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The Psychological Effect of Sharia Law: The Broader Implications of Meriam Ibrahim’s Case

Most, by now, are familiar with Meriam Ibrahim [1].  Her case sparked international condemnation from world leaders after a Sudanese court ruled that the then heavily-pregnant woman would face the death penalty for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.  Although her father was a Muslim, she was raised as an Orthodox Christian by her mother and married a Christian man.  One of her relatives had claimed that Ms. Ibrahim was committing “adultery” for marrying outside of Islam, and reported her to the authorities.  The court ruled that because of her father’s adherence to Islam, she was an apostate.  Her sentence: she was to be given 100 lashes, and then hanged.  However, Sudan’s criminal code states that a pregnant woman sentenced to death must give birth and nurse her child for two years before her execution can go forward. 

So we have here a curious mix.  On the one hand, we have outrageous intolerance and the denial of the free practice of religion and of the right to life (of the woman).  Such views of women are not held in the Sudan alone.  Pew Research recently reported [2] that 40% of Pakistanis believed that honor killing of women can be justified at times.  On the other hand, we have a seeming respect for human life, both of the unborn as well as the newborn, even the latter’s right to develop in what is psychologically known to be the optimal environment: developing an attachment to his mother.  (I will not dwell on the absurdly arbitrary notion of then thinking it would in any way be just to kill the child’s mother upon securing this attachment.) 

This dissonance is but just one example of how the practice of Sharia law, which is implemented in varying ways in different countries, affects the psychological functioning of peoples and society.  Although the variations in implementation make general statements difficult, I will offer a foundational basis upon which a variety of circumstances can be considered. 

The Theoretical Foundation of Islamic Penal Codes

Mohammad is said to have had a complicated task at the time Islam was being established, as in addition to the establishment of a spiritual order, he had also to erect social and political aspects of society in the then unstructured environs of Arabia.  It is further contended that Islam’s philosophy of law [3] is built upon prevention—that is, having penalties so severe that criminal activity becomes almost unthinkable.  An oft-cited example would be the severing of the hand of thieves, for which is credited the paucity of organized crime in Muslim societies.  What is lessor known, perhaps, is the flexibility that is also built into the Islamic Penal Code, flexibility which provides for lesser penalties as well.  According to a publication from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, “the intent of Islamic law is to prevent crime and establish justice, as well as fairness, not simply to impose harshness and rigidity.”  Theoretically, then, adherents of Islam acknowledge that while severe penalties are in place purposefully to stop corruption and build a safer society, there are avenues to minimize their application when possible. 

But What of Freedom and Equality?

While severe punishments can and do send a clear message which results in raw obedience, from a psychological perspective, the obedience achieved lacks the freedom of will that is necessary for people to flourish.  In other words, although Islamic Law may accomplish some increased order in the society, such order comes at a great cost; it renders the full development of human virtue nearly impossible

Another major facet of the Islamic code is the relative standing of men and women.  This is often summarized by statements in the Qur’an where in various ways a woman is of half the value of a man, whether it be in inheritance (4:11), the provision of testimony (2:282), or in the rights of marriage (4:3, 2:223).  Some have called this part of the code “sexual apartheid.”  It is difficult to reconcile the aforementioned theoretical compassionate justice put forth, with the gender inequality which accompanies it.  

It is at this juncture that we return to the case of Meriam Ibrahim.  She is not free, and not equal, and her faith is not respected because it is not that of her father.  There is, of course, a logic to all of this, albeit one that most would consider strained, but what are the consequences for the women living under such a code?

Some suggest that the consequences are quite grave.  For example [4], an exiled female lawyer from Iran, Zohreh Arshadi, asserts that “Islamic punishments have encouraged a culture of violence against women, especially within the family [and have] spilled into violence against children.”  This level of violence could be expected to cause a great deal of psychological distress among women, both for themselves and within the context of their natural inclination to protect their children.  Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder would be expected.   Ms. Arshadi also cites increasing suicide rates of women as a sign of the despair they face.  Fortunately, she is able to note some progress in terms of lighter sentences being handed down, though efforts to introduce Islamic law into other countries, such as England [5], raise concerns that the number of people subject to Islamic law may well increase. 

Recognizing the need not to generalize certain viewpoints to an entire peoples, as well as to acknowledge that some, though certainly not all, cultural practices have their own intrinsic value and ethics, I would argue still that where conflict arises, the greatest consideration is the universal dignity of the human person.  This dignity rests upon values and ethics that are so fundamental, that no cultural practice can rightly infringe upon them.  Furthermore, from a psychological perspective, it is precisely these values and ethics (such as respect for and equal valuing of women and men, freedom of religious choice and practice) that are consistent with healthier psychological functioning and more sustainable flourishing, first for the individual, but consequently then, for the benefit of the whole society.

Freedom and dignity are more difficult to achieve than order and control, but in the end, they are what bring true joy and allow the human person to blossom into who he or she should be. These persons then have increased capacity for love and peace, making for a truly greater society, with both order and freedom. 

Meriam Ibrahim was condemned to 100 lashes and then death by hanging for refusing to renounce Christianity. Her sentence was postponed so that she could give birth and nurse her child before her execution. So we have both an outrageous disregard, and affirming respect, for life. What does this dissonance mean for those living under such laws?