What is Sharia law and what might it mean for Afghanistan?

What exactly is it and how misunderstood has it been in the West?

A Taliban spokesman recently sought to allay fears his group would once more impose oppressive authoritarian rule on Afghanistan by promising they will instead govern “within the framework of Islamic law”, without going into precise details as to what that might mean in practice, particularly with regard to the hard-won rights of women.

The Sharia law to which he was alluding – a phrase too often the cause of confused right-wing alarm in the US and Europe – simply refers to the system that governs how Muslims conduct their lives on a daily basis in accordance with the lessons of the Quran, the Sunnah and the Hadith – their holy book and the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Simply put, this amounts to the human interpretation of divine sources, with any moral conclusions reached constantly open to revision and dispute. It is not a concrete legal system as we understand it in the West, making a nonsense of fears about its “creeping” imposition.

“Sharia” translates from Arabic as “the clear, well-trodden path to water” and its precepts aim to advise adherents to the faith as to best practice on all manner of everyday concerns – from prayers, when to fast, how much money to donate to the poor and how to behave in business transactions – with the ultimate intention of pleasing Allah.

When a specific issue presents cause for uncertainty, Muslims can turn to a religious scholar for their guidance on how best to interpret the teachings of the holy texts so that they might act appropriately.

There are five different schools of Sharia law: Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanafi (all Sunni) and Jaafari (Shia), which differ in how literally they take the word of the Quran, the Sunnah and the Hadith and also to what extent they consider local customs and social expectations.

While Sharia is primarily concerned with everyday ethics, one of its most controversial and most frequently misunderstood aspects is the punishment of crimes.

While “tazir” offences are those whose penalties are left up to a presiding judge to determine based on the specific facts of a case, more serious misdeeds considered “hadd” have strict set penalties, which might mean corporal punishment like a public caning or stoning, a like-for-like sentence such as amputating the hand of a thief or even execution.

But these are extreme interpretations rarely implemented: the Quran actually explicitly prohibits violent attacks on civilians, property, places of worship and animals, as University of Wisconsin law professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes points out.

Ultra-conservative regimes in the Muslim world like that which followed the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 have nevertheless willfully bent Sharia to suit their political agenda, the latter lowering the marriageable age of girls to 13, barring them from attending universities and enforcing the wearing of hijabs, for instance.

“Such rulings are in complete contradiction with the egalitarian vision that the Prophet Muhammad first set in motion,” author Hafsa Lodi writes in The Independent.

“Arbitrary and absolutist interpretations of Sharia not only strip Muslims of the freedom to interpret their faith pluralistically, but also severely impact the lives of women,” she adds.

What happened the last time the Taliban took power?

The Taliban came to prominence in 1994 during the Afghan Civil War, its ranks composed largely of students – from which the group derives its name (translating from Pashto as “students” or “seekers”) – many of whom had been mujahideen resistance fighters who had battled occupation by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

A Deobandi fundamentalist Islamist movement originating in the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, the Taliban was led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and conquered first the province of Herat and then the whole country by September 1996, overthrowing the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and making Kandahar the capital.

Although their new state was only recognised diplomatically by Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban were initially popular with local citizens, according to the BBC, “largely due to their success in stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the roads and the areas under their control safe for commerce to flourish”.

Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul (AP)

But its rule by a particularly brutal understanding of Sharia would prove as tyrannical as it was ruthless, characterised by the massacre of opponents, the denial of UN food supplies to starving citizens and the oppression of women, which meant forcing them to wear burqas and denying girls the right to work, study or travel.

Films, music and other non-Islamic cultural influences were also outlawed and historic artefacts like the Bamiyan Buddha statues destroyed.

The Taliban’s oppressive rule was duly brought to an abrupt end by US-led coalition forces in December 2001 in retaliation for the devastating Islamist terror strike on the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed 2,996 people and left 25,000 injured, an atrocity orchestrated by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from within the sanctuary of Taliban-held Afghanistan.

Despite their defeat, Taliban fighters subsequently regrouped as an insurgency and have continued to battle to retake the country from US peacekeeping forces ever since.

Why are we asking this now?

Afghanistan is again in a state of turmoil after the Taliban recaptured the capital on 12 August, declaring the country an Islamic Emirate once more after president Ashraf Ghani abandoned the presidential palace and fled to Tajikistan before securing sanctuary in the UAE.

The operation followed swiftly on from the withdrawal of American troops from the country last month at the order of president Joe Biden, their exit coming almost 20 years after the US military drove the same faction out of Kabul.

Biden has expressed his determination not to hand the responsibility for policing Afghanistan on to a fifth commander-in-chief following the completion of his own tenure in the White House and trusted in the Afghan military, in whom the US had invested billions of dollars over two decades, to keep the Taliban at bay.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country… and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” US secretary of state Anthony Blinken lamented.

UK foreign minister Dominic Raab has since said he still considers the Taliban a “rag tag bunch of thugs” but suggested the West would need to be “pragmatic” in its attempts to “moderate” the country’s new rulers: “They are now in power, and we now need to deal with that reality.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson said during a heated emergency debate in the House of Commons that the group should be “judged by its deeds”, a statement immediately undermined by the killing of several protesters in demonstrations around Afghanistan opposing the new regime.