Sharia Law is a widely debated topic on the international stage. Many people think of it as an extremist body of law that is used to implement strict Islamic law on non-Muslims. However, in most Muslim countries, Sharia Law is simply a form of religious guidance that helps Muslims stay in adherence to their faith throughout their day-to-day lives.

In this article, we will explore Sharia Law and its place in the Muslim world. Our religious experts will tell everything about the basics of Sharia Law and its implementation in Muslim society.

What is Sharia Law?

Sharia Law is the legal system of the religion of Islam. It is derived from interpretations of the Qur’an. Only around 10 percent of the Qur’an deals with law. Therefore, interpretations have historically varied among scholars. These interpretations develop and influence the legal rulings of Muslim scholars and jurists throughout Islamic society.

Sharia Law Definition

“Sharia,” also known as “Shariah Law,” translates to “the path” or, more precisely, “the clear, well-trodden path to water.”

Sharia Law is much different from concrete, established civil law. It is instead a more generic guidance, given by Islamic scholars and jurists that derive it from the Qur’an and other teachings of the Prophet Muhammed. These human interpretations of the holy book are called “fiqh.”

Sharia Law was created to put all Muslims on the righteous path of religious adherence in their day-to-day lives. Sharia Law is a guidance system for Muslims to stay on the right path of the Islamic faith, rather than a specific body of law, with articles and commas. This makes it more philosophical and theological than a state-run body of concrete laws.

Sharia Law is the central guidance system for Muslim rituals, such as fasting, pilgrimage, and daily prayer.

Roots of the Sharia Law

During his lifetime, the Prophet Mohammed served as the judge for legal decisions and laid down basic behavioral codes for the Islamic faith: the tenets of Sharia Law.

As the Muslim faith began to expand throughout North Africa and the Middle East following Muhammed’s death, his successors had to decide how these religious law decisions would interact with already-established laws in regions they conquered.

Judges, called “qadis” were placed throughout regions of the Muslim world, creating a complex, organized judicial system of Islamic law. Over time, the evolution of the strict interpretations of the Qur’an progressively became more complex.

During the 8th century, literature written by Muslim judges and scholars aimed to create a more uniform interpretation of the law.

Schools of Sharia Law

Since the origin of Sharia Law, written interpretations of Sharia Law spread throughout the Muslim world. These interpretations began to branch off into various “schools,” largely based on the teachings of specific jurists.

– Sunni Schools of Sharia Law

There are four Sunni schools of Sharia Law: Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali and Shafi’i. The teachings of Mālik ibn Anas, the most prominent scholar in the Arabian city of Medina in the late 8th century, constituted the basis of the Maliki school.

The Hanafi school, for its part, derived from the Kufah school and was based on the teachings of Abū Ḥanīfah, who was also a prominent jurist during the late 8th century. These two schools tended to deviate from the strict teachings of Muhammad, based on regional decisions made by jurists.

The Hanbali and Shafi’i schools that emerged in the 9th century, instead, focused on reducing the deviations of these regionally focused schools in pursuit of the authentic, pure interpretation of Islam and its sacred texts, as it was intended by the Prophet and his followers.

Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal chiefly focused on upholding the traditions of Muhammed and the decisions of the early jurists of Sharia Law. Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī, instead, focused on strict adherence to the teachings of the Qur’an and the law decisions made by the Prophet.

He created a strict system of interpreting Qur’an law and establishing it in civil law. These two schools created the “Hadith”, the collection of the recorded sayings of the Prophet, a prominent part of the interpretation of Muslim law.

– Shia Schools of Sharia Law

There is one Shia school of jurisprudence, Shia Jaafari. This school had much more focus on the rulings and interpretations of the rulers of Muslim lands.

Over time these different schools began to dominate the Muslim world. The Hanafi school began to dominate the bulk of the Middle East and Western India, and the Maliki began to dominate North, West, and Central Africa.

Shafi’i began to dominate East Africa, some regions in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east as Malaysia and Indonesia. Hanbali became the dominant law in Saudi Arabia, while Shia became the dominant law in Iran and other Shia communities in India and East Africa. The smallest school, Ibadi, became dominant in Oman, Zanzibar, and some regions of Algeria.

Misconceptions of Sharia

While many outsiders think that Sharia Law is a strict religious law that is run by governments, this goes against many early interpretations of what Sharia Law should be. Early Muslim scholars believed that it was not the job of rulers to enforce Sharia Law, who instead should enforce “Siyasa,” which is closer to civil law.

This meant that in Muslim societies, acts and beliefs that went against Islam were allowed to go unpunished as long as they did not break civil law. Many historians have pointed that European colonialism has contributed greatly to the centralization of Islamic law throughout the Muslim world.

While historically, Muslim society was marked by a separation between civil law and religious Sharia Law, European colonizers tried to turn these Muslim societies into nation-states.

As a core component of nation-states was a centralized body of law, this influenced governments of some newly independent Muslim countries to abandon the separated structure of Islamic and civil law for a unified body of law.

Is Sharia Extremist?

With the rise of violent groups like the Islamic State, many Western critics of Sharia Law have condemned it as a way to forcefully spread harsh religious law across the world to impose it on non-Muslims.

However, this idea of conquest goes completely against the Qur’an and how scholars interpret it. Not only have Muslims lived peacefully in non-Muslims society for centuries, but most Muslim societies have historically allowed minorities of non-Muslims to practice their religions.

For example, the Muslim conquests of the 7th century throughout North Africa and the Middle East were marked by significant religious tolerance, even compared to many Christian states in Europe.

Punishment in Sharia Law

Let’s find out something more about Sharia Law rules and punishment. In Sharia Law, “hadd” offenses are serious crimes that demand pre-established punishments. Some examples include the amputation of a hand for stealing or stoning to death for adultery.

However, many Islamic scholars point out that there is a high burden of proof that needs to be met to result in these harsh punishments. The amputation of limbs is only used when the item stolen is exceedingly expensive. Stoning for extramarital affairs must meet the extreme burden of proof of four eyewitnesses, making it very rare in its implementation.

The international community and the UN have openly condemned stoning as a cruel and unjust punishment. But in truth, these harsh punishments were much more common in traditional Sharia Law, and have become considerably less common in recent years. “Tazir” crimes tend to be smaller offenses and their punishments are usually left to the discretion of a religious judge.

It should be noted that Sharia Law is not simply a tool of punishment for sins against Allah. It also praises and celebrates good behaviors that benefit society.

– Offenses in Sharia Law

Let’s see together what are the worst offenses that believers can commit in Sharia Law. “Apostasy,” the conversion out of Islam to another faith, can range in punishments depending on the country.

While most Muslims face only social pressure when leaving the Islamic faith, stricter Muslim countries have sentenced people to death for apostasy. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan have all sentenced citizens to death for apostasy as recently as the 2010s.

The crime of “blasphemy” comprises any form of insult towards the Muslim faith. While more conservative Muslims advocate for punishment against blasphemy, others have criticized it as a massive breach of free speech that is unfairly used against non-Muslims.

The issue of blasphemy especially rose to importance in the country of Pakistan, where the government imprisoned over a thousand people for the offense (mostly Christians and Ahmadis.)

There has been growing controversy surrounding the punishment of homosexuals in the Muslim world through Sharia Law. Some countries, such as Brunei, have even considered homosexual intercourse a capital offense that is punishable by death. This has been condemned by the international community and has resulted in many strict Islamic governments having a more relaxed view of homosexuality.

– How Is Sharia Law enforced?

Islamic jurists and scholars are in charge of issuing rulings passed on their interpretations of the Qur’an. These rulings are known as “fatwa.”

While stricter Muslim regimes enforce Sharia as a governmental body of law, most Muslims use Sharia Law to stay on the righteous path of their faith in their day-to-day lives. Muslims often go to jurists and scholars for religious guidance and interpretation.

Sharia councils that are found in many countries outside of the Muslim world are often used for religious disputes, such as a religious divorce.

The Diversity of Sharia Law

Sharia Law can rule over many aspects of the day-to-day life of Muslims, depending on the country in which it is implemented.

The country that most reflects strict state-run Sharia Law is by far Saudi Arabia. Since the early 20th century, the country has been ruled by a monarchy that is influenced by puritan Wahhabi Sunni Islamic thought.

Many have accused the Saudi Arabian government of using Sharia Law to imprison or punish political dissenters under the guise of religious jurisprudence. The Saudi government even has a “religious police” that ensures that the country’s population adheres to the ultraconservative Wahhabi body of Sharia Law.

In other Muslim countries, bodies of Sharia Law and religious jurists serve as counselors of religious guidance and advice. In these countries, Sharia Law is largely confined to religious family law and waqf, or Islamic religious endowment.

Women in Sharia Law

In the Islamic religion, both men and women are seen as equals, though there are many differences in the roles of women and men in Muslim society. Violence against women is strictly prohibited, as specifically condemned by the Prophet Muhammed — although a passage in the Qur’an permits men to inflict small acts of physical discipline against their wives as a last resort.

Throughout the early 20th century, many laws were passed in Muslim countries that granted women the ability to divorce, as well as laws that prohibited the marriage to women considered underage — usually, below sixteen years of age. Therefore, Sharia Law for women is actually a means for protecting their rights.

Some nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have been condemned widely for unfair laws against women. In Saudi Arabia, women are, along with other restrictions, not allowed to obtain a driver’s license and must wear loose-fitting clothes in public. Iran explicitly restricts women from attending soccer games.

Despite this strict gender division, the wider body of Islamic scholars has a much more feminist view on how Sharia Law should rule.

– Upholding the Rights of Women

Astounding proof of the evolution of Sharia Law is its stance on abortion. While abortion is largely banned across the Muslim world, many scholars allow abortion in the first trimester of pregnancies. Some Muslim women are allowed to participate in militaries and fight in war. In this regard, scholars cite that many women fought aside the Prophet Muhammed.

In many ways, historically women living in Islamic societies could have more rights than women living in Western Europe. For example, women had strong property rights in Islamic society at a time when European women had very little.

However, women still have a largely unequal footing in Sharia Law compared to men. While this inequality may be less conspicuous in more relaxed Muslim societies, the inequality between male and female Muslims will remain a central issue in the reform of Sharia Law.

– Family Law

Family law, dominated by Sharia, is also male-dominated. For example, Muslim fathers are allowed to put their daughters up for marriage through legal contract, even if she is still not considered an adult.

Yet, it is the father that allows for his daughter’s marriage. If the daughter is not a virgin, she must give her permission for the marriage. The issue of a daughter’s rejection of the husband is widely debated by scholars.

In traditional Sharia Law, husbands can practice polygamy, having up to four wives at a time. A husband is expected to pay his wife an agreed-upon sum of money for her hand in marriage.

Divorce is allowed in Sharia Law and is carried out in simple procedure if both parties agree to it. Usually, the wife has to pay back the sum of money given to her by the husband. Unilateral divorce is much easier for men than women, as they can simply repudiate their wife. The wife must prove some kind of abuse or failure to provide on the part of her husband.

For a child to be considered legitimate, it must be reasonably proved that it was conceived by a legally married couple. For a father to gain legal guardianship of an illegitimate child conceived outside of wedlock, the father must publicly claim them as his own. The mother is always legally tied to the child, even if it is illegitimate.

– Sharia Law and Extremism

While the majority of Muslim scholars and jurists consider violence against innocent non-Muslims as against the teachings of the Prophet, many Muslim extremists have used Sharia Law to justify acts of terrorism.

Many of these violent jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State, hope to implement strict Salafist Sharia Law across the Middle East and beyond. The wide-ranging, subjective interpretations of the Qur’an allow many of these groups to rationalize and justify their violence.

Parallels with Other Legal Systems

Surprisingly, Sharia Law has much in common with the legal tradition in Judaism. Both religions use a holy text as the inspiration for their laws, along with prophetic traditions and practices that are passed down each generation. Both the words “Sharia” and “Halakha,” (the legal jurisprudence of Judaism) translate loosely to “the path to follow.”

Many scholars claim that Islamic law, especially in its early classical form, had a great influence on Western legal systems that came after it, especially English common law. One prominent example is the endowment, as the Islamic waqf and English trust have much in common.

Some have speculated that international laws of the sea created by Muslim scholars as part of Sharia Law heavily influenced Roman sea law. Some have even speculated that the modern university system derived out of the Islamic world.

However, there are also major distinctions that separate Sharia Law from other systems of law. Sharia Law covers not only the secular relationships a person has with fellow citizens and the government, it also covers the relationship a person has with god and their religion.

While Western law is predicated on forming concrete laws that are impervious to ethical subjectivity, Sharia Law is chiefly concerned with the ethics of being a good Muslim and is open to wide interpretation by scholars, jurists, and governments.

Conclusion

We have covered many aspects of Sharia Law in the Muslim world. Let’s go over the main ideas to help you memorize the main points:

  • Sharia Law is the legal jurisprudence of the Islamic religion.
  • It derives from the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • Sharia Law is created by the interpretations of Muslim jurists and scholars.
  • As Islam spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic religious law began to evolve and started to meld with secular civil law.
  • Sharia Law has been reformed continually throughout history, especially during the 20th century when it became much less strict
  • While a minority of Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, enforce strict religious law, most examples of Sharia Law are confined to religious and family law.

Sharia Law is a prime example of a diverse body of law that has evolved greatly over time. While the term “sharia” often has the connotation of harsh punishments or lack of freedom in the Western world, to most Muslims Sharia Law is simply a system of beliefs that keeps them on the righteous path of their religion.

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