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Understanding Sharia Amid the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

Pakistani soldiers check the documents of stranded Afghan nationals wanting to return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman.
Paula Bronstein
Getty Images Europe
Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance.

The fall of Kabul and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been front-page news for weeks. Pundits and activists have been speculating about the fate of the nation under Taliban rule. And despite assurances from the Taliban that they’ve reformed their more extreme practices, their return to power also means the return of government-enforced Sharia law or at least the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia.

That interpretation is an essential part of this conversation, according to UW-Madison law professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes.

"They insist on the right to impose [Sharia] on others and that is fundamentally not a historically Muslim attitude of Muslim governments. There has historically been a lot more and acceptance of many, multiple interpretations of Islam under Muslim governments," says Quraishi-Landes.

For Muslims, Sharia law isn't traditionally something the government imposes; instead, it's a set of rules by which Muslims lead their lives. Sharia advises Muslims on marriage, food, owning property, dressing, and even relationships between colleagues.

Quraishi-Landes explains, "You have to think outside the box of our Western understandings of law. Even the phrase Sharia law kind of sounds weird to my ear because it implies law in the English sense of law, which is something the government does."

Quraishi-Landes says a common misconception is people believe Muslims think the state should impose Sharia law on other people. She believes this misunderstanding is a product of the modern era and not inherent to Islam. She says that contrary to their propaganda, terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Queda are not traditional Islamic governments.

"They're [ISIS and Al-Queda] really just using the rhetoric of Islam to try to convince their public that they are more legitimate than a secular colonizer or secular oppressor, dictator, authoritarian... But whatever claims they have to be more Islamic is basically, they're just lying to their people," Quraishi-Landes explains.

She says mass media misinterpretations of Sharia law significantly impacts Muslims. From her perspective, the American public seems to be fixated only on the violent version of Islam. She believes the ignorance is because people don't tend to know many Muslims in their personal lives.

She explains, "The African American Muslim population is a large, large percentage of the Muslim population in this country. And yet, you don't get a sense of that. Islam is considered something 'other', something connected to immigrants. But Muslims have been in this country since before there was a United States, many, many of the enslaved peoples were Muslim."

When asked about the general publics' knowledge of Sharia, Quraishi-Landes suggests that people should look at Sharia as a guide that Muslims use to live their lives, not a kind of "law" in the western sense of the word.

She says,"I often translate Sharia as a way of life. That's really how Muslims think about it. It's how we eat, how we dress, how we carry ourselves, how polite we are to our parents, the kinds of responsibilities we have to the earth, charity, these kinds of things."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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