The word ‘Sharia’ and ‘Sharia Law’ are heard quite regularly in media and public discourse. From Sharia finance and family law to so-called ‘Sharia lashings’, most people would have heard of the term, but what does it mean?
What is Sharia?
Broadly speaking, Sharia is Islamic Law - the law derived from Islamic source texts - the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is a law that covers all aspects of life - politics, economics, criminal law, business, contracts, family life, hygiene and social issues. Although there are similarities with other legal systems in terms of the guaranteeing of rights and the upholding of principles and values, it differs in terms of its sources and methodology and indeed, in the values it seeks to instil.
Sharia law and modern society
A thousand years ago, European nations were ruled by kings and the Church with laws that maintained an unjust feudal system, oppressed women and pursued almost continuous warfare. Europe would never dream of going back to such uncivilised and non-progressive laws, so why should Muslims look towards laws applied during that era?
This question arises in the minds of many. However, the question is based on a false analogy between Europe and the Muslim World in the Middle Ages. It is presumed that because Europe was so bad in that age, so too must the rest of the world have been. The reality is otherwise. The Islamic world prospered under Sharia law when Europe was still in its ‘Dark Ages’.
The progress of Europe began only when the Church was forcefully separated from politics and secularism emerged. Muslim lands, up until then, had flourished under Sharia law and its growth and development only fell behind when secularism was introduced to these lands. It should not therefore be presumed that the European experience is beneficial for the entire world.
Importantly, Islam approaches law from the perspective of problems that arise through human social interaction. While technology may have progressed, the core relationships between human beings remain the same, as do core human needs and instincts.
Laws made by humans in a secular system are vulnerable to the prejudices and inadequacies of the men and women who make these laws. They are also vulnerable to corruption and undue influence by the rich and powerful. It is an easy task to cite numerous examples of countries that have suffered from injustice and corruption when attempting to implement secular systems of governance.
In contrast, Sharia comes from our Creator. It is God’s laws for human beings and their societies. It is based upon texts that anyone can access and so too can it be challenged publicly by those who feel that the derivation of a particular law is incorrect. It includes checks and balances to ensure that unfair application can be challenged through the judicial system. It transcends all tribal loyalties, regional interests and the influence of the rich and powerful. It is thus the best means to avoid corruption and to effectively unite people under its rule, as it had done in the past.
How is Sharia law derived?
Sharia Law is based upon the Quran (the revelation from God) and the Sunnah (example of the Prophet Muhammad). In some cases, it gives a direct verdict on specific human problems and in other cases legal scholars are needed to derive a verdict from these sources using various interpretative principles.
In recent years, Islamic Scholars have brought forward explanations of the Islamic stance on modern developments such as stock-holding companies, corporate bonds, stem cell research and organ transplants. This is due to the dynamism of the Sharia, which is not a long list of hard and fast rules. Rather, it is a sophisticated legal system with an elaborate methodology of legal interpretation. Thus, Sharia whilst revealed 14 centuries ago, is a comprehensive legal system that applies for all times and places.
Stonings and lashings?
The penal code of the Sharia does include harsh penalties for a limited number of major crimes. However, the way these are presented in Western media and discourse is a misleading caricature of the reality.
First, these penalties are part of a greater system, and serve as the last resort of crime prevention. They work hand in hand with the other mechanisms that assist in preventing crime, such as equitable economic policy (so people are not pushed towards crime to meet their basic needs) and a society built on God-consciousness which embeds ideas of accountability and responsibility in people.
Second, these penalties must be assessed in context of what they are designed to achieve, namely, crime prevention. We see in the West today that crime is out of control. Jail populations are always on the increase, consuming millions of tax-payer dollars. Yet the streets of New York and London are still not safe, whilst security cameras and surveillance has reached astonishing levels. This was never a problem under Sharia.
How are different interpretations and opinions dealt with?
The issue of interpretation and multiplicity of opinion is one that all legal systems are faced with. In Islam, legitimate differences of opinion on legal questions are thought of as natural and indeed healthy. In societal matters, the head of state in the Caliphate is entitled to adopt whichever opinion he believes to be strongest, based on the evidence. These adoptions become law, which all people are bound to obey, as in any state. In private matters people are free to decide which opinion they believe to be the strongest and follow it.
Sharia invades private lives?
Sharia law includes laws about the private lives of Muslims such as the rights of husbands and wives, the way people eat, drink and even sleep. However, these things are not left to the discretion of the State; rather they are left open for adoption by individuals. In fact, the Sharia prohibits the State in Islam from spying on its citizens, and unlike what we have seen in modern democracies, such rules are not allowed to be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.