Explainer: what is sharia law and how does it operate?

Word of god: the Qur'an is the source of much of the Sharia.. Crystalina via Creative Commons

As Iranians go to the polls to elect a new president, new research suggests they have misgivings about the role of religious figures in the government of the country.

But, as the US-based Pew Research Center found in a survey, there is overwhelming support for the Sharia - or Islamic system of law.

The survey, which was conducted between February and May, found that 83% of Iranian Muslims favour the implementation of religious law - or sharia - while 82% think the country follows sharia either very or somewhat closely. This contrasts strongly with the number of people who think religious figures should have a major influence in running the country (40%) or those who think they should have some influence (26 per cent).

Many people in the West see sharia as part and parcel of a “hardline” Islamic state, going hand-in-hand with theocratic rule. So the recent imposition of sharia courts in parts of rebel-held Syria has caused much consternation. But this should not really be surprising: if opposition figures were to cease referring to the sharia - now that would indeed be strange.

At the heart of Islamic values

To understand the persistence of the appeal of sharia law, one must first recognise how it is hardwired into Muslim thinking about justice and equity. The Arab Spring uprisings were fuelled not by an upsurge in any supposed democratic instinct, but rather by anger at injustice and corruption. The sharia represents the alternative - the administration of moral and pious society, operating in accordance with core Muslim values.

Such an ideal inevitably (and naturally) dominates any call for political change in the Muslim world. This religious law forms an essential component of any wannabe politician’s platform; Sharia values trump democratic ones in the popular ethical imagination.

Theologically, the sharia is the law, given by God to his world as a guide for creation. To act in accordance with the sharia is to follow the rules set down by God. There is no aspect of human life that is not covered by the Sharia – from the operations of the state to the most intimate details of one’s conjugal relations – God has a rule for all such instances.

Syria: rebel-held areas tend to institute Sharia. NPR via Creative Commons

And the rules have not always been the same: at different points, God revealed new laws for humanity to follow at different points in history. In the standard Muslim account, the Sharias of the past were ultimately replaced and abrogated by the law given to the Prophet Muhammad. Just as Muhammad is the last of the prophets, so his haria is the last law: “Permitted things are permitted until the day of resurrection, and forbidden things likewise” as many Muslim law books state.

The sharia’s permanence does not convert into continuous access. Whilst it exists forever, it is only fully available with an infallible prophet. Discovering the Sharia’s rules has been recognised as problematic by jurists for much of Muslim history.

How did sharia develop?

God did not reveal a law book, or a written constitution, in which rules are laid out for easy reference. Instead, for Muslims, he revealed texts - the Qur'an - or inspired actions, particularly those of his perfectly obedient servant, the Prophet Muhammad. These form the sources of the Sharia, and as such need interpretation, and the result is variation in legal rules, and ultimately pluralism in legal practice.

The sharia, God’s law, is always one, but human attempts to understand it are multiple and individual – the law promulgated by humans is not the Sharia, but fallible, human understanding (fiqh). Muslim jurists, from the medieval period to the present, have recognised and incorporated this variation both in rules and in practice into their jurisprudence.

So different judges have ruled according to different schools of law, with different rules of evidence applying in the different courts. It is one of the great achievements of Muslim history that such a potentially chaotic system actually functioned as a means of distributing justice. It was not perfectly efficient (what system is?) and the results may not always be to modern ethical taste, but the legal experience of the Muslim world is evidence that legal pluralism may not lead to anarchy.

A strong legitimising force

The centrality of the sharia as a theological ideal and as an inspiration to proper, ethical and civil behaviour explains why it has such emblematic value for Muslim political movements, both in power and in opposition. Effective government depends on legitimacy, and legitimacy ultimately comes from the conformity (or at least perceived conformity) to an accepted system of values.

In the Muslim context, this value system is the sharia; and the totemic punishments (lashes for drinking alcohol, stoning for adultery, amputation for theft) are almost always the first to be proclaimed by a movement claiming to be “Islamic”. This is why the Syrian rebel forces, almost unanimously, will proclaim that the restoration of the Sharia as a political objective.

Sharia commands the good and prohibits evil; this may or may not entail democratic rights depending on the movement’s interpretation - but the call to sharia will invariably form the core of any effective political programme in the Muslim world.