Sharia Law in the American Context: A Rabbi-Imam Dialogue

From left: Rabbi Andrea London (Beth Emet), Rabbi Rachel Mikva (Chicago Theological Seminary), Karen Danielson (Muslim American Society).

Sharia law was the topic of a lively discussion among religious leaders in the most recent Rabbi-Imam Dialogue, on May 29.

Nearly 20 rabbis and imams from across the Chicago area, from a wide range of denominations, communities and ethnic backgrounds, met at the Downtown Islamic Center. This was the fourth meeting of this city-wide group, convened by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago.

Participants came to learn more from one another, deepen the dialogue between Muslim and Jewish clergy in Chicago, and specifically to learn more about Sharia Law in the American context.

The conversation was co-facilitated by Rabbi Michael Balinsky and Sheik Abdur Rahman Khan, after Sheik Khan gave a presentation about Sharia law. Many of the participants later described how they deepened their understanding of Sharia law as a moral code, and the ways in which it includes economics, politics, prayer and diet.

Imams and rabbis discuss Sharia law.

They also addressed some of the harder questions, related to Sharia law as a penal code. “Yes,” said Sheik Khan, “Sharia law includes the death penalty, but that is true for the penal codes of 139 countries around the world, including the United States.”

In the conversation that followed the presentation, one rabbi asked whether there were different ways of interpreting the laws; a Jewish saying implies that if you asked a rabbi one question, you might get several contradictory answers. Another participant asked how the interpretation of the laws changes depending on the social context.

The questions and answers were lively and engaging, and the tradition of several answers to a single question clearly spans both the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

Participants also spoke about the suspicion that Sharia law faces on a regular basis in the United States.

What does it mean when a state bans Sharia law? Does it only mean banning the practice of religious punishment? Or could a Muslim who prays five times daily and practices a washing ritual be prosecuted?

Since the definition of Sharia law varies and its complexity and common use is largely not understood by most Americans, these questions are a cause for grave concern to many, Muslims and others, who value religious freedom.  In the current national and local debates, a misunderstanding of Sharia law is common.

Since the potential banning of Sharia law potentially has implications for many other religious groups, including religious Jews, the next rabbi-imam dialogue will be about the Halakhah (the Jewish law).


Sunday, July 8, 11:00-1:00pm
Jewish-Muslim Bike Ride (see details)

Thursday, Aug. 2, 6:30pm
“Iftar in the Synagogue” (see details)


To learn more about JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative contact Asaf Bar-Tura:

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