*Note – this is a summary of the following article: https://www.searchforbeauty.org/what-is-shari-ah/a-primer-on-shari-ah-and-islamic-law/
In this summary, we explore the central role of Sharia law in Islam, its sources, and its interpretation. We examine the multi-layered and complex nature of the Qur’an and Sunna and the need to approach Sharia law systematically and consistently with the ethical objectives of Islam. We also look at the different schools of thought in Islamic law and the separation of Shari’a and fiqh, emphasizing their purpose in serving the best interests of human beings.
The role of Sharia law in Islam is central, yet it remains the least understood aspect of the faith among both Muslims and non-Muslims. In the Western world, some view a Muslim who believes in Sharia law as a fanatic or fundamentalist. However, to make such a sweeping generalization is akin to accusing every Jew who believes in Rabbinic or Talmudic law of being a fanatic. The conception one has of Islamic law and the interpretation one follows is crucial to understanding it.
Islamic law is derived from two sources: the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (known as the Sunna and hadith). The Qur’an is considered the literal word of God in Islam, believed to have been transmitted by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunna, on the other hand, represents an amorphous body of literature containing hundreds of reports about the Prophet and his companions during the various stages of early Islamic history.
Unlike the Qur’an, the Sunna is not represented by a single agreed-upon text and was not systematically collected and documented until at least two centuries after the death of the Prophet. This means that many reports attributed to the Prophet are apocryphal or of dubious historical authenticity. In addition, the Sunna is different from the Qur’an in terms of style, language, and range of topics and issues addressed. The Sunna is complex and generally inaccessible to the layperson, and its literature reflects a wide array of conflicting and competing ideological orientations and outlooks.
Despite these challenges, Sharia law is essential to the Islamic faith. Many of the basic rituals of Islam were derived from Sunna traditions, and it helps contextualize the Qur’anic revelation and understand the historical framework and role of the Islamic message. However, to approach Sharia law from a selective or non-systematic perspective can lead to imbalanced treatments that favor a particular ideological orientation.
The Qur’an and Sunna are multi-layered and multi-faceted sources of guidance for thinking about ethics, morality, law, and wisdom in Islam. When considered together, they tell a complex story. They can be a source of profound intellectual and moral guidance and empowerment, but also pose a danger if approached from the wrong intellectual or moral commitments. Therefore, it is crucial to engage Sharia law systematically, interpret it consistently with the Qur’an, and read it in a way that promotes, rather than undermines, the ethical objectives of Islam.
In Islamic law, there were various ways of producing legal rulings other than just looking at the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet. Jurists used rule by analogy and principles such as equity and public interest to make the law responsive to changing circumstances.
There are many volumes of Islamic law, and it’s not just contained in a single book or few books. In the Sunni world, there are four surviving schools of thought: the Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali. In the Shi’i world, there are two surviving schools of thought: the Ja’fari and Zaydi.
Each of these schools has its own jurisprudential tradition of legal rulings and opinions, and the sages belonging to a particular school of law wrote legal treatises that became far more influential than the texts written by the founder of the school.
Islamic law is separated into two distinct categories: Shari’a and fiqh. Shari’a is the eternal, immutable, and unchanging law, or Way of truth and justice, as it exists in the mind of God. In contrast, fiqh is the human law, which is the human attempt to reach and fulfill the eternal law as it exists in God’s mind.
The moral and ethical objectives of the Qur’an play a central and pivotal role in the process of legal analysis. The specific rulings of the Qur’an are not objectives in themselves but are contingent on particular historical circumstances that might or might not exist in the modern age. The objective of the law is to achieve the ultimate moral and ethical objectives that represent the essence of Godliness on this earth.
All the jurisprudential schools agree that the purpose of the Shari’a is to serve the best interests of human beings.