What is sharia law? And how is the Taliban using it in Afghanistan?
- Sharia “is defined very clearly by the Quran,” but interpretations have drastically differed.
- The Islamic religious law can apply to the criminal laws of a country, laws on marriage and more.
- “Sharia means literally ‘the path.’”
Days after taking over Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, the Taliban claimed it is dedicated to rights for women under Islamic religious law, or sharia law.
In a Tuesday news conference, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that the group is "committed to the rights of women under the system ofsharia (Islamic) law," but he noted that women would study and work "within our frameworks."
"They are going to be working shoulder to shoulder with us. We would like to assure the international community that there will be no discrimination," he said.
But the Taliban’s regime prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was especially violent toward women. Women seen in public without a male relative could be abducted and forced into marriage, and women who were sexually assaulted could be executed.
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Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior Taliban commander, also told Reuters this week that “there will be no Democratic system” in Afghanistan, saying instead, “It is sharia law, and that is it.”
Here’s what you need to know about sharia law, its interpretations and the Taliban’s view on Islamic religious principles.
What is sharia law?
Sharia is the set of laws and precepts that govern the daily lives of Muslim people. It is based on a combination of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and teachings from the prophet Muhammad.
Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, explained to USA TODAY that “sharia law, or the word sharia, has, in the context of contemporary culture, become highly controversial and distorted in its understanding.
“Sharia means literally ‘the path,’” Ahmed said. “All systems and religions have a way to a better, happier, more prosperous and a more pious life.”
Are there multiple interpretations of sharia?
Yes. Ahmed explained to USA TODAY that sharia “is defined very clearly by the Quran,” but interpretation of the text from scholars, governments and cultures have drastically differed.
“You have over the centuries, very established Islamic scholars, some with one bent, some with another,” Ahmed said. “For example, the Shia Muslim scholars may have a slightly different interpretation of the same thing. Scholars in Indonesia, further to the east, may have a slightly different interpretation.
“All these are adjusted in the context of the culture,” he said.
William Granara, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, told USA TODAY that "to think that there's one sharia is really problematic."
"In the hands of the Taliban, obviously it's very different from the way that, you know, Moroccans or Indonesians may read or apply sharia," Granara said.
What does sharia law say about women’s rights?
Ahmed pointed to women's rights as a key indicator of how widely interpretations of sharia law can differ.
Mainstream Muslims have embraced women’s rights and public roles for women throughout history, and Ahmed explained, “Women and men are divided very much equally in the Quran.”
But under the Taliban’s extremist interpretation of sharia law, women receive “virtually no rights.”
“Women don't get any inheritance,” Ahmed said. “Very often they're treated with indifference or even cruelty. Sometimes they’re killed in honor killings.”
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However, Ahmed noted that "mainstream Islam is literally saying these people don't represent us."
How will women be treated in Afghanistan now?
Experts say it's not completely clear yet.
Ahmed pointed to the Taliban's violent, and even deadly, treatment of women when they ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. But he also referenced the group's recent statements that they will uphold women's rights under Islamic law.
"I've been following the statements on women, and on the surface, they're very encouraging," Ahmed said.
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"No one really believes them," he added. "I'm also hearing the reaction of women in Afghanistan. Women are very cynical, and they're dismissing this and saying it’s just a PR stunt. The proof will be in the eating of the pudding, whether, in fact, they do mean it."
In May, then-Afghan leaders blamed the Taliban for a bombing at a girl's school in Kabul that killed dozens. The Taliban denied responsibility.
"The Taliban obviously doesn’t have a record of keeping their promises or protecting rights of women and other people as well," Granara said. "I don't have a lot of faith that they're going to do it."