Calls from some legislators to ban American Muslims from following Islamic law are born of a "bogeyman fear" that Muslims will try to impose their way of life on others of different faiths, an imam and author of books on Islam said Sunday at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees.
"It's illogical. It's a fear tactic. It's stupid," Imam Sohaib Sultan told more than 100 people who attended "Islamic Sharia Law: Myths and Facts," an interfaith event hosted by Jewish Catholic Muslim Dialogue of Southern New Jersey.
Organizers said they hoped to address prevailing misconceptions of sharia law, the code guiding the beliefs and actions of Muslims that some politicians have targeted in recent years. Bills to ban the application of foreign law have been proposed throughout the country, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and have passed in several states. In 2011, lawmakers in Tennessee proposed making it a felony to follow some versions of sharia.
Sultan, the Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton University and author of The Koran for Dummies, said proposals such as the one in Tennessee violate Muslims' First Amendment rights.
"Let it be clear in this room and beyond this room: When people talk about regulating and imposing bans on sharia, they are regulating and imposing bans on Islam itself," he said.
Sharia is often described as Islamic law, but it is not a legal system in the Western sense.
Sharia is more about how to live according to the will of God. It's "an ethical system of life, a moral way of being in the world," Sultan said. He said Muslims had drawn upon various sources to understand sharia - including the Quran, the main religious text in Islam - and interpreted sharia differently, although scholars have agreed on six principles, including the protection and preservation of life and religion.
As he defended the code, Sultan also said it had been misconstrued by some Muslims who invoke sharia when "in reality, they are discriminating against the rights of women," he said. "There are too many instances of societies that do that."
Addressing reports of accused adulterers being stoned to death in Islamic countries, Sultan said, "The question becomes: Is this really sharia?"
"Well, yes and no," he said. Though sections of the Quran are dedicated to penal codes, "these rules and these laws have to be understood within the larger ethical system of Islam," he said.
If a poor person engages in theft, "Islam doesn't say go and take that person and cut off their hand," Sultan said.
He also said the Quran does not call for stoning adulterers. "That's from another source," he said, "and controversial."
What the Quran does say about punishing adulterers, Sultan said, is that "you must have four witnesses . . . [who] must witness the actual act of penetration."
Evidence short of that is not adequate, Sultan said. Given that spying into homes is "clearly prohibited," he said, drawing laughs, "where will you find four righteous, trustworthy individuals witnessing actual penetration?"
At the end of the talk, hands in the audience shot up. Sultan fielded a range of questions on what the Quran teaches Muslims about Jews, why the Sunni and Shia denominations have fought one another, and why cartoon depictions of Muhammad have sparked violence.
The Quran describes Jews and Christians in honorable terms, as fellow "people of the book," Sultan said.
He said Shia-Sunni violence had to be viewed in a political and historical context rather than as a product of Islam.
As for the violent protests in response to depictions of Muhammad, "a lot of disenfranchised Muslims" feel their traditions and culture are under attack, Sultan said. "You have to understand the psychology of people living under broken nation-states."
U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat from Haddon Heights, also spoke, invoking the history of the Pilgrims to argue for religious freedom and tolerance.
"Many of our Muslim brothers and sisters feel unwelcome at times in their own country," Andrews said. "Our goal as a country is to eliminate the need to have meetings like this."