What is Sharia Law?

Sharia, Sharia law, or Islamic law (Arabic: شريعة‎‎ (IPA: [ʃaˈriːʕa])) is the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition. It is derived from the religious precepts of Islam, particularly the Quran and the Hadith. In Arabic, the term sharīʿah refers to God’s divine law and is contrasted with fiqh, which refers to its scholarly interpretations. The manner of its application in modern times has been a subject of dispute between Muslim traditionalists and reformists.

Traditional theory of Islamic jurisprudence recognizes four sources of sharia: the Quran, sunnah (authentic hadith), qiyas (analogical reasoning), and ijma (juridical consensus). Different legal schools—of which the most prominent are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali and Jafari—developed methodologies for deriving sharia rulings from scriptural sources using a process known as ijtihad. Traditional jurisprudence distinguishes two principal branches of law, ʿibādāt (rituals) and muʿāmalāt (social relations), which together comprise a wide range of topics. Its rulings assign actions to one of five categories: mandatory, recommended, permitted, abhorred, and prohibited. Thus, some areas of sharia overlap with the Western notion of law while others correspond more broadly to living life in accordance with God’s will.

Historically, sharia was interpreted by independent jurists (muftis). Their legal opinions (fatwas) were taken into account by ruler-appointed judges who presided over qāḍī’s courts, and by maẓālim courts, which were controlled by the ruler’s council and administered criminal law. Ottoman rulers achieved additional control over the legal system by promulgating their own legal code (qanun) and turning muftis into state employees. Non-Muslim (dhimmi) communities had legal autonomy, except in cases of interconfessional disputes, which fell under jurisdiction of qadi’s courts.

In the modern era, sharia-based criminal laws were widely replaced by statutes inspired by European models. Judicial procedures and legal education in the Muslim world were likewise brought in line with European practice. While the constitutions of most Muslim-majority states contain references to sharia, its classical rules were largely retained only in personal status (family) laws. Legislative bodies which codified these laws sought to modernize them without abandoning their foundations in traditional jurisprudence. The Islamic revival of the late 20th century brought along calls by Islamist movements for full implementation of sharia, including reinstatement of hudud corporal punishments, such as stoning. In some cases, this resulted in traditionalist legal reform, while other countries witnessed juridical reinterpretation of sharia advocated by progressive reformers.

The role of sharia has become a contested topic around the world. Attempts to impose it on non-Muslims have caused intercommunal violence in Nigeria and may have contributed to the breakup of Sudan. Some Muslim-minority countries in Asia (such as Israel), Africa and Europe recognize the use of sharia-based family laws for their Muslim populations. There are ongoing debates as to whether sharia is compatible with secular forms of government, human rights, freedom of thought, and women’s rights.

Most Muslim-majority countries incorporate sharia at some level in their legal framework, with many calling it the highest law or the source of law of the land in their constitution. Most use sharia for personal law (marriage, divorce, domestic violence, child support, family law, inheritance and such matters). Elements of sharia are present, to varying extents, in the criminal justice system of many Muslim-majority countries. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Brunei, Qatar, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Mauritania apply the code predominantly or entirely while it applies in some parts of Indonesia.

Most Muslim-majority countries with sharia-prescribed hudud punishments in their legal code do not prescribe it routinely and use other punishments instead. The harshest sharia penalties such as stoning, beheading and the death penalty are enforced with varying levels of consistency.

Since the 1970s, most Muslim-majority countries have faced vociferous demands from their religious groups and political parties for immediate adoption of sharia as the sole, or at least primary, legal framework. Some moderates and liberal scholars within these Muslim countries have argued for limited expansion of sharia.

With the growing Muslim immigrant communities in Europe, there have been reports in some media of “no-go zones” being established where sharia law reigns supreme. However, there is no evidence of the existence of “no-go zones”, and these allegations are sourced from anti-immigrant groups falsely equating low-income neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by immigrants as “no-go zones”.

In England, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal makes use of sharia family law to settle disputes, and this limited adoption of sharia is controversial.sharia1.jpg

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