What is Shari’a law? Is it the religious law of the Islamic faith that guides its followers to a life led by morals, or is it the barbaric rhetoric that leads to chopped off heads and the burning of a pilot? To make sense of this lost case of semantics, student organization IQRA invited Dr. Maurits Berger, a former journalist in Syria and Egypt and current Professor of Islam and the West at Leiden University, to enlighten students about Shari’a at the Erasmus Pavillion.

Standing before a curious audience from all backgrounds, Berger opened up with an analogy that began the demystification of Shari’a law. “The idea of Shari’a is much like the way one thinks of justice in the West. Everyone wants justice, but no one has a clue what it means. Same applies to Shari’a law in the modern age.”

After the Islamic Empire increased its boundaries exponentially in the 7th century, it needed a legal system that aligned with the Islamic religion. That led to the creation of Shari’a law, a set of rules derived from the Quran, the central text of Islam. The only issue is that the Quran says very little about laws, which has led to many wide-ranging interpretations of the text. “The Quran says you cannot drink khamr, date wine. A literalist may say ‘well, then we can have beer. We can have gin.’ Others will say that anything that leads to the intoxication of the mind is forbidden. Shari’a creates all kinds of possibilities for all kinds of things”, Berger explained.

One could imagine how the introduction of the modern nation state and democracy in the Middle East during the 20th century created another dense layer of obscurity to Shari’a law. In all majority-Muslim nations, with the exception of Turkey, Berger said, Shari’a plays a role in the creation of law.

'Tremendous degree of ambiguity'

The differences between nations, however, are immense. In Iran, which practices full-scale Shari’a law, women must wear the hijab, the traditional head scarf. In Egypt, women are free to choose. Some Muslim nations allow alcohol, others punish alcohol consumption by way of lashing. There lies such a tremendous degree of ambiguity within Shari’a law that it’s up to every Muslim to determine what it truly means.

And with this comes great danger, Berger noted during the lecture.“What we see nowadays is a lot of what I call informal Shari’a. People are living in accordance to the rules of Shari’a not because the state tells them to do it, not because there’s a law, but because they can just do it by their own terms. The box of Pandora has been opened.”

Terrorist organizations such as the Taliban or ISIS have taken advantage of this ambiguity to justify the horrific atrocities they commit. Shari’a law states you pay crime with a crime, so when ISIS burned a Russian fighter pilot, it was in their eyes, a fitting reciprocation.

On Tuesday night, Dr. Berger made it abundantly clear to the crowd on hand that fully understanding Shari’a is, unlike the media portrays, a complex matter. Almost as hard to understand as the name Islamic State, which in itself is a complete paradox. “I don’t know why ISIS calls itself an Islamic State. The notion of state is a 19th century invention. ISIS wants to return to the time when Shari’a ruled all Muslims. Its completely contradictory.”