The word Sharia can evoke strong emotions among Americans. Some fear it's a form of Muslim law that's threatening to overtake the nation, while others say that's wildly inaccurate.

The debate unfolded again this month after the Republican National Committee released an online survey — polling voters on everything from the media to religion to Trump's job performance — that asks, "Are you concerned by the potential spread of Sharia Law?"

The question was criticized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations— which has asked the Republican leaders to remove it — as being misinformed and Islamophobic.

So what does Sharia really mean, and why is it causing such an uproar? With help from Temple University professor Khalid Blankinship, an expert in Muslim law, we answer some questions.

What is Sharia?

Sharia — an Arabic word that means "path to water" — is a set of principles that Muslims live by, covering everything from how to greet people to how to eat properly.

The principles vary widely. Blankinship offered a few general examples:

  • Eat with your right hand.
  • Don't overeat.
  • Bathe regularly.
  • Clean your mouth regularly.
  • Visit sick people.
  • Don't fail to visit your friends for more than three consecutive days.

"Everyone's life has to have some kind of moral or ethical basis," Blankinship said. "And for the Muslims, that's what it is."

So why are some people up in arms about Sharia?

There are some violent punishments associated with Sharia, such as stoning for adultery, or cutting off the hands of a thief. But these punishments are considered extreme, Blankinship said, and while terrorist groups such as ISIS may try to use them, most Muslims do not.

As he explains, Sharia is also not a codified law — it is a set of principles, not so different from Catholic Canon law and Jewish halakhah, which incorporates customs and what's written in the Torah.

Khalid Blankinship teaches courses on religion and Islam at Temple.
Provided by Khalid Blankinship
Khalid Blankinship teaches courses on religion and Islam at Temple.

"The biggest misconception about Sharia is that it is some kind of horrible, oppressive system that is going to come down on everyone and be forced on them and oppress them," Blankinship said.

Should we really be concerned about "the potential spread of Sharia Law," as the RNC survey asks?

The simple answer: No. Blankinship calls such fears "ridiculous."

"There are a lot of people who are ready to believe any kind of bad thing said about Muslims," he said. "There isn't any movement to establish the Sharia over other non-Muslim people."

That hasn't stopped some states from fearing otherwise.

Legislators across 42 states have introduced at least 120 versions of "anti-Sharia" bills since 2010, saying they want to prevent judges from considering a foreign legal code or system, such as Sharia, in place of the U.S. Constitution, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some states have passed the bills. Efforts to do so in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have failed.

Anti-Sharia marches gathered in dozens of U.S. cities in June, as seen here in San Bernardino, Calif.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Anti-Sharia marches gathered in dozens of U.S. cities in June, as seen here in San Bernardino, Calif.

In a letter asking for the Sharia question to be removed from the Republican National Committee's survey, the Council on American-Islamic Relations preached tolerance for American Muslims.

"The Republican Party should not allow its resources to be hijacked by those who would seek to use its stature in American society to fuel the rise of un-American and anti-Muslim bigotry in our country," CAIR's national executive director, Nihad Awad, wrote in the letter, directed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. "American Muslims deserve the same opportunities as all Americans."

How does the misinformation about Sharia affect Muslims in America?

Anti-Muslim assaults skyrocketed in 2016, when the FBI received reports of 127 victims — 34 more than the number reported in the second highest year, 2001, when Muslims were targeted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

President Trump has criticized Sharia. As a presidential candidate, he partly blamed it for the terrorist bombings that killed at least 30 people in Brussels, Belgium, suggesting that European Muslims "don't want laws that we have, they want Sharia Law. And you say to yourself, 'At what point, how much of this do you take?'"

Anti-Sharia marches also unfolded this year in dozens of cities, including Harrisburg, after they were organized by ACT for America, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group for its Islamophobic rhetoric.

But Blankinship said the efforts to turn Americans against Muslims haven't completely succeeded.

"Even though a lot of people are prepared to be hostile to Islam in general, when they actually meet the Muslims and interact with them, then they make exceptions for those people, and so they don't apply that to the people whom they actually see in front of themselves," Blankinship said. "And I think that helps out somewhat."