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How Shariah Works and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country

A Q&A with Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Sumbul Ali-Karamali_Demystifying Shariah
Author photo: Evan Winslow Smith

Shariah is a topic that gets bandied about in public and in the news with all the bluster and stereotypes and zero substance. In Demystifying Shariah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country, author Sumbul Ali-Karamali draws on scholarship and her degree in Islamic law to explain how shariah operates in the lives of Muslims and what it means in terms of law. She describes the anti-shariah movement’s deliberate misinformation campaign as an appropriation of Islamic academic terms redefined to frighten non-Muslims, alienate Muslim Americans and Europeans, and portray the religion as incompatible with the Constitution. The book is an introduction to the principles, goals, and general developments of shariah—and the relevance of these topics today. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Ali-Karamali to chat with her about it.

Christian Coleman: Your first book on Islam is The Muslim Next Door. What was the difference between writing that book and writing this one?

Sumbul Ali-Karamali: Well, both books were born of my lifelong habit of answering questions about Islam. I grew up Muslim and bicultural (Indian and American) in a time and place where I happened to be the only Muslim most of my acquaintances knew. So I got saddled with answering all their questions! Not only did I become good at answering questions about Islam in a way that those around me could understand and relate to (starting in elementary school!), but I also found I really loved coming up with answers that built bridges between my religious-cultural community and theirs. The questions I got were never addressed in the media and still aren’t. So The Muslim Next Door was a book aimed at answering the kinds of questions that had been asked of me all my life. Demystifying Shariah is a little different because I was never asked about shariah until 2010, when it first came onto the scene in American public discourse; when “shariah” or “sharia law” did become generally known, its definition was so distorted and full of fearful tall tales that I knew I had to write about what shariah truly meant.

CC: In Demystifying Shariah, you write about people coming up to you and saying they’re afraid of “shariah law” taking over the country. How did the term “shariah law,” which has monstrous meanings in the West, become so prevalent in US media?

SAK: Yes! I was stunned when fellow (but quite a bit older) alumni at one of my Stanford reunions saw me standing by a pile of my books at the bookstore, ready to autograph them, before approaching me to say that they were afraid shariah was taking over the United States. “Shariah” is an Islamic term of art, with defined meanings, but in 2010, the well-documented but loosely connected Islamophobia network in this country took the term and redefined it as a “scare word.” This was a deliberate move to spread fear of Islam and Muslims. Individuals in this network urged state legislators to pass “anti-shariah” laws, even though our Constitution prohibits any religious law from taking over our country. They accomplished their purpose, though, which was to bring shariah into the public discourse. As a result, hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked in 2010.

CC: What are one or two of the current lies and misunderstandings of shariah that you see in today’s discourse?

SAK: That it’s a rigid set of archaic, black-and-white laws! Shariah is not “law” the way we think of law—rigid and enforceable. Shariah is religious guidelines, usually containing more than one answer to a particular question, mostly concerning personal conduct, and largely not enforceable. We usually think of punishments when we think of shariah, but only about two percent of shariah concerns punishments, and—contrary to popular wisdom—most of those punishments are so legally restricted by shariah that they are nearly impossible to apply. Of course, there are countries in the world that apply these punishments anyway (such as Saudi Arabia), but that does not mean they are complying with shariah requirements.

CC: I love the Star Trek references in the book and how you weave them into your explanations and examples. What made you a fan of the show?

SAK: Star Trek showed us what humankind could be! Gene Roddenberry, who created it, wanted to create a show that addressed issues of social injustice, but because he feared the obstacle of 1960s television censors, he set it in a science fiction context. Despite only three seasons, the show became iconic for its espousal of universal values and fairness and justice. I always loved the show, but wasn’t a super-Trekkie—never attended conventions or anything—so I was utterly surprised when, during the writing of my first book, I found that episodes of Star Trek kept popping into my head as examples and similes in my explanations. It makes sense, though: my books are about universal values (in the Islamic context) and shared humanity—and so is Star Trek.

CC: At turns, humorous, ironic, and compassionate, the tone of your books is also hopeful, which I think is sorely needed as we head into another fraught election season. Why was it important for you to end with a note of optimism?

SAK: Our world is getting smaller, and we all have to learn to live with one another. That means achieving at least a rudimentary understanding of each other and dispelling xenophobic views and stereotypes of anyone who is different from us. It might be human nature to indulge in these stereotypes, but then we must fight human nature! We can achieve the goals that Captain Kirk (my first crush) and Captain Picard fought for—peace, intercultural understanding, and the recognition that aliens were not to be feared but worthy of friendship. Muslims are worthy of friendship, too. It just takes a little intercultural understanding.

CC: And one last question. After becoming a corporate lawyer, you earned an additional degree in Islamic law, and you’re a popular speaker on topics related to Muslims and Islam. How did you get interested in law.

SAK: I’m the child of Indian immigrants and, contrary to what so many people believe, my parents’ overpowering ambition for me as a Muslim girl was—wait for it—financial independence. They put great pressure on me to achieve this goal by attending medical school, but because I’m probably the most squeamish person on the planet, and because I’ve always loved writing, I applied instead to law school (thus gravely disappointing my parents). During and after law school, and especially while practicing corporate law, I continued to field questions about Islam and Muslims; but my friends also started asking me for book recommendations on Islam as well. Since there were no fun ones out there, I decided to write one myself. That’s why, when my husband’s job took us to London, I earned a degree in Islamic law at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. It was the first time in my life that I’d studied something just for fun, and I was fascinated. I’m not a cleric but an academic, and I’ve found a calling synthesizing academic material into a relatable, engaging format for the general audience. It can be challenging, educating people about Islam in today’s climate, but it’s more often rewarding to know that I’m bringing people together.


About Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Sumbul Ali-Karamali is a Muslim American who grew up in California, answering questions on Islam ever since she can remember. After becoming a corporate lawyer, she earned an additional degree in Islamic law. She specializes in synthesizing academic material for general audiences and is the author of The Muslim Next Door and Growing Up Muslim. A popular speaker on topics related to Islam and Muslims, she hopes to promote intercultural understanding with her work, at least when she’s not watching Star Trek reruns, listening to opera, or (reluctantly) white-water rafting with her husband. Connect with Sumbul on her website: