Who is Afraid of Shariyah?

At a book launch for a new book by the leading Muslim religious intellectual in Israel,  Kadi Iyad Zahalka , entitled Shariyah in Modern Times.,  the opening speaker of the evening pointed to the elephant in the room at the beginning of his remarks when he shocked the audience by saying what he thought most Germans would think about the concept of “Shariyah”:

If you would ask in a survey which word the Germans might regard as one of the ten most horrifying words, what you would think? I can tell you my answer: I bet that “Shariyah” would be at least among the top five.

The new head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Israel –Dr. Michael Borchard–opened the evening with these thoughtful and challenging remarks above, and then he went on to thank everyone for coming out for this program even though it might be risky:

We knew that it is kind of risky to discuss questions of religious coexistence in times of violence and trouble exactly about these religious issues. But we thought it even more important to talk and to discuss these vital issues.

About 75 people—Jews, Christians and Muslims from all over Jerusalem and beyond—gathered in a crowded meeting room  at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a beautiful conference center in Jerusalem, to listen to the learned Muslim judge talk about the concept and practice of “Shariyah” and its implications for Western society in general, and  for Israeli society in particular. The event was co-sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (which also serves as the Israel chapter of “Religions for Peace”)

Notwithstanding the vicious violence in Jerusalem lately (and this event took place the day before the gruesome terrorist attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem), we were able to hold this event in a major conference center in the heart of Jerusalem, with a full house.  But not one single journalist attended, even though many were invited (they are always so busy reporting on violence and incitement to violence that the don’t have time, or interest, in any good news, Heaven Forbid!)

The main speaker of the evening was Kadi Iyad Zahalka–who in addition to being the judge of  the Shariyah court of the state of Israel in Jerusalem, also teaches courses at 3 Israeli universities (the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and now Bar Ilan University)– spoke eloquently, as he always does, about his liberal, open, modern view of Shariyah Law, and how he and his colleagues are adapting it in Israel through their professional work in the Muslim religious courts, as part of the justice system in this country. His address was moving and well-received. One of the Jewish participants in the evening told me afterwards: “Hearing this kadi speak gave me some hope!”

There has been a quiet revolution in the appointment of kadis in Israel in recent decades. Almost all of the 10 kadis in Israel hold law degrees –and often additional  academic training—in addition to their deep knowledge of Islamic Law and how to apply it in areas under their jurisdiction, which is mainly family law (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.). In addition, these kadis are the religious leaders of the Muslim community in Israel, and their knowledge, moral stature and fairness has earned them great respect among the Muslims, as well as among the Jews of Israel. When they walk into any mosque in Israel, they are asked to lead the prayers or deliver the sermon, and they do so with pride and dignity.  Yet, because they are judges –and therefore they don’t speak to the press often—hardly anyone in the Israeli Jewish community –not to mention the international community—knows of their existence, not to mention the judicial and moral leadership they bring to the Israeli Muslim community, which represents 98% of the Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship.

I was glad to provide Kadi Zahalka with an important audience, to present his ideas of moderation, openness, and truth, in a spirit of genuine appreciation. His book, which is available in Hebrew, should be widely read in Israel. And, it has already been accepted by an important academic publisher abroad, so hopefully it will be available in English next year as well.

One of the respondents to Kadi Zahalka’s presentation, Mr. Eran Zinger, the Arab Affairs reporter for Israeli Radio Channel Two, explained to the audience that most people in the world are very confused and afraid of the word “shariyah”. Reading Kadi Zahalka’s book—and listening to him speak—will help people understand the genuine meaning of “shariyah” as a way of life, and then they will have less reason to be irrationally afraid.

Indeed, in the discussion that ensued, it became clear that “Shariyah Law” , as it is practiced in Israel is nothing to be afraid of . Rather, it is an open, tolerant, humanistic system, which is actively updating itself to the realities of modern life, here in Israel and in many other parts of the Western world, where Muslims live as minorities in non-Muslim states.

So who is afraid of Shariyah?  Only those who have not learned what it is really about from people who have studied and written about it accurately and thoughtfully, rather than merely relying on the internet or the tabloids, or those who have abused its intent and made it seem that it supports terrorism.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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