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Dispelling Myths About Islamic Law: Shariah Explained (August 31, 2011)

American political campaigns targeting Shariah are as red hot as Sunday’s front page in the New York Times. Unfortunately, these grassroots campaigns are aimed at scoring points with frightened voters—not at any real-world problem. No responsible Muslim leader in the United States is trying to substitute Shariah for secular American law. In fact, every major religious group around the world has some code of law for governing community life. Once upon a time in America, political parties targeted Catholics, claiming that they might try to impose Roman canon law in the U.S.—but that myth was dispelled more than half a century ago.
ReadTheSpirit invited a Muslim expert to write a clear and concise summary of Shariah—to combat wildly inaccurate information floating around the Internet. Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk is a Lebanese-American lecturer on the meaning of the Quran and president of the Islamic Organization of North America. Imam Elturk worked for many weeks on this summary, including input from other Muslim leaders.
IF YOU APPRECIATE THIS SHARIAH STORY, please email the link to a friend (either copy the URL above or email from the link at the bottom of this story). Share this link on Facebook. Please, spread this accurate report as far and wide as the bogus information travels.


Shariah sometimes is portrayed as an antiquated Islamic system of law that is barbaric with no regard for values of democracy, human rights or women’s freedom. In fact, the opposite is true: Social welfare, freedom, human dignity and human relationships are among the higher objectives of Shariah.
The word Shariah comes from the Arabic: sha-ra-‘a, which means a way or path and by extension—the path to be followed. The term originally was used to describe “the path that leads to water,” since water is the source of all life. Hence, Shariah is the way to the source of life. Shariah in Islam refers to the law according to divine guidance leading to a good and happy life in this world and the next.
The concept behind Shariah is not unique to Islam and is found in nearly all of the world’s great religions. Moses, peace be upon him, received the Torah incorporating the Mosaic Law and the Ten Commandments. Look at the sampling of religious codes, shown at right, for more examples. In Islam, we look primarily to the revelation that came when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, peace be upon him, incorporating the final Shariah for the benefit of humankind. “For each of you We have appointed a law (Shariah) and a way of life. And had God so willed, He would surely have made you one single community; instead, (He gave each of you a law and a way of life) in order to test you by what He gave you.” (Quran 5:48)
There are basically two sources of Shariah—the Quran and the Sunnah (the divinely guided tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). There is also what is called fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. There is a fundamental difference, however, between Shariah and fiqh. While Shariah is of divine origin, fiqh is the product of intellectual effort to deduce the rulings of Shariah through the jurist’s own intellectual exertion suitable for his specific time and place. Fiqh interprets and extends the application of Shariah to situations not directly addressed in the primary sources by taking recourse to secondary sources. Those secondary sources usually include a consensus of religious scholars called ijma and analogical deductions from the Quran and the Sunnah called qiyas. While the Quran and the Sunnah are permanent and unchangeable, fiqh is variable and may change with time and place—but always within the spirit and parameters of these two main sources of Shariah: the Quran and Sunnah.
Shariah aims at the welfare of the people in this life and in the life hereafter. The sources of Shariah guide people to adopt a set of beliefs and practices that would help them ward off evil, injury, misery, sorrow, and distress. These beliefs and practices may result in benefit, happiness, pleasure, and contentment not only in this world, but also in the next. The Quran confirms, “Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery, but whoever turns away from it will have a life of great hardship.” (Quran 20:123-124)
It is an error to define Shariah as a “legal-political-military doctrine,” as some political activists claim. It also is wrong to associate and restrict Shariah only to the punitive laws of Islam. The fact is that Shariah is all-embracing and encompasses personal as well as collective spheres in daily living. Shariah includes the entire sweep of life: Prayers, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, morality, economic endeavors, political conduct and social behavior, including caring for one’s parents and neighbors, and maintaining kinship.
Shariah’s goal is to protect and promote basic human rights, including faith, life, family, property and intellect. Islam has, in fact, adopted two courses for the preservation of these five indispensables: the first is through cultivating religious consciousness in the human soul and the awakening of human awareness through moral education; the second is by inflicting deterrent punishment, which is the basis of the Islamic criminal system. Other major bodies of religious law in the world, including the Canon Law used by the Catholic church, contain both legal outlines of responsibilities and codes for punishing misbehavior.
Faith is the essence and spirit of a meaningful life. Muslims profess their faith through a verbal testimony, bearing witness to the oneness and unity of God and to the finality of prophethood of Muhammad, peace be upon him. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the seal of all of God’s prophets and messengers, a chain that started with Adam and includes Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them all. Muslims also express their faith through devotional practices, most importantly the five daily prayers, an act of worship that keeps them connected with the Creator. Additional practices include fasting, obligatory charity and pilgrimage. Fasting during the month of Ramadan has been prescribed to Muslims so they may be mindful of God and learn self-restraint. Zakat, or a portion of our income to be given to the poor, is another duty regulated by God to ensure that basic needs are met for the less fortunate, poor and destitute. If they are able, Muslims are also required to perform Hajj—a pilgrimage to visit the sacred house (Ka’bah) that was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to seek forgiveness from their Lord and renew their covenant with Him.
It is against Shariah to compel or force any person to convert to Islam. The Quran asserts, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) Shariah provides total freedom of religion. The Quran is quite clear on the point, “Say (O Muhammad), ‘Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it do so’ ” (18:29) “Had God willed He would have guided all people” (13:31)
Islam holds that people are endowed with our senses and our intellect so that we can choose what is best for us to follow. Shariah not only allows other faiths to co-exist but guarantees the protection of their houses of worship and properties. Shariah respects the worth of every human being in his or her own belief and endeavor in the pursuit of life and the truth.
Shariah recognizes the sanctity and sacredness of human life. One may not harm or kill. The Quran emphatically stresses this point, “And do not take any human being’s life—[the life] which God has willed to be sacred—otherwise than in [the pursuit of] justice.” (17:33) Killing innocent people, even at times of war, is a grave sin and strongly condemned by Shariah: “if anyone kills a person—unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land—it is as if he kills all mankind; while if any saves a life, it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.” (5:32)
Unfortunately, as in all the world’s great faiths, Islam sometimes produces individuals who make distorted religious claims. News reports from around the world have shown us extremists from various religious traditions who claim that their faith compels them to commit acts that clearly are crimes to any sensible person. This recently happened in Norway, according to news reports. Similarly, some Muslims have issued extreme fatwas (judicial rulings) that may not be based on the Quran and the Sunnah at all. Another unfortunate example of this distortion is the lingering practice of honor killings in some parts of the world. Honor killing is an entrenched cultural issue in some areas, but clearly is in violation of Shariah as well as all globally recognized Christian codes of conduct. Nevertheless, honor killings still occur in some traditional Christian and Muslim cultures. These crimes need to be addressed worldwide by leaders of all faiths.
Psychological harm or injury is also prohibited under Shariah. The Quran mandates, “O believers! Avoid making too many assumptions, for some assumptions are sinful; and do not spy on one another; or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No, you would hate it. So be mindful of God: God is ever relenting, most merciful.” (49:12)
Shariah also demands total respect for all of creation. For example, a Muslim is prohibited to cut down trees or kill animals without a good reason. As part of Shariah, Muslims are required to protect the environment from pollution and harmful waste.
Shariah regulates the life of a Muslim in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, parenting, upbringing of children, rights of orphans, ties of kith and kin, etc. The family is the nucleus of society. Hence, having a sound family structure builds a strong society. Islam encourages marriage as soon as a mature man is able to support his wife. Premarital or extramarital sex is strictly forbidden.
Islam does allow men to have more than one wife at the same time, up to a total of four, provided that the husband treats them equitably. However, this represents a tiny minority in Muslim-majority countries, where polygamous marriage constitutes only 1-to-3 percent of all marriages. Islam encourages only one wife. The Quran in verse 4:129 affirms how difficult it is to be equitable in multiple marriage. Polygamy remains a challenging issue in many world faiths. International gatherings of Christian leaders in recent decades also have discussed compassionate responses to polygamy.
Despite misconceptions, Shariah protects women’s rights if properly applied. For example, women are entitled to education, to keep their maiden names and to control their inheritance. They are entitled to a decent living, to own property or to own a business, if they wish.
Islam teaches that family ties are to be maintained and parents are highly regarded. Shariah enjoins believers to honor parents and grandparents. In numerous places in the Quran, the rights of parents are mentioned immediately after the rights of God. The following verse illustrates the importance of this value: “Your Lord has commanded that you should worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them a word of contempt, and do not be harsh with them, but speak to them respectfully, and lower your wing in humility towards them in kindness and say, ‘Lord, have mercy on them, just as they cared for me when I was little.’ ” (17:23-24)
Neighbors are viewed as extended family in Islam. God instructs believers to take care of their neighbors, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to neighbors near (Muslims) and far (non-Muslims), to travelers in need.” (4:36)
Shariah stresses lawful earning for the maintenance of oneself and family—and rejects begging for a living. The objective of economic activities is to fulfill one’s basic needs and not to satisfy insatiable desires.
Our rights to property are protected in Shariah, an ideal that naturally contributes to a sense of security in a community. Forms of economic exploitation are condemned. Islam prohibits interest and usury (Riba). The goal is to keep people from depleting their property and falling into poverty through excessive debt. Likewise, the positive Quranic attitude towards trade and commercial activities (al-bay’) encourages mutual help, fairness with employees and equitable transactions in business. The Islamic view of economic principles includes a requirement that a lender should participate in either the profit or the loss of a borrower. Shariah’s interest in a just and healthy community extends throughout our business transactions.
Among the most cherished gifts of God is the faculty of intellect, which differentiates us from animals. It is through this faculty one is able to reason and make sound judgments. Such a precious blessing needs protection. Anything that threatens the intellect is discouraged or completely prohibited by Shariah. Prohibitions on intoxication with alcohol or drugs are aimed at keeping the mind sound and healthy.
Acknowledging that some may claim benefits of gambling and drinking, God informs that their harm is greater than their benefit. “They ask you [Prophet] about intoxicants and gambling: say, ‘There is great sin in both and some benefit for people: the sin is greater than the benefit.’ … In this way, God makes His messages clear to you, so that you may reflect.” (Quran 2:219)
Shariah abhors extremism and excessiveness. Excesses in spending, eating—even worship—are prohibited in Islam. Shariah promotes following the middle path. True Muslims are moderate in all of their endeavors—religious and secular. God described them in the Quran as “the Middle Nation.”
Shariah aims at facilitating life and removing hardships. Shariah beautifies life and provides comfort. It approves of good and forbids evil. It is considerate in case of necessity and hardship.
A general principle in Shariah holds that necessity makes the unlawful lawful. A Muslim is obliged to satisfy his hunger with lawful food and not to eat what has been declared forbidden. One may, however, in case of necessity—when permissible food is not available—eat unlawful foods such as pork to sustain life. Shariah comes from a kind and compassionate God.
The Quran says: “God wants ease for you, not hardship”(2:185) “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear” (2:286) “It was only as a mercy that We sent you [Prophet] to all people.” (21:107)
Ultimately, Shariah strives for justice, fairness, mercy and peace.