Sharia - The Islamic Law

Seminar Paper, 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition

3. Sources of Sharia
3.1. Quran
3.2. Sunnah
3.3. Ijma
3.4. Qiyas

4. Topics of Islamic law
4.1. Dietary laws: Halal
4.2. Customs and behaviour
4.3. Dress codes
4.4. Family law
4.4.1. Marriage
4.4.2. Divorce
4.4.3. Inheritance
4.5. Penalties
4.5.1. Theft
4.5.2. Adultery and fornication
4.5.3. Apostasy
4.6. Women in Islam
4.7. Non-Muslims

5. Contemporary issues
5.1. Contemporary practice
5.2. Sharia in Nigeria
5.3. Democracy and human rights

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Today, we live in a multicultural society. In our nearest environment there are people from different cultures or religions and they are part of our society. Muslims are one group that participates in our daily lives. For example, we are surrounded by many Turkish people, without really knowing which principles they follow. If we open a newspaper, we find plenty of articles dealing with Sharia, the Islamic law. There is for example the Archbishop of Canterbury who wants to integrate Islamic law into British law. And at present, the debate on headscarves in Turkish universities revives. Once in a while, we hear from women who are sentenced to death because they had unlawful sexual intercourse. But what do we really know about Muslims? Which rules do they follow and where do these rules come from? If we cannot answer this question, it is difficult to understand why there are these harsh punishments in some Islamic countries and why Islam is so important for the social development of these countries. There are Islamically inspired schools, clinics, social welfare services, and insurance and finance companies that have proliferated. Governments have to face crises of identity and political legitimacy and they are pressured to reformulate values and legislation within an Islamic framework. Some people call for the implementation of Sharia and others call for the Islamization of existing laws. In my paper, I will give an insight into Sharia and I will show how it is implemented in different Islamic countries. As this is a very complex topic, I will focus on the origin of Sharia, customs, family law, and crime and punishment, so as to explain the main principles of Muslim faith.

2. Definition

Allah (God) is the central fact of the Muslim religious experience. This God of the Quran is one and transcendent. Islamic law is based on obedience and unqualified submission to the will of God (Weeramantry 1988 : 1).

Sharia is the body of Islamic religious law. According to Weeramantry (1988 : 1), the term is an Arabic expression for “track” or “road”. The term itself actually derives from the noun “shara’a” which reflects the idea of “a system of divine law”. Sharia forms a legal framework in which the public and some private aspects of life are regulated for several hundreds of millions who live in a legal system based on Muslim principles of jurisprudence and for Muslims who live outside the domain. It is a religious code for living, in the same way that the Bible offers a moral system for Christians. Sharia includes aspects such as politics, economics, banking, contracts, family, pilgrimage, sexuality, hygiene, and social issues. But before I go into more detail, I will explain the sources of Sharia.

3. Sources of Sharia

The earliest development of the Sharia views the Prophet Muhammad himself as the supreme judge. He was not only the proclaimer of the revelation, but he also interpreted and applied it in practice. The formative period of Islamic jurisprudence goes back to the time of the early Muslim communities.

In the seventh century, “a fierce tribalism flourished” (Weeramantry 1988 : 2) in the Arabian desert and towns. There was neither a single religion nor a superior law, but many savage customs. Female children were killed and women’s rights varied in a male-dominated culture. According to Esposito (2001 : 2), the sources of Islamic law have been fixed by the ninth century by al-Shafii, an early Muslim jurist and leader. He deplored the great variety of doctrine and thus tried to limit the sources of law which are called usul al-fiqh. As a result, four sources remained: the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, qiyas which means analogical reasoning, and ijma, i.e. the consensus. Quran and Sunnah form the Basic Code of Sharia, which is immutable. These two are the primary sources of Islamic law (Weeramantry 1988 : 31). Qiyas and ijma can be abstracted to fiqh, the ever-evolving interpretive law. So we can say that Sharia refers to the principles that lie behind the fiqh.

3.1. Quran

The Quran is the revelation of God, the very word of God. It is the source book of Islamic values. The main part consists of broad, general moral directives concerning the aims and aspirations of Muslims. Only 80 verses of the Quran are legal prescriptions in the narrow sense of the term (Weeramantry 1988 : 32; see also Esposito 2001 : 3). And this is a very small number, bearing in mind that the Quran consists of 114 suras which in some cases have more than 100 verses. The Quran was revealed to Muhammad over a period of 23 years with the purpose of meeting the needs of the Muslim society. The most important verses for the development of legal doctrine came about in Medina when the community-state grew. Verses which replaced old tribal customs with new rules were revealed. Customs that did not meet Islamic standards, like the use of alcohol and gambling, have been banned. The fundamental reforms also regarded the improvement of women’s status and the strengthening of the family in Muslim society. Three areas of Quranic reform were marriage, divorce, and inheritance (Esposito 2001 : 3-4). These topics will be central aspects in my paper later on. For Muslims, “the word of the Qur’an is unalterable and everlasting” (Weeramantry 1988 : 7), but not all Muslims interpret it in the same way. Schools of interpretation were founded which differed tremendously in their interpretations (Weeramantry 1988 : 7).

3.2. Sunnah

The Sunnah of the Prophet is the second source of law. During Muhammad’s lifetime, Muslims turned to him for decisions and “after his death they looked to his example for guidance” (Esposito 2001 : 5). It is even ordained in the Quran that the Prophet will guide the Muslims, as in 59:7 where it is said: “And whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it. And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain (from it).” (Yusuf Ali, Quran Viewer, web page 2008). The Sunnah consists in the normative model behaviour of the Prophet. It is divided into three categories: the Prophet’s statements and sayings (al-sunnah al qawliyah), his deeds (al-sunnah al-filiyah), and his silent approval of certain deeds of which he had knowledge (al-sunnah al- taqririyah) (Esposito 2001 : 5). The transcript of Muhammad’s words and deeds can be found in the narrative reports (hadith) that have been transmitted and finally collected and recorded in compendia. Hadith refers to the report of a particular occurence (Weeramantry 1988 : 34). To judge the trustworthiness of narrators, there were some criteria. For example, they had to be adult Muslims of good moral reputation and known to have good capacities for remembering. Due to a link-by-link examination of the chain of transmission the continuity of the tradition could be traced back to the Prophet. Another criterion to judge the hadith was to ask if this matter contradicted the Quran, a verified tradition, reason, or the consensus of the community (Esposito 2001 : 5-6).

3.3. Ijma

Ijma, the third source of Sharia, was very important for the development of Islamic law. It is usually defined as “the unanimous agreement of the jurists of a particular age on a specific issue” (Esposito 2001 : 7). Its authority as a source of law is documented in the Sunnah, where Muhammad says that his community would never agree on an error. The consensus developed after the death of the Prophet, because people needed new guidance. There are two types of ijma: the first one is the ijma al-ummah which refers to the consensus of the entire community. It is concerned with matters of religious practice. The ijma al-aimmah, the second type, is a consensus formed by religious authorities who are engaged in the interpretation of parts of the Quran (Esposito 2001 : 7). Ijma made a great contribution to fiqh, the corpus of law, because the authorities arrived at an interpretation of a Quranic text if the Sunnah did not give an answer. According to the general consensus of Muslim jurists, which is calle]d faqih, Sharia is concerned with human welfare and is applied on the basis of justice and equity.

3.4. Qiyas

Qiyas is the fourth source of Islamic law. It is a restricted form of itjihad which means personal reasoning or interpretation. Thus, qiyas is reasoning by analogy. According to the famous jurist Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi, qiyas means “establishing the relevance of a ruling in one case to another case because of a similarity in the attribute (reason or cause) upon which the ruling was based” (Esposito 2001 : 6). Qiyas is used, if all other sources failed to provide a rule to solve the problem in hand. Jurists must then work hard “to derive an appropriate rule by logical inferences and analogy” (Weeramantry 1988 : 40). But since the tenth century, qiyas has not been practised for another ten centuries, because it was argued that all that was possible through processes of interpretation had already been achieved (Weeramantry 1988 : 41). Since the 20th century, however, there are calls for the right to reinterpret according to modern needs (Weeramantry 1988 : 42).

4. Topics of Islamic law

4.1. Dietary laws: Halal

Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted. The opposite of this is haram meaning unlawful or prohibited. These two words are actually universal terms that refer to all aspects of life. But often they are used in relation with food products, meat products, cosmetics, personal care products, food ingredients, and food contact materials. The rules for halal food are based on Sharia law. All foods except the following are considered halal:

- Pork and its by-products
- Animals slaughtered improperly or animals which were dead before slaughtering
- Animals which have not been killed in the name of Allah
- Alcohol and intoxicants
- Carnivorous animals, birds of prey, and land animals without external ears
- Blood and blood by-products
- Food containing any of the above products

There are also some questionable foods. This means that the origin of their ingredients is not known. These foods include for example those which contain gelatin or enzymes (IFANCA web page 2008).

The ritual way of slaughtering animals and poultry documented in the Quran (chapter al- Maeda 5:3, Yusuf Ali, Quran Viewer, web page 2008) is known as Zibah. It requires animals to be alive and healthy when they are slaughtered, carrion is forbidden. Carotid artery and windpipe have to be severed by a razor sharp knife with one single cut in order to cause as less pain as possible. Additionally, a Muslim must start the slaughtering in the name of Allah and the animal’s blood must be drained completely (Halal Food Authority web page 2008).

4.2. Customs and behaviour

For Muslims it is normal to follow some specific customs in their daily lives. Many of these interactions go back to ancient customs of the Pre-Islamic Arabian world. Muhammad approved such practices so that they can be found in the Sunnah. Middle Easteners, for example, have several ritual phrases and fixed responses which they use for greeting (30 days web page 2008). This means to say As-Salamu Alaykum which means “peace be upon you” when meeting someone and to answer with Wa alaykumus-Salam, i.e. “and peace be upon you”. Muslims always use the right hand to drink and eat, as the left is regarded as unclean. Before eating and drinking, Muslims usually say Bismallah, i.e. “in the name of God”.

Another obligation to Muslims is that they should maintain personal bodily cleanliness. This drew people closer to Allah. Thus, Muslims have to perform a partial ablution several times a day, which includes for example cleaning the nostrils, the mouth, the teeth, and the inner side of the ears (Islam Online web page 2008). This obligation is documented in chapter 5:6 of the Quran, where it is also said that Muslims are not allowed to pray if they do not perform the ablution (Yusuf Ali, Quran Viewer, web page 2008). Women have to perform a ceremonial bath after the menstrual cycle and men have to perform a circumcision.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Sharia - The Islamic Law
University of Hildesheim  (Institut für Angewandte Sprachwissenschaft)
Ba-Seminar Interkulturelle Kommunikation
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ISBN (Book)
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Sharia, Islamic, Ba-Seminar, Interkulturelle, Kommunikation, Islam, Gesetz, Scharia
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Corinna Standke (Author), 2008, Sharia - The Islamic Law, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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