Explainer: The Taliban and Islamic law in Afghanistan

Following the Taliban’s stunning takeover of the Afghan capital, Kabul, a pressing discussion has revolved around the new government’s legal system and, more specifically, how it will treat women.

After the Taliban’s victory last week, senior commander Waheedullah Hashimi laid out the broad strokes of how Afghanistan will be governed.

He said a council of Islamic scholars will determine the legal system and that an Islamic government will be guided by Islamic law, not the principles of democracy.

“There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country,” he said. “We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law and that is it,” he told Reuters.

In the group’s first press conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid assured women their rights would be respected “within the framework of Islamic law”, adding that women would have the right to education and work.

But Taliban officials remain vague on rules and restrictions, and how Islamic law will be implemented. It is, therefore, unclear what life will be like in the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the name the Taliban refers to the country by.

“We will proceed in the coming days to go about finding solutions like working on judiciary and [getting] religious scholars to review the system and its implementation … in light of the Islamic rules,” Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s Political Office in Doha, told Al Jazeera. “Let’s wait until the whole system is in place.”

“As for women, they can have their basic rights as per Islamic rules,” Shaheen added.

According to HA Hellyer, a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, this ambiguity may take time to clear.

“There will be many questions about how the Taliban will apply the Sharia, or Islamic law, in Afghanistan. There won’t be much clarity on this for some time,” said Hellyer.

Islamic law in Afghanistan

“Sharia” translates to “the way” in Arabic and refers to a wide-ranging body of moral and ethical principles drawn from the Quran and from the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad.

The principles vary according to the interpretation of various scholars who established schools of thought followed by Muslims who use them to guide their day-to-day lives.

Many Muslim-majority countries base their laws on their interpretation of the principles of Islamic law but, despite this, no two have identical laws.

Even in Afghanistan, while both the Taliban – which ruled the country between 1996 and 2001 – and the government of Ashraf Ghani claimed to uphold Islamic law, they had distinct legal systems.

The Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law comes from “the Deobandi strand of Hanafi jurisprudence” – a branch found across several parts of southeast Asia, including Pakistan and India – and the group’s own “lived experience as a predominantly rural and tribal society”, according to Talha Abdulrazaq, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.

Independent Afghan analyst Ahmed-Waleed Kakar said: “The Taliban can best be understood as ‘classical’ in interpretation, or veering more toward scholars seen as orthodox, such as those from the Indian subcontinent and Middle East.”

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, which was followed by Ghani’s government, included a preamble that the nation’s laws would not contravene Islam, but the Taliban critiqued it for trying to reconcile “Islamic principles with the liberal world order and the fact that it was written and enshrined under what they perceived to have been the hegemonic West”, according to Kakar, who is also the founder of the Afghan Eye.

He pointed to the entertainment industry operating freely under Ghani as an example of something the Taliban would perceive as “un-Islamic”.

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