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Why Shari’a? Why Now?

Background & History

Shari’a (typically translated as ‘Islamic law’) is alive but feared. Recent legislative and constitutional proposals from Oklahoma to Australia have attempted to ban or curtail shari’a.

Anti-Islam populism in Europe — spreading from Austria to France, the UK, Holland, and Norway — has contributed to vitriolic attacks on shari’a. American news media and social understandings of Islam largely have been consumed by these narrow and reductionist views of shari’a.

In California, anti-mosque rally organizers recently brought dozens of dogs (ritually unclean animals) to a Muslim prayer center in Temecula, declaring that California’s Muslims “are trained to kill” and will “impose shari’a” on a “Christian” state.

But like any legal or normative system, shari’a accommodates multiple and often-competing narratives and interpretations.

As a complex set of personal beliefs, community approaches, and legal principles, shari’a runs much deeper than statist conceptions of law in the global West.

This rich pluralism in Islamic law and religion is typically ignored in the polarized debates surrounding anti-shari’a proposals and activities.

Muslims in the US are living in a critical condition.

These exceptional circumstances stem from a fear of religion that has led to an intensified image of religious persons — especially Muslims — as irrational, exclusive, anti-modern, and prone to violence. Open hostility to the tenets of Islam has undoubtedly affected the experience of living in the United States, including by altering self-perceptions and understandings of the construction and influence of Islamic knowledge. These effects are revealed in the everyday practices of Muslims and the discourses of shari’a appearing in public and private spaces among Muslim interlocutors and other social actors.

The Team

Mark Fathi Massoud

Principal Investigator, UC Santa Cruz

Mark Fathi Massoud is Professor of Politics and Director of Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford Faculty of Law. His book, Shari’a, Inshallah (Cambridge University Press, 2021) investigates the endurance of religion in the rule of law. It garnered seven awards, including from the American Political Science Association, American Sociological Association, International Studies Association, and Socio-Legal Studies Association. His book, Law’s Fragile State (Cambridge University Press, 2013) examines how colonial officials, authoritarian regimes, and international lawyers use the rule of law to achieve their goals. It earned awards from the American Political Science Association and the Law and Society Association. He is co-editor of Out of Place: Fieldwork and Positionality in Law and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2024). Born in Sudan and raised in California, Massoud is a first-generation university graduate. He has received Guggenheim, Carnegie, Mellon, and ACLS fellowships, and he has held visiting positions at Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Oxford, and the American Academy in Berlin.

Kathleen M. Moore

Principal Investigator, UC Santa Barbara

Kathleen M. Moore is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Legal Humanities Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Moore teaches religious liberty, Islam in America, and Muslim diasporas and the law. Her publications appear in The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, The Cambridge Companion to American Islam and The Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West. Her books include The Unfamiliar Abode: Islamic Law in the United States and Britain (Oxford University Press, 2010), Muslim Women in America: Challenges facing Islamic Identity Today (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Al-Mughtaribun: American Law and the Transformation of Muslim Life in America (SUNY Press, 1995).

Shahab Malik

Graduate Research Fellow, UC Riverside

Shahab Malik received a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Riverside.  His research concerns the complex ways shari’a is renegotiated among American Imams trained at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Shahab has traveled between Cairo and California researching the educational training of Imams in the context of culture, politics, economics and its effects on Islamic practice. Shahab received the UC Riverside Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship and Distinguished Service Award.

Maria Ebrahimji

Media Advisor

Maria Ebrahimji is a journalist, speaker, and independent consultant. As a former executive at CNN, she led teams for CNN’s special events, breaking news, and multi-platform programming. Maria has also produced live events. She is the co-editor of I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. She co-founded I Speak for Myself, Inc. (ISFM), a publisher of books on faith and culture. Maria serves on the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Press Club and Community Guilds and as an advisor to Girls Incorporated of Greater Atlanta, Tau Chapter of Alpha Chi Omega, and the National Center for Civil & Human Rights. She is a member of the World Affairs Council, the Georgia Diversity Council, and the Asian American Journalists Association.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Collaborating International Scholar

Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a legal anthropologist, specializing in Islamic law, gender, and development. She holds a BA in Sociology from Tehran University (1974) and a PhD in Social Anthropology from University of Cambridge (1980). She is Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Law, University of London. She has held numerous research fellowships and visiting professorships, including a Fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2004-5), and Hauser Global Law Visiting Professor at New York University (2002-8). Dr. Mir-Hosseini is a founding member of Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.

Our Research Question

Building upon interdisciplinary, critical, and humanities-oriented work in law and society, this project investigates, broadly, how Americans navigate religious law in the context of an ostensibly secular state.

How do American Muslims live and experience Islamic law?

A preoccupation with one type of “fundamentalist” or “political” Islam especially in the news media and in social-science scholarship has overshadowed more humanistic work on progressive or emancipatory possibilities that can be envisaged using religious principles. Scholars studying Islamic law in particular have focused on illuminating specific institutions, such as courts, and doctrines, such as finance, and how religious values are expressed in fiqh, or jurisprudence. Other scholars have documented great flexibility in Islamic legal theory (both shari’a and fiqh) particularly in the interpretations of Islamic jurists and legal historians. More recently, scholar-activists have attempted to combine Islamic and human rights frameworks to lay the basis for an egalitarian Muslim legal system.

Although this research on Islamic law is wide-ranging, few scholars have explored the diverse ways that everyday people interpret and experience these legal prescriptions in diaspora, in lower profile forms of activism in which ordinary people engage with public issues of contestation, particularly in the United States. Thus, a gap exists for both scholars and journalists to uncover the lived experience of shari’a in the daily experiences of American Muslims who try to organize their lives around their understandings of the teachings of Islam, and how those teachings are being grasped locally, particularly in relation to transnational forms. This project aims to fill that gap by building knowledge of grassroots and diasporic formulations of Islamic law.

The Process

The design of this project is qualitative, interpretative, and interactive.

We envision our team as an interdisicplinary intellectual “studio” working collaboratively toward the common creative goal of illuminating the stories of shari’a in America. Shari’a Revoiced documents how Muslim activists, professionals, feminists, lawyers, students, social workers and other cultural brokers produce local forms of Islamic knowledge.

Our project design is based on primary research. It does not set out to adopt or promote any view or interpretation of Islam, religion, or law. Rather, we uncover the diverse range of contemporary stories of shari’a from the lived experiences of Muslims in California.

Findings will be disseminated through three public translations:

Together, these components of Shari’a Revoiced reveal the complex contemporary functions and lived experiences of Islamic law in the United States.