Shariah, literally meaning “a path to the water hole,” Law is a term that many Westerners throw around without truly understanding its origin or its function in society. To some they think it is an oppressive system that represents the entirety of what Islam is when this is far from the truth. In its most basic sense Sharia is divine law established in the Qur’an and by the Prophet Muhammad through the sunna (stories from his life). The sunna are found in the hadith which are teachings, sayings, etc. from the time when the Prophet was on Earth. The hadith are however not included in the Qur’an which makes many question the authenticity and reliability of those still intact. According to No God but God; the origins, evolution, and future of Islam, “The bulk of what are considered to be strong traditions were deemed so not because they their isnads (proof) were particularly strong, but because they reflected the majority beliefs and practices of the community [at the time]” (Aslan, 2005). Sharia was used as the system of law in an Islamic society before modern day systems arose. Shariah is still however considered a part of the (and sometimes the entire) legal system is many countries.
The Constitutional Rights Foundation states that:
“In the 19th century, many Muslim countries came under the control or influence of Western colonial powers. As a result, Western-style laws, courts, and punishments began to appear within the Sharia. Some countries like Turkey totally abandoned the Sharia and adopted new law codes based on European systems…Modern legislation along with Muslim legal scholars who are attempting to relate the will of Allah to the 20th century have reopened the door to interpreting the Sharia. This has happened even in highly traditional Saudi Arabia, where Islam began….Since 1980, some countries with fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Iran have attempted to reverse the trend of westernization and return to the classic Sharia.”
Shariah Law is not blatantly defined in the Qur’an, there are mentions made to it throughout but it is more comparable to general guidelines rather that actual set in stone laws, similar to the Ten Commandments in Christianity. These guidelines encompass all aspects of life from personal hygiene to marriage and is meant to show the entirety of the Islamic way of life. From here it becomes complicated. Shariah is defined through fiqh or the human interpretation of laws. Religious scholars, known as ulama, are considered to be authorities on the interpretation and the defining of Sharia. According to Aslan, “[in] Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, the Ulama exert direct political and legal control over the populations, while in most others, they indirectly influence the social and political spheres of society through their religious edicts, their legal rulings, and…their stewardship of Islam’s religious schools” (Aslan 2005).
For this reason, what the Qur’an actually states and what scholars interpret it as can often reflect their own personal biases and prejudices rather than the true words of the Prophet. These, sometimes radical, prejudices have then been reflected in varying degrees throughout many Islamic nations. Westerners however do not hear these explanations they simply hear the extreme views of a few radicals rather than the explanation of the peaceful majority.
There are four main schools of Shariah Law, they include; Hanbali, Hanifi, Maliki, and Shafi’i. Hanbali is considered the most conservative and is practiced predominantly in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Hanafi is considered to be the most liberal because it is open to modern changes. The Maliki tradition is based in the teachings and practices of the people of Medina during the life of the Prophet. And finally, Shafi’i is another conservative ideology that bases its beliefs in the teachings of the companions of the Prophet. All of these schools of thought vary greatly in terms of what they believe and how they believe their religion should be practiced.
I cannot deny that Shariah law is often used for horrible and violent means because it has been in the past and continues to be to this day. However, this does not mean that it should be condemned entirely, especially when few use it for such a purpose. As I have said before and I will state again, a few radicals do not represent the whole. It is unfortunate that in our world only the loudest voices are the ones that are heard.
If you have time…the link I’ve included from the Huffington post gives an easy to read background/history of Shariah through pictures at the bottom of the page.
Aslan, R. (2005). No god but god: The origins, evolution, adn future of islam. New York, NY : Random House