In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Recent global developments and media coverage of religious extremist activities have resulted in significantly sharper rhetoric against Muslim communities. It is argued that even peaceful Muslims will advocate a version of “Sharia Law” that violates the rights of religious minorities and a basic sense of justice.
This statement is contradictory, as we will explain, but it also highlights the ignorance of many Muslims about what the Sharia actually is. This ignorance has opened the door to discrimination against Muslim minorities and belligerent foreign policies against Muslim majority countries. At heart is a simple failure to distinguish between Sharia and Fiqh, between the spirit of the law and the applied law.
Sharia literally means the path to water. It does not mean “law” in the Western sense of the word. Allah has mentioned it in the Quran as a path to be followed in antithesis to carnal passion and whim:
ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاكَ عَلَىٰ شَرِيعَةٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْرِ فَاتَّبِعْهَا وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَ الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Thus, We have placed you upon a Sharia in the matter, so follow it and do not follow the desires of those who do not know.
Surat al-Jathiyah 45:18
In the harsh desert environment in which this verse was revealed, the path to water was the path to life and salvation. In the religious context, the Sharia is the path to salvation in the Hereafter, the sum total of divinely ordained values that comprise morally upright behavior approved by the Creator.
To understand this word better, we refer to three undisputed principles that guide any interpretation of the Quran: it has to be understood in the Arabic language, it has to be viewed in the light of the prophetic method (Sunnah), and finally, the understanding cannot contradict another verse in the Quran.
Linguistically, the word Sharia is a spring from which people, animals, and trees drink water. The universal values and methods that constitute the Sharia are the source from which rules, laws, and practices can be extracted and implemented. These are the same values as preached by all of the Prophets, peace and blessings be upon him, values of justice, mercy, life, and wisdom that no rational person could reject:
شَرَعَ لَكُم مِّنَ الدِّينِ مَا وَصَّىٰ بِهِ نُوحًا وَالَّذِي أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَمَا وَصَّيْنَا بِهِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَىٰ وَعِيسَىٰ ۖ أَنْ أَقِيمُوا الدِّينَ وَلَا تَتَفَرَّقُوا فِيهِ
He has ordained (shara’a) for you in religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you and enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus, to establish the religion and be not divided therein.
Surat ash-Shura 42:13
On the other hand, classical Fiqh, which literally means “understanding,” are the codes of applied law derived from the values and methods of the Sharia. The Sharia is divine and unchanging in time and place, whereas the Fiqh is its human interpretation, changing in varying circumstances and vulnerable to error.
Understanding Sharia as the fixed source and the applied law as a derivation has significant implications for the Muslim community. It means that laws, especially those related to human transactions (mu’amalat), are variables in an equation. Variability of the law comes from the ever changing circumstances of different times and places. Laws and judgments (fatawa) that were designed to serve a value in one context might become obsolete in another.
This is not a modern reinterpretation of Islam. The classical jurists understood this point well. Any Islamic law or judgment must consider the religious values underpinning it and the contextual reality in which they must be operate. A law that violates the divine values is not divine at all, even if it is based on the literal meaning of scripture.
Ibn Al-Qayyim, one of the great classical jurists, wrote:
فَإِنَّ الشَّرِيعَةَ مَبْنَاهَا وَأَسَاسُهَا عَلَى الْحِكَمِ وَمَصَالِحِ الْعِبَادِ فِي الْمَعَاشِ وَالْمَعَادِ وَهِيَ عَدْلٌ كُلُّهَا وَرَحْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا وَمَصَالِحُ كُلُّهَا وَحِكْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا فَكُلُّ مَسْأَلَةٍ خَرَجَتْ عَنْ الْعَدْلِ إلَى الْجَوْرِ وَعَنْ الرَّحْمَةِ إلَى ضِدِّهَا وَعَنْ الْمَصْلَحَةِ إلَى الْمَفْسَدَةِ وَعَنْ الْحِكْمَةِ إلَى الْبَعْثِ فَلَيْسَتْ مِنْ الشَّرِيعَةِ وَإِنْ أُدْخِلَتْ فِيهَا بِالتَّأْوِيلِ
Verily, the Sharia is founded upon wisdom and welfare for the servants in this life and the afterlife. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, benefit for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness is not a part of the Sharia even if it was introduced therein by an interpretation.
Regarding context, he wrote:
وَلَا يَتَمَكَّنُ الْمُفْتِي وَلَا الْحَاكِمُ مِنْ الْفَتْوَى وَالْحُكْمِ بِالْحَقِّ إلَّا بِنَوْعَيْنِ مِنْ الْفَهْمِ أَحَدُهُمَا فَهْمُ الْوَاقِعِ وَالْفِقْهِ فِيهِ وَاسْتِنْبَاطُ عِلْمِ حَقِيقَةِ مَا وَقَعَ بِالْقَرَائِنِ وَالْأَمَارَاتِ وَالْعَلَامَاتِ حَتَّى يُحِيطَ بِهِ عِلْمًا وَالنَّوْعُ الثَّانِي فَهْمُ الْوَاجِبِ فِي الْوَاقِعِ وَهُوَ فَهْمُ حُكْمِ اللَّهِ الَّذِي حَكَمَ بِهِ فِي كِتَابِهِ أَوْ عَلَى لِسَانِ قَوْلِهِ فِي هَذَا الْوَاقِعِ
Neither a scholar nor a judge can issue a ruling by the truth unless he has two types of understanding. First, understanding the context and deriving real knowledge of what has occurred through gathering facts and signs until he achieves comprehensive knowledge. Second, understanding the religious obligation related to the context and understanding the ruling of Allah as expressed in His Book or in the prophetic sayings regarding this situation.
And regarding the change of circumstances, he wrote:
فَإِنَّ الْفَتْوَى تَتَغَيَّرُ بِتَغَيُّرِ الزَّمَانِ وَالْمَكَانِ وَالْعَوَائِدِ وَالْأَحْوَالِ وَذَلِكَ كُلُّهُ مِنْ دِينِ اللَّهِ
Indeed, judgment changes with the change of time, place, custom, and circumstance.
Faithfulness to Islam, then, is to be faithful to the Sharia values and objectives as the source of legislation (maqasid al-sharia) and not necessarily to strictly adhere to inherited legal judgments. Perhaps the most famous example is the second Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab who suspended the legal punishment for theft once he realized that people were stealing due to a terrible famine. Strict application of the law, in that case, would not have accomplished its original purpose.
The flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law, coupled with the historical tolerance of different opinions among Muslims, enabled the emergence of many schools of thought throughout history. These schools all agreed upon the Sharia, the fixed source of divine values in scripture, but they differed on how to best serve those values and in which case one value might take priority over another.
An exceptional challenge we encounter in the ever-changing modern world is the tension that arises between our core values. The most prominent example is the tension between justice and mercy. We know Islam teaches us the value of forgiveness, but what of the case when criminals exploit that forgiveness to continue harming others? Shall the value of justice override mercy in this situation? Each generation has to deal with these problems using the guidance of scripture and their God-given reason.
By understanding the word in this light, we can see that the phrase “Sharia Law” is a contradiction, even an oxymoron, as it equates two very different things.
The next step for understanding the Sharia is to observe how the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, responded to challenges in his time by balancing the values when they apparently conflict with one another. This thought process and prioritization of values is part of the consistent precedent and methodology known as the Prophetic Sunnah.
For instance, one of the Prophet’s companions was wounded in a battle and that night he had a nocturnal emission, which usually necessitates a ritual bath (ghusl). He was worried that the water might seep into his wound and harm him, but his peers told him that he had no concession to modify the ritual bath. As a result, the water ended up seeping into his wound and killing him. When the Prophet hear about this, he became very angry and he said:
قَتَلُوهُ قَتَلَهُمْ اللَّهُ أَلَمْ يَكُنْ شِفَاءُ الْعِيِّ السُّؤَالَ
They killed him! May Allah curse them! Is not the cure for ignorance to ask?
The normal rules of ritual purity did not apply in this case, as the value of life and the objective of safety are even more important than rituals. Ignorance of the values here was not simply harmful; it was deadly.
In the time of the Prophet, the law was not codified in any systematic way, yet the senior companions were trained to make judgments based upon their knowledge and understanding of the Sharia. Codification of law accelerated during the time of Umar as the Muslims expanded their territory and required more consistency in the application of rights, obligations, and judgments. The orthodox schools of law were formed a few centuries later and, even afterwards, the law continued to develop, change, and adapt to new environments and situations.
Imam Ash-Shafi’ee, founder of a major school of law, is reported to have changed a number of his opinions after he traveled from Iraq to Egypt, since the culture and circumstances were different. Thereafter great treatises of law were written, only to be followed by commentaries and then commentaries on the commentaries, which continued to expand, develop, and adapt the legal tradition to new settings. Today, our understanding of Islamic law must continue to develop as modern life is changing very rapidly.
Finally, our understanding of the Sharia should not contradict the rest of the Quran. In fact, a careful reading reveals that the priority of values over practices is expressed in other ways.
لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَٰكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces east or west, but rather righteousness is in one who has faith in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the books, the prophets, and he gives his wealth, despite his love for it, to his relatives and to orphans, to the poor and to travelers and to free slaves.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:177
It is not simply the outward act of praying in a certain direction that makes someone righteous, but rather it is the value of obedience to Allah in pious devotion and charitable service.
And Allah said:
لَن يَنَالَ اللَّهَ لُحُومُهَا وَلَا دِمَاؤُهَا وَلَٰكِن يَنَالُهُ التَّقْوَىٰ مِنكُمْ
Their meat will never reach Allah, nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you.
Surat al-Hajj 22:37
Again, it is not simply the outward act of sacrificing animals after the Hajj pilgrimage that is praiseworthy, but rather it is the value of obedience to Allah by serving the meat to those in need.
In the current crisis, the phrase “Sharia Law” is being employed as a means to discriminate and aggress against Muslim communities, even though this is based on a very superficial and caricatured view of what Sharia really means. However, what is more unsettling is the response of fringe extremist Muslims who take the Sharia as a politically-charged ideological weapon, as if Allah had personally given them the right to rule over mankind and to terminate any who would oppose them. Their fierce intolerance and violence naturally frightens non-Muslims and only gives credence to the misunderstanding that the Sharia is a dangerous code of law.
Many more Muslims have been unable to articulate a response to the allegation because they themselves mistakenly believe they must be loyal to a school of Fiqh, an inherited legal code, rather than to the values of the Sharia itself. The values of Islam then become obscured by legal practices that may no longer be relevant to the modern context.
The first step toward taking back the good name of the Sharia is for us to understand its operative role in our lives as a set of universal values: justice, mercy, wisdom, welfare, life, and so on. These values are rational, self-evidently true, exist in other religions, and are natural to every human being. If people can be exposed to the real meaning of Sharia, the more likely they will reject the Islamophobic propaganda that demonizes it.
The next step is to reevaluate the inherited legal traditions in light of those values and the modern context. If the values and purposes of the law are no longer being served and cannot be rationally justified, then an update to the law is required. That will involve a deep investigation into the Quran and Sunnah, drawing upon the legacy of the scholarly commentaries but without adhering to the blind imitation (taqlid) of intermediate explanations that may have been valid in their time but are not anymore.
The threat of the “Sharia Law” discourse can no longer be ignored by the Muslim community. Whether from ideological extremists within or without Islam, the concept of Sharia as a fixed law is dangerous as it politically suffocates Muslims and prevents the rejuvenation of values as the religion intended. If we do not keep our values in the forefront of our minds and our practices, then we risk losing them altogether and consequently the path to salvation that goes with them.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.
 Lisan al-Arab 8/59 وَهِيَ مَوْرِدُ الشَّارِبَةِ الَّتِي يَشْرَعُهَا النَّاسُ فَيَشْرَبُونَ مِنْهَا وَيَسْتَقُونَ