Brunei, the oil-rich Southeast Asian sultanate, announced this week plans to implement Shariah. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah proclaimed that as part of a legal overhaul, punishments such as flogging and amputations will be added to the criminal code, although they would be applied only to Muslims within the country. Approximately one-third of Brunei's citizens are non-Muslim.
This is merely the latest in a steady drift toward increasing religious conservatism for Brunei. Compared with its Muslim neighbors — Malaysia and Indonesia — the tiny country of about 412,000 has always been stricter in its observance of Islamic law.
Shariah is controversial, even among many Muslims. While some view it as divinely appointed and the necessary ingredient to a safe and stable society, others see it as outdated and unable to keep up with modern life. Threats to women's rights and the application of brutal punishments are frequently cited as reasons to be worried about Shariah.
In Brunei, concerns of arbitrary enforcement and disproportionate penalties will reportedly be addressed by the establishment of high burdens of proof, as well as leaving the ultimate choice of punishment in the hands of the presiding judge. However, some worry that the adoption of Shariah will deter tourists from visiting the tropical country. Although currently enjoying the financial benefits of enormous oil reserves, Brunei eventually will run out of this valuable natural resource and will need alternate revenue streams to keep afloat.
Of course, if a visiting tourist doesn't steal anything while there, then there will be no risk of having a hand amputated.
The sultan is one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune valued at approximately $13 billion, having benefited greatly from his country's oil wealth, along with other members of the Brunei royal family. He recently spent $750 million to purchase an entire street in London, with hopes of transforming it into a high-end urban estate. In a particularly salacious story that made the rounds in the international media earlier this month, a female body guard was charged with stealing two diamonds, worth more than $12 million, from the sultan's ex-wife, a former flight attendant.
Interestingly, despite the sultan's attempt at religious orthodoxy, his brother more than balances the scales. Prince Jefri Bolkiah has a reputation of being a playboy on a grand scale, with stories of his erotic escapades circulating widely. Perhaps these tales of harems and private jets have forced the royal family to bolster its religious credentials as a counterweight.
On the throne for 46 years, the sultan has a strong grip on power. His family has governed the tiny country for six centuries, so he has great flexibility to rule as he pleases.
However, Shariah is not a simple body of clearly delineated provisions that can be lifted from the Quran and implemented. Instead, it is a collection of numerous legal opinions and writings by a number of scholars that was first compiled about two centuries after Muhammad's death. The Quran itself teaches forgiveness and leniency, in contrast with the harsh judgments found in parts of Shariah and implemented frequently by its more ardent advocates in Iran and Pakistan.
In fact, Shariah can and does evolve and reinvent itself in the proper environment. For example, Morocco has taken great strides since 2004 to modernize its legal provisions while staying in line with Islamic principles and theology. Women's rights are reinforced; polygamy has been banned; and inheritance laws have been equalized.
This reform and humanization of Shariah should be acknowledged and encouraged by the West. Even as Shariah remains thoroughly Islamic, changes in the formulation of Shariah to better adapt to modern sensibilities can both strengthen and moderate Islam. Extremists who are drawn to medieval punishments and embedded sexism would be less inclined to champion a vibrant system that respects individual rights and humanistic values.
It was not so long ago that Roman Catholic Church canon held sway across Christendom, and many of its edicts would sit poorly in 21st-century America or Europe. With time came change, but that change came slowly and incrementally. In looking at how Islam evolves and adapts to modern life, a similarly long-term perspective would be helpful. Encouraging those who seek to make Shariah relevant is far preferable to condemning an entire religion based on the pronouncements of its most conservative members.
The simple fact is that few people who call themselves Christian today, even among the most ardent believers, practice their religion with the same strict accordance to theological minutiae that their ancestors had 350 years ago.
Accordingly, the adoption of Shariah should be the beginning of a conversation and not the end of one. The sultan of Brunei and his advisers must think long and hard about what those thousand-year-old opinions and commentaries mean to his subjects today.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.