Sharia law within Sunni Islam: A brief introduction
Sharia Law - source and definitions:
The term "Sharia" (a.k.a. Shari'a) literally means "the
path to a watering hole." The Guardian newspaper in the UK describes
Sharia as: "... a religious code for living,
in the same way that the Bible offers a moral system for Christians."
1 It is used to refer both to the Islamic system of law and
the totality of the Islamic way of life. Sharia is derived both from:
The teachings of the Qur'an. This is the Muslim holy book, which
corresponds to the Jews' Torah and the Christians' Holy Bible. Muslims believe
that the Qur'an is the Word of God, as dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the
From Sunna, which is referred to as Islamic "Custom or practice;
particularly that associated with the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad,
comprising his deeds and utterances as recorded in the hadith." The hadith
literally means "report" or "narrative" 2
This essay refers only to Sharia law as found in the Sunni Islamic tradition; this includes about 85% of all Muslims. For coverage of the Shi'a interpretatations of Sharia law, the book "An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism" by Moojan Momen has been recommended as a good source of information.
Sharia law: founders and schools:
Perhaps the two greatest original founders of Sharia law were Malik ibn Anas
and Ibn al-Shaf'i. Anas established the Maliki school of jurisprudence. Al-Shaf'i
was one of Anas' students; he disagreed with his teacher about the reliability
of the hadith. He felt that it was necessary to trace each hadith from the time
of Muhammad through its chain of devout Muslims. This concern led to Islamic
scholars considering "... which hadith were true and which were not."
Needless to say this led to conflicts among scholars as to the proper
application of Sharia law.
Ibn al-Shafi'i promoted the use of additional sources for Shari'a law:
The technique of "... reasoning by analogy in order to develop new
laws from existing laws." As the culture evolves, new types of problems
emerge that need to be dealt with. Pre-implantation
Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) used to prevent the development of a severely
defective human embryo is one example.
The technique of accepting the consensus of a Muslim community. The
reasoning is that Allah would not allow an entire community to be in error
on a basic Islamic principle.
There are four main schools of Sharia law:
Hanbali: This is the most conservative school of Shari'a. It is used in
Saudi Arabia and some states in Northern Nigeria.
Hanifi: This is the most liberal school, and is relatively open to
Maliki: This is based on the practices of the people of Medina during
Shafi'i: This is a conservative school that emphasizes on the opinions
of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad.
What applies within one school of Sharia law does not necessarily apply in
the other schools. For example, the Maliki Law School accepts evidence of
pregnancy as proof that an unmarried woman has either committed adultery or been
raped. The other schools "... do not recognize evidence of pregnancy as proof of Zina
The Constitutional Rights Foundation notes that:
"In the 19th century, many Muslim countries came under the control
or influence of Western colonial powers. As a result, Western-style laws,
courts, and punishments began to appear within the Sharia. Some countries
like Turkey totally abandoned the Sharia and adopted new law codes based
on European systems...Modern legislation along with Muslim legal scholars
who are attempting to relate the will of Allah to the 20th century have
reopened the door to interpreting the Sharia. This has happened even in
highly traditional Saudi Arabia, where Islam began....Since 1980, some
countries with fundamentalist Islamic regimes like Iran have attempted to
reverse the trend of westernization and return to the classic Sharia."
Within Sharia law, there are a group of "Haram" offenses
which carry severe punishments. These include
intercourse, sex by divorced persons, post-marital sex, adultery, false accusation of unlawful intercourse,
drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Haram sexual offenses can carry a
sentence of stoning to death or severe flogging. An eyewitness account of Soraya M, a woman executed by stoning, can be read on an anti-Iranian web
site. Caution: do not read this if you have a weak stomach; it is quite
Sharia law has been adopted in various forms by many countries,
ranging from a strict interpretation in Saudi Arabia and northern states
of Nigeria, to a relatively liberal interpretation in much of Malaysia.
Sharia law is intended to be only applicable to Muslims. Christians and other
non-Muslims are supposed to
be exempt from the provisions of the law; this is a provision that is not
Books on Sharia law:
Muhammad Salim Awa, "Punishment in Islamic Law : A Comparative
Study," American Trust Publications, (1982).
M. Cherif Bassiouni, Ed., "The Islamic Criminal Justice System,"
Wael B. Hallaq, "Law and Legal Theory in Classical and Medieval
Islam," Variorum, (1995).
Majid Khadduri, Ed., "Law in the Middle East,", Middle East
A search of Amazon.com for books on Sharia law:
These searches sometimes return amusing results. You can safely order the
following books online.
If you see a generic Amazon.com ad here, click on your browser's refresh
button to get a book list.
Buba Iman, "Safiyatu's conviction untenable under Sharia," Jenda: A
Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, Volume 1.2 (2001). Online at:
http://www.jendajournal.com/jenda/vol1.2/iman.pdf You may need software
to read these files. It can be obtained free from: