Last week’s comment from Usaama al-Azami, entitled ‘What the Sharia means to Muslims’, was instructive in providing just the reverse: it gave us an insight into what he believes to be the concerns the Sharia arouses amongst its detractors.Having noted the ‘extraordinarily negative public response’ to the Archbishop’s comments, and argued that the public reaction is influenced by misrepresentation and ‘misleading popular media images’ of the Sharia, (two truths probably beyond reasonable dispute), al-Azami makes the important claim that Muslims can be content to live under a system that conforms with the norms of Sharia. Avoiding pork and alcohol, he informs us, is perfectly compatible with UK law.So far so good. But al-Azami then reopens the problematic question of the Sharia penal code. One might wonder why, given that he had earlier stated that it was a ‘patently absurd suggestion that those [penal] aspects of the Sharia be introduced into British society.’ His motive becomes quite apparent: self-defence.We should not worry, so his new argument goes, because the few sections of the Sharia concerning penal measures were designed to make ‘a moral point,’ rather than being meant for actual implementation. We should rest easy in the knowledge that the standards of proof Sharia law subsequently requires are almost impossible to meet. Only almost, but that’s another matter.It is a pity that al-Azami chose to smuggle this exoneration into an otherwise thoughtful piece. In doing so, he implicitly demonstrated a failure to understand that it is at the Sharia’s moral subtext on penal matters that public outcry is – and should be – directed.We are fortunate to live in a country in which cruel and barbaric punishments have been outlawed. This is a form of progress which the Sharia orthodoxy adhered to by the judiciaries of Sudan, Iran et al. will never trump – progress I believe he supports. But we also live in a country where extra-marital relationships and homosexuality are no longer, to borrow his telling euphemism, ‘sexual misdemeanours.’ As such, the attempt to defend Sharia penal code as merely a moral device does nothing to lessen the repugnance of its proscriptions.What is revealing about his discussion is that Al-Azami does find non-practicability more palatable: having rejected the incorporation of Sharia penal code outright he has tried to salvage the morality underpinning it. Indeed, he must do this, if his vision of a society compatible with the norms of Sharia is to be realised.Here we have Al-Azami’s real answer to ‘What the Sharia means to Muslims’, and we have an admission that he cannot countenance the media hostility symptomatic of a public rejection of those values inextricable from his answer.

Mike Coombes is a PPE finalist.