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 full text of the pact).

But it's also, according to Berger, "a code of conduct for all events, walks and way of life. It deals with proper behavior in the bathroom as well as the battlefield, on the market as well as in the mosque." As far as the law is concerned, says reporter Susie Steiner, sharia consistently carried out punishes "unlawful sexual intercourse (outside marriage), false accusation of unlawful intercourse, the drinking of alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Sexual offences carry a penalty of stoning to death or flogging while theft is punished with cutting off a hand."

To be sure, American Christians can identify with Muslims' desire to curb sexual immorality, drunkenness, and theft. After all, haven't we fought alcoholism with Prohibition and, more recently, tried to block the legalization of homosexual unions? But to punish these offenses with such extreme measures? Surely not in the U.S.A.

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The Puritan "Theocracy"
But then we would be forgetting seventeenth-century Puritan New England. Most Americans know about the Puritan dream to build a "city on a hill" that other Christian nations might admire and desire to emulate. We tend to view this through the lens of the American experiment in democracy, where in implementing the rights of men, the young nation would inspire the world to follow her example and create a model society.

But the Puritans owed their loyalty not to country primarily—rather, they intended to establish a "visible" kingdom of God on earth. While they believed God chose only the elect, they also believed biblical commands compelled those who lived in covenant with God to enforce good behavior and morals on everyone. In 1641, the Puritan John Cotton wrote, "When we undertake to be obedient to God," we do so not only "in our owne names, and for our owne parts, but in the behalf of every soul that belongs to us … our wives, and children, and servants, and kindred, and acquaintance, and all that are under our reach, either by way of subordination, or coordination."

In other words, salvation led Puritans not to a private practice of Christian spirituality but to a public expression that made itself felt in the law of the land. They often noted God was a God of order, and Puritan social order placed the husband above the wife, the pastor over the church, and the governor over the people. When the Massachusetts government charged Anne Hutchinson with sedition, they accused her of breaking the fifth commandment, playing the part rather of "a Husband than a Wife, and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a Subject."

Letter of the Law
So what did Puritan law in seventeenth-century America look like? Regarding marriage, the law forbade spouses to live apart for any length of time—Massachusetts required that if a man arriving there left his wife in England, she must sail with the next ship. If she did not, the courts enforced his return. Massachusetts law also forbade spouses from striking each other and imposed stiff fines on abusive husbands. Adultery was a capital offense, though most offenders suffered only whippings, brandings, wearing the letter "A," and standing at the gallows with their rope about their neck in a kind of symbolic execution.

As both the physical and spiritual guardians of their children, parents in Puritan New England carried a heavy responsibility. When they were derelict, the law stepped in. Massachusetts and Connecticut both held that if children became "rude, stubborn, and unruly," the state could take them away from their families and "place them with some masters for years, boys till they come to twenty-one, and girls eighteen years of age." Intent that children might find their "calling" in life, Puritan law required that children learn the catechism. And the Massachusetts court established "reading schools" for children because it was "one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures."

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While Puritans did not, on the whole, own slaves, they did often buy "indentured" servants, or people willing to work without pay, on average, seven years to pay back their debts. If a servant stole from his master, the courts punished him severely, most often lengthening his servitude by many years. In one case, the judge sentenced servant Henry Stevens to 21 years in service to the master he stole from. In addition, the courts often doubled or tripled the amount servants had to pay. If a servant tried to run away, the law in Massachusetts allowed the magistrate to "presse men and boats … at the publick charge to pursue such persons by Sea or Land and bring them back by force of Arms."

Are They Really Comparable?
All of this might serve to perpetuate the image of the dour, repressive Puritan that secularists are so fond of portraying. With the separation of church and state firmly fixed in the modern American psyche, the nation has completely abandoned the Puritan experiment to establish God's kingdom on earth. But is it really fair to equate Puritan models of church and state with Islamic sharia?

The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes Islam as a "lay theocracy." The description is apt, for while the state and mosque may be separate institutions, both answer to the supreme law laid down in the Qur'an. The case could be made that Puritan New England operated in a similar fashion, fastening all juridical decisions to biblical injunctions. The Encyclopedia's description of sharia's purpose might apply in both cases: "In its broadest sense, the law encompasses articles of belief, regulating man's relation to God (religion), as well as rights and obligations regulating man's relation to his fellow man (law)."

But let's remember that the Puritans understood their American experiment to be a covenant with God. A covenant implies voluntary consent. Puritans may have loved order, but they recognized that people had free wills. Fathers may arrange marriages for their daughters, for example, but ministers forbade parents from forcing children into relationships they did not want to enter into. If members of the colony no longer wished to live under Puritan law, they were—however discouraged—free to leave.

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In contrast, sharia is intended not only for Muslims living in Islamic lands, as many Muslims contend, but for all people who have surrendered to Muslim control, either voluntarily or by force. Religious minorities who do not submit may be mistreated or even exterminated. And even if they do submit to the law but refuse to convert to Islam, they become dhimmis, or second-class citizens, liable to a punishing poll tax (jizya) and unable to hold political or military offices.

As nations like Iraq continue to contemplate instituting sharia, Christians would do well to remember that the church has in the past also tried to govern society directly. But unlike Muslims, Christians have a greater sense of their own sin and culpability. "We must stop playing God," said Nigerian archbishop Okogie in reference to the projected stoning of the woman convicted of adultery under sharia. "We have no right to take life at will. It is only God that can take life because He creates life."

For more on the Puritan "theocracy," consult Edmund S. Morgan's The Puritan Family (Greenwood Press, 1966).

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History magazine.

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Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
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300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)
John Paul II's Canonization Cannon | Why and how this pope has made over 470 saints. (Oct. 24, 2003)
Will the Next Pope Be an African? | Sixty-four years ago, the Roman Catholic Church consecrated its first black African bishop. Is it time now for the next step? (Oct. 17, 2003)
When Denominations Divide | The two-century-old "Unitarian controversy" suggests a grim prognosis for the current crisis in the Episcopal Church (Oct. 10, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it (Oct. 3, 2003)
Six 'Faith-based' Stories and a Moral | Are Christian social ministries worth fighting for? (Sept. 26, 2003)
Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor." (Sept. 19, 2003)
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)