What is Sharia?
Sharia literally means “way” or “street.” As an Islamic
concept, it means “God’s Way” or “God’s Law” – the divine way that God exhorts
everyone to live. The details of that behavior are in scriptural sources (the
Quran and documented Prophetic Tradition). The legal rules that a derived from
those sources (through the process of ijtihad – legal interpretation) is called
“fiqh” (literally, “understanding”).
Because ijtihad is a human process, fiqh is pluralistic; it
is made up of several different (equally legitimate) schools of Islamic
law. Some of the more well-known ones
are Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, Ja’fari and Hanbali. If you’re thinking of specific
legal rules that you’ve heard are “Islamic law,” you’re actually thinking of
Some of the fiqh rules are quite consistent with legal rules
found in American law today (e.g. rights to personal property, mutual consent
to contracts, presumption of defendants’ innocence). Others are quite
“progressive” in comparison to contemporary (and certainly 19thcentury) western
laws (e.g. women’s right to compensation for housework and to engage in
front-line military combat). Still others seem contrary to contemporary human
rights norms (e.g. hand amputation for theft, stoning for adultery), though
there are doctrinal limitations that should limit the application of the
punishment in most cases (e.g. four eyewitnesses required for proving
adultery). It should also be recognized that there is a healthy internal Muslim
discourse on many fiqh laws (especially those regarding criminal law),
generating a diversity of authentic Muslim opinions (through ijtihad) on what
are appropriate fiqh rules for modern times and various societal contexts.
Diversity remains the key attribute of Islamic legal doctrine, then and now.