Layers of Legality: Interactions between State Law, International Law, and Shariah

Plan Author

  • Amelia Brown, 2015

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Levels of Analysis: Designing Field Work
  • Course: A History of Now
  • Course: International Law & Organization
  • Tutorial: Sharia Law

Project Description

Essay on Shariah law and the concept of beauty

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

    • Geoffrey Bergen, World Bank consultant


Throughout the world both Muslim and non-Muslim communities fail to fully grasp the nature of Islam and its holy law, Shariah. Many Muslims view Islam as centered on principles of divine mercy and compassion, and they derive their understanding from the text of the Quran. Other Muslims have inflexible interpretations of the Shariah, and reach conclusions from the text without a full understanding of its context. This limited approach overlooks many of the guiding principles of Islam, as demonstrated by the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets of the Quran. Such an incomplete understanding of Islam contributes to the continued conflict that many refer to as “Islam versus the West.” This Plan explores Islam and Shariah with a focus on questions of beauty, human rights, and legal systems, including an essay on the importance of beauty in Sharia, an essay on Shariah and religious autonomy in England, and an essay exam on international law.


Many non-Muslims misconstrue Shariah as a codified set of laws which gain their authority from God. This, however, is an incomplete understanding. Shariah has two main focuses: matters pertaining to a relationship between God and humankind, and those concerning social and political interactions. The first deals with ritual practices, such as fasting, the giving of alms, and ritual prayers. The other examines human interactions and derives a ruling through application of methodologies according divine texts. These rulings are intended to further the welfare of the people of God and promote justice. El Fadl emphasizes reason, and seeks to discover God by a rational inquiry into the Divine will that is expressed in the sacred texts and other sources. His understanding of Islam and Shariah, then, is derived from the a broad exploration of God’s will. It is the key principle of beauty which serves as a vehicle for humankind to discern God’s will in all aspects of life.

Given the tensions between Shariah and western notions of human rights, the better argument is not whether Shariah should exist or not, or to what extent. It is not an argument of coexistence or plurality. Instead, the question is how might Shariah play a role within a wider Western legal system as a subset of that system, thereby allowing religious communities to retain their beliefs, while recognizing the law of the state.

Shariah, and those who practice it, must still abide within the boundaries set by the State in its rulings and remain responsible to the Western Government, otherwise the State may step in and take action. Moreover, the State would have an obligation to do so. Within this approach, the role of Shariah would be analogous to the space within international systems of jurisprudence for state systems’s jurisdiction over their own municipal law, unless international law is breached.


The inspiration for my Plan came from three angles. First, my dad is a theologian so I grew up talking about religion and what that meant in society. Second and third really are my Plan sponsors. Coming in with an interest in religion, I so enjoyed my classes with Amer and Lynette that I didn’t want to stop learning from them.


For me, the most interesting part of Plan was studying with other seniors. I would sit in the coffee shop with a few friends and we’d write together. When any one of us were frustrated or excited by our work, we shared it. By going through this process alongside friends, not only do they know more about the technical aspects of Shariah or the English legal system than they possibly want, I also know so much more about memoir and war literature and theater than I ever could have imagined. The best part of Plan really was getting to share it with my friends and learning together.