In the past few years several key cases, including the 2003 case of a Nigerian woman convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, sparked interest in and criticism of Sharia, or Islamic law. In this lesson, your high school students will examine Sharia in the context of cultural and religious beliefs in Muslim societies and worldwide.

1. Background
Provide your students with some background information on Nigeria and Sharia, as well as the 2003 case of Amina Lawal. You may also wish to have your students read Oil and Politics in Nigeria: Sharia Law.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation - one-fifth of all Africans are Nigerian - and a leading African nation. Nigeria is also the world's sixth largest oil producer, although the majority of Nigerians remain poor. This disparity has been the cause of recent deadly clashes.

For most of the 40 years since Nigeria gained independence from Britain, the country has been ruled by its military. In the summer of 1998 military leaders agreed to an election. In 1999, General Olusegun Obasanjo won the presidential election. In 2003, he was reelected in the first civilian-run election in Nigeria in over 20 years. In 2007, Obasanjo reached his constitutional term limit and will pass the presidency on to the next elected leader.

Muslims account for one-fifth of the world's population. Half of all Nigerians are Muslims and thus Nigeria has the largest concentration of Muslims in Africa. Sharia, the Muslim code for living, was practiced in Nigeria for centuries until the arrival of the British in the early 1900s. In 2000, Muslim-Christian violence was sparked by the reintroduction of Sharia in several Northern states. Although Nigerian Christians (40 percent of the total population) are not subject to Sharia, clashes between Christians and Muslims in recent years have left thousands dead.

Sharia varies widely in how it is implemented in Muslim societies. As criminal law, it is in practice in only a few predominantly Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In Nigeria, its use in criminal cases is considered by some to be a violation of the constitution.

Amina Lawal, a 31 year old divorced Nigerian woman, was sentenced in March 2002 by a Sharia court to death by stoning for committing adultery. The case became a high profile one and a test of the reintroduction of Sharia in 12 predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria. She appealed and on September 25 the court ruled to overturn her conviction.

Other significant examples of Sharia law's implementation are the Abdul Rahman case in Afghanistan and the Mirza Tahir Hussain case in Pakistan.

Afghan Abdul Rahman was arrested in February 2006 for converting to Christianity. Formerly a Muslim, Rahman was charged with rejecting Islam but his case was dismissed in March of 2006, after human rights groups and international organizations protested, supposedly because of problems with the prosecutors' evidence. He could have faced the death penalty if convicted.

Mirza Tahir Hussain, a citizen of Great Britain, was convicted in 1989 of murdering a taxi driver in Pakistan, but was cleared in 1996 by a secular court. He was then retried and found guilty in an Islamic one, the Federal Sharia Court, and was sentenced to death. He spent a total of 18 years on death row and was released on November 17, 2006 after international outcry and a plea for clemency by Prince Charles.

2. Article Analysis
Have your students read and discuss the following NewsHour Extra story on Lawal's case [Nigerian Court Frees Woman Sentenced Under Sharia Law]. Use the following questions to spark discussion.

  • What surprised you about this case and its outcome?
  • What do you think about the charges against Amina Lawal and the outcome of her case?
  • Why might people in the predominantly Muslim northern states of Nigeria wish to be governed by Sharia?
3. Key Terms
Provide your students with the following EXCERPTS from Frontline interviews with Akbar Muhammad and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the HANDOUT (a TEACHER KEY is also provided) of key terms. Ask them to identify the terms by reading the interviews. Students may also use their NewsHour Extra articles and the case of Amina Lawal and "Sharia in Nigeria" backgrounder as well as any other sources on Islam you have available. When students have finished, discuss the terms and their importance. Next, ask students to consider the harsh punishments that can be given out according to Sharia (such as cutting off the hand of a thief) and ask them to respond analytically to the following quotes from the interviews.

  • "You cannot judge a whole body of law by one instance of criminal law."
4. Compare/contrast
Have your students select one of the following issues to consider and write about for homework. Students then meet in small groups of students who selected the same topics to discuss and share their responses. Students may then add final reflections on their papers and turn them in to you.

Extension Activities
You may extend this assignment by asking your students to do additional research prior to writing their responses or after meeting in small groups for discussion. What other examples from legal systems worldwide can they find to bolster their arguments? For example, you may wish to have your students look more closely at variations in the interpretation and implementation of U.S. law and Sharia as well as other systems of law that value communal order over individual freedoms (e.g. Hong Kong).

  1. Legal Interpretation
Legal systems or codes, such as the U.S. Constitution and Sharia law, often vary widely in how they are interpreted and implemented. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about legal systems from just the written codes themselves or from how they are implemented in one place. One must know more about how the systems are used and interpreted. Consider:

What can you conclude about Sharia and how it compares to the system of law you may be most familiar with, the American system, in terms of flexibility, interpretation, and implementation? How should moral and legal codes be interpreted?

b. Severe Penalties
Many legal systems allow for severe penalties such as death, bodily injury, or life in prison. Sharia contains the penalties of amputation for theft, flogging for crimes such as alcohol consumption and sex before marriage, and death by stoning for adultery. Officials in Northern Nigeria support the use of harsh Sharia punishments, even while President Obasanjo has called the punishments discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. Compare and contrast what you know about the most severe penalties allowable under Sharia and the most severe penalty allowed under U.S. Law, the death penalty. Consider:

    • In the United States, 38 states allow the death penalty for crimes such as murder and treason.
    • Approximately two-thirds of Americans support use of the death penalty.

What can you conclude? What do you think should be allowable forms of punishment for the most severe crimes? Why? Are harsh punishments, such as amputations and death ever justified? Explain. Who should determine what the most serious crimes are and how frequently the most severe punishments should be used?

c. Security vs. Freedom
Experts on Nigeria and Islamic law claim that Nigerian Muslims have supported the reintroduction of Sharia out of a desire for order, safety, and security. Compare this to what many Americans felt after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the swift passage of the USA Patriot Act to combat terrorism. Consider:

What can you conclude about the circumstances under which people favor security and safety over freedom? When should individual freedoms (including freedom from harsh punishments as well as intrusions into one's privacy) be protected, regardless of the costs to society?

NCSS Thematic Strands:

  • Culture
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Global Connections
  • Civic Ideals and Practices


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