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Shariah: Islamic Law

Sharia is the set of Islamic laws that encompass both the religious and secular practices of Muslims.

Often redundantly referred to as “Sharia law,” Sharia encompasses the legal dimensions of Muslim life. It is akin to halakhah (Jewish law). In fact, not only do Sharia and halakha play similar roles in Muslim and Jewish life, they share in linguistic parallels as well: Just as the Hebrew term carries the meaning of being “the Way,” embedded within the meanings of the Arabic term “Sharia” is the idea of being “the way” or “the path” towards water.

Sharia covers two broad domains: The rights of God, and the rights of man. It informs and regulates most aspects of Muslim life, from how one prays and washes, to how one governs and does business.

Sharia (Islamic law) developed after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as scholars relied on Islamic sources and legal reasoning to derive rulings and guidance in the face of Muslim questions around law, ethics, and ritual.

During the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, disputes and questions on everything from creed to law to social and political affairs could be settled in his presence. With his passing, however, Muslims faced the challenge of navigating questions, problems, and disputes without his guidance. This dilemma led to the development of what is known as the Sharia–a guide that informs us of how to live our lives in accordance with God’s wishes but in the absence of prophecy.

Sharia (Islamic law and legal rulings) are based on the sacred texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as external scholarly sources.

External sources include, but are not limited to, scholarly consensus (ijmāʿ) and analogical reasoning (qiyās). This is the basis on which Islamic law is constructed.

The terms Sharia and Islamic law are often used interchangeably, and refer to the many legal, moral, and ritualistic rulings found in or derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah. The process and jurisprudential activity of deriving and interpreting rulings is known as fiqh. The Sharia is not, however, merely a body of static, fixed law codes lifted directly from the Quran and Sunnah.

Fiqh is the process of deriving and interpreting Islamic law (Sharia).

Linguistically, the Arabic word “fiqh” bears the meaning of “deep understanding or comprehension.”

In the technical sense, fiqh refers to the process of deriving and interpreting Islamic law, as well as the body of rulings that emerge from this process. It is through fiqh that we come to know the Sharia and how to apply it in our lives.

Say you are reading the Qur’an and come across dozens of verses emphasizing the importance of giving something called zakat (obligatory charity). Clearly, zakat is a big deal. But what next?
What is zakat in the first place? To whom is it given? What do I take into account when calculating zakat? Do I have to pay zakat solely on the money in my bank account? How about stocks and cryptocurrency?

All of these questions are the domain of fiqh. The job of one who does fiqh – the Muslim jurist (faqih) – is to sift through the “sacred data” (the Qur’an, the Sunnah, etc.) and to identify and clarify the details of what God wants of us and how to live in conformity with His will.

The Sharia, as it is interpreted through fiqh, lays out how a Muslim must worship God.

As worshippers, Muslims must pray, fast in Ramadan, distribute zakat, and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Sharia lays out these obligations and guides us on how to properly carry them out.

How do I pray if I am injured? In what situations am I exempt from fasting? How do I know when Ramadan begins? What are the steps involved in the pilgrimage?

These are but some of the many questions the Sharia clarifies concerning ritual.

Manuals of Islamic law and curricula of Muslim scholarship typically cover matters pertaining to ritual first, before delving into matters of society.

The Sharia provides timeless guidance and instruction concerning every aspect of life.

From marriage and divorce, to dietary guidelines and dress, to crime and punishment, to business and commercial transactions and inheritance, the Sharia provides ethical guidance and legal instruction concerning every conceivable facet of Muslim life.

A fatwa is a specific legal opinion or ruling issued by a qualified Muslim scholar based on interpreting the Sharia.

A fatwa (pl. fatawa) is usually issued in response to a specific question or circumstance.

For example, if one is unsure about whether a certain type of drink is permissible, they can ask a Muslim scholar, who will examine the matter and provide a ruling on the drink’s permissibility or impermissibility. The scholar’s response would be called a fatwa.

Some aspects of the Sharia are universal and timeless, but many are flexible and can change based on the circumstances and needs of Muslims in different places and times.

While the Sharia is comprehensive in scope–as one would expect given that Islam is a complete way of life–it is neither entirely static nor monolithic. Aspects of the Sharia are timeless, unchanging, and universally agreed upon.

Nevertheless, on any number of issues, Muslim jurists and different legal schools (or even jurists within the same legal school) may differ in their rulings. These differences of opinion may be narrow or quite wide.

Additionally, interpreters of the Sharia have historically been sensitive and responsive to the changing circumstances, diverse needs, and various contexts that Muslims have found themselves in across time and place.

This is a dynamism and flexibility built into the Sharia–anchored in divine revelation and steered by certain broad principles and aims–that has allowed it to effectively facilitate faithful and ethical Muslim life over the ages and through the present day.

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