Ahmed Vanya: Sharia Needs Reform for Modern Age

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Ahmed Vanya is an electronics engineer based in San Jose, California and a fellow with the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy. In December 2013, the Clarion Project published his article, Traditional Islam and the Challenge of Modernity.

The following is Ahmed Vanya’s interview with Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro:

Ryan Mauro: What prompted you to write your article for us?

Ahmed Vanya: I was very troubled by Imam Zaid Shakir’s speech, which was given in a major Islamic convention in front of many Muslims.

He is a very prominent Muslim leader in the U.S. — a person who was born and brought up in this country, one who had obtained degrees in International Relations (BA) and Political Science (MA) from well-known U.S. universities and served in the U.S. Air Force. He co-founded Zaytuna College and is involved in many interfaith activities.

In his speech, he indicated how alienated he is from the foundational principles of this country and the just idea of all humans being equal under the law. Not only that, he is totally against modernity, without any nuance or subtlety. He was touting traditional Islamic supremacy.

His message has both near- and far-reaching consequences and it is important that people be aware of it and discuss and debate the merits and demerits, openly and honestly.

Mauro: You criticize the major Muslim-American organizations for their stances on Islamism. In your experience, are most Muslim-Americans aware of these groups’ backgrounds and do most Muslims follow their lead?

Vanya: Muslim-Americans are like most people; definitely not a monolithic group. Most of them are hardworking and law-abiding people.

A good number of them are so busy with their lives that they support any group or organization with the words “Muslim” or “Islam” attached to it without investing the time to do a real good job in evaluating and investigation.

There are others who are aware of their backgrounds, their real agendas and the machinations of these organizations, but either they do not want to “wash the dirty laundry in front of the outsiders,” or they rationalize their support by thinking that these organizations are doing a number of good things like social welfare, public outreach and defending Muslims from unfair assaults and criticisms.

Also, they tend to minimize their harmful effects, thinking that these organizations are not strong in this country at this time. And even if they become strong one day, they question how bad they could be because they are fellow Muslims.

Mauro: Islamists in the U.S. and abroad argue that they are “moderate” because they are non-violent and support free elections. Does that qualify them as moderate?

Vanya: Violence itself is a very low threshold. The ultimate goal of the Islamists is to institute and implement the draconian sharia laws of medieval legacy—wherever and whenever they get a chance, either openly and immediately or stealthily over a very long period of time.

Whatever means they are employing, their ultimate goal is highly inimical to freedom and democracy. Even the soft Islamists are complicit because they provide the camouflage and often keep the doors open for the militants to take over the reins of power under the right circumstances.

Once the Islamists gain power, they monopolize it because they do not know how to share it with others. They use the coercive power of the state to subjugate the people to conform to their idea of divine law, instead of dealing in just and fair negotiations using reason, dialogue and compromise.

As such, they can be considered “moderate” only in disguise but never in reality.

Mauro: How do you handle the question of sharia law and its role in Islam?

Vanya: Historically, emotionally and in the minds of many traditional Islamic scholars and the masses, sharia law has played a central role in most Muslim societies.

It is important to realize that, though sharia law is based on Islamic scripture, it is basically a human construct, negotiated and debated over a number of centuries. It is a product of consensus reached by scholars during the medieval age, absorbing and reflecting many of their values and mentalities.

The whole edifice of sharia law was built with prescriptions and proscriptions for every human conduct from religious rites and rituals, politics and statecraft, penal and criminal laws, financial and economic dealings, family and personal laws, to basic morality and ethics and day-to-day mundane conducts and dealings.

Due to the extreme conservatism and the increasing literal-mindedness of the subsequent generations, necessary changes and improvements were not carried out over time, and therefore it stagnated and became outdated in a number of crucial areas. Hence the sharia law became more of an ideal rather than a reality, even in most Muslim societies.

With the rise of Islamists, we have Muslims who are trying to implement the outdated and illiberal traditional sharia law using the coercive power of the state. The solution, in short, is for Muslims to work on a far-reaching project to reform the sharia, to make it become more just and merciful as required by the paramount Quranic and prophetic ethical values.

As a first step, it is vital to depoliticize the sharia by affirming the separation of mosque and state, and restricting it mainly to religious rites and rituals and for providing general ethical and moral guidelines for Muslims.

It is a travesty that the leading Islamist Muslim-American organizations clamor for religious freedom protection under the First Amendment, while at the same time avoid the difficult but highly necessary task of reforming the traditional sharia that is essentially based on religious discrimination.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org