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Are Iraqis getting their own Islamic ayatollah? Sounds implausible, but they might, if Shi'ites get their way in the new Iraqi Governing Council. In a recent meeting wrapped in secrecy, Shi'ite clerics pushed through a resolution to establish sharia—Islamic law applied to daily life—as the supreme law of the land. Iraqi women, in particular, are vehemently protesting the move. "This new law will send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages," said retired female judge Zakia Ismael Hakki. "It will allow men to have four or five or six wives. It will take away children from their mothers. It will allow anyone who calls himself a cleric to open an Islamic court in his house and decide about who can marry and divorce and have rights. We have to stop it."

These days, any mention of sharia raises hackles among Christians. Consider, for example, Nigerian Catholic archbishop Anthony Olubunmi Okogie's dismay (not to mention many others) over the conviction of a Nigerian woman of adultery and her sentencing by Islamic clerics to death by stoning. In Sudan, authorities in Khartoum have used sharia to wage war against Christians. And now anxiety over sharia is spreading to the West. Christians in Britain especially fear a takeover by sharia should Islam ever become the religion of the majority of the population.

But what exactly is sharia and what does it mean for the rule of the land? According to Maurits Berger of the University of Amsterdam, sharia embodies Islamic divine law set down in the Qur'an and the sayings of Muhammad. It may also derive from the laws articulated in the Pact of Umar (see our newsletter, "Legacy of an Ancient Pact," for more on this pact's history, and Christian Historyissue 74: Christians & Muslims, for the ...

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