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Historical background

The most characteristic activity of Islamic scholarship has not been, as in other religions, theology, but the study and explication of the Law. The Arab-Muslim Empire found itself in need of a legal system for the exigencies of political power and did not have any coherent earlier legal system of its own at its disposal as the early Christians did in the legal system of the Roman Empire.

The Bedouin Arabs were individualistic; they had no law and no constitution, they simply feared their tribal gods. There were more developed legal ideas at the trading centre of Mecca and the Jews of the Hijaz had Jewish law. Some of the nearby conquered lands had lived under Roman law for many years.

In establishing Islamic law the Quran along with the hadith was the first resort which the early Khalifas decided to adopt. This was comparatively simple for all they had to do was to administer the law according to the opinions which they knew Muhammad had held. The memories of his companions lengthened as the years went by; as it was necessary to have his sanction for all that was done. In forming their judgements they had no recourse either to speculation, to private opinion, or to arguments founded upon analogy.

Muslim law evolved over a couple of hundred years, in the countries at the heart of the Islamic empire. The Islamic conquest made Arabia wealthy. Money, slaves, and the luxuries of the Syrian and Persian civilizations influenced the conquerors. While the military commanders devoted themselves to conquest, the scholars who stayed behind spent a great deal of time interpreting the Quran, and studying the Hadith. Separated from the seat of political power which had been transferred to Damascus, these scholars prepared an ideal picture of Islam. It was completed by the Sunni law schools in the ninth century e. g. the collection of Al Bukhari who died 257 years after the Hijra.

A study of the history of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties show that the practical politicians had problems in keeping to the exact letter of the law which was being formed by the scholars. The usual result was for the politicians to enforce whichever aspect of the sharia suited them at any particular time.


The Sharia – the complete way of life

It has been said that every Arabic word basically has some connection with the camel. ‘Sharia’ is the road to the watering place, the clear path to be followed. So the word has come to mean the path (way) to be followed by Muslims, in the hope of arriving at the place where rivers flow under the garden, the paradise of the Quran. The Sharia is the canon law of Islam, said to have been given by Allah. It is mentioned in the Quran: “Then We put thee on the (right) way (sharia) of religion: so follow thou that (way), and follow not the desires of those who know not” (Al-Jathiyah 45:18).

Muslims say that Islam is the complete way of life not only for Muslims, but for all mankind, and the Sharia is the code of law by which a person can arrive at that ideal life. Many Muslims claim that the Sharia is permanent for all people in all nations, and does not change with time and conditions they therefore seek to introduce the system in countries throughout the world. It is seen primarily as an all-embracing legal system, which should ideally govern all phases of Islamic life however, for practical reasons of public welfare Muslim rulers have often suspended the application of certain portions of the public law substituting it with secular law; this has been especially true for the laws of punishment. The divine law, it is said, has not been revoked but has not been enforced for temporal reasons.

Muslims then, conceived their religion as being a community which says yes to Allah and his world in which legal performances were looked upon as being of positive religious value. Many Muslims belong to one of the four legal schools (madhab) whose precepts dictate how they are to perform their religious duties and how they are to interpret the law. They may feel the school they follow is best and while there have been occasions of religious and political tensions between one school and another – the official position is that all four are right and. Many western Muslims draw their guidance from multiple ones although most authorities consider this is not permissible.

For practical purposes the Sharia covers: 1) The whole aspect of the duties of Muslims in connection with their religious, political, social and personal lives while within a Muslim country. 2) The regulations of ritual duties of Muslims while outside a Muslim country. 3) The activities of members of other religions which may be tolerated within a Muslim country insofar as they may not be detrimental to Islam.

A Muslim is expected to accept the Sharia without inquiring into the principles on which it is based or the reason for its demands. Muslims who would like to bring the Sharia up to date are considered heretics. Those who have put forward proposals for a modernised law know that their lives are at risk from the fundamentalists.
While there is no priesthood or clergy in Islam a class have acquired social and religious prestige identical to that exercised by the priests of other religions. This is the ulema (the learned) and the fuqaha (lawyers) – the scholars and custodians of the law. It is they who have traditionally decided what is the ‘official position.’ The legal texts produced by the ulema while authoritative are not held to be infallible and they frequently differed amongst themselves. Exactly what bearing their endeavours should have on the life of Muslims today is one of the more pressing and hotly debated issues of modern Islam. It is an extremely sensitive area.


The sources of the Sharia
There are four sources of the Sharia Law and they are called the ‘Usul al Figh.’ 1. The Quran; 2) The Hadith; 3) ijma’ (unanimous consent); 4) qiyas (reasoning by analogy). A Muslim would say that the Quran is the main basis of the Sharia however, the total number of Quranic verses considered to have legal importance is not more than 600. The example of Muhammad as found in the traditions, or Hadith provides the details of the conduct commanded by the Quran.

The principle of unanimous consent (ijma‘)
With the expansion of the empire and under new conditions of life, questions arose about which Muhammad had given no explicit direction. In these circumstances Muslim doctors had recourse to the exercise of their own reason, thus giving rise to a new criterion, ijma’. The original founders of the Muslim law schools varied in their use of the Quran and the Hadith. When abrogation was a problem, they sometimes agreed on various issues, and some considered that this consensus or agreement itself (ijma‘) could be used as a basis for the Sharia.

This foundation of the unanimous consent of the doctors is based on the words said to be affirmed by Muhammad “My people will never agree in an error.” An interesting example of the exercise of this principle in its simplest form can be seen in the election of Abu Bakr to the Caliphate. This act came to be spoken of as the ijma’-ul-ummat, or the unanimous consent of the Muslim community. The “six books” of the ahadith and the four schools of law also owe their official recognition to the ijma‘ of the Muslim people.
At first it seemed natural to conclude that such agreement should be found only in the opinions of the Companions of the Prophet and their successors (the Sahaabah), because, as the first disciples, they were supposed to have been directly trained by Muhammad, and because all of them had lived in what came to be thought of as the golden age of Islam. There were some who restricted the principle to the ijma’ of the Ashab, i.e. the Companions, including the first four caliphs but in practice it was found impossible to limit its use to these.

The principle of analogical reasoning (qiyas)
A further additional procedure was the practice of reasoning “by analogy.” Once again it was justified by an incident recorded in the life of Muhammad. He wished to send a man named Mu’adh to Yaman to receive some money collected for alms, which he was then to distribute to the poor. On appointing him, he said: “O Mu’adh, by what rule will you act?” He replied, “By the law of the Quran.” “But if you find no direction therein?” “Then I will act according to the sunna of the Prophet.” “But what if that fails?” “Then I will make a logical deduction and act on that.” Muhammad is reported to have raised his hand and said, “Praise be to God who guides the messenger of His Prophet in what He pleases !”

This principle embodies the idea, held tenaciously by the orthodox that in Islam a perfect law has been given to govern the details of religious, social and political life. In other words, it is believed that the teaching of Muhammad contains the solution of every difficulty likely to arise: that is to say, every law not provided, can be, and must be, deduced analogically, and since all first principles are contained in the Quran and the sunna, what does not coincide with them must be wrong.


Fiqh (‘understanding’) – the science of laws in respect of all aspects of religious, political and civil life
Books dealing with law were written before the hadith, because this was encouraged by the state. The different law schools which later developed, worked out in minute detail the various regulations affecting the total life of Muslims, this jurisprudence is called fiqh. The four principle methods from which legal prescriptions derived were: the Quran, Sunna, qiyas, and ijima – fiqh became the science which co-ordinated all these roots.

The Ummayads failed to develop a systematic codification of the material in existence. An endeavour to harness a completed system, based on these roots, was made in the second century A.H. under the Abbasids in Medina, Syria and Iraq. In selecting one of the roots in preference to another they attained different results on particular points of law. The oldest corpus which has survived is the Sunni Muwatta (‘the paved way’) of the Medina teacher Malik b. Anas (715-795). He created an original synthesis of the four roots of jurisprudence in the chapters on private law. At the same time the fiqh was being developed in other lands of the Muslim Empire particularly in Iraq from where Abu Hanifa’s school originated.

While Sharia is believed by Muslims to represent divine law as revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah, fiqh is the human understanding of the Sharia expanded and developed by interpretation (ijtihad) of the Quran and Sunnah by Islamic jurists (ulama) and implemented by the rulings (fatwa) of jurists on questions presented to them. A person trained in fiqh is known as a Faqih (plural Fuqaha). Sharia is immutable and infallible, fiqh is fallible and changeable.

Issues that fiqh addresses are religious observances (ibadat); what should be performed and what should be abstained. Family law, law of inheritance, of property and contract – all legal questions that arise in social life – criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, administration of the state and conduct of war.

At present fiqh has developed in four directions within Sunni Islam, they are called after the the Imams on whose teaching they are founded. The Hanafi School is the most prominent – it was the only authoritative code of law in the public life and official administration of justice in all the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The schools differ from one another only in details which do not constitute fundamental differences. In the Al-Azhar University all four schools are represented as was the condition of the schools before the Ottoman supremacy.

The Shia’ have developed their own legal systems, particularly rich are ‘the Twelvers’ and the Zaidi’s. The most fundamental differences between these and the Sunni lie in constitutional law concerning the caliphate. Shia’s also allow differences in marriage (mut’a) and marriage with women from Jewish and Christian backgrounds (ahl-e-kitab). Their are trifling differences in their call to prayer liturgy and their calendar of feasts, the differences are scarcely more considerable than the differences between the four Sunni schools.


Present day practice and problems with Sharia law
Modern conditions have produced reforms of legal practice in some Muslim countries. Some Muslims say that ‘ijma’ can be used to develop and adapt Islamic law to changing circumstances, and every opinion which is not rejected unanimously will not entail excommunication.
In some Muslim countries, there are two codes of law administered by two separate courts. One judges by the Sharia for private and family affairs, marriages, divorces, inheritance, details of ritual law, law of oaths and vows. Yet in the “family law” courts there are problems for citizens who are not Muslims for example no non-Muslim is allowed to inherit from a Muslim. The other court administers the law and custom of the country, and decides all matters of public and criminal law. Muslim fundamentalists say only heretics and unbelievers take part in such non-Sharia courts, as the Sharia cannot be divided.
In countries which do not have a majority Muslim population, efforts are made to persuade the non-Muslim majority that Muslims should be allowed to live under their own law, beginning with the ‘family law’. Non-Muslim citizens and visitors to Muslim countries are advised to not offend any aspect of Islam, whether religious, political or cultural. Muslims, however, when living in non-Muslim countries, expect to continue their Muslim practices.
Muslim fundamentalists call for a return to the Sharia throughout the world, and brand reformers as heretics. They look back to the days of the ‘rightly guided’ khalifs when there was one law in Islam, and forward to the days of the Mahdi, when the law will be restored. They are convinced that the law which was finalised in the ninth or tenth century is perfect for today. Yet even in the early period of Islam, the Sharia was not always practised as practical rulers often used the customary law found in their conquered territories.
Supporters of the Islamic fundamentalists aim to convert the world to Islam. They say that an Islamic state is based on the model of Muhammad’s state in Medina. In countries where the attempt has been made to introduce the Muslim Sharia as the law of the land, non-Muslims have suffered, and no attempt is made to observe human rights as called for by the United Nations.
It is incorrect to say that there is a unified concept of the sharia law as several competing versions of it exist. They were devised by different scholars of the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. Problems arise because the sharia has little to say about modern situations in which Muslims may be unsure how to conduct themselves. Perplexed, Muslims therefore turn to their modern leaders for guidance and those leaders give a variety of different instructions which fail to unify the Muslim community.





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6 Responses to “Introduction to Sharia Law”

  • Andrew:

    I found this article very helpful. I am a Christian interested in incorporating Muslim practices into my spiritual and natural life — and Sharia covers both! I love the idea of having an all-encompassing law governing every aspect of individual and social life. Where can I find out what Sharia has to say about such things as dress, hygiene, eating, and prayer?

    I want to merge my Christian faith with Sharia. The Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc said that Islam is not another religion but a Christian heresy. So much good in Islam — why not appropriate it for Christianity? The rise of Islam, the way it absolutely exploded over the world from a “mustard seed” (Mark 4:31), can only be attributed to God or Satan. If the origin of Islam was, in some way, the resurrected Christ (and may not Muhammad be the resurrected Christ?), then Islam is a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Galatians 3:24).

    Please suggest reading materials. I do not want to rely on wikipedia for my knowledge of Islam.

    • admin:

      In our opinion it is impossible to incorporate Muslim practices into a healthy Christian life-style. The first basic duty is to believe there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah such pronouncements rule the Christian faith out of existance. Islam and Christianity are contrary to one another not complimentary.

      You may begin finding out about what Islam teaches about dress, hygiene, eating, and prayer by consulting the ahadith where you find that behaviour and practice are identified with following the example, words, conduct of Muhammad; known as the Sunna. The most famous collection of hadith is that known as Sahih Bukhari which covers these areas. You may be surprised at what you find there. It may not be as you expected, and you may well need some help in interpreting it.

      The Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc you quoted in saying that “Islam is not another religion but a Christian heresy” may have had it in mind that Islam is false and is a misrepresentation of the Christian faith, for that reason it is a heresy. The early Apostolic Fathers had to deal with misrepresentations of the gospel in such movements as Arianism and Gnosticism which wanted to encroach on the church.

      Your quotation of Mark 4:31 is spoken of in the context of the kingdom of God and refers to the growth which will occur as the gospel is proclaimed it has nothing to do with Islam. The school-master which brings us to Christ (Galatians 3:24) is the law, which made us conscious of our sinful standing before God. There is no longer the need to live under a schoolmaster and the text continues that we are justified by faith. Your suggestion that the origin of Islam can be viewed as Muhammad being the resurrected Christ not only suggests a denial of the historical resurrection of Christ but flies in the face of Islamic Christology.

      Christians live out their lives seeking to please the Saviour through whom they have obtained salvation. Religious laws and regulations bring us into a system of slavery, and with Islam it is a system still embedded in the 7th century. Why would anyone want to incorporate such strictures into a mode of life in which we live as the free sons and daughters of God?

      As far as reading materials are concerned much of it is academic and as far as I am aware does not cover the exclusive issues you have raised. In fact many modern liberal Muslims are wanting to reject the Sharia code of law for all sorts of reasons and are wanting to sanitise the hadith. If you are not familiar with the Hadith perhaps you may like to start looking at Hadiths on prayer in our hadith section.

      We would be very happy to hear from you again should you want to develop this conversation.

      • Andrew:

        You have written a very sensible and perfectly reasonable reply. My original comment was made in a spirit of speculation, rather than as an opinion I firmly hold.

        I would have to agree completely with everything you have said (for it is the logical position), were it not for a couple of questions—questions you may find bizarre or ridiculous. (I am thinking way outside the box!) I will reply soon with these two questions, which I hope you can answer.

        P.S. Can you tell me a bit about Zwemer’s book “The Muslim Christ”? Do Muslims take Muhammad as their messiah? I read an encomium of Muhammad which suggested he was with God in the beginning, that he preexisted his human life! (Unfortunately I can no longer locate this encomium.) And Muhammad himself said, “I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay.” Do any Muslims believe that Muhammad was/is in some sense divine?

        P.P.S. One very attractive thing about Islam is its complete and uncompromising iconoclasm! No idols in Muslim places of worship! I am ex-Catholic, so I take very seriously the issue of idolatry.

      • Andrew:

        My question is, How do you account for Muhammad, his revelations, and the rise of Islam (it exploded across the world)? It seems to me that the explanation must be supernatural. Muhammad was not just an ordinary man, and his religion was not a natural historical phenomenon. Either Muhammad and Islam were inspired and raised by God, or they were inspired and raised by fallen spirits. For the Christian, there are problems with either explanation. If God raised Muhammad and Islam, then why are parts of the Quran and Sunna explicitly contrary to Christianity? If Satan raised Muhammad and Islam, why is there so much good in Islam: theology, ethics, charity, prayer, social justice, monotheism, iconoclasm, etc. etc. (The list goes on!) All of this good is very, very Christian. Muhammad, his revelations, and Islam are in perfect, breathtaking harmony with the sermon on the mount. Can all the good in Islam have originated from Satan? Can the sublime words of the Quran be from Satan? Or look at all the insanely sublimely beautiful mosques throughout the world! Can such beauty be from Satan? Obviously, there is a problem here, one we must try to resolve.

        Let me suggest an answer. I call it the “sheep trap” theory. Many of the world’s religions have two sides: the outside and the inside. On the outside, justice, righteousness, faith in God, charity, and such noble ideals are preached. This is to attract lost people, lost sheep, in. Then, once they are inside, Christ the Son of God is eventually taught in secret, as a revelation in the Holy Ghost. (And the name revealed may not be “Christ,” but an equivalent.) Take Sikhism, for an example. It looks fantastic on the outside and appeals to people of a certain mindset. Christ is not preached on the outside; He is too precious and lofty for that. Once the sheep are inside Sikhism, then the Holy Ghost takes over and Christ, the Son of God, is revealed in some manner, more or less explicitly. This revelation could take place in a number of ways, not just direct communication. The Holy Ghost rules here, and there are many ways to make the sheep Christian—in dreams, for example. My theory is that Muhammad and Islam were raised by God to create a VERY POWERFUL sheep trap. Many of the sheep inside Islam worship Christ in secret. But it remains a secret to those on the outside.

        Now the main problem with this understanding of Islam is the anti-Christian parts of the Quran and Sunna, which I admit to you I am not familiar with. (I am going to buy a book on the Prophet, peace be upon Him.) If Islam is a Christian sheep trap, why the anti-Christian parts of the Quran and Sunna? I have two answers to this objection.

        (1) Maybe the anti-Christian parts of the Quran and Sunna are intentional dissimulations, to hide better the sheep trap and to prevent persecution.
        (2) Or the anti-Christian parts of the Quran and Sunna are interpolations put in by agents of Satan. Once Satan saw the INCREDIBLE potential powerful goodness of Muhammad and Islam, he set about to corrupt it from within. He sent his agents to infiltrate Islam and corrupt the Quran and Sunna. For Satan does two things in response to good religions: he sets up bad religions that deny or misrepresent God (like Buddhism), and he corrupts the good religions, WHEN HE CANNOT DESTROY THEM.

        Well, enough of my insane theory. I told you it was bizarre.

        • admin:

          Hope you were able to find a book on Muhammad that has been a help to you. We always respect thinking people and value their comments. We are pleased you yourself, have identified problems in your own sheep-trap theory and we hope this will lead you to the Good Shepherd who takes his sheep out into the good pasture.

          Christians, and probably Muslims too will say that the virtues of justice, righteousness, faith in God, charity, are not noble ideals that are provided to attract lost people on the contrary most Muslims argue that their submission to Allah is a hard road and despite the fruits of righteousness and joy that the Christian experiences Jesus did advice would be followers to count the cost and announced that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

          You have left yourself only two options in accounting for Muhammad’s revelations – divinely supernatural or Satanically inspired. Have you considered that Islam may well be free-will deviation from the truth for he had the opportunity of mixing with Christians e.g. Najran believers yet rejected this message as it could not fit into the agenda he was developing? Such an approach would dismiss supernatural guidance and give support to the development of ideas as a result of the fall. Satan could be seen as taking advantage of the loss of spiritual sensitivity due to the biblical fall. The rise of Islam could be explained from natural causes but people have different ideas.

  • I’m agree with you about Message for Muslims: Introduction to Sharia Law , but you can write more on this subject.

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