What Is the Draw of Sharia Law?

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Though it is often described as strict and harsh, many Muslims all over the world are choosing Sharia law. Why? Their motivations may surprise you.


Reports out of many Muslim-majority countries tell of harsh penalties imposed on those who violate Sharia law, which is a body of religious law that is often incorporated into the civil law of Muslim societies. The severity of the punishment varies widely from country to country, but in some nations, it can include flogging, stoning, or the cutting off of a hand. Even the milder punishments for criminal activity often appear strict to Western observers. And depending on the country, Sharia family law may allow the arranged marriage of female children and severely limit the rights of women.

Are such laws being forced on these societies against the will of the people, or do the people willingly approve of these measures? It may be difficult for someone in a Western liberal democracy to imagine, but many in Muslim societies strongly support the Sharia legal system. The prestigious Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life did a comprehensive study that demonstrates the high percentages of people in various Muslim countries who favor making Sharia official law in their nations. This study involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in more than 80 languages, with Muslims across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Even in Western democracies, Muslim enclaves sometimes want to exercise Sharia law within their Islamic communities.

The Pew Research Center report states, “Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law [Sharia] to be the official law of the land.” It should be noted that many supporters of Sharia say that it should apply only to their country’s Muslim population.

The percentage of Muslims who say they want Sharia to be “the official law of the land” varies widely around the world, from near unanimity in Afghanistan (99%) to fewer than one-in-ten in Azerbaijan (8%). But solid majorities in most of the countries surveyed across the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia favor the establishment of Sharia, including 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt and 89% in the Palestinian territories. However, the study also noted that in most countries surveyed, there is considerably less support for severe punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves or executing people who convert from Islam to another faith (The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, p. 9, April 30, 2013).

While this survey shows that many Muslims favor democratic government over authoritarian government, it also shows that they favor a democratic society governed by Sharia law.

In the West, people ask “Why Sharia?” Why would so many Muslim nations overwhelmingly favor the Sharia legal system as the law of their land? Many in Islam are shouting back the answer to that question, but the West seems not to want to hear it.

Sayyid Qutb, Jahiliyyah, and Moral Chaos

Most people in the West have never heard of the Egyptian intellectual named Sayyid Qutb (phonetically, say-id ku-teb), but he is widely regarded as the father of modern radical Islam. He was an early and highly influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1966 was executed in Egypt for plotting against the Egyptian government. Qutb was also a prolific writer, and advocated violent jihad to establish an Islamic state. For several years, he studied and traveled in the United States, and was disgusted by what he viewed as its moral laxity and materialism. The experience influenced his later writings, which were very critical of the West. For Qutb, Sharia law was not only essential for the worship of Allah, but was also a powerful force that opposed and resisted the West’s moral permissiveness.

Qutb and others used the term jahiliyyah (jah-he-lee-ah) in reference to the moral chaos and depravity of the pagan world as it existed before the advent of Islam and Islamic law in the 7th century AD. Qutb and other Islamic thinkers also maintained that jahiliyyah has reappeared in the moral chaos of Western secular society as a result of a lack of Sharia law. They believed that only through Sharia law could Muslims combat the moral chaos of Western secularism. Qutb’s writings greatly influenced the development of radical Islamist views in modern times.

Sayyid Qutb himself acquired these ideas from an earlier Muslim intellectual, Abu’l-Hassan ‘Ali Nadwi. An academic text describes his influence on Qutb:

Nadwi’s term of choice for servitude to false gods and for the moral depravity and chaos that necessarily results from it is jahiliyyah… Nadwi applies this term much more broadly in referring to pre-Islamic cultures and civilizations in general. He uses it for modern, western cultures, which he sees as pervaded by materialism, godless ideologies, and sexual promiscuity. More strikingly, he deems the latter-day Muslims to have themselves relapsed into a new jahiliyyah, which is reprehensible not only for the moral chaos it entails but also because it signifies a virtual renunciation of Islam itself (Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, p. 108, emphasis added).

Rapidly Changing Morals

While Western secular society has retained its democratic political tradition, it has lost its moral foundation. It now builds its morality upon the shifting sands of human reasoning, rather than upon the absolutes of the Judeo-Christian ethic that helped shape Western views of right and wrong in earlier times. So anything goes. The Muslim world looks at modern Western culture and sees voyeuristic violence in its movies, the virtual abandonment of sexual boundaries, graphic depictions of sexuality in pornography and even in mainstream entertainment, gender confusion and chaos, and ridicule of traditional family structures. The morality that once governed Western public life has been marginalized and even reviled. Christophobia—the fear or loathing of Christian belief or influence—is openly expressed by public officials and academics, and orthodox Christianity is now mocked in blatant public displays of secular bigotry. These actions are met with no public disapprobation whatsoever. Whether one agrees with these changes or not, it is difficult to deny their speed and breadth.

Divine law is God’s revelation of right and wrong, and the Bible cautions, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). In abandoning its biblical moral heritage in favor of an “anything goes” secular morality, Western society has “cast off all restraint.”

And the Muslim world has been watching.

Many in the West now consider morality to be nothing more than a “social construct.” Secularists insist that “you can’t legislate morality,” but in one way or another, civil laws reflect society’s view of right and wrong. For instance, if we think that it is wrong to rob banks, we pass a law against it. So, in an important sense, all laws legislate a morality. It is not a question of whether we can legislate morality, but rather, it is a question of whose morality we are going to legislate. The attempt to answer that question is called “the culture war,” and Judeo-Christian morality in the West is rapidly losing ground. The Muslim world watches and fears that Islam is next—just as Qutb said would be the case. And to Islam, the moral chaos—the jahiliyyah—of the West today is much worse than it was when Qutb wrote in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Pew Research Center report states,

Even though many Muslims enjoy Western pop culture, a clear majority of Muslims in most countries surveyed think that Western entertainment harms morality in their country. And it is not only Muslims who personally dislike Western music, movies and television who feel this way. In four of the six regions, medians of at least half of those who say they enjoy this type of entertainment also say Western cultural imports undermine morality: sub-Saharan Africa (65%), South Asia (59%), Southeast Asia (51%) and the Middle East-North Africa region (51%)” (The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, p. 9, April 30, 2013).

So, why are many choosing Sharia? One major reason is that it provides a societal defense against Western secularism’s moral chaos. The Islamic world is shouting this answer to the West, but the Western world does not hear! It has no interest in changing its course or acknowledging its moral failings. Many Western policymakers have the conceit that the solution to Islamist radicalism is instilling their own secular values in Muslim societies. But trying to cure Islamic radicalism in Muslim societies by promoting Western secular values is like pouring gasoline on a fire. The perceived moral chaos that results from those values—Sayyid Qutb’s modern jahiliyyah—is what Muslims are fleeing. And they are fleeing to Sharia.

Western Secular Imperialism?

The Western world looks at Islamist terrorism and jihad and sees Islamic imperialism. Islam looks at the spread of Western moral values and sees Western secular imperialism—not coming in the hard power of military or political dominance, but in the soft power of media dominance driving cultural change. Emmanual Sivan, a historian and expert on Islam, notes that electronic media has been passionately condemned in the Muslim world due to its invasive nature. He writes that Muslims detect “the Western poison” of immorality infiltrating their popular songs, communicating “ideas diametrically opposed to Arab and Islamic concepts, encouraging loose morality and immediate satisfaction, placing love and life and its pleasures over everything else, totally oblivious of religious belief, and of punishment and reward in the hereafter” (Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, pp. 3–4).

Christendom’s Parallel Concerns

Similar forces are at work in the world of professing Christianity. Some in Christendom have sought to accommodate the rapidly changing moral landscape of Western society and have compromised ancient Judeo-Christian principles in the process. But others are resisting the secular forces, and are holding on to their faith’s immutable principles.

Will coercive secular social engineering drive professing Christians to seek religious refuge, as secular imperialism has done to Muslims? Trends in education hold some important indicators.

Sayyid Qutb on Sharia and Islam

While a rejection of Western moral values is a major reason for many everyday Muslims to embrace Sharia, the theological reasoning of radical Islamists is very dogmatic. In his influential book Milestones, first published in Arabic in 1964, Sayyid Qutb wrote, “No doubt the Shari’ah is best since it comes from God [Allah]; the laws of His creatures can hardly be compared to the laws given by the Creator. But this point is not the basis of the Islamic call. The basis of the message is that one should accept the Shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws in any shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam” (Qutb, Milestones, p. 36).


“The Prophet—peace be on him—clearly stated that, according to the Shari’ah, ‘to obey’ is ‘to worship’… This explanation… by the Prophet… makes it clear that obedience to [non-Islamic] laws and judgments is a sort of worship, and anyone who does this is considered out of this [Muslim] religion” (p. 60).


“It is in the very nature of Islam to take the initiative for freeing the human beings throughout the earth from servitude to anyone other than God [Allah]; and so it cannot be restricted within any geographic or racial limits, leaving all mankind on the whole in evil, in chaos and in servitude to lords other than God [Allah]” (p. 73).

Because there is a perceived hostility to faith in public education and popular culture, charter schools are flourishing in the United States, and homeschooling is a growing phenomenon. A 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 1,770,000 children in the U.S. are homeschooled—up from 850,000 in 1999. And homeschooling is rapidly growing among minorities. In a survey, 77 percent of parents said that moral instruction was a major factor in their decision to homeschool.

Concerning charter schools, The Wall Street Journal reported, “During the 2014–2015 school year, 500 new public charter schools opened nationwide, for a total of more than 6,700 enrolling about 2.9 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools” (“Charter-School Movement Grows—for Real-Estate Investors,” WSJ.com, October 13, 2015.) This is not necessarily a “mass exodus” from the public school system, but it does indicate that a growing number of parents are deeply concerned about the public school environment—and perhaps about society as a whole—and they are being moved to take action. Enrollments in religious and secular private schools are swelling as parents “vote with their feet.”

Some think that this concern of modern parents follows an ancient precedent. In the 6th century AD, an educated Italian man, Benedict of Nursia, became disgusted with the moral decadence of Rome in his day. As a result, he founded a monastery and a movement that helped preserve particular virtues of Christendom through the chaos of the Dark Ages. In the New York Times bestseller The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, author Rod Dreher describes a post-Christian world in which morality and values long associated with Christianity are assailed and marginalized, and those who subscribe to such values are driven to retreat into safe communities in which traditional virtues can be preserved. He and others see a world that is entering a second, spiritual Dark Ages. Dreher’s solutions include a reassimilation of Evangelical Christianity into the liturgy and traditional education of the Orthodox and Catholic churches—in subtext, a plain call by the “mother church” to its daughter denominations. In The New York Times, David Brooks dubbed Dreher’s work “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Many professing Christians are considering survival strategies for their faith and values, and the “Benedict Option” is becoming a movement.

Alasdair MacIntyre is a prominent Scottish moral philosopher and academic whose writings were very influential in introducing the ideas that Dreher developed in The Benedict Option. Here is an excerpt from MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, which expresses this view:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting… for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (p. 263, emphasis added).

Muslims look at the Western world and see moral chaos. More and more, professing Christians in the West are coming to a similar view. Tomorrow’s World is not advocating the solutions proposed in The Benedict Option, and certainly is not advocating Sharia law. However, it is worth noting that the sweeping moral changes in Western societies are stirring both Western religious communities and Muslim religious communities to consider radical alternatives. Jesus Christ said “Watch” (Luke 21:36), and these massive cultural developments bear watching!

Even in the West, Muslims have formed communities in which they have implemented some aspects of Sharia law, to varying degrees of acceptance or disapproval by local and national authorities. They find the moral virtues of their faith to be under attack from the perceived moral chaos of secular culture, just as many in modern Christendom do. Many, zealous to protect their values against secular erosion, are seeking and finding their own strongholds.

Dynamic Forces in Play

Alasdair MacIntyre mentioned “waiting… for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” How might this “very different Benedict” appear?

In Islam, the pressure of Western secular culture is influencing many to return to Sharia—and moving some to embrace radical forms of Islam. Many who profess Christ are looking for their own response, and the spiritual winds that are blowing through Islam can blow through Christendom as well. More than fifteen years ago, Pope John Paul II asserted that Christianity defines the very idea of Europe. Will the challenge of Islam or an out-of-control secular morality force a reassertion of that “Christian” identity in Europe, led by a very charismatic religious figure? Such a person could be in the wings and preparing to walk onto the world stage. Biblical prophecies foresee such events, and many in Islam await their own singular individual as well.

Through international media, a fluid and evolving Western secular morality is challenging cultural values around the world. Muslims are gravitating toward Sharia law, not only for conservative doctrinal reasons, but as a great protector of their moral values, and many in what is considered orthodox Christianity are also seeking a refuge for the values of their faith. The moral systems of Islam, Christendom, and Western secularism are three great forces on a collision course!

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