Sorry, Newt Gingrich: That’s Not How Shariah Works


Former House speaker Newt Gingrich is under fire for suggesting that all Muslims who “believe in shariah” should be deported from the United States, a proposal scholars of Islam say is both discriminatory and probably impossible — primarily because Gingrich doesn’t appear to understand what shariah, or Islamic law, actually is.

Gringrich unveiled the idea on Thursday night during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. The former Georgia congressman was originally booked to discuss the possibility of becoming the running mate of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, but pivoted to a discussion of Islam while commenting on the recent horrific truck attack that killed dozens in Nice, France.

“Western civilization is in a war,” Gingrich said. “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in shariah, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.”

Gingrich, like many before him, talks about shariah as if it is a codified ideology out there, without talking about whose shariah, which interpretation of shariah.

Critics have noted several problems with Gingrich’s proposal, such as how it directly conflicts with most historic interpretations of First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the free exercise of religion. But as scholars who study Islam and Islamic communities have pointed out, Gingrich’s position also fundamentally misunderstands the concept of shariah, something that has been contested within Muslim communities for centuries.


“Gingrich, like many before him, talks about shariah as if it is a codified ideology out there, without talking about whose shariah, which interpretation of shariah,” Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center and author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Is he referring to Muslims prayers? Feeding the poor? Respecting one’s parents? It is akin to speak of ‘American values’ without specifying if one is talking about Martin Luther King’s America or KKK’s America.”

Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor & Toronto Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto, also took issue with the proposal, saying that Gingrich’s remarks appear to be more about political opportunism than any comprehensive understanding of Islam.

“The whole thing sounds crazy,” he said. “It sounds really more like a rhetoric designed to motivate a base than anything serious. But it’s disturbing because it’s another way for the Republican party … to coalesce around one issue that seems to unite them — which is hatred of Muslims.”

“It’s not a coherent argument unless you believe that shariah makes you want to commit violence, when in fact the the most ‘religious’ people in the West … are usually the least likely to be violent,” he added.

Indeed, shariah, an Arabic word meaning “way” or “path,” is a catch-all term for Islamic law that has a multitude of interpretations and meanings. Sometimes written “Shari’a” or “Sharia,” the designation has been used to describe a number of different — and frequently conflicting — legal understandings of Islamic life over the years, all of which are rooted in the Quran and Hadith (accounts of the prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions), but which are usually subject to rigorous debate.

If you know anything about shariah, you would know his actions are prohibited by it.

Danielle Widmann Abraham, scholar of contemporary Islam, also pointed out that the violent actions of terrorist groups such as ISIS are in direct conflict with established conceptions of shariah.


“Shariah is the overarching framework for justice in Islam. It is not the ideological basis for terrorist violence, which goes against all of the precedents of shariah in Islamic tradition,” she said. “It needs to be said again and again that the violent terrorism we see in our world is against shariah. It doesn’t fulfill it. In fact it contravenes it.”

Fadel also challenged the idea that the actions of the truck driver who murdered more than 80 people in France — who has not as of yet been claimed by any terrorist group, and who killed a Muslim mother of seven during his rampage — would be inspired by shariah law.

“If you know anything about shariah, you would know his actions are prohibited by it,” he said.

Indeed, shariah is typically the source for day-to-day aspects of Muslim life. Other religions such as Orthodox Judaism have similar concepts of religious law, and several systems already receive various levels of support from American courts — so long as the results are not unfair or directly violate existing U.S. law.

“Going back over a thousand years, scholars of Islam have identified the ‘Aims’ or ‘Goals’ of Shari’a [referred to as the Maqasid al-Shari’a] as preservation of life, family, property, learning, and honor,” Omid said. “Which aspect of this does Gingrich exactly object to? Also, what exactly would the former Speaker of the House want Muslims to do: stop praying, fasting?”

Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, even took to Twitter to explain how Gingrich’s proposal fails to account for the diversity of shariah interpretations.

But even if Gingrich corrected his understanding of shariah, most of the scholars ThinkProgress consulted argued that the most offensive aspect of Gingrich’s proposal wasn’t his misunderstanding of Islam, but how he was using the concept as a way to pit Americans against American Muslims.


“Gingrich’s comments about shariah are a cudgel for him to use to further divide American society,” Abraham said. “They have little to do with what shariah actually is and more to do with his wrongful demonization of Muslims, based on the actions of terrorists.”