Published: 09:49 GMT Standard Time - Tuesday 09 February 2010
What is Shari'a?
Please Note: This article was originally published in the January/February 2007 Barnabas Aid Magazine. It formed part of a series of articles explaining the basic background to Islam and some of it's key concepts. It also constituted part of the resource material for "The Other Nine" campaign.
In the twenty-first century there are increasing calls for greater Shari‘a-compliance in the West, especially in the UK, and for full Shari‘a to be practised in more Muslim-majority countries.
Shari‘a is an Arabic word meaning “path” or “way”. Nowadays it is used to mean “Islamic law”, the detailed system of religious law developed by Muslim scholars in the first three centuries of Islam. This law expresses the Islamic way of life and – much more than the Qur’an - is the key to understanding Islam.
Shari‘a covers all aspects of life and does not separate between secular and religious spheres. It provides a framework of dos and don’ts, rituals and rules within which a Muslim leads his or her life.
Most Muslims hold that Shari‘a protects them from sin like a fence or a roadblock. It also serves as an identity marker separating Muslims from non-Muslims. Shari‘a influences the behaviour and worldview of most Muslims, even in secular states where it forms no part of the law of the land.
The perfect divine norm
Most Muslims believe that Shari‘a, as God’s revealed law, perfect and eternal, is binding on individuals, society and state in all its details. They therefore believe that any criticism of Shari‘a is heresy. Most Sunni Muslims believe it to be completely unchangeable, although Shi‘as allow for the possibility of interpreting and adapting it to new circumstances.
Muslims who deny the validity of Shari‘a or criticise it in any way are labelled as non-Muslims (infidels, apostates) by traditionalists and Islamists. As such they face the threat of being prosecuted as apostates, a crime that carries the death penalty in Shari‘a.
Development and characteristics of shari‘a
Shari‘a systematises all human acts
Shari‘a is a complex legal system derived from the Islamic source texts Qur’an and hadith (traditions of Muhammad’s words and deeds) through interpretation, commentary and case law. It was created in a context in which Muslims held political power, and thus lacks guidance for Muslims living as a minority under non-Muslims.
Shari‘a tries to describe in detail all possible human acts, dividing them into permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram). It subdivides them into various degrees of good or evil such as obligatory, recommended, neutral, objectionable or forbidden. It is a vast compendium of rules, regulating in detail all matters of devotional life, worship, ritual purity, marriage and inheritance, criminal offences, commerce and personal conduct. It also regulates the governing of the Islamic state and its relations to non-Muslims within the state as well as to enemies outside the state.
Schools of law
Four Sunni orthodox schools of law, named after their founders, developed and were codified by the end of the tenth century. These are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali schools. These schools differ somewhat in the way they arrive at legal decisions, but they accept each other as orthodox. The Shi‘a version is very similar to the Sunni schools.
The work of the founders was continued by their disciples, and over the centuries several widely accepted handbooks of law were composed by famous scholars. Modern Muslim jurists often differentiate between Shari‘a as revealed divine law and fiqh, the jurist’s interpretation of Shari‘a.
Attempts at reform and the Islamist backlash
Since the nineteenth century there have been efforts at reforming Shari‘a in a liberal direction in order to accommodate it to the modern world. Most reformers saw the return to the sources of Islam as the “golden key” that would cure Muslim societies of their backward state and political weakness. Many downgraded the authority of the four legal schools and of later traditions; this approach enabled jurists to select and mix from the different schools and to make the good of the community (maslaha) their ultimate guiding principle. Most such reformers stressed the importance of reason, and differentiated between a core of universal values in Shari‘a that was unchangeable and eternal, and the larger part dealing with social relations that was open to change and adaptation to new contexts.
In the contemporary Muslim world, however, it is the traditionalists and especially the Islamists, upholders of the traditional view of Shari‘a, who are dominating Muslim public opinion. This leaves liberal reformers as a small minority surviving mainly in the West. Liberal reformers face heavy pressure from Islamists and traditionalists who brand them apostates and infidels and attack them verbally, legally and physically.
Shari‘a and modern standards
Muslims often claim that Shari‘a was quite moderate by the standards of the seventh to tenth centuries when it was created. However it has remained unchanged since then, and is thus extremely harsh compared to modern Western standards. It infringes many modern principles of human rights, religious freedom and equality of all before the law. Shari‘a inherently discriminates against women, non-Muslims and “heretical Muslims” as well as against Muslims who choose to convert to another faith.