Reform of Islamic Codes Comes from Within

Reform of Islamic Codes Comes from Within

Photo courtesy of Boston College

Intisar Rabb of Boston College says that the international human rights movement won't be the force that moderates harsh judicial sentences under Sharia law.

Women facing death by stoning for adultery and petty thieves having hands chopped off generate headlines. Western human rights groups react vigorously to such events, trying to focus world attention on the harsh punishments meted out under Sharia law as variously interpreted by jurists in Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Islamic countries.

But is this kind of outside pressure an impetus to reform? Speaking before a UCLA School of Law audience on Wednesday, Oct. 13, Intisar Rabb, a Boston College law professor, answered that intervention by international human rights organizations has far less power to moderate punishments than internal debate among "jurists who are authorized interpreters of Islamic law."

Insiders who argue for reform do so on grounds that don't challenge the whole system, holding that "the laws that have been enacted violate the Islamic tradition or spirit," explained Rabb.

In Iran, for example, the head of the judiciary called for a moratorium on death by stoning for adultery. 

“The jurists have proposed reforms to Iranian criminal code to improve possibilities for rehabilitation and to increase fairness,” said Rabb.

Iranian authorities may also be swayed by factors other than ideology, noted Rabb, citing the case of birth control. Politicians and the courts have made birth control available there in acknowledgement of the need to control population.

Another possible shortcoming of opposition to Sharia law on human rights grounds is the focus on inflexible criminal sanctions, or what is known as hudud. In fact, jurists don't agree on what comes under hudud, and this disagreement leaves room for interpretation, Rabb said.

Attention on certain fixed penalties bypasses other issues. For example, in Sharia law, sexual misconduct and drunkenness are considered very grave offenses, whereas murder, perhaps the most serious crime in Western societies, often meets with fines rather than sentencing, she said.

Rabb's lecture was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies and cosponsored by the International Human Rights Law Program and the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law.

Published: Tuesday, October 26, 2010