Replacing Fear with Knowledge: A Closer Look at the Muslim Faith

By Melissa Schaaf

Erica Ferg

“The heritage of the West is what I call ‘Judeo-Christian-Islamic,’ in the sense that the West is religiously, historically, and technologically informed by all three religious traditions.”

That is one of the main ideas that Erica Ferg emphasized during her lecture on Islam in the U.S. for the University of Denver’s (DU) Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) lecture series. OLLI is an adult learning membership program designed for persons 50 and older.

Ferg is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the Iliff School of Theology and DU Joint Doctoral Program, specializing in Islamic studies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Her lecture focused on U.S. law and public policy regarding Islamic social customs and the body of Islamic legal traditions known collectively as the Sharia.

Although at 1.5 billion followers, Islam ranks second in the world in the number of religious adherents, less than two percent of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim.

Ferg noted that with such a minority, coupled with a lack of education among the wider U.S. public regarding Islamic practices and traditions, the unknown ignites fear and misunderstanding, creating unnecessary stereotypes. One of these fears is the penetration of Sharia Law into U.S. public policy.

“Sharia is the vast compendium of canonical Islamic law,” Ferg explained. “Sharia is the legal tradition which has come out of the Islamic religious revelation – a revelation which is itself based heavily upon the concepts of mercy and justice.”

Sharia, meaning the “path to righteousness,” comes from two distinct sources: the Quar’an and the Hadith. According to “What is Shari’a?” published by the Barnabas Fund, Sharia tries to describe in detail all possible human acts, dividing them into permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram). It subdivides them into various degrees of good or evil such as obligatory, recommended, neutral, objectionable or forbidden. It is a vast compilation of rules, regulating in detail all matters of devotional life, worship, ritual purity, marriage and inheritance, criminal offences, commerce and personal conduct.

Sharia Law has been adapted in several Muslim countries, meaning there can be no finite characterizations associated with it, according to Ferg.

“The idea that there might be anything characterizable as “The” Sharia position on any topic is false; no two countries implement Sharia in the same way,” she said. “Additionally, Sharia Law is not national in composition. There are 55 Muslim majority countries in the world. We’re talking about a vast range of interpretations, political systems and geographies. Furthermore, Sharia cannot be a country’s entire legal system – there are many instances in which countries have had to adopt civil law to fit the needs of modern society.”

Ferg explained that Sharia Law is feared by many who worry about these unfamiliar laws infiltrating the U.S. court system. This potential infiltration has been deemed the “Sharia Threat.” Ferg said that, in fact, this threat is nonexistent and that banning Sharia Law in the U.S. is “a solution in search of a problem.”

“The Sharia ‘threat’ is manufactured,” she commented. “Sharia is not a single thing, but a conglomeration of many different – and divergent – legal rulings throughout 1400 years of Islamic history. Sharia is highly specific, differentiated by sects, Hadith collections used, and legal schools, and not at all the same thing in all times and places. There is no consensus on what constitutes the ‘Sharia’ position on any single issue, which makes ‘Sharia’ – at base – not an exportable commodity.”

She also stated that our legal system is not threatened by Sharia in cases involving ‘Islamic’ details. In all of those cases, U.S. legal principles have been shown to be operative and unchallenged.

“Although the Sharia ‘threat’ is manufactured, it is effective because of deep-seated and misunderstood fears about the Muslim world,” she said. “This is dangerous because it demonizes an entire religious tradition that is actually a native part of the U.S. and it creates a sentiment that Muslims and Islam are incompatible with the U.S.”

In addition to detailing Sharia Law, Ferg explained how American culture and Muslim culture are historically tied together.

“The vast majority of immigration to the U.S. happened in the second half of the 20th century,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean Muslims weren’t here before then. Muslims are not a foreign part of U.S. history. They might be a small component, but they’re a native part.”

Not only is it important for people in the U.S. to understand Muslim history, but they must understand also the overlap of Islam with Christianity and Judaism, according to Ferg.

“Judaism, Christianity and Islam are inextricably linked to one another,” she said. “Textually, they can be considered highly related traditions. Islam is largely derived from a similar religious context as both Christianity and Judaism.”

She noted that there are several similarities in terms of beliefs, including God, Heaven and Hell, revealed scriptures, a concept of time that is linear versus cyclical, moralistic traditions, rules of living and attaining salvation, opportunities for atonement, and scriptures used in worship and revered at home. While she notes that similarity is not identity, Ferg argues that the similarities are still important.

Because of these similarities and historical ties, Ferg advocates for U.S. enlightenment about Muslim culture and replacing fears with knowledge of the connections between religions, cultures and traditions.

“In reality, (Western and Muslim) cultures are members of a shared culture we all inhabit,” she remarked. “We share many areas of religious overlap and our traditions interlink and yet we think of the “Islamic” world and the “Christian” world as so very different. There are links between these cultures that many are not aware of, and knowledge of which would help people to have a sense of how integrated these worlds really are.”