Explainer: what is ‘sharia law’? And does it fit with Western law?

A handwritten Qur'an in Lahore Museum, Pakistan. Usman Ahmed/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of law. The usual Arabic word for Islamic law is sharia (pronounced shar-ee-ah), originally the track leading to a waterhole in the desert. For Muslims, the morally good life consists of surrendering oneself to God (Allah) by obeying his requirements – which is the meaning of the word “Islam”.

These obligations are most authoritatively declared in the Qur’an (Koran) or “recitation”, which was revealed in stages to the Prophet Muhammad (who lived from about 570 to 632).

The Qur’an is supplemented by the teaching and example of the Prophet (the sunna), known through thousands of reports or traditions (hadiths). These were passed on orally before being committed to writing. Not all hadiths are authentic, though, so Muslim scholars try to sift the genuine from the false by examining the chain of people who had allegedly passed on each report.

What sharia covers

Together, the Qur’an and the sunna are the material sources of the sharia. Muslim scholars have developed techniques such as analogical reasoning to deal with situations not directly explained in them. For example, since the Qur’an forbids wine, it is obvious that spirits, not known in Muhammad’s time, must also be prohibited. Another important principle for applying the sharia is maslaha: that which most benefits the community.

Islamic law is, in theory, extremely comprehensive. Naturally there are prescriptions about when and how to pray or fast. But the sharia also includes rules on marriage, divorce, inheritance, commerce, torts, war, international relations, and government. Muslims have traditionally agreed that an Islamic society should be governed in a manner consistent with the sharia.

If God is the real author of the sharia, scholars produce fiqh – literally “understanding”, but in this context “jurisprudence”. This is arguably the single most important Islamic science - much more significant, for example, than theology. Legal scholars have written countless treatises and hefty tomes expounding the sharia, an activity that continues to this day.

Far from being produced by rulers or governments, Islamic law is elaborated by scholars, often as a critique of what the rulers are doing.

Scholars (the ulama) claim to know best what God requires because they have studied the Qur’an and the sunna, as well as the works of their predecessors. Naturally, they often disagree with each other on matters of detail, and there are five distinct schools of jurisprudence in the Islamic world today. Four of them are Sunni and one is Shii (Shiite).

Inside a mosque in Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Asim Bharwani/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Mention of Islamic law calls to mind corporal punishments such as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. Régimes of doubtful legitimacy tend to use such penalties enthusiastically to prove that they are good Muslims and worthy rulers. However, more liberal interpreters of the sharia usually restrict their application: for example, by requiring four adult male eye-witnesses to convict an adulterer.

Among both Sunni and Shii (also referred to as Shia) Muslims there are recognised institutions of learning and credentialling. But Islam is a lay religion; it has no priests. In practice, anyone can set themselves up as an interpreter of the sharia and gain a following.

Like radical sects in the past, movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State claim to represent authentic Islam. But they do not command a consensus – which, for Sunni Muslims, is an essential requirement for legitimate interpretation of the sharia. Many Muslims worldwide have condemned Islamic State as extremists, including young British Muslims who started the #NotInMyName social media campaign.

How does sharia fit with Western laws?

In principle, God’s laws have to take priority over human laws, and there have always been purists who argue that Islam can only be lived properly in a state governed solely by the sharia.

Historically, though, most Muslims have accepted compromise in practice as long as they are not required to do anything against their understanding of God’s requirements. They are accustomed to obeying the law of the land as well as the sharia, since obedience to legitimate authority is itself a sharia requirement.

Muslims living in Western countries have to accept that other people can openly drink alcohol or wear skimpy clothes on the beach. In this, they are little different from other citizens with conservative moral views. Problems may arise where women are forbidden to wear a veil, but most Muslim women in the West do not consider covering their faces to be a sharia requirement. Despite the Islamic prohibition of usury, some Muslims will even take out a mortgage.

While there are universally agreed requirements and prohibitions, Islamic law is not codified. Even though the sharia is God’s law, fiqh, like any sophisticated legal system, is a matter of interpretation and debate. Sure, some militants’ views give their co-religionists a bad reputation. More progressive Muslims, though, are busy interpreting Islamic law in a manner more in keeping with the need to create just societies.

Do you have a question about Islamic law? Leave a question below and join our author Q&A between 10-11am AEST today (Tuesday 23 September). And if you haven’t read our Community Standards before, please do – we want The Conversation to be a place for intelligent discussion, including being respectful and keeping your posts on topic and constructive.

Further reading: Islamic Australia? What place is there for sacred law in a secular land? by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla.