KUALA LUMPUR // Many countries are Islamic, but some may be more Islamic than others. Now moves are afoot to rate nations according to how closely they adhere to the principles of Islam. The Shariah Index Project is led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York-based cleric who heads the Cordoba Initiative, a multinational project to improve relations between Muslim countries and the West.
He announced it on Sunday, on the final day of the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality conference in Malaysia. The project has been in the works since 2006, with researchers quietly holding behind-the-scenes meetings with scholars, activists and government officials. "We have been soliciting the opinion of scholars throughout the Muslim world, asking them what defines an Islamic state, from the point of view of Islamic law," he said.
"What are the principles that make a state Islamic? We can say among them is justice, protection of religion and minorities and elimination of poverty, and so on." The Cordoba Initiative, which co-sponsored the Wise conference, is a non-profit organisation with offices in New York and Kuala Lumpur. It is funded by the Malaysian government and other sources in both western and Muslim countries. So far the project has produced a book of scholarly essays on the concept of measuring a nation's "Islamicity", providing a theoretical foundation for the index.
By the end of this year, it expects to release the results of an unprecedented poll, conducted with the Gallup Organisation, that asked people in 44 majority-Muslim nations how well they felt their country complied with Islamic principles. "It will create an annual rating, a score to rate countries on how compliant they are," said Imam Feisal. "And we'd like to index both Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and non-OIC countries, because we know some non-OIC countries will score higher than some OIC members on some principles like justice, protection of minorities and so on."
Imam Feisal admitted the project was ambitious, with difficulties including the technicalities of conducting such a broad poll, and of finding consistent sources of funding for such an expensive process. Determining Islamic principles had been the easy part, he said. In classical Islamic jurisprudence the ruler must be someone who is "wise and upholds the Shariah", he explained. "Early scholars debated a third point: whether the ruler must also be pious.
"And the answer is no. As long as the ruler is committed to upholding the Shariah, piety should not be a hurdle to reigning over people. "Though on this point in particular there was a big split with the Shia, who disagree." He added that measuring the dedication and devotion of a person was too difficult to be done by a poll. The pillars of Shariah are based on five - some say six sacrosanct rights and principles. Breaching any of them is considered a major sin that requires punishment.
The most important is the protection and furthering of life. Then there is the protection of religion - which includes all three Abrahamic faiths and, through most of Islamic history, other religions as well. It was this principle that the Muslim world evoked during the controversy over cartoons lampooning the Prophet that were published in a Danish newspaper. The same principle prohibits Muslims from satirising elements of any religion.
Another pillar is the protection of dignity and honour, which can be used as a basis for punishing slander, which recently became a crime in the UAE under the country's new media law. The same principle is behind UAE cases where drivers have been prosecuted for making rude gestures at other road users, who took it as an insult to their dignity. Similarly, a woman can sue a man, even a stranger, for a lewd or inappropriate comment that "undermines her honour".
Protection of lineage, another pillar of Shariah, is the basis for criminalising adultery and, as was decided by muftis in Dubai last year, for banning IVF. Protection of the mind or intellect includes the protection of sobriety, the basis for prohibiting Muslims from drinking alcohol or using any mind-altering substance, except under a doctor's orders. The final pillar of Shariah is the protection of property, an element that many scholars say contributed to the economic growth of early Muslim states.