In many Muslim-majority countries, voters say they favor Sharia as a source of civil law. It’s not always clear what this means. Does “Sharia” refer to classical fiqh or something else? Is “Sharia” meant to apply as law or serve as a background norm for judging the validity of other laws? In a new article, Designing Islamic Constitutions: Past Trends and Options for a Democratic Future, Clark Lombardi (University of Washington) explores the trend of enshrining Sharia in recent constitutions in Muslim-majority countries. Here’s the abstract:
In recent years a growing number of countries have adopted constitutional provisions requiring that state law respect Islamic law (sharia). Muslims today are deeply divided, however, about what types of state action are consistent with sharia. Thus, the impact of a “Sharia Guarantee Clause” depends to a large degree on questions of constitutional design — on who is given the power to interpret and apply the provision and on what procedures that they follow when making their decisions. This article explores the trends that gave rise to SGCs and provides a history of their incorporation into national constitutions. It then surveys a number of the remarkably varied schemes that countries have developed to interpret and enforce their SGC’s, and it considers the impact that different schemes have had on society. Building on this background, the article considers what type of SGC enforcement scheme, if any, are likely to permit (and ideally promote) a state to pursue democratic policies. As it notes, SGC’s are often found in authoritarian or imperfectly democratic constitutions. Unsurprisingly, the designers of SGC enforcement schemes in non-democratic countries have generally tried to ensure that their SGC will be interpreted and applied in a way that permitted or even promoted non-democratic policies. Nevertheless, we can draw from the experience of these countries some important lessons about the types of SGC enforcement scheme that will allow more democratic states to promote both democratic political participation and rights. At the same time, recent debates have erupted in Western liberal democracies about how best to reconcile rights enforcement with democracy. These debates clarify some issues that aspirational Islamic democracies will face as they try to develop SGC enforcement schemes for a democratic society, and they provide insight into the qualities that an institution must possess if it is to address such issues effectively. A number of Muslim countries are currently debating how best to square a constitutional commitment to respect Islam with parallel commitments to democracy and rights. Acknowledging that these countries will need to tailor their SGC enforcement schemes to very different local conditions, this paper describes some basic design features that effective democratic SGC enforcement schemes are likely to share.