For many people around the world and specially those in the West, Sharia is a household word, familiar from the media and political debates. And it is, more often than not, perceived negatively by the many, and some are even scared at the very mention of the word. Properly due to the distorted image of Islam and Muslims which is relentlessly exported by mass media day and night.
But what does Sharia actually mean and how much do ordinary people know about it? Many people -including Muslims as well, may think of Sharia as Islamic law but that does not tell us very much if we know little about the Islamic tradition.
In Islam, Sharia means the way or path to Allah. It is broader than just law, and it refers to the very idea of Allah communicating with humans through revelation. That is why, for us Muslims, the Sharia includes Allah’s messages to previous prophets, from Noah to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, the Messenger of Allah (Peace and Blessings be upon all of them). This should not be a surprise since in order to be a Muslim, you MUST believe in every single Prophet:
“The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord, as did the believers. They all have believed in God, and His angels, and His scriptures, and His messengers: “We make no distinction between any of His messengers.” Al-Baqarah, 285
Muslims see Allah’s revelation to prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a continuation, and completion, of the message revealed to the earlier Prophets and Messengers. But while the Sharia is not just law, it is law, it contains rules of behavior and organizing every single aspect of the human life. But Muslim legal scholars of the past described the Sharia not so much as a codified rule book, like tax code, nor as merely a set of higher principles, like the idea of natural law, but as the ongoing search for Allah’s prescriptions for human action.
Like the Mosaic law, the Sharia is the discovery of the rules that will allow believers us to obey God. Muslims understand that these rules of Sharia reflect broader purposes and values.
Muslim scholars and theologians have traditionally said that the entire Sharia is designed to protect human welfare, which they define through six core universal interests:
For instance, the Sharia prohibits the consumption of alcohol and every substance that affects one’s sobriety. But scholars do not just say that this is because Allah has forbidden it (which is a good reason in itself to abstain from something), but also because it is Allah’s will that humans protect and preserve their reason or intellect, which is necessary for making correct moral decisions.
The Sharia also prohibits sexual relations out of wedlock. This is not just because of divine decree, but because it preserves family bonds. At the same time, the Sharia prohibits false accusations of sexual immorality. This protects human dignity and honor, which are necessary for living a good life.
>>So the Sharia should first be understood by its goals and values before its rules.<<
What then are those rules? And if they are not codified, how are they known?
Muslim jurists discovered these rules through four primary sources, the Quran, the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, the universal agreement about a matter by the Muslim community or its scholars, and the careful use of analogy.
Law usually refers to the public sphere, but most of the Sharia’s rulings are about private spiritual practice, such as prayer, fasting, charity, and so on. And while rulings on social relations from marriage, divorce, sales, contracts, and inheritance remain a living part of the Sharia, their implementation in modern societies varies from country to country. Sometimes it is based purely on personal conviction as in the case of Muslims voluntarily giving to charity while living in a non-Muslim country or following Islamic finance laws.
Importantly, very few of the areas of behavior and social relations the Sharia governs have only a single rule on which all jurists agree. Scholars always accepted and recognized reasonable disagreement, because interpretation could rarely provide complete certainty about God’s intentions. Yet this did not mean that anyone could just impose their own understanding of God’s law on others, especially through force.
While the Sharia does also encompass certain rulings on civil procedure, aspects of crime and punishment, and even warfare, only public authorities could establish courts with the power to enforce Sharia rulings.
Today, this has, changed in several ways. In nations where Muslims are minorities, such as the Europe or America, Muslim scholars emphasize that the Sharia makes it obligatory for Muslims to follow the secular laws of the lands where they live. In many Muslim majority countries, it is now the state alone, and not scholars who specialize in the Sharia, that decides what will be enforced in courts. And the state’s rules are completely divorced from the sophisticated methods and culture of traditional scholars.
So when we say that some “modern” states try and apply the Sharia law, we need to remember that these states have probably picked and chosen certain rulings. But isolated rules alone do NOT, by any means, represent the meaning and spirit of the Sharia.
Although this is what is still true for Muslims today, Muslims see the Sharia as primarily about finding the path to God, and about making this world an abode of justice. In other words, for us Muslims, the Sharia is about protecting the most important human interests and values, life, religion, wealth, reason, family, and honor. So Sharia is not, and has never been ONLY about punishing transgressors. Sharia is mercy.