Faculty member Sarah Eltantawi examines Islamic law in new book

February 12, 2018
Sarah Eltantawi portrait

Evergreen faculty member Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of religion and an expert on contemporary Islam, including Shar’ia Law, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. University of California Press recently published her new book, Shar’ia on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution, and she has been visiting universities and bookstores throughout the world to share and discuss it.

Were there any specific experiences that led you to write the book, Shar’ia on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islam Revolution?

It started when I was working for a major American Muslim civil rights organization in 2002, a year after 9-11, when I joined the organization to help stem the various emergencies that emerged after that attack. I was the national policy director and in a meeting one day in Washington D.C. when my phone kept ringing and ringing, all different numbers. I kept trying to ignore it but I began to realize that something major must be happening. When I started answering my phone, it was one media outlet after another - CNN, BBC, et al, saying that a woman in "Africa" (Nigeria) had been sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery. They wanted to know if I had any comments about stoning in Islam, women in Islam, Islamic Shar’iah, notions of justice. I went back to my meeting, which included major American Muslim leaders, and put the question to them. I was surprised by the answers. “This only happens in Africa” was one response. “Stoning is not in Islam” was another. I was unsatisfied with these answers and decided to explore.

What did you learn when you started digging deeper?

I learned that stoning did not only happen in Africa, and that stoning was in Islamic law for married adulterers (though nearly impossible to prove and thus mete out); and that stoning was not in the Qur'an. In the course of my research I learned that stoning emerged from pre-Islamic legal systems, including the Mesopotamian and Judaic, and the earliest instance we have of stoning as a punishment in human legal systems is in the oldest known legal code we have, the Hammurabi legal code (c. 1754 BC, Babylon). Then I began exploring the Islamic legal history of stoning, and concluded that there were virtually no instances of stoning being meted out in an Islamic court until the middle of the 20th century, despite the fact that the punishment has been "on the books" for 1500 years.

What conclusions did you draw from your research, and what were your next steps?

I concluded that stoning is actually a post-modern/post-colonial punishment in Islam. The questions I had were, Why? What happened? And what happened specifically in Nigeria? And what's happening in this case? And, more theoretically, how does Islamic law operate? Is it like a recipe book: you apply Islamic law, stir, add salt and you get stonings and hand amputations, or can this be explained by culture? I became fascinated by all of these questions. They led me to do a PhD in Religion at Harvard, and that led to writing my dissertation on this case and all of the questions I mentioned above, doing fieldwork in Northern Nigeria, and, finally, writing this book.

You recently spoke about the topic across the country, what type of audiences did you encounter?

It's been a really interesting experience talking about this work. Broadly speaking, I've been lecturing to two different audiences: academic and public. As any academic will tell you, the former can be more stressful than the latter—scholars are in a unique position to really see any holes in your argument and often do not shy away from publicly letting you know about them. Public audiences tend to be more forgiving and interested in asking questions. My experience so far has actually been the opposite. Academic audiences have been really respectful and appreciative, and have given me invaluable feedback.

Were there any specific instances that stood out to you?

I did have one or two experiences in public book readings that really surprised me. I was reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and there was a woman in the audience who was just convinced that Muslims invented stoning (not true), that Muslims stoned all the time throughout their history (not true) and no amount of sharing facts and peer reviewed researched and reasoned argumentation was going to sway her. She was convinced that I was engaging in a massive cover up of the evil religion of Islam. She was so persistent that security eventually removed her from the bookstore! I did not see that coming. Unfortunately, there is such a deep level of Islamophobia in some of our media outlets in the United States that a few people are not willing to give scholarship a fair hearing. This is, of course, not the majority, but you asked for an interesting story! 

What programs are you currently teaching at Evergreen?

I'm really excited about the program I am currently teaching, called God(s): An Inquiry. It's essentially the comparative religion class I've always wanted to take myself as a student, and I feel really privileged to be able to offer this to students as a professor. We're looking at everything from Yoruba religious traditions to Shamanism to ancient Chinese philosophies to the monotheistic faiths to western philosophical critiques (Nietzsche, Kant), and also looking at the contemporary New Atheist movement as a critique of religion. At the end of the quarter, we are reading a deeply-sourced academic book that argues that Oprah is the deity of late-capitalism. While I was really excited to read this book when I picked it, I had no idea that Oprah would become such a hot topic.

What is most gratifying about teaching this topic?

I have really great students in this class and I'm really enjoying it very much. They’re each going to write a research paper on a topic relating to God(s) concepts that excite them, and I'm blown away by the creativity and depth of the topics they’re choosing. I really appreciate the creativity and ethical commitment of Evergreen students. 

In the coming months, Eltantawi will be lecturing on her new book, Shar’ia on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution, at the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Georgetown University, and Swarthmore College.