I’ve been thinking about this subject for the past few days.
If you’re not familiar with the subject, there is currently a movement afoot by legislators in the province of Ontario to allow for the application of Sharia law on certain cases that cover communities of the Islamic faith.
This is not a case of Sharia law overturning the Canadian judiciary system. That must be made clear. All cases brought to the Sharia court would be able to be appealed in the standard Ontarian and Canadian judicial system under the same rules that govern every citizen of the land.
And that, no doubt, is where the controversy comes into play.
Islamic law, Sharia, is by many accounts, not inclusive or liberal in its’ tenants. It’s treatment of women especially is not consistent with the norms that we expect in Canada as far as equality and respect.
However, I’ve read a few different excerpts here and there, and the one I linked above, to Wikipedia, is the one that makes the most sense to me.
Here is their section on “The Role of Women”
Islam does not prohibit women from working, but emphasizes the importance of caring for house and family for both parents. In theory, Islamic law allows each spouse to divorce at will, by saying “I divorce you” three times in public. In practice divorce is more involved than this and there may be separate state proceedings to follow as well. This practice is valid within most of the Muslim world today. Usually, the divorced wife keeps her dowry from when she was married, if there was one, and is given child support until the age of weaning, at which point the child may be returned to its father if it is deemed to be best.
In addition, women are generally not allowed to be clergy or religious scholars. Many interpretations of Islamic law hold that women may not have prominent jobs, and thus are forbidden from working in the government. This has been a mainstream view in many Muslim nations in the last century, despite the example of Muhammad’s wife Aisha, who both took part in politics and was a major authority on hadith. However, this is not the case in other more moderate Muslim nations. For example, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey and Bangladesh, all predominantly Muslim nations, have had female heads of government or state (e.g. Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Tansu Ciller and Khaleda Zia respectively). Muslim women also hold important positions in governments or in corporations.
A Muslim may not marry or remain married to an unbeliever of either sex (2:221, 60:10). A Muslim man may marry a woman of the People of the Book (5:5); traditionally, however, Islamic law forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man. If the man chooses to convert to Islam then marriage would be allowed.
Much of this law is not much different from Catholic and other rules set out by religious orders and which already have legitimate legal status in the province of Ontario and elsewhere. So so far, it is hard for me to say that those of the Islamic faith be disallowed the ability to practice their own law as long as it does not contravene the laws of the land.
Now we come to the truly controversial parts of Sharia:
“Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.” (Qur’an 4:34 English translation: MH Shakir)
The medieval jurist ash-Shafi’i, founder of one of the main schools of fiqh, commented on this verse that “hitting is permitted, but not hitting is preferable.”
Several Hadith urge strongly against beating one’s wife, such as: “How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her? (Al-Bukhari, English Translation, vol. 8, Hadith 68, pp. 42-43), “I went to the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) and asked him: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them. (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Number 2139)”.
And yet another interpretation:
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, says that:
“If the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion and reasoning with her. If this is not helpful, he should sleep apart from her, trying to awaken her agreeable feminine nature so that serenity may be restored, and she may respond to him in a harmonious fashion. If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts. In no case should he resort to using a stick or any other instrument that might cause pain and injury. Rather, this ‘beating’ should be of the kind the Prophet (peace be on him) once mentioned to a disobedient maid-servant, when he said ‘If it were not for the fear of retaliation on the Day of Resurrection, I would have beaten you with this miswak (tooth-cleaning twig)’ [as reported by Ibn Majah, by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih, and by Ibn Sa`d in his Tabaqat]. 
And finally, on “Honour Killings”… some important perspective which is absolutely relevant in Canada given our multicultural heritage.
“Honor killings” are, in the Western world, often erroneously identified as part of Islamic teaching, though they are in fact a cultural practice which is neither exclusive to, nor universal within, the Islamic world. Such killings take place within the Muslim communities around the Mediterranean as well as in the Punjab, India, non-Muslim parts of West Africa, and in Central America; while in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country, the status of the practice is unknown.
The stated reason for honor killings is the belief that the woman had caused the clan or family to lose honor by her alleged sexual activity and therefore deserved to be killed. Islamic teaching holds that life is given by Allah and should not be taken lightly, but it allows severe punishment, up to and including capital punishment, for certain kinds of crime; these include, in strict interpretations, all extramarital sexual relations (zina) by both men and women â€” though only married adulterers may be punished with death. The interpretation and application of these laws relating to marriage and chastity has varied in different eras and places.
So… after reading all that I am torn. What we do not know is what sort of interpretation of Sharia law will be implemented in these Islamic courts. No doubt some will be more strict than others… but can we simply dismiss their opportunity to practice their own law, as other cultures and religions in Canada have been given the right to do?
My understanding of the proposed legislation, and I admit I may be wrong, is that the Islamic law will not and cannot contravene the law of the land. And as such is open to appeal to every level of the Ontario and Canadian court. In that way, the rights and freedoms of all individuals no matter what their religious belief or sex should be respected and preserved..
My feeling is that it is our own prejudices and insecurities that are cropping up.
Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way. What if, by allowing this application of Sharia law in Ontario we actually begin a process of moderation, liberalisation, and modernization of the interpretation of the law? Would we perhaps miss an opportunity to help the more moderate voices of Islam gain ground?
Those are my thoughts… yours are more than welcome.