,000 mosques must somehow accommodate its 18 million Muslims. Singapore’s 70 mosques must cater to its 600,000 Muslims. The Muslim populations of these countries cannot fit into their mosques, which means that most Muslims simply aren’t praying the Friday prayer. And it is important to note that infrastructure reflects demand. If Muslims were to complain that they did not have enough space to pray, then governments would likely comply by encouraging mosque construction. But the demand simply isn’t there.

We don’t have reliable numbers for mosque attendance outside of Friday prayer, but those of us who have lived in Muslim-majority countries can attest that mosques generally lie empty. In Damascus, I would pray my dawn prayers at the mosque of one of the most famous scholars in the Middle East, the late Saʿid Ramadan al-Buti. Every morning I would shuffle in late to the mosque’s smaller prayer room in which the dawn prayers were held, and every morning I would pray in the front row. That’s because the front row never got filled with worshippers, as most people were sound asleep or getting ready for the day. While studying in Yemen, I would take breaks to pray the noon and afternoon prayers in the nearby thousand-year-old mosque. We averaged about eight worshippers per prayer.

In Karachi, the mosque near my relatives’ home could accommodate about two hundred worshippers. There were never more than twenty for the sunset prayer, which is normally the best-attended prayer of the day. For me, these experiences were always remarkable not so much for the poor attendance but for the ease with which most Muslims missed their prayers. As a mosque regular, locals viewed me with curiosity: a weird, gangly foreigner always going off to pray. They probably thought I was a dunce or a spy or an extremist, and they would poke fun at me as I walked down the narrow alleyways toward the local mosque, passing by their cricket and soccer games. They would shout, “Pray for Faisal to learn how to pass the ball,” or “Give heaven our fondest regards,” or “Tell God to do something about the drones!”

It somehow always shocked me to see Muslims all over the world treating prayer with such nonchalance. Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, and one would think that it would be central to almost any version of Islamic law. Yet most Muslims don’t feel compelled to pray. We see the same thing with another pillar of Islam, the hajj pilgrimage. Every Muslim is commanded to go to Mecca for hajj at least once in her life if she can afford it. And every year, two million Muslims descend on Mecca to fulfill this religious obligation. Hajj is a singular experience: a crush of humanity seeking God’s bounty and blessings, all trying to fulfill a central requirement of the faith. But only 2 million Muslims attend each year, which is a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims; in fact, it’s about one-tenth of 1 percent. If we do the math, we see that no more than 10 percent of Muslims will go on the hajj pilgrimage in their lifetimes. That’s not because 90 percent of Muslims cannot afford to go. It’s because many choose not to go.

Most Muslims do not live their lives according to some strict version of Islamic law. That does not mean that they are bad Muslims, just that they have different conceptions of Islam and sharia. I cannot count the number of people who have told me that God is found in the heart and that they do not feel the need for rituals. Others have said that they focus on being truthful and generous and that the most important Islamic law is the one demanding good character. Many people have advised me that the core of the sharia is love, not law.

There are innumerable ways to be Muslim, and devotion to the law is but one of them. Muslims who adhere closely to the law are a subgroup of the larger whole. The historian Marshall Hodgson called this group “sharia-minded,” and since we are focusing on Islamic law (fiqh) in this book, I will call Muslims who hold Islamic law to be an important part of their lives “fiqh-minded.” The numbers cited in the preceding paragraphs suggest that fiqh-minded Muslims are only a sizeable minority and that most Muslims believe it is unnecessary to follow Islamic laws closely in order to attain salvation.

Yet the perception persists that good Muslims are slaves to the law and that only law-abiding Muslims are true followers of Islam. We hear this from Muslim religious leaders, and we see it in popular Western depictions of Islam and Muslims. That is chiefly the result of a larger myth that has been centuries in the making.

Known as Orientalism, this is a myth that humans create about their societies by casting outsiders as polar opposites. In this case, there is a myth that “the West” and “westerners” are diametrically opposed to values held by those in “the East,” including Muslims. From this perspective of the myth, westerners are sophisticated, and Muslims are brutish; westerners are enlightened, Muslims are benighted; westerners are rational, Muslims are irrational; and so on. It is largely for this reason that Muslims are regularly portrayed in Western media as mindless automatons who worship the law and will do anything in its name while those in the West are portrayed as people who follow the ideals and spirit of the law rather than simply the letter of the law.

Muslim-majority countries have their own versions of this myth: Muslims are moral, westerners are immoral; Muslims are besieged, westerners are invaders; Muslims value community, westerners are individualistic. But, of course, there is no actual dichotomy between westerners and Muslims beyond the one that we create in our minds. Muslims live in the West, and many people whom we would call western are Muslim. There is no one individual who personifies “western values,” just as there is no one individual who personifies “Muslim values.” There are people living in the West who believe in theocracies, and there are religious Muslims who champion secularism. And we all interact with our laws in ways that are varied, complicated, and often irrational.

The reality is that all of us—Muslim or not—have nuanced and, at times, hypocritical relationships with law. We are somehow able to tout the law’s importance and flout it at the same time; we can follow the law in some ways and disobey it in others and still consider ourselves good citizens. The next time you catch yourself texting while driving, think of a Muslim scholar who enjoys an occasional drink, of which there are many, believe me. A complicated relationship with the law is a fact of life in all societies. Understanding that fiqh-minded Muslims, like everyone else, have varied relationships with the law is key to understanding how Islamic law functions in Muslim life.

This understanding will help us see that conversations about sharia and Islamic law are deeply human enterprises and not the exclusive purview of a select group of religious, disconnected, irrational actors. Conversations about sharia mirror conversations about any value that people hold dear, and we will see that there are many analogues to Islamic law in purportedly secular legal systems. We all have values that we believe in, and some of us try to express those values in legal language. Often those attempts are messy and inconsistent, requiring us to speak from within an existing legal framework in order to have authority. Similarly, sharia is a value that many Muslims hold dear, and fiqh-minded Muslims try to express that value in the language of Islamic law. When they do, they have to work within an existing legal framework if their expressions are to have authority, and it sometimes gets messy.

This book is designed, therefore, not only to introduce you to the internal language of Islamic law but also to immerse you in the ways in which Islamic law is used to express changing and competing conceptions of the sharia. We will learn about the basic requirements for engaging in legal debates and about how legal arguments must be presented in order to gain authority. We will learn how Muslim legal scholars have historically worked within an existing Islamic legal tradition to hack laws so that they reflect changing times, mores, and beliefs about the sharia while staying true to ancient, historical roots. We will look at instances in which hacks are accepted and in which they are rejected so that we can appreciate how social, political, and economic interests can determine a hack’s success or failure. Finally, once we understand how hacking worked in the past and how it works in the present, we will examine how laws can be hacked in the future.

None of this is possible, however, unless we are able to entertain complex notions about Muslims, sharia, and Islamic law. It will be tempting to equate sharia with Islamic law or to fall back on one of the myths discussed earlier. Doing so will return us to a polarized situation in which we can only speak about Islamic law instead of speaking within Islamic law. In other words, we will be able only to describe Islamic law; we will not be able to hack it. So, throughout this book, please keep in mind that sharia is a claim-space, that Islamic law is an attempt to capture the sharia in legal language, and that Muslims . . . well, Muslims are complicated people, just like everyone else. If you do, by the end of this book you will be able to hack Islamic law to express your own claims about the sharia and harness its power as a redemptive force in the world.