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What is Shariah?

Shariah law (Arabic: شريعة) also anglicized as Shari'ah, Sharia or Shari'a, is the body of Islamic law. The term shariah is derived from the Arabic word ‘Shari’ which literally means way, path or "the clear, well-trodden path to water". An illustrative example of Shariah is of a person, you, in the desert with a camel, thirsty, lost, tired and weak; losing hope. In your daze you see a worn and trodden path in the desert, in hope you follow it. It leads to a gushing oasis, in the middle of this desert. Your camel is weak, so to help it you fill a cup of water and hold it to the camel's mouth. The drink of life saving water is offered but is not forced; the camel chooses to drink or not to drink. The desert is the life of this world with its hardships, the the clear well trodden path is the Shariah leading to the thirst quenching and life saving water that is Islam, one chooses to drink or not to drink, but the path of Shariah takes you to this safety.

Shariah is a methodology which is based on following a religious code to survive in this world, it takes you to your destination, but is not the destination itself. The Shariah is a legal code for the Muslims, and in this respect is no different for the Muslims than the Halakhah, the Jewish legal code, is for the Jews. The term Halakhah means “go” or “walk”; Halakhah, then, is the “way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life, encompassing civil, criminal, and religious law, just as a Muslim is with the Shariah.

Shariah law acts as a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, including prayers, fasting, giving donations to the poor, indeed every aspect of a Muslim's life. It aims to help Muslims understand how they should lead all aspects of their lives according to God's wishes. The Shariah law is derived from the following sources:

  • The Quran - The Muslims believes that the Quran is the word of God; Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) revealed to Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) through angel Gabriel (Jibreel) (عليه السلام).
  • The Sunnah - These are statements, actions or silent approvals of Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) as recorded in authentic Narrations (Hadeeth)
  • The needs of the society
  • qiyas (analogy) or legal reasoning which relies on interpretation and precedence

The Shariah is based upon compassionate justice. Underlying it are six main principles.

The Six Principles of Shariah:

  • 1 - Preservation of faith. This principle focuses on aspects associated with worshipping the creator and ensuring we give His rights to Him alone without associating another in His worship.
  • 2 - Preservation of life itself. Life is sacred in Islam as Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) says in the Quran: "... whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely..." [Quran: Surah al Maidah 5: Ayah 32]. That means the unlawful taking of any life is not permitted, whether the person commits suicide, murder, or any other form of killing or terrorism; even assaulting another or harming them in any way is not permitted. The integrity of life extends even to animals, such that unnecessary pain or suffering inflicted upon animals is not permitted under the Shariah.
  • 3 - Preservation of Intellect. The intellect is greatly cherished in Islam, and everyone is given the right under the Shariah to an education and mental development to benefit the individual and the society, both men and women. It also means that anything that harms the intellect is prohibited, for example, drugs and intoxicants that suppress the intelect and harm the person.
  • 4 - Preservation of lineage. The person’s heritage and family are important in the Shariah. A person’s identity is strong; it is a product of where we came from. The lineage is so important that the wife in Shariah should not take on the family name of her husband, rather she keeps her fathers name even after marriage, to show her lineage and the children take their father's name as their lineage. Even adopted children retain their family names to keep an identity of their lineage alive.
  • 5 - Preservation of honor. Anything leading to the harming of a person's honor is not permitted in the Shariah. Thus it is not permitted to slander or backbite a person. This is a part of the moral code of Islam; a person's honor and his propety are sancrosanct and may not be taken or impuned by another.
  • 6 - Preservation of wealth and property. An individual's property and wealth are considered sancrosanct and cannot be taken by force or coersion by another. As a part of preservation of property, interest and usery is prohibited in the Shariah, just as it was originally in the Bible.

Sharia law is divided into two main sections, the Acts of Worship (al-ibadat) which are between the individual and the Creator, and Human Interactions (al-mu'amalat) which are between people.

Shariah Section 1 - The acts of worship are based upon the 5 pillars of Islam:

  • Affirmation (Shahadah): Affirming that there is non worthy of worship except Allah (سبحانه و تعالى‎) and that Muhammad (صلى الله عليه و سلم) is his messenger.
  • Prayers (Salah): The five daily prayers
  • Fasts (Sawm during Ramadan): Fasting during the month of Ramadan
  • Charities (Zakat): This is a poor due.
  • Pilgrimage (Hajj):  This is the pilgrimage to Makkah

Shariah Section 2 - Human interaction include the following:

  • Financial transactions
  • Endowments
  • Laws of inheritance
  • Marriage, divorce, and child custody
  • Foods and drinks (including ritual slaughtering and hunting)
  • Penal Crime and punishment
  • Warfare and peace
  • Judicial matters (including witnesses and forms of evidence)

Crime and punishment

Crime and punishments seems to be a big issue in the west. The Shariah recognizes three categories of crime:

  • Hudud: crimes where God has prescribed fixed punishment.
  • Qisas: crimes against poeple where equal retaliation is allowed.
  • Tazir: crimes where a Muslim judge can use his discretion in sentencing.

Many an ignoramus in the west writes and attacks the Shariah without any real understanding of it. You find such prejudice and bias not limited to individuals but also within the Western media which plays upon the ignorance of people in the west. One senses ulterior motivation and scaremongering by vested interests. Malcolm X, also known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, summed this up when he said ‘if you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the ones being oppressed and loving the ones who are doing the oppressing’.

The Shariah is not one monolithic whole, rather there are a number of interpretations of Shariah within different schools of fiqh in the Muslim world, each interpretting the Shariah in light of its own understanding. Thus the application of Shariah on a particular issue may be the same or totally different, depending upon which school of fiqh is used in a particular country. There are four main schools of fiqh, the Maliki, the Hanafi, the Shafai and the Hambali. Each school of fiqh is name after the person who helped refine its initial rulings based upon their understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah.

Some aspects of Shariah such as how a Muslim gets married, divorced and such matters exist wheresoever Muslims exist, just as Christians or Jews marry or divorce according to their own religion, wheresoever they may live. This aspect of Shariah exists in all countries of the world where even a single Muslims exists. The very practice of being a Muslim is a part of this aspect of Shariah. Other aspects of Shariah, such as the Hudud, prescribed punishments can only be applied in a Muslim country running on Shariah. So one wonders why the paranoia of some evangelists towards Shariah, when any country has the right to run its criminal law as they judge to be just and fair for their society, with the approval of that society, without interfering in the rights of any other country. The fairness of Shariah is that it ensures the rights of all the people, even the animals within that particular society; and, it is not subject to arbitray, politically motivated changes in law, where the ruling party determines what is legal or not legal. What was not legal yesterday is made legal today and what is legal today will be made illegal tomorrow.

When a person commits murder in the United States and is sentence to death, likewise such a person in a Muslim country would be sentenced to death. When Shariah is applied, it means the person faces justice once, the sentence of death, or clemency at the hands of the family of the murdered person, should they choose to forgive the crime. No such mercy exists in the western system of justice, where, for example, in the United States that person is locked up for 10 - 20 years on death row and eventually executed, suffering an imprisonment and a death sentence for the same crime. The family of the murdered person do not get a chance to pardon or forgive the sentence of the murderer, even if they should decide to do so.

This article was based upon an original article on Shariah by sister Aishah of The Strangers organisation, a not for profit charitable organisations. We thank her for her permission in allowing us to use some of the material from it.