If, for the average non-Muslim, jihad is bogey-word #1, "shari'ah" is a close second. The word itself means "path to the water source." The analogy is appropriate for the Qur'an often refers to Jannah (heaven) as a garden "beneath which rivers flow." The problem for most non-Muslims is that they have a very limited and fuzzy understanding of what shari'ah refers to. Most discussion focuses on what Muslims refer to as hudud. Hudud has specific, fixed punishments for a limited number of crimes, namely, the drinking of alcohol, theft, highway robbery, illegal sexual intercourse (zina), and the false accusation of zina against a person.
Shari'ah, however, is much broader, covering a wide range of areas affecting a Muslim's daily life, including politics, economics, banking, business, contracts, family, sexuality, hygiene, and social issues. In June, The Guardian had an article about shari'ah courts in Britian (In the Name of the Law) that gave an idea of the breadth of cases one local court, in Leyton, has dealt with:
It considers everything from inheritance settlements and whether property deals comply with Islamic laws against accruing interest, to the proper time to start Ramadan (in a country that is always overcast, how can you rely on the first sighting of the crescent moon?) and whether a soft drink that advertises itself as a non-alcoholic alcopop can actually be allowed to call itself alcohol-free. In one email, a woman who is losing her hair asked if Muslim women are allowed to wear wigs.
But the overwhelming majority of cases are to do with divorce - 95% of the roughly 7,000 cases the council has dealt with since opening its doors in 1982 - and, specifically, with releasing women from bad or forced Islamic marriages.
One thing that Rob wrote that I don't agree with is:
Sharia can't fit on a wide scale in a democratic country. However, neighborhood mosques have been very successful both in the UK and the United States in using Sharia to settle local minor disputes, somewhat akin to a small claims court or private arbitration. And in some African Muslim communities, citizens have the option of using Sharia to administer small-scale civil or criminal justice. It appears to work at this level if supervised properly, but anything broader would create significant conflicts with existing secular laws.
If you're one of my long-time readers, you know that I've often spoken highly of Singapore's Syarhiah Courts. Singapore is a great example of a secular, democratic government that has implemented shari'ah into its legal framework. Here, the syari'ah courts deal primarily with family issues: marriage, divorce, inheritance, custodial issues, matrimonial property, and the like. Other issues, such as dietary issues, organ transplants, zakat (charity), etc., are dealt with by MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, which is an agency of the Singapore government. Other aspects of shari'ah, especially banking and commercial law, are being phased into the Singapore legal code, especially as Islamic banking becomes more prominent within the banking industry. About the only major area where shari'ah hasn't been implemented in Singapore is with regard to criminal law.
It's not that shari'ah will necessarily create conflicts with existing secular laws; if done properly, such as through Singapore's example, shari'ah and secular law can complement each other.