Somalia’s Struggle for God-Given Rights
The latest book by Professor Mark Fathi Massoud, in political and legal sciences, Shari’a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Policy, challenges Western notions of Islam and secular law-making by revealing the many ways in which Somali Muslims have embraced Sharia, a system of Islamic religious rules.
Western democracies tend to keep the separation of church and state carefully, but in many predominantly Muslim countries a majority of Muslims say they want to be governed by Sharia law. Massoud, a human rights lawyer, sought to understand why. So he took a closer look at Somalia, a country where 99% of the population are Sunni Muslims.
Somalia is perhaps best known for its struggles against piracy, terrorism, famine and civil war, but the region – which includes the self-proclaimed independent state of Somaliland – also provides an example of the diversity of ways in which the Sharia law has been interpreted and applied throughout history. European dictators and colonial administrators used Sharia law to justify their power, but Somalis also invoked the Quran, the holy book of Islam and a primary source of Sharia law, to resist oppressors, expel warlords , fight for gender equality and build a path towards the rule of law.
“People are reinterpreting, reaffirming and reclaiming the sources of Sharia – whether they want to oppress or they want to progress,” Massoud said. “My book is an antidote to those who see religion as an obstacle to peace.”
Shari’a, Inshallah documents these results through Massoud’s historical research and extensive fieldwork in East Africa. He also studied theology for a year in order to better understand the foundations of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish religions. Massoud was raised Catholic in California after his family fled a dictatorship in Sudan.
Internationally, Sharia is often described as a tool of oppression or violent extremism, but Massoud’s book includes many examples of Sharia as a force for liberation. Perhaps most striking is the work of modern Somali women’s rights activists.
Massoud spoke to many women who said that organizations like the United Nations communicate about women’s rights in a way that does not resonate with Somalis. Activists inside the country have found that one of the most effective ways to create meaningful change is through the prism of Sharia law. Rather than emphasizing legal rights under international law, Somali activists focus on teaching the compatibility of women’s equality with the principles of Islam. Massoud says this is an important lesson for the international community.
“There is a disconnect between the way international lawyers think about human rights and the way people for whom human rights are most important think about it,” said Massoud. “It’s not just what the law says. It is about how the will of God demands that political leaders protect the rights of women, minorities and refugees. To some people, God means more than a constitution. “
Shari’a, Inshallah also demonstrates the importance of religious moral authority by recounting how thefts in the oceans declined when religious leaders spoke out against piracy. Activists have also used Islam to establish environmental protections. Massoud said these and many other examples from the book demonstrate how in Somalia and Somaliland “the rule of law and the rule of God are not on a collision course; they could in fact be swinging in the same direction. And this relationship between law and religion has many parallels in American history.
“During much of the state-building process in the United States, judges saw Christianity as part of the common law, which gave legitimacy to the legal system,” Massoud said. “Religion is the invisible foundation of law, and religious systems can be interpreted in different ways, as can legal systems.”
Ultimately Shari’a, Inshallah ‘S ideas show how Sharia law, like any form of religion or law, can be used to support or combat systems of oppression. And international law experts will need to understand and recognize the role of Islam in supporting human rights efforts in Somalia and other Muslim-majority countries.
“As international lawyers and activists, we can promote the power of human rights not only by writing new laws, but also by understanding how people submit to the will of God,” Massoud said. “If we are to build peace, we must appreciate God whether we believe or not.”