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Steps toward better understanding

The first of four articles by Robin Wright [``Sense of persecution fuels Shiite resurgence,'' June 21] was on the whole excellent and timely. But on the map of Shia Islam, where are the more than 40 million predominantly Shia Muslims of the USSR? These are the sleeping giant of the Middle East power structure, but hardly mentioned in the US public media. On another note, my Shia friends are wry about the hasty equating in US media of ``Shia'' with ``terrorist,'' pointing out that the same ``Shia'' in Afghanistan are ``fearless freedom-fighters.'' Thomas B. Stauffer Berkeley, Calif.

The story ``As Islamic fundamentalism rises in Egypt, government feels heat,'' June 14, was an accurate summary of the reasons many young Egyptians choose Islam as an ideology to make sense of the world. However, there are some misleading statements. Sharia was not set down in the Qur'an. It is a system law derived from both the Qur'an and the Sunnah. There are four main schools of Sharia codification and interpretations. The confusion may have arisen with the word ``Shariah,'' meaning the ``Path'' or ``way,'' and is usually taken to include the Qur'an and the Sunna. ``Shariah'' in the strict sense means the ``way'' that all Muslims are supposed to follow.

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Regarding the sentence ``[The Qur'an] prescribes codes of behavior in all walks of life,'' the Qur'an can be interpreted to mean all the restrictive things you list in the article; but it is fairly ambiguous. For instance, there is no prohibition on interest but on usury; similarly, there is nothing that says women must wear head coverings. The Qur'an simply says: ``Tell the believing women to gather their garments around them.'' In traditionally male-dominated societies, this was interpreted to mean veiling. This one example of customs predating Islam becoming part of what Muslims believe Islam is all about. And it is not correct to imply that only in a liberal interpretation of Shariah law are thiefs not to be punished because they are forced by society's imperfections to steal. The view that thieves are only to be punished if they are fully responsible for their acts is shared by both modernizing and traditionalist Muslims.

What the Islamic activists seek to reimpose in Egypt is not so much Shariah law as their interpretation of Shariah law. The Qur'an and the Hadith are very ambiguous documents. In no sense are liberal interpretations somehow stretching the intent of the law, as the article implied. Shariah law is not conservative law by definition; it is its interpretations, reflecting other biases, which can be either conservative, literalist, or modernist.

Islam is so badly reported that just getting the facts right is a giant step toward a better understanding of what's really going on in Muslim societies. Julian Crandall Hollick Executive Producer, NPR's ``The World of Islam'' Concord, Mass.

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