Does sharia condone the murder of Lee Rigby?

Ingrid Loyau-Kennet asked someone to watch her bag and got off the bus, thinking that her first-aid training might be needed. Finding the victim already dead, she spoke with one of the killers:

“I could speak to him and he wanted to speak and that is what we did.”


That is where this picture finds her, body language registering understandable caution as she faces the young man. Remarkable that she is speaking to him at all. She looks him straight in the eye and asks: “Why have you done this?”

Intention is hard to divine, and ultimate responsibility hard to place. At best we can compile a list of ingredients that together make up the context of this particular action by these particular individuals.

In the murder of Lee Rigby, religion is clearly one of the factors to consider. But what role does it play, exactly?

I contend that in this case, as with countless other actions that appear to be religiously motivated, religion is actually not a causal factor at all.

This is not to say that religion is not important. Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo feel that they were acting according to the path of Islam. They are not alone: we all know that there are other examples of people claiming that sharia law justifies the atrocities they have committed.

The two standard reactions from those who oppose such atrocities are to say that the perpetrators are right – and thus sharia law is evil, or that they are not real Muslims and don’t understand their own doctrine.

There is a third option though: sharia law is a model that people use to frame human actions. Where one person can use it to condemn, another will use it to justify.

Sharia is a remarkable body of legal tradition; complex, nuanced, and thorough. It is modern in the sense that it allows for the subtleties of individual cases and changes in society over time. At its core it is a method of analysing human actions to decide whether or not they are just.

Sharia literally means ‘path to water’ – it implies an ideal course of action, analogous to a line on a map that is not painted on the actual ground. The traveller looks at the map and attempts to travel across the real landscape following the line to the best of their ability. Inevitably, they stray from the line, and usually they are not even aware of doing so.

To put this in the traditional language, it is recognised that sharia (the correct thing to do) is separate from fiqh, which is the human juristic process by which we try to work out an action’s proximity to sharia.

Making sure our fiqh sticks as close as possible to the right path, sharia, is a matter of discussion and reflection. It is emphasised that the Muslim must aim for an unbiased state, where their prejudices and passions are not affecting their ruminations on what is the correct response to a given situation.

To find out whether sharia condones the murder of Lee Rigby, first we must first work out how sharia defines the UK at this point in time. Then we must ask how the ideal Muslim would act towards a UK thus defined.

Over the centuries Islamic jurists (Ulema) have developed a way of defining countries. Using this system the UK could be seen as anything from Dar al-Islam (house of Islam – great place for Muslims) to Dar al-Harb (house of war – awful place for Muslims).

Different Ulema have different perspectives, some rejecting the definitions altogether. Predictably, Islamist Ulema often define the UK as Dar al-Harb. They have a strong case too, what with the wars the UK has waged against majority Muslim nations.

However, seeing as in the original definition Dar al-Islam is a place where Muslims enjoy freedom of worship, many scholars make the case that the UK, with its religious freedom and longstanding and integrated Muslim population, is Dar al-Islam. 

If the ideal Muslim (i.e. one who treads exactly on sharia) did decide that the UK was Dar al-Harb, what would they then do? Well, first off, they would leave. Muslims should not be living among their enemies.

Say, however, that they had decided it was their duty to stay in Dar al-Harb for the purpose of making jihad – would terrorism be justified then?

Well, at first glance, both the killing of non-combatants and the damaging of property, even if you are in Dar al-Harb, are banned by sharia. For this reason Ulema frequently condemn acts of terrorism.

There are however some who argue that civilians may be killed in certain circumstances. These scholars use various arguments to legitimise the killing of civilians in Dar al-Harb (some of whom may even be Muslim). For instance they maintain that a citizen’s failure to stop their government’s unjust warmongering means they can be classified as combatants. Or they look at exceptions in sharia, such as the one that allows civilians to be killed if they are being used to shield the enemy.

Like any system of law worth its salt, sharia can be used to express conflicting opinions. This is fiqh in action.

Of course, what ends up happening, really, is that both those who want Islam to be at war with the UK and those who don’t, claim sharia (and so God) supports their view.


Sharia, like any discourse that can lend validity to action – including science, socialism, humanism etc. – becomes a way of phrasing the intentions you had anyway.

I would argue, along with many learned Ulema, that detailed study and reflection would show the killing in Woolwich to be unlawful in sharia’s terms – but crucially, there is an avenue by which you could contend otherwise.

Religion is not the reason that Adebowale and Adebolajo murdered Rigby; it is the way they framed it.

If you are still not convinced, consider that Buddhism, which has a doctrine of absolute non-violence toward any creature, has been used to justify war on the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, and right now it is being used to encourage the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

Religious systems have an effect on people by suggesting interpretations of the world and avenues of possibility. Often a conversion experience, or something like it, comes at a moment someone feels they’ve found their purpose in life. However, religion did not make them convert – it just provided the opportunity.

As the Prophet Mohammed once sang, there can be no compulsion in religion. Your religion can’t force you to do anything, nor can it provide a world without decision-making. Values and doctrines are great, but the way to live them is rarely self-evident. It will always take learning and interpretation to work out how fiqh should rightly proceed.

Islam was used to justify a murder last week, and it can be used to condemn that murder morally and legally today. It cannot, in my view, be used to explain it.

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