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Conviction in Nigeria Overturned

September 25, 2003

The Muslim Women's League and Muslim Public Affairs Council hail the decision of an Islamic court in Nigeria to overturn the conviction of Amina Lawal who was sentenced to be stoned to death for allegedly engaging in sex outside of marriage. The panel of five judges cited procedural irregularities that contravened Islamic as well as secular legal principles.  While this case does not resolve the existing controversy about whether Shariah and more specifically Hudud punishments (amputation, flogging, stoning) should be institutionalized in Nigeria, it does highlight the fact that an Islamic legal system is capable of ensuring justice for the accused.

In its substance and in the name of the court issuing it, the opinion was based on Islamic legal rules. This is crucially important for both Muslims and non-Muslims to keep in mind.

Muslims need to be aware that this overruling does not represent some sort of secular dismissal of Islamic law and values. Rather, it is an internal Muslim legal review of the accuracy and propriety of punishments carried out in the name of Islam. Those inclined to protest the decision as "un-Islamic" must consider whether they oppose the result or oppose the reasoning leading to the result. Both issues upon which the acquittal were based are core issues of Islamic criminal justice, namely, the willingness of the confession and the possibilities of gestational period known in Islamic law as the "sleeping fetus doctrine").

For non-Muslims this case challenges presumptions that Islamic criminal law inherently and always violates western human rights norms. As illustrated by the Lawal ruling and earlier adultery cases in Nigeria, there are numerous safeguards within Islamic jurisprudence to empower the law to serve the greatest public good.  Indeed, in Hudud cases, the overriding principle has always been to avoid punishment if there is any indication of doubt -- a principle successfully upheld in this most recent case. All those concerned about the oppressive impact Islamic law may have in Muslim countries should praise this ruling, and be happy that it issued from a court sworn to uphold Islamic law.

When global human rights activists oppose the idea of Islamic law altogether, this only serves to create extremist opposition to what is perceived as a new colonialism. This is why, in the midst of international human rights appeals for action to help Amina Lawal, her own lawyers pleaded with the world to stop the international secular pressure, as it only made their appeals to the Islamic courts more ifficult. Rather than blanketly opposing Islamic law as a whole, we look forward to the day when well-meaning activists learn to be more specific in their concerns, identifying the exact impact of Islamic law which concerns them, and  work with Muslims utilising Islamic jurisprudential tools to correct the injustice. Maybe, when that day comes, they will also see those aspects of Islamic law which actually empower women and men.

The real challenge for any government wanting to impose Shariah is that the details of the law (both the spirit and the letter) must be adhered to so that, as Shariah mandates, the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religion, are upheld and respected at all times.

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