A recent article in The Globe and Mail bears the headline “Saudi court sentences man to death for renouncing Muslim faith.” Though the ruling is interesting in itself, the article touches on it only briefly before using it as a stepping stone to a broader outline of the Saudi justice system, and the issues that it has raised in international relations with Saudi Arabia. It compares this conviction with that of Raif Badawi last year – a case which as been much in the Canadian media of late, in large part due to the efforts of his family, who fled Saudi Arabia a few years ago, and now live in Quebec.
These incidents are explained in the article as being part of “the Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia Islamic law” – a religious legal system, based, according to its proponents, on the Koran, and the words and actions of the prophet Mohammed. Saudi Arabia claims that as an Islamic nation, the authority of their government, including the justice system, must flow from “the Book of God and the Sunna of the Prophet.” This is hardly a new idea: Islam, from it’s inception, was intended to be a national religion, fully integrated with government, and Sharia is intended to function as a national legal system.
But human rights groups claim that the law as it’s applied in Saudi Arabia is “arbitrary,” and violates defendants’ rights, a claim that makes a certain amount of sense given the variety of interpretations of Sharia within Islam. Other countries, Canada included, are under pressure to intervene in Saudi court cases, which are seen by many as unnecessarily, and sometimes irrationally, harsh. Cases like this become arguments against Islam, undermining respect for the religion they purport to protect.
I can understand the impulse to defend a legal system that one believes is mandated by God, despite the negative press associated with it. But it seems to me that even for a sincere believer, describing Sharia Islamic law, in any of its current forms, as unambiguously divine, is a bit of a stretch. The Quran is a book of poetry, not a plain legal document, and interpretations have varied widely through the centuries: Contrast the recent beheadings of Christians by the “Islamic state”, with the relatively high degree of tolerance afforded to Christians and Jews in early Islamic empires. Even the most serious and respected scholars are still human, and working at an ever increasing distance from the source. Most legal systems acknowledge that laws are created as much in the interpretation as in the writing. Why not acknowledge that the law is already being shaped by human beings, and choose to shape it in a direction that won’t bring one’s beliefs into disrepute?