Sharia: What it is and what it is not
Updated: Jun 18
In the US, with each passing day, the debate about Shariah is getting complicated. Some perceive Shariah as a threat to the US constitution; others view Shariah as a way of life lived according to principles promoted and protected by the US constitution. For some, it is the ideology of enemies, and for others, it is a lifestyle of patriots. Some say that Shariah is totalitarian, demonic, authoritarian, and militaristic; others say that it is humane, compassionate, divine, and peaceful. Some say that less than one percent of Muslims of the US population want to impose Shariah, and others ask is the democracy in America so fragile that it would allow a minority to impose over the majority. They point out that over the years, the Christian evangelical community, much larger than the Muslim community, has not succeeded in putting prayers in schools. How can less than a percent of Muslims who are not unanimous on Shariah's definition ever achieve the task their opponents assign to them?
Those opposed to Shariah say that it is interchangeable with the Caliphate concept, a totalitarian and authoritarian rule led by Muslims to subjugate non-Muslims. The proponents say that Shariah does not promote a particular government; instead, it supports egalitarian principles that make governing easy.
The opponents say that Shariah deprives people of free choice; the proponents argue otherwise, saying that it protects freedom.
The opponents say that Shariah does not give the governed a right to make law on their own. The proponents say that Shariah urges its followers to make laws to secure the interests of all- without giving in to any biases and discrimination.
The opponents say that Shariah is opposed to democracy; the supporters say that it promotes an open society with full respect to the will of people.
The opponents say that Shariah would endanger individual liberty; the supporters say that it strengthens liberty, freedom of expression, economic independence, and equality before the law.
The opponents say that Shariah espouses violence, and the supporters say that Shariah is non-violent. The opponents say Shariah seeks to regulate all aspects of behavior in life; the supporters argue that it erases the dichotomy in people's behavior in their various aspects of life.
The opponents say that laws based on Shariah would result in chopping off hands and stoning to death of those considered sexual deviants, the supporters say that it gives lawmakers freedom to make laws based on the needs of people.
The opponents say that Shariah strangulates free scientific inquiry while the supporters say that Shariah is the main force and source of scientific research.
With opinions, so opposed, and passions so energized around the debate, an average American, regardless of his or her religious background, often feels confused. What is propaganda, and what is reality? Who is telling the truth, and who is using the issue as a political tool to incite the masses? One group is telling them that Shariah would destroy America, and the other is assuring them that it would strengthen the country. Indeed, an average person is not sure whom to believe and whom to discount.
The situation becomes even more complicated when some sections of law enforcement agencies support the opponents of Shariah agreeing with many of their claims. For the supporters of Shariah, it serves as an indication that the administration is biased towards them.
In the last decade alone, those who are opposed to Shariah have spent more than 42 million dollars to drive their point home, and those who support it are working hard to make their perspective known to whomever they may reach. What will be the outcome of the debate? Whose opinions will the nation listen to in the end and authenticate?
People made similar vitriolic and scathing criticisms against Catholics, Jews, and Mormons in the past. The Mormons, for instance, were declared the state's enemies in the state of Missouri by Governor Lilburn Boggs. He issued an order to exterminate them. The order was operative until 1976. Until 1940, regular demonstrations were organized by popular radio talk show hosts in New York against Jews demanding that they be sent back in leaking boats to places where they came. Today, in the 112th Congress, some 15 Mormons, 39 Jews, and over 156 Catholics are serving in Congress.
Will the anti-Shariah movement die with time, especially after the 2012 presidential election cycle, or will it linger? Will the pro-Shariah groups succeed in convincing America of their perspective? Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure America would once again demonstrate its capacity of accommodating diverging points view to strengthening the Republic.
Today, America has a strong interfaith community that is intolerant of bigotry, racism, and negative propaganda against any religion. Today, the Internet has become the never-sleeping eyes of the people who can watch every incident of discrimination. Today America has become part of a global community where the interests of all are interlinked.
At present America learns about the debate on the Shariah through discussions going on in places of religious worship, in legislative assemblies where some anti-Shariah bills have either been passed, rejected or under consideration, media, the Internet, schools, and colleges, public debates, and individual or group statements issued by opposing groups.
Easily accessible data on the Internet does not help in developing a clearer understanding of Shariah. Islamic sites, in general, do not explain in great detail what Shariah is. The opponents of Shariah do not explain how does Shariah endanger the US constitution? People view the debate in the context of 9/11. The day the country was attacked by the Al-Qaeda members fuelled fears of Muslims and Islam without realizing Shariah has been in existence since time immemorial.
Objective non-Muslim Americans want to understand what Shariah is all about and in what manner it relates to them. Muslims want to know how they should explain it to people, including those who are hostile to Islam and Muslims.
None of them finds satisfying answers from those who are leading their initiative in either direction.
A search on popular Islamic sites on the net reveals that the answers to these questions are not easy to find. Among the sites defining Islam, the Islamic Fiqh Council of North America has only one article on Shariah. Islamicity has about 15 pieces. Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the American Muslim Jurist Assembly (AMJA) have less than ten research articles. The Sound Vision has recently launched a Sharia101.org website to explain Shariah, and the ICNA has plans to expand its Shariah explained movement at grassroots levels. WhyIslam.org is one of the few sites where several videos on Shariah's definition are available. Other popular Islamic websites have news about Shariah phobia but have no articles explaining what Shariah is. Sites such as Huffington Post, Sydney News, CNNbelief section or New York Times, etc. have articles written by Muslims and non-Muslims that give cursory definitions and explanations of Shariah without addressing the concerns occupying the public mind.
Muslim American Scholars' Opinions
The following are the Muslim American scholars and leaders whose opinions on Sharia are available on the Internet. Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Imam Mohammad Majid, President of ISNA, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, President of the IFCN, Dr. Sherman Jackson, Professor of Islamic studies at USC, Malik Mujahid, founder of Sharia 101 project, Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui, a foundation scholar for Al-Madina Institute, Dr. Ahmadullah Siddiqi, Professor Media Studies at the University of Illinois, Macomb, Imam Mohamed Abdul Aziz of Salam Islamic Center in Sacramento and Dr. Nejatullah Siddiqi, a renowned world economist, and many others. By and large, they define Shariah through its objectives.
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, explains Shariah in a video of Why Islam.org as a path, a way of life shown to us by Allah and his Prophets. "God gives Shariah, and it is now law. The sources of Shariah are the Qur'an and the Sunnah (teachings and life of Prophet Muhammad) from where the laws are derived," he explains.
Dr. Maher Hathout outlines the five principles of Shariah: preservation of life; protection and freedom of religion; preservation of mind and intellect, including freedom of conscience and thought; preservation of lineage and family; maintenance of ownership.
Imam Mohamed Magid defines Shariah no differently than the above. He, however, adds that Shariah governs the practice of Muslims in Islam. It includes how to pray when to fast, how to conduct a marriage, death and burial rituals, and other aspects of Muslim life."
Dr. Sherman Jackson says, "At the most basic level, Shariah is the Muslim universe of ideals. It is the result of their collective effort to understand and apply the Qur'an and supplementary teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (called Sunna) to earn God's pleasure and secure human welfare in this life and attain human salvation in the life to come. While the Qur'an and Sunna are transcendent and unchangeable, Shariah itself is the negotiated result of competing interpretations. Most Muslims tend to speak not of Shariah but of Fiqh, which means "understanding" and underscores the distinction between God's prescriptions on the one hand and the human attempt to understand these on the other."
Dr.Yusuf Ziya Kavakci of the Islamic Fiqh Council of North America does not distinguish between Fiqh and Shariah. He writes: "It is, as I believe, a fact that Shariah, Fiqh in its early stages got established and developed in the wide area of the world, mainly where Roman law was dominant. Roman law (the law applied in the Byzantine Empire was Roman law) developed in the Beirut, Istanbul (Constantinople) centuries-long before Islam. Muslim established Fiqh, acted upon and developed to answer the needs of people embracing Islam in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Iran, Egypt, and North Africa where Roman law was dominant for centuries."
Dr. Nejatullah Siddiqi devoted an entire book to the Objectives of Shariah (Maqasid Shariah). He did not agree with those writers who insist on five categories of objectives mentioned by al-Ghazali, claiming that many other purposes come under them in one way or another. He suggested the inclusion of more beyond the five mentioned above, such as honor and dignity of humankind, essential freedom, justice, and equity, poverty alleviation, sustenance for all, social equality, bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, peace and security, preservation of the system, and cooperation at the world level. He refers to various verses of the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet, especially in matters dealing with the non-Muslims, role of women in the society, and the challenges of globalization."
Dr. Siddiqi surveyed the history of the idea of Shariah objectives. For him, the concept of Shariah objectives has existed from the very beginning of Islamic history. But it was al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) who first used the term, from whom his disciple al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) took it and divided it into five categories: Protection of religion, life, reason, progeny, and property. Ibn Taymiyah (d. 728H/1328) introduced the protection of dignity in place of progeny. He also argued that objectives should not be limited to the protection from haram (forbidden), but it should also include securing benefits. Thus, the number would not remain confined to five objectives. Ibn al-Qayyim followed the suit of his teacher, Ibn Taymiyah, and included justice among the goals. The author examined the opinions of al-Shatibi (d. 790/1389), Shah Wali Allah al- Dihlawi (d. 1172/1763), as well as a quick survey of the contemporary literature.
Imam Mohamed Abdul Azeez, the religious leader of the Salam Islamic Center in Sacramento, CA, explains that Shariah is the Arabic word for 'the path', commonly used to describe Islamic jurisprudence. In his views, there is no formalized code of Shariah. Instead, Shariah is an interpretive set of principles based on the Qur'an, the Hadith (the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and local custom and practice. Other than issues related to doctrine and belief, i.e., belief in one God, the vast majority of these religious decrees are subject to extensive interpretation.
On his Shariah 101 website, Malik Mujahid says, "to understand Shariah is to understand Islam. Criminalizing Shariah will criminalize the practice of Islam in America. Shariah is similar to the Jewish Halacha law or Catholic Canon Law, with similar historical roots but far less complex. Unlike Jewish Halacha law, practiced in American Jewish courts called Beth Din, there is no Muslim court system in the United States, nor is the Muslim community demanding this. Shariah is neither one nor static. Shariah is not one monolithic body or a codified book of a comprehensive law. Shariah comes from the Qur'an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, but not all of Shariah is God's word. A good part of Shariah comes from human contributions. There are hundreds and thousands of books written in the last 1,400 years, in multiple languages in places as diverse as Timbuktu in Africa to Bukhara in Central Asia, with millions of opinions, judicial reviews, etc. on various issues. Together, they form the body of Shariah, and Shariah continues to evolve."
Dr. Ahmadullah Siddiqi explains, that "it is the guidance God has provided human beings through his prophets to conduct their daily lives. From Adam to Noah, Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad (Peace be upon all of them) established a Shariah for their people. Praying five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, giving charity, hajj, dealing with one's neighbors, and conducting all of the affairs of life according to God's guidance are acts of Shariah."
Why Islam.org explains Shariah in the following words: ""Shariah is an integral part of Islam. It is often defined as 'Islamic law', causing one to assume that it consists mostly of criminal rulings and penalties. However, Shariah encompasses much more than the conventional understanding of the law. While Shariah provides the legal framework for the foundation and functioning of a society, it also details moral, ethical, social, and political codes of conduct for Muslims at an individual and collective level."
Abed Awad, a New Jersey-based attorney and an expert on Shariah, regularly handles cases involving Islamic law in the US and as a member of the adjunct faculties at Rutgers Law School. Pace Law School wrote:
"Shariah is more than simply "law" in the customary sense. It is also a methodology through which a jurist engages the religious texts to ascertain the divine will. As a jurist-made law, the outcome of this process of determining divine will is Fiqh (positive law), which is the moral and legal anchor of a Muslim's total existence. Shariah governs every aspect of an observant Muslim's life. The Shariah juristic inquiry begins with the Qur'an and the Sunna. The Qur'an is the Muslim Holy Scripture - like the New Testament for Christians or the Old Testament for the Jews. The Sunna is essentially the prophetic example embodied in the sayings and conduct of the Prophet Mohammed.
After the two primary sources of Islamic law, the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the two primary, secondary sources of Islamic law are: (1) ijma (consensus of the scholars and jurists, and sometimes the entire community), and (2) qiyas (reasoning by analogy to one of the higher sources). Other secondary sources of Islamic law are juristic preferences, public interest, and custom. Shariah is extraordinarily flexible and subject to various interpretations. In the 19th century, Western colonialism decimated the Shariah legal system, replacing it with Western codes. It caused a severe decline in the community of jurists. Also, today, there is a debate that revolves around the failure of the modern jurists - not the system of Shariah - to develop the Shariah to adapt with the current circumstances of modernity."
Wajahat Ali, a commentator and a US-based attorney writing in Huffington post said:
"Shariah is not static. Its interpretations and applications have changed and continue to change over time.
"There is no one thing called Shariah. A variety of Muslim communities exist, and each understands Sharia in its way. No official document, such as the Ten Commandments, encapsulates Shariah. It is the ideal law of God as interpreted by Muslim scholars over centuries aimed toward justice, fairness and mercy.
"Shariah is overwhelmingly concerned with the personal religious observance such as prayer and fasting, and not with national laws."
Dr.Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, England and a well-known worldwide author on Islam in an article reproduced on Islamicity, explained the Shariah in the following words:
"The Shari'a is not the penal code; in our typology and classification, it is an element, a global path, methodology, and philosophy of life. To consider one element out of context, which gives it meaning, is not only unfair but methodologically incorrect. The teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunna give shape to a whole way of life, and this is the Shari'a guides us to follow: from performing daily Prayers to defending social justice, from studying to smiling, from respecting nature to helping an animal."
One new definition is on the website Jadaliyya.com where Maya Mikdashi defines Shariah as the following: "So what is Shariah? In its most bland description, the moral cosmology is to saturate and legislate shared life in Muslim communities. In the Lebanese state, the Shariah is the Muslim personal status laws. In Iran, it is the spirit and much of the legal system; in Saudi Arabia, it is what the state says it is. In the minds of many Islamists throughout the world, it is the utopia that their struggle promises. It is a word that is cited by a Yemeni President to try to prop up his teetering regime, a word that was cited by an American President to foster support for a foreign invasion, and a word has been mentioned in Egypt and Afghanistan to both promote and prohibit educating women. It is a word that conjures up promises of justice, gender equity, and social harmony in the minds of some. In others' minds, it conjures up images of bearded men flogging adulterous women, hanging gays, and marrying children. For some, it is God's law; for others, it is the law of man trying to live within God's imperatives. For many, it is a body of jurisprudence that can be studied, appreciated and critiqued. It is many things in theory and still more in practice. But unfortunately, today in the United States, Shariah is little more than a scare tactic.
Among some of the most influential Muslim scholars of the previous century, Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi in his book Let us be Muslims defining what is ' Shari'ah' says: "Now I shall tell you what Shari'ah is. The meaning of Sharia is the mode and path. When you have acknowledged God as your sovereign and accepted His servitude and have also admitted that the Messenger is the tangible ruler holding authority on His behalf and sent the book, it will mean you have entered Deen (way of life). After this, the mode in which you have to serve God, and the path you have to traverse to obey Him is called Shari'ah. God has indicated this mode and path through His Messenger, who alone teaches the method of worshipping the Master and the way to become pure and clean. The Messenger shows us the path of righteousness and piety, the manner in which rights are discharged, the method of carrying on transactions and dealings with fellow-beings, and the mode of leading one's life. But the difference is this that while Deen always was, has been, and is still one and the same, numerous Sharia came, many were canceled, several were changed but these alterations did not change the Deen. The Deen of Noah was the same as that of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Shu'aib, Saleh, Hud, and Muhammad (peace be on them), but the Sharia of these Prophets varied from each other to some extent. The modes of saying a prayer and observing fast were of one kind with one Prophet and of another kind with the other. Injunctions about halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden), rules of cleanliness and codes of marriage, divorce, and inheritance somewhat differed from one Shari'ah to another. Despite this, all were Muslims---the followers of Noah, the followers of Abraham, the followers of Jesus, and those of Moses, and we too are all Muslims because Deen is the same for all. This shows that Deen is unaffected by differences is the rules of Shari'ah. Deen remains one though the modes of following it differ.
Sayyid Qutb, in his Milestone, writes: "By 'the Shari'ah of God' is meant everything legislated by God for ordering man's life; it includes the principles of belief, principles of administration and justice, principles of morality and human relationships, and principles of knowledge."
The Shari'ah includes the Islamic beliefs and concepts and their implications concerning the attributes of God, the nature of life, what is apparent and what is hidden in it, the nature of man, and the interrelationships among these. Similarly, it includes political, social, and economic affairs and their principles, with the intent that they reflect complete submission to God alone. It also includes legal matters (this is what today is referred to as the 'Shari'ah', while the true meaning of the 'Shari'ah in Islam is entirely different). It deals with the morals, manners, values, and standards of the society, according to which persons, actions, and events are measured. It also deals with all aspects of knowledge and principles of art and science. In all this guidance from God is needed, just as it is needed in legal matters."
Khurram Murad, a prominent scholar of the Jamat Islami, Pakistan in his Shari'ah - The Way to God explains "In its fullest sense, the Shariah is therefore virtually synonymous, and can be used interchangeably, with the word Din, which can only inadequately be translated as 'religion'. Din literally means 'way of life', 'submission', 'following' or the 'Way'. Though the word Shari'ah in its various derivative forms is found in five places in the Qur'an, its extensive use only came into vogue much later; for the words, Islam and Din were more commonly employed to express the same meaning in the early days of Islam. The Shariah includes both faith and practice. It embraces worship, individual attitude, and conduct as well as social norms and laws, whether political, economic, familial, criminal or civil. It may also sometimes be used to imply, in a more restricted sense, do's and don'ts the rules and regulations for conduct and behavior. Lastly, it is also used as the equivalent of Islamic laws. The Shariah is thus nothing less than the divinely ordained way of life for man. To realize the divine will, man must follow the Shariah. To live in Islam is to live according to the Shariah. To give up the Sharia or any part of it knowingly, willfully or deliberately is to give up Islam. A Muslim must, therefore, do his utmost to observe and to implement the whole of it, wherever and in whatever situation he finds himself."
Yusuf al-Qaradawi in The Lawful and the Unlawful in Islam writes, "Finally, when mankind had reached the stage of intellectual maturity and was ready to receive the last message from Allah Subhanahu wa Ta'ala, Islam came with its complete, comprehensive, and eternal Shari'ah (law) for the whole of mankind."
Shariah in Secular Literature
In secular literature, the Encyclopedia of Britannica defines Shariah as the fundamental religious concept of Islam, namely its law, systematized during the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Muslim era (8th-9th centuries CE). Total and unqualified submission to the will of Allah (God) is the fundamental tenet of Islam: Islamic law is, therefore, the expression of Allah's command for Muslim society and, in the application, constitutes a system of duties that are incumbent upon a Muslim by his religious belief. Known as the Shariah (literally, "the path leading to the watering place"), the law constitutes a divinely ordained conduct that guides every aspect of life.
The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations defines Shariah as a guide in all aspects of Muslim life, including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings. It is derived primarily from the Qur'an and the Sunna--the sayings, practices, and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Precedents and analogy applied by Muslim scholars are used to address new issues. The consensus of the Muslim community also plays a role in defining this theological manual."
"Shariah developed several hundred years after the Prophet Mohammed's death in 632 CE as the Islamic empire expanded to the edge of North Africa in the West and to China in the East. Since the Prophet Mohammed was considered the most pious of all believers, his life and ways became a model for all other Muslims and were collected by scholars in what is known as the Hadith. As each locality tried to reconcile local customs and Islam, hadith literature grew and developed into distinct schools of Islamic thought: the Sunni schools, Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanafi; and the Shiite school, Ja'fari. Named after the scholars that inspired them, they differ in the weight each applies to the sources from which Shariah is derived, the Qur'an, Hadith, Islamic scholars, and consensus of the community. The Hanbali school, known for following the most Orthodox form of Islam, is embraced in Saudi Arabia and by the Taliban. The Hanafi school, known for being the most liberal and the most focused on reason and analogy is dominant among Sunnis in Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, Turkey, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. The Maliki school is dominant in North Africa and the Shafi'i school in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Yemen. Shia Muslims follow the Ja'fari school, most notably in Shia-dominated Iran. The distinctions have more impact on the legal systems in each country, however than on individual Muslims, as many do not adhere to one school in their personal lives."
The popular web Wikipedia writes:
"Shariah, in its strictest definition, is a divine law, as expressed in the Qur'an and Muhammad's example (often called the Sunnah). As such, it is related to but different from Fiqh, which is emphasized as the human interpretation of the law. Many scholars have pointed out that the Shariah is not formally a code, nor a well-defined set of rules. The Shariah has characterized as a discussion of the duties of Muslims based on both the opinion of the Muslim community and extensive literature. Hunt Janin and Andre Kahlmeyer thus conclude that the Shariah is "long, diverse, and complicated."
Critics of Shariah
Shariah's critics view Shariah as a threat to America, its existence, and its moral and constitutional fabric. The Threat is Shariah, published by the Center for Security Policy, says: "These enemies adhere to an all-encompassing Islamic political-military-legal doctrine known as Shariah. It obliges them to engage in jihad to achieve the triumph of Islam worldwide through the establishment of a global Islamic state governed exclusively by Shariah, under a restored caliphate. The good news is that millions of Muslims around the world - including many in America - do not follow the directives of Shariah, let alone engage in jihad. The bad news is that this reality reflects the fact that the imposition of strict Shariah doctrine is at different stages across Muslim-majority and -minority countries. The appearance is thus created that there is variation in Shariah. Of late, representatives of Muslim and Arab-American groups and their apologists have been claiming that there is no single Shariah, that it is subject to interpretation, and no one interpretation is any more legitimate than any other.
In fact, for especially the Sunni and with regard to non-Muslims, there is ultimately but one Shariah. It is totalitarian in character, incompatible with our Constitution and a threat to freedom here and around the world. Shariah's adherents are making a determined, sustained, and well-financed effort to impose it on all Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Defining the Shariah, the center says The Arabic word "Shariah," according to one modern English-language student textbook on Islam, "literally means a straight path (Qur'an 45:18) or an endless supply of water. It is the term used to describe the rules of the lifestyle (Deen) ordained for us by Allah. In more practical terms, Shariah includes all the do's and don'ts of Islam."
In other words, Shariah is held by mainstream Islamic authorities - not to be confused with "radical," "extremist" or "political" elements said to operate on the fringes of Islam - to be the perfect expression of divine will and justice and thus are the supreme law that must comprehensively govern all aspects of Muslims' lives, irrespective of when or where they live. Shariah is characterized as a "complete way of life" (social, cultural, military, religious, and political), governed from the cradle to the grave by Islamic law. While many, many millions of Muslims around the world do not practice their faith in a manner consistent with Shariah, as this chapter makes clear, those that do have grounds for arguing that their version of Islam is the authoritative one. And those who claim that there is no single Shariah - a narrative that has recently emerged from representatives of Muslim- and Arab-American groups and their apologists - are either ignorant of the facts about Shariah discussed below or deliberately dissembling. There are four sources for Sharia that make it authoritative: the Qur'an, the Sunna, ijma, and qiyas. Deemed "the uncreated word of Allah," the Qur'an reflects the direct divine revelation and is understood to be the primary source of Islamic law. After the Qur'an, Islamic jurists next turn to the Sunna, considered to be an indirect divine revelation arising out of the hadiths, or sayings or acts of Mohammed. Ijma refers to the consensus of the grand mujtahids of the past, a historical process in which, once consensus attached, became a permanent part of the immutable body of Islamic law. Finally, the fourth source of Shariah is qiyas, or reasoning by analogy, which applies an accepted principle or assumption to arrive at a legal ruling."
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, summarized the feelings of the critics of Shariah when he said in a speech published in the New York Times: "I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world, as we know it,"
Qur'anic Definition of Shariah
There is a lack of consensus among Muslims about what Shariah is. Some define it stagnant, others dynamic. Some see it as a divinely given law, others say it is a source of law. Some say it is a set of principles; others describe it as a methodology. Some define it in the context of five objectives; others say that objectives are not stationary. Some say it is monolithic and others say it varies. Some say that by renouncing Shariah a person renounces Islam, others say that is non-binding. In general, if one looks at the existing literature and reads different opinions, one cannot but find oneself in a state of high perplexity.
The irony is that those defending the Shariah are still struggling to work out a common definition of the word and concepts associated with it. The internal debate among Muslims is missing. Everyone claims to have found a definite answer and everyone is controlled by that. How will a bystander know what is right and what is not, and whom to believe and whom not to?
The word Shariah is part of Islamic vocabulary primarily because it appeared in the divine scripture: the Qur'an, the main source of Muslim identity, as without the Qur'an, Hadith and Fiqh and other Islamic sciences exist in a vacuum. Thus the Qur'an and the language of the Qur'an are the two primary sources of defining the Shariah in the divine scripture. Any attempt to define the term has to be rooted in the Qur'an primarily; the rest may be considered an explanation.
Linguistically, Shariah is equivalent to the Arabic word Zahara, which means in a state of being known or being open or being clear. Thus, Ash-Share' means an open, spacious road that can be used by people without any restrictions. Similarly, Ash Shir' or Ash Shariah means an open, clear, and straight path. It also means a place that is open to humans and animals to drink pure, fresh water flowing freely from an uninterrupted source. In a theological sense, it would mean guidance coming from a higher, neutral, and objective source for the benefit of all human beings.
The Qur'an in Surah 42, verse 13 and 14 says:
"In matters of faith, He has ordained for you that which He had enjoined upon Noah - and into which We gave thee [O Muhammad] insight through revelation as well as that which We had enjoined upon Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus: Steadfastly uphold the [true] faith, and do not break up your unity therein. [And even though] that [unity of faith] to which you call them appears oppressive to those who are wont to ascribe to other beings or forces a share in His divinity, God draws unto Himself everyone who is willing, and guides unto Himself everyone who turns unto Him." (Qur'an 42:13)
And [as for the followers of earlier revelation,] they broke up their unity, out of mutual jealousy, only after they had come to know [the truth]. And had it not been for a decree that had already gone forth from thy Sustainer, [postponing all decision] until a term set [by Him], all would indeed have been decided between them [from the outset]. As it is, behold, they who have inherited their divine writ from those who preceded them are [now] in grave doubt, amounting to suspicion, about what it portends. (Qur'an 42:14)
Thus, these verses explain at length, stating that like His Laws, which operate in the outer universe, God has devised Laws for humanity. Since the beginning, these Laws have been conveyed through Anbia (prophets and messengers) by Wahi (revelation). (Therefore) The way of life proposed for human beings or those who believe in divine guidance is the same that was revealed to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (and the other Anbia). All of them were told to establish the system proposed by God, and to not create sects in it (because the main objective of the Divine System is that humanity should become one universal entity by the removal of all differences (see Qur'an 3:32; 3:104; 6:160; 45:17-18). Thus the call for the removal of sectarian differences for the sake of the unity is not acceptable to those who consider other powers as their helpers, and to those who intermix man-made rules with Divine Laws. Therefore, how can they come to the right path? As regards their objection to your selection as the Messenger, tell them, Allah Almighty selects the one He considers suitable for this important task. The selection is not according to your standards, but according to His decision. Your task is to seek guidance from the Wahi revealed to the Messenger. The guidance is available to anyone who seeks it willingly. It cannot benefit those who do not seek guidance."
Thus the Qur'an explains that the source of Shariah is the divine Himself because He is the only continuous source of guidance to all regardless of their background. Throughout human history, it has been consistent, as God does not confuse different generations of human beings by giving them different messages.
The Shariah is revealed through prophets, chosen by Him, to human beings. It is not acquired on the basis of trials and errors and experimentations. It is not based on the whims of and wills of human beings. It is based on the unchangeable divine guidance and its purpose is to ensure preservation and perpetuation of the unity of humanity. In other words, when it comes to securing the interests and future of humanity, it is the guidance of God, that should be considered supreme, as human beings with all their divisions and baggage will not be able to develop a system that would ensure the interest of each and every human being.
Explaining these ideas further, the same sura states:
Is it that they [who care for no more than this world] believe in forces supposed to have a share in God's divinity, which enjoins upon them as a moral law something that God has never allowed? Now were it not for [God's] decree on the final judgment, all would indeed have been decided between them [in this world]: but, verily grievous suffering awaits the evildoers [in the life to come]. (Qur'an 42:21)
The path that these people have adopted for themselves has not been ordained by the Almighty. They have made other entities (their religious leaders) partners of God. They devise different ways for them. The Deen (the way of life), which these entities promote, has not been confirmed by the Divine guidance.
Thus the divisions that human beings have created on the basis of their cultural, social, political, and economic interests are not confirmed by divine guidance and go against the logic of unity of humanity. Those who commit these acts are, in fact, causing great suffering for them.
The Sura 5, verse 48, states:
And unto thee [O Prophet] have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein. Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee. Unto every one of you has We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God, you all must return, and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (Qur'an 5:48)
In this verse, the principle of the continuity of the divine message to all the prophets is repeated with the acknowledgment that differences of opinions would continue to exist as people would always act on the basis of their ethnic, cultural or even religious interests without identifying with the larger interests of humanity. The Qur'an affirms the principle of freedom in making a choice. It reminds humans through the Prophet that God sent them a Book based on truth. The book confirms and subsumes the true teachings of the earlier Books. People should judge among them according to what Allah has revealed and should not follow their desires, which make them deviate from the truth. People might ask when Allah's guidance sent to all the Anbia was the same (and differences were created subsequently by their followers) why did Allah not compel the latter to follow His guidance? The answer is that doing so would have been against Allah's plan according to which freedom of the will has been given to human beings. Moral responsibility for all actions derives from this freedom; moreover, this gives them the greatest incentive to do good deeds, so believers are advised to hurry in doing good deeds, the result of which will come about according to divine laws. When the Divine Day of Judgment has established, the differences and variations created by the followers of the earlier Anbia will become manifest.
The continuity of the divine message is reiterated again in sura 45 verse 18 when the Qur'an elaborates the concept of the unity of ideas through all messengers:
And, finally, [O Muhammad,] We have set thee on a way by which the purpose [of faith] may be fulfilled: so follow thou this [way], and follow not the likes and dislikes of those who do not know [the truth]. (Qur'an 45:18)
Thus it was stated clearly that the Prophet was sent on the clear and right path indicated by the divine revelation and the responsibility of the follower is to ensure that they keep on following it, ignoring the whims and wishes of people who do not know the truth or who refuse to subscribe to the truth.
From a Qur'anic perspective, Shariah is the ultimate divine guidance given to humanity to find its identity and purpose in life. It comprises of broad principles and some specific rules that deal with the unity of humanity, freedom of choice, acceptance of differences, and assuming moral responsibility for one's action. Its message to humanity is that you are one and its message to Muslims, specifically, is that you should work towards achieving the unity by ensuring that life is preserved, the freedom of religion is protected, the intellect is not suppressed, the progeny is protected and the labor is rewarded.
Shariah is life-affirming and life-preserving. Shariah is justice nurturing, and Shariah is human dignity nourishing. Shariah is the ultimate source of a style of life for those who believe in divine wisdom and guidance, those who understand that only a higher, neutral and objective authority can preserve and protect the interests of all human beings. It is up to individuals to acknowledge, accept or reject the divine guidance. Thus Shariah cannot be imposed. It cannot be coerced upon people. There is no armed struggle prescribed to force people who reject the Shariah as a source of guidance in their life to accept it as their way of life. Jihad is permitted to defend one's dignity and one's right to live peacefully according to divine guidance. It is not to force people to accept the Muslim world view. People have a choice to live according to whatever laws they deem fit for them.
Sharia acknowledges the differences in human understanding and behavior and gives people full freedom to organize their lives accordingly. It respects freedom, liberty, and the right to choose one's lifestyle.
Shariah should not be equated with the methods for achieving its goals. The prayers, the fasting, the charity, the pilgrimage, the marriage, the divorce, the inheritance, the childbearing and rearing, the education, the medicine, the food, the exploration, the utilization and distribution of resources are methods prescribed to achieve the inner and outer peace that is ultimately the goal of Shariah. Thus, anyone attacking the Shariah wants to deprive Muslims to practice their faith to secure a better world for them and others.
Throughout their history, human beings have formulated laws and rules in different cultures and societies to preserve their collective interests. For almost 5,000 years, the world believed in the institution of slavery and formulated laws accordingly. Then in 1948, the United Nations decided to adopt its human rights charter and countries after countries, including Muslim majority countries, changed many of the laws that were on their books.
The argument based on Shariah's guidance is that when feeling accountable to a higher, neutral, and objective authority, i.e., God, Almighty, and when they view His creation as equal without discriminating among them, the laws they would adopt will benefit all human beings.
Shariah advises Muslims to develop laws and implement them effectively, keeping in mind the interests of all human beings and not just the interests of an ethnic, cultural, religious, social, or financial group.
For instance, Shariah declares that God has bestowed the dignity of human beings. Thus the responsibility of all those who claim to be guided by Shariah must ensure that practices, customs, ideologies, and laws that deny dignity to human beings must be eliminated. According to Shariah, people rule themselves on the basis of declared laws approved through a process.
Nowhere does the Shariah, as defined in the Qur'an, demands Muslims to convert people to their way of thinking. Nowhere does it say that if people reject their ideas, they should be confronted violently
Shariah promotes freedom of expression to those who accept it and those who reject it, a cardinal principle secured in the US constitution.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
All those who have launched the crusade to deprive Muslims of their right to live according to the divine guidance are violating their pledge of allegiance to the Constitution. They are the ones who are posing the greatest threat to the country, and they are the ones who need to be reminded that Shariah protects all that is protected by the US constitution.
They are inconsistent in their thinking. On the one hand, they want this freedom to be extended to Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists, while on the other they want only Muslims to be deprived of this freedom. They do not want Muslims to live their lives according to their belief system.
Their agenda is neither logical nor constitutional. They are acting like a hate-mongering group who on the basis of their own insecurities and fear, want to deprive a viable and vibrant section of American society to express its identity. If they have taken such a stand against Muslims, today, there is no guarantee that they would not repeat the same inconsistencies against others, tomorrow. Through their action, they are tearing down the foundation of this country and human civilization.
However, this should not absolve Muslims from accepting the responsibility to differentiate between laws that emerged consequent to human understanding, known as Fiqh and Shariah, the divine guidance. Human beings are fallible, and they may make mistakes in developing laws based on their limited understanding of divine guidance or their own understanding of society. For almost 5,000 years, a particular religious tradition promoted the idea that women were without souls. Laws were formulated, and inequality and discrimination were practiced in the name of God. But these laws reflected the human understanding within their historical and cultural understanding.
The increased interaction among human beings, the development of, and growth of our world on the basis of scientific methodology and the shrinking of cultural and social differences have forced all of us to examine our own understanding of the divine message in a global and wider context. This does not mean that the divine words have changed, it means our horizon has broadened, and our understanding of our world has expanded, and the divine guidance is revealing itself in a new context for us. Shariah reminds us of this ultimate reality, and the Qur'an says in Surah 41:53:
"We will show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and their souls until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord does witness all things?" (Qur'an 41:53)
In other words, God, the Creator and the Master of the universe will continue creating circumstances in which people will see the signs and visible impact of the divine guidance so much that it will become clear to them that whatever the divine revelation had told them was based on truth. It is up to those who believe in the divine guidance to understand their changing circumstances and situations and then view them in the light of the Shariah.
In simpler words, the Shariah is to reflect on the message of the Qur'an with the changing human conditions and circumstances to secure the common good for every human being regardless of their background.