Origins and definitions
Sharia is often referred to as Islamic law, but this is wrong, as only a small part is irrefutably based upon the core Islamic text, the Koran. Correct designations would be “Muslim Law”, “Islam-inspired”, “Islam-derived,” or even “the law system of Muslims.”
This is well known to most Muslims, yet Sharia is always referred to as “based upon the Koran”, hence it is the “will of God.”
One sees traces of many non-Muslim juridical systems in the Sharia, such as Old Arab Bedouin law, commercial law from Mecca, agrarian law from Madina, law from the conquered countries, Roman law and Jewish law.
Also, calling the Sharia ‘law’ can be misleading, as Sharia extends beyond law. Sharia is the totality of religious, political, social, domestic and private life. Sharia is primarily meant for all Muslims, but applies to a certain extent also for people living inside a Muslim society. Muslims are not totally bound by the Sharia when they live or travel outside the Muslim world.
Dogmatically, Sharia is not something the intelligence of man can prove wrong, it is only to be accepted by humans, since it is based on the will of God. This is clear from what we read in the Koran:
Koran sura 45: The Kneeling
17 …then we gave you a Sharia in religion, follow it, and do not follow the lust of those who do not know…
The regulations of the Sharia can be divided into two groups:
- regulations on worship and ritual duties
- regulations of juridical and political nature
Use in modern times
But despite this, many parts of the Sharia have no or little importance in most Muslim societies, except in those that have gone through a phase of Islamization (Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Libya). But the Sharia has much importance in domestic judicial fields like family, marriage and inheritance.
The modernist movement in Islam has opposed the traditional view of Sharia stating that the law cannot be changed by man, insisting that it should be applied to the actual situation and new ideas, meaning that new interpretations are allowed.
In Sunni Islam, there are four schools, madhhab, which all coexist in peace. No war has ever been fought over the issue of different schools, and students of religious subjects in most Muslim countries have to learn about all four schools. It is in many cases permissible to use a law from another school, if one feels that it is more appropriate. All schools have a lot in common, but there are many cases where the same act is regarded very differently. For the very same issue the schools can stretch from classifying things to be everything between forbidden and meritorious.
Fiqh is the science of Sharia, and is sometimes used as synonymous with it. Fiqh is collected in a number of books which are studied by students and used by the ulama. These books are studied and interpreted according to rules found in school, madhhab, the student or learned man belongs to. But most people belonging to the ulama cannot interpret freely the fiqh- books, this is a right reserved for the mufti, who can issue fatwas, ‘legal opinions’.