CAIR Op-Ed: What Senators on the Judiciary Committee Should Know About “Sharia Law”

By Edward Ahmed Mitchell & Huzaifa Shahbaz

In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. All praise and thanks belong to God, Lord of the Worlds. May peace and prayers be upon Prophet Muhammad and his family.

What do you know about “Sharia law?” If you’re not a Muslim, this might seem like a loaded question to ask of someone who is a Muslim. But there are actually plenty of circumstances in which it would be appropriate to ask the question. During an interfaith event at a mosque. At an academic conference about religion. Maybe even over dinner with your new Muslim friend.

But do you know when you should never ask a Muslim that question? At a job interview for a position that has nothing to do with Islamic law. Especially a job interview before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last week, federal magistrate judge Zahid Quraishi — one of President Biden’s first 11 nominees to the federal judiciary and the first American Muslim nominated for a Senate-confirmed judgeship — appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing.

As the chairman of the committee, Senator Dick Durbin received the chance to ask the first question of Judge Quraishi, which was, “What do you know about Sharia law?”

Here is Judge Quraishi’s full response:

“I don’t know anything about that, Chairman. If the question too is whether I would apply the laws of the United States in the state of New Jersey, I can tell you in 21 years of practicing law as a federal prosecutor, as a military officer in the United States Army, as a defense attorney and partner at a prestigious law firm in New Jersey and a United States magistrate judge, I’ve never even been asked the question. That being said, I know probably less about it than you do. I don’t know anything about it.”

Before addressing everything wrong with this exchange, let’s address an important question: why in the world would Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who maintains a good relationship with his state’s large Muslim community, bring up this issue?

As Senator Durbin explained during the hearing, he asked the Sharia question because he had “heard it from other members of this committee from time to time, and it’s likely to come up at some point.” In other words, Durbin wanted to give Judge Quraishi a chance to rebut hostile questions about Sharia in advance.

For those of you who have not turned on a television over the past 20 years, the phrase “Sharia law” has been misused by many mainstream media outlets and countless politicians to portray Islamic law as barbaric, backward, and antithetical to western values.

As a result, even many relatively tolerant Americans associate Sharia with religious extremism, abused women, terrorism, and other conduct that has nothing to do with actual Sharia. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim extremists have spread the “creeping sharia” conspiracy theory, which claims that Muslim Americans are secretly plotting to replace American law with Islamic law.

Although Senator Durbin’s attempt to preempt bigoted questions about these issues was well-intended, this incident teaches us three important lessons about the persistence, spread, and hypocrisy of anti-Muslim bigotry.

First, the very fact that Republican senators were raising concerns about Judge Quraishi and Sharia Law shows just how deeply ingrained anti-Muslim hysteria has become at the highest levels of politics. Although the “creeping sharia” conspiracy theory is as ridiculous now as it was when it first started spreading on the internet years ago, some United States senators continue to take it seriously.

Second, even Democratic politicians who maintain good relationships with Muslims often know little about Islam and may even unwittingly hold Islamophobic views. When Judge Quraishi said he knew nothing about Sharia law, Senator Durbin initially responded “Good.” He quickly corrected himself and added, “Not good, but…,” his initial reaction was telling.

After all, why would anyone instinctively consider it a “good” thing if Judge Quraishi knew nothing about Sharia? Why would it be a bad thing if the judge did know something? Because even a liberal and Muslim-friendly senator is inclined to think of Sharia as a negative concept. Point being, Islamophobia impacts political thought on both the left and right, albeit in different ways.

Third, the aftermath of the exchange with Judge Quraishi highlights the double standards that Muslim Americans in public service face. Can you imagine a member of the Senate asking a Jewish-American judicial nominee what he knew about halakha in order to preempt questions from anti-Semitic senators?

That question would almost certainly spark public outrage, and the media would want to know which senators were mentioning anti-Semitic conspiracy theories behind closed doors.

The closest real-life example are the critical remarks that Senator Dianne Feinstein made about Amy Coney Barrett’s devotion to her faith during a confirmation hearing several years ago. Feinstein’s comments sparked vocal criticism and condemnation, but no such outrage occurred after Judge Quraishi’s hearing because the Islamophobia is still not viewed with the same severity as other forms of bigotry.

What about Judge Quraishi’s response to the Sharia question? Although no one should expect the judge to explain Islam to ignorant people, or explain Sharia with the skill of an Islamic scholar, the way he answered the question — “I know nothing about it” — was disappointing.

Sharia is an Arabic term sometimes translated as “the clear way or path to water.” Like halakha in Judaism and canon law in Catholicism, sharia refers to the various rules that Muslim strive to follow and uphold, all based on the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him).

When Muslims pray to God and God alone five times a day — that is Sharia. When Muslims share their wealth with the poor — that is Sharia. When Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan — that is Sharia. When Muslims stand up for the oppressed around the world — that is Sharia. And yes, when Muslims follow the sound laws of the land in which they live — that is Sharia.

Even though Muslim Americans continuously enrich this country through our faith (and even though enslaved Black Muslims literally helped build this country), too many politicians refuse to recognize or respect Islam’s role in the American story.

Public officials in America should recognize that Islam is part of America and that Islamophobia is an international crisis. It has endangered the legal rights and physical safety of American Muslims while stripping human rights away from Muslims in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It has left countless innocent Muslims dead in both hate crimes and unjust wars.

If additional Muslim nominees appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the coming days, both the nominees and the senators may have a prime opportunity to change the public discourse about Muslim Americans and Islam for the better.

Instead of prodding Muslim nominees to distance themselves from their faith, senators should call on anti-Muslim extremists to abandon their bigotry.

And instead of dismissing questions about their religion altogether, Muslim nominees should explain how Islam inspires them to both do their work with excellence and advance justice for all people.

That, too, is Sharia.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Huzaifa Shahbaz serves as the Research & Advocacy Director of CAIR.