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Everyone seems to be talking about it but what exactly is Sharia law?

Last night’s episode of Q&A contained one of the most passionate exchanges the program has heard in a long time.

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie and Youth Without Borders’ Yassmin Abdel-Magied faced off over Sharia law: Lambie thinks anyone who follows it ought to be deported, Abdel-Magied argues it is deeply misunderstood.

So we thought a quick refresher might be in order. What is Sharia law? What does it say? And are there calls for it to be implemented in Australia?

Senator Jacqui Lambie and Yassmin Abdel-Magied argue over Sharia Law on Q&A: Image ABC.

Obviously, this is not a definitive treatment of the subject. As with any question of faith (and law), people may approach the issue differently and hold different views and interpretations, and that's entirely appropriate – this is just a quick background to orient your thinking on the topic.

What is Sharia law?

Sharia is religious framework for living under Islam. It is a body of religious law that derives from the Quran (the Muslim holy book), the sayings and the conduct of the prophet Muhammad, as well as rulings of Islamic scholars.

This law guides how Muslims live their lives: how they worship, how they eat, their relationships, and their financial affairs. Sharia law also deals with crime and punishment.

Men reading the Quran outside a Mosque.

Elements of Sharia are present, to varying extents, in the criminal justice system of many Muslim-majority countries.

What does Sharia law say?

Given that it governs every element of human life - private and public - it’s not possible to accurately convey all the tenants of any religion, including Islam. Prayer, charity, pilgrimage and fasting are central tenets of Islam. But as with many religions, some elements of the Sharia legal framework are controversial and these tend to attract the most attention.

The most controversial aspects of Sharia relate to the treatment of women (especially in marriage, divorce and sexual assault) and the punishment of crimes.

Hadd crimes (those with a defined punishment attached) include:

- Unlawful sexual intercourse (sex outside of marriage and adultery).

- False accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse.

- Wine drinking (sometimes extended to include all alcohol drinking).

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- Theft.

- Highway robbery.

Punishments for hadd offences can include flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution. These punishments are often on the books of Muslim countries but lesser punishments are sometimes considered sufficient.

There are a number of controversial practices associated with the Sharia debate, including female genital mutilation, child and adolescent marriage, polygamy, reporting and penalties for sexual assault, physical punishment for infidelity, gender-based inheritance rules (women inherit less than men) and honour killings (murders committed for bringing dishonour on your family). The UN estimates that thousands of women are killed annually in the name of family honour.

Is anyone calling for the implementation of elements of Sharia law in Australia?

As Yassmin Abdel-Magied noted on Q&A, Sharia calls for Muslims to abide by the laws of the country in which they live, unless they are forced by those laws to commit a sin.

But there have been a tiny minority of Australian Muslims who have called for specific elements of Sharia to be implemented locally.

Keysar Trad, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Council, for example, last year publicly expressed his support for polygamy  - that is allowing men to have up to four wives at once - during an appearance on Today Tonight. However, his comments were slammed by other members of the Muslim community for being selfish, "outdated" and "misusing the religion".

The most formal push for Sharia came back in 2012 when the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils made a submission to a Federal parliamentary committee asking for Muslims to be able to marry, divorce and conduct financial transactions under the principles of Sharia law.

But at the time, law lecturer Ghena Krayem said that the Islamic community did not want a parallel legal system set up, but rather was looking for some of the process around legal matters such as divorce and inheritance could take on board some Muslim notions of dialogue and alternative dispute resolution.

For further information:

Islamic Council of Victoria

Australian Federation of Islamic Councils

Sultana's Dream