What Is Sharia Law?

by Jeanene Harlick

Sharia is the Islamic code that governs a Muslim's beliefs and actions. Translated literally as “the way to the watering hole,” Sharia is believed -- if followed -- to lead Muslims to a moral life and the achievement of paradise upon death. Sharia encompasses all aspects of a Muslim’s life from the spiritual to business affairs, from sexual intimacy to the highly mundane. It covers both the law of society and government, as well as a person's moral character and assessment.

Five Categories of Behavior

The Sharia is primarily based on the Quran and the sunnah. The Quran is believed to be the revelation from God to the prophet Muhammad. The sunnah are written collections on the sayings and practices of Muhammad -- the example he set by the life he led. Sharia's moral classification of acts includes a five-fold system that categorizes behaviors as mandatory, recommended, neutral, blameworthy or prohibited. In addition, the law is divided into two subject areas: Muslims’ religious obligations (such as how to worship), and the proper way to conduct behavior in public and interpersonal relations.

Changing With the Times

Political upheavals, Western scholarship, divergent law schools, the challenges of modern times and sectarian divisions within Islam have all played into the debate about how to implement and interpret Sharia in the centuries since Muhammad’s death. While the Quran does lay out harsh corporal penalties for some crimes – such as cutting off the hands of a thief – and contains medieval codes about war and political domination, many of these ancient laws have been re-examined and interpreted in most modernized and developed Muslim societies.

Sharia in the Muslim World Today

Sharia was originally created for a world whose entire population would be Muslim, and political and religious beliefs would be entwined. However, as it became clear over time this goal would not be realized, Muslims reassessed the relationship between Sharia and the world’s new political reality. Today, most Muslim states have Westernized legal systems that incorporate Sharia into their national constitution, while also including neutral, secular laws that apply to all people living in that region.

A Few Examples of Sharia

Homosexuality is prohibited, as is sex before marriage. While contraception is allowed, abortion is forbidden; gambling and alcohol are likewise forbidden. While the Quran does instruct women to dress modestly, there is no specific requirement they wear a hijab (a veil) in public, as is commonly believed. However, more conservative Muslim societies may still require a hijab; in other cases women choose -- even in the West -- to wear the veil.

Sharia in the U.S.

How to accommodate Sharia into the U.S. judicial system has become more controversial in recent years. Islamic code most commonly arises in cases involving child custody and divorce disputes. At least 20 states have considered or enacted measures to restrict judges from consulting the laws of other nations; most of these laws have been crafted with Sharia in mind. One of the most prominent such bans occurred in Oklahoma, where voters approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting courts from consulting foreign laws. A federal judge overturned that law in 2013, ruling it violated the U.S. Constitution’s protections to practice one’s religion.

About the Author

Based in the San Francisco Bay area, Jeanene Harlick has been writing professionally for more than 15 years. Her work has appeared in publications such as "The San Francisco Chronicle" and "Stanford Magazine." Harlick holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from UCLA and has completed extensive graduate studies in the field of mental health, her particular specialty.

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