Author’s Disclaimer: The author is neither a lawyer nor a theological scholar, if someone can offer a better translation for the theological terms please step forward.
There are many articles within Egypt’s draft constitution up for a referendum on December 15 that raise suspicion and are points of contention for a fairly large segment of the Egyptian society. Within the realm of the 236 articles in this constitution to be, political figures, activists and concerned citizens have found ample reason to criticize the draft, and have been translating their concerns.
However, for the non-Arabic speaker, or for non-native Arabic speakers, one article stands out in its capacity to undermine most translation efforts I have seen thus far. That is article 219.
It is commonly known that article two of the 1971 constitution, which names the “Principles of Sharia” as a primary source of legislation, has been a center of debate since well before the revolution.
This article was included in the new draft constitution, but with some changes in definite-articles. Yes, brush up on your grammar folks, because this analysis is about to get middle-school tricky.
The 1971 version of Article two
الإسلام دين الدولة، واللغة العربية لغتها الرسمية، ومبادئ الشريعة الإسلامية مصدر للتشريع
Islam is the state religion, and Arabic language is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are a source for legislation.
The 2012 version of Article two
الإسلام دين الدولة, واللغة العربية لغتها الرسمية, ومبادئ الشريعة الإسلامية المصدر الرئيسي للتشريع.
Islam is the state religion, and Arabic language is its official language, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the primary source for legislation.
The difference is changing the relation of the “Principles of the Islamic Sharia” from a source for legislation to the primary source of legislation. However in all fairness, this change was initially introduced in the amendments passed in 1980, and were maintained in the March 2011 constitutional declaration presented, overseen and implemented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
With the foundation of the problem stated clearly, now we can discuss the article that is literally lost in translation: article 219, which incidentally was included to appease Salafi members of the Constituent Assembly, who had called for a more definitive Article 2.
The term of art, ‘Principles of the Islamic Sharia,’ was a term developed during the Sadat era, to appease elements of political-Islam, and some conservatives, and to counter some of the leftist notions without actually giving Sharia law any substantive means of becoming the exclusive source of legislation. For years, both opponents and proponents argued over the meaning of the term “Principles of Islamic Sharia.” Opponents threatened that this could be interpreted into undesired legislation, and proponents argued that it is the guiding article within the constitution, or even that it did not emphasize Sharia’s role enough. Needless to say, no one could definitively say what the term “Principles of Sharia” really meant.
Fast forward to 2012, a constitutional assembly that is composed of mostly Islamists has cleared the haze looming over article two. The ambiguity has now been replaced by the more threatening obscurity of article 219. Generally in constitutional sciences, it is customary to exclude articles that interpret other provisions within that same constitution. Article 219 is simply a definition of the abstruse term “Principles of Islamic Sharia.”
The big question is: how does one translate article 219?
مبادئ الشريعة الإسامية تشمل أدلتها الكلية، وقواعدها الأصولية والفقهية، ومصادرها المعتبرة، فى مذاهب أهل السنة والجماعة.
The general literal translation of this article looks something like this:
The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.
The problem with the various literal translations of article 219 is that they do not convey or carry over the article’s cultural, social, and theological implications. For example, the word fiqhiyya (فقهية) which is derived from the base fiqh (فقه), specifically refers to societal Islamic jurisprudence. Accordingly, translating this word to jurisprudence is the real definition of being lost in translation.
Since article 219 is more of a combination of references to Islamic socio-theological concepts, here is an attempt to translate the article in a more detailed fashion, including social and theological references to better explain it;
The principles of Islamic Sharia include (but are not limited to):
Its holistic evidence
Its fundamental doctrines
] قواعدها[ الفقهية
Its Islamic-jurisprudence (Fiqh) doctrines
(Once again, Fiqh is an “expansion of the code of conduct (Sharia) expounded in the Qur’an, often supplemented by tradition (Sunnah) and implemented by the rulings and interpretations of Islamic jurists. Fiqh deals with the observance of rituals, morals and social legislation in Islam.”)
In other words, Fiqh is the theological-science of applying Islamic doctrines in every day, or day-to-day life, including the smallest of decisions. A reference to fiqh in the draft constitution inherently leaves no room for social progression on many fronts.
Its acknowledged sources
(The terms Holistic Evidence, Fundamental Doctrines, Fiqh, and Acknowledged Sources are all names of Islamic theological theories on which Societal-Islamic-Jurisprudence are based.)
فى مذاهب أهل السنة والجماعة
Within the madhab (or schools) of the people of Al-Sunnah and Jama’ah
Noting that “The People of al-Sunnah and Jama’ah” is the historic name of the founding fathers of Sunni-Islam faith; There are four prominent schools (madh’hab) of fiqh within Sunni practice and two within Shi’a practice. The constitutional draft specifies that only Sunni doctrines are sources, clearly excluding Shi’a interpretations. The four prominent schools of Sunni Islam are the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Hanbali, and the Shafi’i. These different schools are founded on the different theological theories that are named clearly within the article Holistic Evidence (General Principles) and Fundamental Doctrine (Specific Evidence). Both the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools are based on Specific Evidence, while the Hanafi and Maliki schools are based on General Principles.
Here is the full translation after explaining its components:
The principles of Islamic Sharia include its Holistic Evidence, Fundamental Doctrines, Islamic-Jurisprudence (Fiqh) Doctrines, and Acknowledged Sources accepted within the Madhab (or schools) of the people of Al-Sunnah and Jama’ah.
Essentially this article ensures two things; it prevents any other Islamic denominations from being used as the basis for legislation, and paves the path for literal interpretations of Sharia law, as well as archaic forms of the law and application of punishments.
What does this mean practically?
In conservative Muslim communities the aforementioned theological theories are used to approve or disapprove all sorts of actions within the community, from governance to the simplest of day-to-day actions like purchasing certain goods or deeming personal and private norms to be halal (allowed/accepted) or haram (sinful).
Approving an article with such language is practically giving future legislative bodies the authority to infringe on all aspects of personal freedoms, business practices, banking, tourism industry, etc. Social-Islamic-Jurisprudence could affect almost every aspect of daily life, incorporating within it matters of economics, politics, marriage, crime, theology, hygiene, etiquette, health, and Jihad, among many others.
In fact, Egypt’s draft constitution would not only allow for legislation to be passed based on Sharia law, it would also allow the judiciary to issue verdicts on that basis.
Inherently, the problem of subjectivity arises and is compounded when this problem is passed over to a legislative body that is drafting laws for a multi-cultural society. While Egypt’s Shi’a Muslim minority come to mind first when this article is read, in all reality Sufi, secular and moderate Sunni Muslims also face grave threats when this article is considered. Needless to say that other minorities in Egypt could face a major change in their way of life should this article be accepted within the patched-up constitution up for a referendum on Saturday.
Ramy Yaacoub is the former Chief of Staff of the Free Egyptians Party and is currently a second year graduate student at American University’s School of International Service USFP program.