The Koran Islamic Law, or Sharia (also Shari'a or Shariah ) literally means "well-worn camel path to the watering place." It is a set of legal codes based on scriptures from the Koran and interpretations of these scriptures by classical Islamic schools of thought. Governing public, private, social, religious and political life of Muslims, the laws are based on the principal that Koranic commands are divine and absolute and can not be questioned. To break one of the rules or even doubt their legitimacy is a sin.
Muslim law tells followers how to perform their prayers, how to pay their alms, how to observe the fast. It also describes how Muslims should dress, what food Muslims can eat and even what greetings can be exchanged. Sharia is expected to be abided by as a system of laws and rules for living. It also sets forth an ethical ideal of which one is supposed to conform to.
Sharia is clearest on personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. It is not clear on commercial, penal and constitutional matters and does not address legal matters at all. In most Muslim countries the state has set up its own court system that operates independent of the Sharia courts. These non-Sharia courts have traditionally handled criminal cases and cases that deal with land and finance. If there a conflict between the two courts Sharia courts are generally considered more authoritative. The other courts have iften traditionally been based on local laws. Sharia often has not been applied to non-Muslims.
H.A.R. Gibb wrote in the Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions: “Regarding Sharia as simply a complicated legal system is inadequate. As governments failed to fulfill their original functions it became the task of religious leaders to make or re-make the communal life and order to all Muslims which has given the Muslim world that psychological unity which it continue to display at the present time. The accomplishment of this task gave powerful assistance to religious leaders.”
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Principals of Islamic Law
First Surah of the Koran (fragment) Sharia is not a code of laws in the Western sense in terms out of outlining laws and fixing a penalties for breaking those laws. Rather they are classifications of acts: standards of conducts and moral evaluations of this actions (such obligatory, recommended or forbidden) without necessarily attaching penalties to breaking them. Sharia also differs significantly from Western traditions in that religious obligations that would not be a legal matter in the West are regarded as such in Sharia.
An underlying assumption of Sharia is that only God can distinguish between good and evil and man’s reasoning is subject to errors and thus should be eliminated whenever possible. But even under these guide lines a number of different, often contradictory interpretations, developed.
“Shariah” can be broken down into haram (“forbidden”) and halal (“permissible”). One thing a Muslim must discover is what is covered by Islamic law and what is not with the general understanding being that if an activity is not addressed by a law then is okay to apply personal reasoning to determine whether it is okay or not.
One key to evaluating and understanding Sharia is not just analyzing the laws themselves but also examining the penalties for breaking the laws. If someone breaks a Muslim law that doesn’t harm anyone too badly such as drinking alcohol or eating pork and promises to rectify it is a personal matter and the process is not all that different from a Christian committing a sin and confessing it or promising not do it again. But if a Muslim is charged with blasphemy or apostasy for questioning something in Islam, attempting to understand its history or converting to a different religion and is sentenced to death then it becomes a different matter. Sharia practiced in most extreme form is notorious of its cruel punishments: chopping of limbs, beheading and stoning to death. These practices violate most international norms of human rights.
Because Sharia is so rigid and can be interpreted in such extreme ways for a long time it was ignored. One religious scholar wrote: “Both the Muslim theory of law and the pursuit of unity implied a fixation and degree of formal rigidity which gave little room for flexibility...the eternal rigidity to the justice formulation often gave the Sharia the character of an ideal system or counsel of perfection...It became increasingly and theatrical construction, divorced from actual practice.” The Sudanese American law professor Abdullah An-Na’m has said that Sharia is essentially an attempt to “protect a patriarchal system.”
Koran, Interpretations, Hadiths and Islamic Law
The Koran provide the basis for Islamic law. It is full of rules that govern almost all aspects of public and private behavior that Muslims are expected to follow acts of as submission to God. But at the same time many of the rules and the basis for them in the Koran is very vague and Sharia is based more on how these vague rules and statements are interpreted. By one estimate Sharia is based on only 500 verses from the Koran, or about 16 percent of the holy book.
Countries with Sharia rule
Muslims believe that the principals for all Muslim laws lie within the Koran and any supplementation that is done is matter of clarifying or elaborating on the texts to new application as they pop up. An example of this is the law on giving alms. The Koran states that one must give alms but did not state how much. The amount was determined by Mohammed’s statements and actions as transmitted by his Companions.
Analogies and generalization, in some cases, are given credence. For example the Koran explicitly prohibits wine made from grape juice but does not mention other fermented drinks. But by saying wine is an analogy for all alcoholic drinks the prohibition on wine can be extended to all alcoholic drinks. Muslims also believe in the principal of "the lesser of two evils." It is okay, for example, for a Muslim to eat pork to stave off starvation and it is alright for a women to get an abortion if her life is in danger.
The Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, provides the basis for much of Islamic law. It contains more laws and rulers and interpretations of the Koran. See Islam, Texts.
There are literally tens of thousands of hadiths, some of which contradict others. In the early centuries after Mohammed’s death religious schools went through them, evaluated them, evaluated their sources and decided which ones fit the moral vision of God and deserved emphasis.
Conservative Muslims and Muslim extremists have manipulated Muslim law by merging doctrines that are under debate, such as the veiling of women, with those such etched in stone, such as the five pillars of Islam, and claiming that none of them can be changed or criticized and to do so is blasphemy or apostasy because it calls into doubt the word of God.
Development of Islamic Law and Sharia Schools
Islamic law has it roots in the laws and rules laid out in the Koran. These were first supplemented with rules, interpretations and insights offered by early Caliphs and governors who drew on Arab traditions and their own experience and judgements and by Muslim scholars who gave various issues a great deal of study, discussion and thought. The drive to create a Muslim legal system began when groups of students of the Koran in major cities who felt these laws and rules needed to be codified.
During the first centuries of Islam there were hundred schools of Islamic law. Some were influenced by Roman law and Greek-style speculative reasoning, which alarmed conservatives and divided the community and triggered a movement to unify the Muslim community and reduce the number of schools.
Islamic law was originally not developed just for Muslims it was developed for all of mankind. It was regarded as the word of god and thus had to be universally and absolutely followed by everyone. The basic foundation of Sharia, argued by the pioneering jurist al-Shafi (died 820), is that the laws of the Koran and laws with direct eye-witness links to Mohammed would have precedence over all other laws.
The problem of dealing with doctrinal disputes was dealt with within the schools through the “Consensus of the Community ( ijma ), based on the principal that the “Community will never agree upon an error.” Rulings within each school were unified and consolidated by a particular ijma . Each school recognized the ruling that were acceptable and authoritative with the system of that school.
The problem of dealing with so many schools was a weeding out process and popularity contest influenced by group politics, fashion, trends, ideas and political and religious support and respect and authority that certain schools had at certain times. Over time certain schools fell out of favor and lost adherents while other schools gained favored and won adherents; minor schools were squeezed and large ones grew into orthodox, established institutions.
Scholars of the Islamic Legal Schools
Imam al-Sadiq Abu Hanifah (699-767) founded the Hanifah school, the first of the great schools of Islamic law, and was a pioneer in Islamic law. He was one of the first to use the Koran and the hadiths to sort out legal questions and develop a legal code. His code emphasized judgments made through reasoning.
Malik ibn Anas (715- 795) founded the second great school of Muslim law, the Maliki school. He emphasized reasoning and the concerns of the community. Ahamd ibn Hanbal (780-855) was the founder of the Hanbali school of Muslim law. He argued that the only truths worth knowing were in the Koran and applying human thought processes are not applicable.
Mohammed Idris ibn al-Shafii (767- 820) founded the Shafi school. He saw the law as something based on the Koran and God’s Will. Every law, he argued, should be based on a direct commandment or a general principal that could be directly traced back to the Prophet either through the Koran or the hadiths. He also developed the idea that once the Islamic community made a final decision on a matter that decision was infallible and permanent.
The development of Sharia law clearly had some political aspects. Malik ibn Anas and al-Shafii participated in Shiite uprisings and opposed what they perceived as corruption in the ruling caliphate. Many efforts to modernize Sharia law have been thwarted by Islamists. People that have tried to reform or modify Muslim law have been accused as “apostates” and “sinful innovators.”
Later Developments in Islamic Law
Aqabozorg The 19th century saw the emergence of new Civil Courts and the relegation of Sharia to mostly family law. This process was accelerated in the 20th century and some Muslim countries such as Turkey got rid of Sharia altogether.
In the civil courts and in some of the Islamic courts laws based on new legislation were introduced and other matters were addressed with laws based on new interpretations of Islamic scriptures and traditions and were not bound to any one particular Islamic legal school and included Sunni and Shiite interpretations.
Some interpretations—such as limiting polygamy and giving women the rights in divorce— contradicted or went again the spirit of the Koran . Many of the new laws and interpretations were made by the ruling elite and were influenced by colonialism and West legal concept. Some of the decisions not only went against Islam but also undermined the spirit of the ijma (the Muslim community).
In most Muslim countries modern laws have been introduced for almost all matters except for family law—mostly laws governing women and children—in which Sharia is used. Moderate Muslim states apply Sharia to family and religious law but not criminal, legal and state matters. Among 49 Muslim nations only Iran and Saudi Arabia follow Sharia law in its strictest sense. Afghanistan used to when it was ruled by the Taliban. Sharia is said to be applied behind close doors even in secular countries like Canada.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Islamic revival the reintroduction of Sharia and to what degree has been a major issue in many Muslim countries. A 2007 Gallup survey of 10,000 Muslims in ten predominately Muslim countries, found there is widespread support Sharia but only a small minority want religious leader to make the laws. Most the Muslim women surveyed said they believed Sharia should be a source of national laws, but also strongly believed in equal rights for women.
See Moral Beliefs, Islam
Four Schools of Islamic Law and Shiite Sharia
Gharib al-Hadith-page 19 Only four attracted a large enough following to remain today: 1)Hanifah, the most liberal school (common in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Afghanistan and Central Asia); 2) Shafi, a conservative school that emphasizes on the opinions of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (common in Egypt, Indonesia, East Africa and Syria); 3) Maliki, or reformed school based on the practices of the people of Medina during Mohammed’s lifetime. (North and West Africa),; and 4) Hanbali (Arabia and Northern Nigeria, linked with the puritanical Wahabi sect), the smallest and strictest sect. The latter has traditionally rejected the use of analogy and wide extension of ijma . The Hanifah school is the one most open to new ideas.
The four schools are named after and based on the principals of four famous legal scholars in the early Islamic period (See Above). They were pretty much established before the 10th century and are now associated mostly with Sunni Islam. They are pretty similar and difference are connected with principals of legal reasoning, justifications based on the hadiths and the limits of the law. Each school has its own law books and courts. Local customs in the places where the schools developed have also influenced the legal code of each school.
Shiites have their own legal schools of Sharia that defines their way of doing prayer actions, going about personal relations, treating criminals and dealing with other matters. Legal precedents are reached on the basis of decisions made with imam rather than made by the Muslim community, which is the case with the four main schools.
Sunni judges are known following Islamic law to the letter. Shiite judges are more lenient in the ways they interpret the law. Sufis are known for taking a more relaxed view of Sharia.
Shiite law refuses to accept traditions not transmitted through Ali or one of his descendants. Shiite rejecte the doctrine of the ijma, saying that laws can only be interpreted by the Imams of the House of Ali. The primary schools of law for Shiites are the Jafari and Zaydi schools.
Qadis, Muftis and Fatwas
Nakos Qadis are Islamic judges. They sometimes acts like bureaucrats and magistrates and are often prominent members of society who also do things like decide how inheritance money will be divided after someone dies. Sometimes they are imam who preach at the local mosque.
A mufti is an Islamic legal expert or juriconsultant. They began as assistant to judges. Today many are high ranking legal experts. In many cases they are the ones are consulted or are authorized to adapt laws to new circumstances . They also are allowed to issue fatwas.
A fatwa is an Islamic opinion or decree. They can be issued on all sorts of things: divorce, Ramadan practices, blasphemy and dogs. The most well known one is the one was against Salman Rushdie. Fatwas are usually made by top clerics but this is not always the case. Some Muslim extremists, including Osama bin-Laden, who lack the training of qualified muftis, feel free to issue fatwas, some them calling for death sentences and holy wars against foreigners. This has lead to rival opinion and confusion. In most cases however, lower level authorities defer to their superiors.
Sometimes the political influence on fatwas is more behind the scenes. The Grand Sheik (leader) of Al Azhar, for example, is regarded by many as the top Islamic authority in the Sunni Muslim world. His declarations and opinions on matters ranging from Israel to birth control are given much weight. The only catch is that he is appointed by the Egyptian government and his statements often convey the views of the Egyptian government.
Large numbers of fatwas have traditionally been issued during Ramadan. This custom has become more intense in the Internet Age. IslamOnline, a Cairo-based website created by Yusef Qaradawi, a popular Islamist preacher on the satellite channel al-Jazeera, issues more than 300 a day in Arabic and English, along with questions and responses, during Ramadan.
marriage Nikah Qadis ( cadis ) preside over court cases, make rulings and decide punishments, making decisions based on passages from the Koran, the Hadiths and legal texts of the school. Rulings are called itjihad . Beginning in 19th century, in some places, an “acceptance on authority” ( taqlid ) of the ruling was ratified by the ijma —the Islamic equivalent of an upper court appeal.
In theory a person taken to Islamic court for breaking a Sharia law appears before a cadi, or judge, and he (or she) is given a chance to defend himself and face his accuser. Decisions are rendered by the qadi not a jury. Punishment is supposed to be meted out by the qadi under terms that are clearly defined by the legal school used.
Evidence has traditionally been in the form of oral testimony, with the credibility of the testimony often weighed on the status and reputation of the witness. Morals charges usually require witnesses. In conservative Islamic courts women were barred from courtrooms and have to testify through a special window or by closed circuit television. Their testimony is technically was worth half that of a man.
Training for Islamic Scholars
Shariah Laws and Islamic Crimes and Punishments
Hadith on a Wall at Nishapur Murder, robbery and rape are crimes in the view of Muslim law, but under some interpretation so to are music, gambling, the building of mansions and the making eunuchs. The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, drug dealing and reading pornographic literature are also forbidden. Games of chance and lotteries are considered the "work of satan" because they exhort "quick and easy gains.” Sharia also lays down a number of laws related to slavery and vendettas.
Sharia practiced in most extreme form is notorious of its cruel punishments: chopping of limbs, beheading and stoning to death. These practices violate most international norms of human rights.
The Sharia punishment for many crimes is beating. According to Muslim Law men caught drinking alcohol or are supposed to be publicly flogged. Those found guilty of blasphemy or apostasy or converted to another religion can be executed. The punishmnets for adultery including public flogging and stoning to death.
A passage in the fifth chapter of the Koran reads: “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger...will be they will be killed or crucified or have their hands and feet on alternate sides of cut off...in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.” There are equally harsh passages in the Bible.
Muslim Law, Theft and Amputation
Quran and Hadith Conference The penalty for the theft, according to the Koran, for both men and women, is the amputation of a hand. Sura 5:38 reads: "As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut of their hands in retribution for what they might have earned.” The concept is rooted in Arab tribal beliefs about vendettas and blood money payments. Once a decision has been made it is not usually rescinded. The Hanafi school allows the payment of money to settle theft crimes.
Many Muslim scholars argue that if it is to be applied at all the amputation penalty should only be applied in the most extreme cases. Others state the punishment is meant to be taken metaphorically: cutting the hand from robbery, perhaps through imprisonment. The very next verse in the Koran after the amputation verse teaches God’s forgiveness of those who repent. Most Muslim countries do not mutilate thieves. The Koran specifically warns against literal interpretations.
In places where the amputation has been applied there is some disagreement as to which parts of the body are cut off and how much. Sunnis believe the hand should be loped off at the wrist. Shias (Shiites) maintain that the fingers should only be cut off at the first knuckle, so that the victim can still feed himself. Muslims are supposed to eat with their right hand (the left hand is for wiping oneself). Unfortunately for Sunni thieves it is the right hand that is removed.*
In Afghanistan, under the Taliban, people convicted of theft had a foot or hand cut off. In 1992, according to Amnesty International, one "prisoner of conscience" from Syria was sentenced to the amputation of his hand.
Muslim Execution and Stoning Deaths
Quran and Hadith Conference According to conservative interpretations of Sharia executions are supposed to be carried out in public. Only for proven adultery and apostasy is the death penalty mandatory. Under the Islamic code of some schools a convicted murderer given the death penalty can escape death if he or his family pays restitution of around $50,000 to $100,000 to the victim’s family.
Describing a stoning death in Jeddah in February 1958, R. M. Macoll wrote: "A prince, a nephew of the king, sat stern-faced on a chair. Before him was a carpet. From a lorry a man was led forward by two khaki-clad policemen. He was in his late twenties and was completely composed...His hands were chained together behind him and he walked awkwardly because of the chains festooned about his ankles...Arrived at he edge of the carpet he knelt and was told by the police to keep his eyes fixed on the prince's face." [Source: Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]
"At his side an official unrolled a scroll and started to read aloud the man's misdeed and the punishment decreed by the court. The crowd was now utterly hushed...Suddenly the line of police parted and the executioner appeared, sword in hand. He approached the victim from behind and on tiptoes. As the reading stopped the executioner bent and touched the kneeling man lightly on the back with his finger...Instinctively the man started, and in so doing raised is head. In an instant, with a swift and expert blow, the executioner decapitated him...A long, slow sigh came from the onlookers. "
"Now a woman was dragged forward. She and the man had together murdered her former husband. She, too, was under thirty, and slender...The recital of her crime was too read out as she knelt, and the executioner stepped forward with a wooden stave and dealt a hundred blows with all his strength upon her shoulder...As the flogging ended the woman sagged over on her side."
Members of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya "Next, a lorry loaded with rocks and stones was backed up and its cargo deposited in a pile. At a signal from the prince the crowd leaped on the stones and started pelting the woman to death...It was difficult to determine how she was facing her last and awful ordeal, since she was veiled in Muslim fashion and her mouth was gagged to muffle her cries...It took over an hour before the doctor in attendance, who halted the stoning periodically to feel the victim's pulse, announced her dead."
"Had this scene been taking place in the middle of the desert it would have been grim enough, but that it should have been enacted in the heart of modern Jeddah's business neighborhood lent it a dismally macabre quality...The execution of the man?...The beheading was at least done humanely and quickly carried out...But the doing to death of the woman is something which the handful of horrified Europeans in the crowd will not quickly forget."
Muslim Law and Banks
Muslim Law and Blasphemy
According to Muslim blasphemy laws the saying blasphemous words against Allah, implied or otherwise, is against Muslim law. Look at how much trouble Saloman Rushdie got into for saying that Mohammed fraternized with a prostitute. In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran handed down a death sentence to Salman Rushdie for blasphemy after his publication of "Satanic Verses" in 1989.
Blasphemy laws, originally established to prevent people from disrespecting Islam, have been used by Muslim extremists to crack down on and harass opponents. See Pakistan, Egypt.
See Salman Rushdie
Apostacy document Converting to Christianity is regarded as a form of apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Explaining why such a conversion is such a serious offense an Afghan imam told the Washington Post, “You must understand how shameful it is for us that a Muslim would become a Christian. If other people want to come to Islam, we encourage and appreciate them. But ours is the complete and final religion. If you leave it, that is like throwing God away...If you leave Islam, our law says you must be killed.”
The dictionary definition of apostasy is “having rejected your religious beliefs or your political party or a cause (often in favor of opposing beliefs or causes).” In Islam, any sane Muslim who renounces Islam and persists in doing so after being given chances to repent loses a variety of rights. There is no penalty for any Muslim who kills such a convert on the grounds of his apostasy.
Among the countries with apostasy laws on the books are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Egypt. Killing for apostasy is rare even in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which say they fully implement Islamic law.
As many as 15 percent of Muslims in Western societies have lost their faith, which means that there are around 200,000 apostates in Britain alone. It is difficult to tell exactly how many because people don’t admit it for understandable reason.
In July 2007, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, one of the highest religious authorities in Islam, said there is no basis for the Islamic law that requires Muslims who have abandoned their religion to be killed, causing an outcry among Muslim conservatives. In an editorial in the Washington Post he wrote, “The essential question before us can a person who is Muslim chose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes they can, because the Quran says, ‘Into you your religion, and unto me my religion’...If the cause in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. The matter is left until the Day of Judgement, and it is not to dealt with in the life of this world.”
Gomaa added that if the apostate is “undermining the foundations of the society,” then he could be prosecute by the judicial system to “protect the integrity of society” but did not say anything about death as a punishment. Among those who objected was the hardline Egyptian cleric Youssef el-badri, who said, “Shariah is punishes those who convert with death; religion is not a game to play with.”
People Accused of Apostasy
Darood But that doesn’t mean people accused of apostasy don’t suffer. One British family of Pakistani descent—the Husseins—that converted to Christianity had bricks thrown their window of their house and their car. Their car was rammed and torched. Garbage was thrown in the front of their house. On the streets they were regularly jostled, shouted at and given death threats. Mobs gathered around their house. Police offered little help and simply told them they should move.
Another convert named Yasamin converted when she was in her 30s after having a vision of Jesus while giving birth to her youngest son. She told the Times of London: “My family disowned me. I was born a Muslim, so must die a Muslim. When my husband found out, he totally disowned my sons. One friend tried to strangle me when I told him I was converting...I was spat on in the street because they thought I was dishonoring Islam. I had to go to court to get an injunction against my husband because he was inciting others to attack me.”
Describing what happened to a friend who family found she was hiding a Bible in her room and secretly went to church Yasamin told the Times of London, “I tried to do as much as possible to help her, but they took her to Pakistan ‘on holiday.’ Three week later, she drowned—they said she went out in the middle of the night and slipped into the river, but she just wouldn’t have done that.”
Another Pakistani convert named Ruth said that when her family found out: “My brother even hit me—I later found out he wanted me dead.” Another said that after she confided her conversion, her father “went into a state of shock.” “He took the family to Pakistani to a secluded village with no roads to it. He kept us there for many years, putting pressure on me to leave my Christian faith. I endured mental and emotional suffering that most humans never reach...In desperation he threatened to take my life. If someone converts, it is a must for family honor to bring them back to Islam, if not, to kill them.”
Britain’s most high profile apostate is IbnWarraq, a Pakistani-born intellectual and former teacher from London, who lost his father after the Salman Rushdie affair and wrote the books Why I am not a Muslim and Leaving Islam . On he hostility he has experienced he told the Times of London, “It s very strange. Even the most liberal Muslim can become incredibly fierce if you criticize Islam.”
In the Netherlands, former Muslim MP Aryan Hirsi Ali had to go into hiding after renouncing her faith. One former Shiite Muslim businessman who converted to Christianity was condemned by Islamic authorities as an apostate, received death threats and was not allowed to see his family.
See Afghanistan, Egypt
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011