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What Exactly Is Sharia (Law) and What Does It Command?

Because of the rise of Islamic influence in Europe and the United States, we have become aware of "sharia courts" and the imposition of Islamic values upon non-Islamic communities. I was curious about what exactly is "sharia law," what it means, and what it commands regarding jihad, apostasy, laws for non-Muslims, and women.

The word is derived from the Arabic language and basically means "path" or "way." It appears in the Quran in Surah 45:18: "And now We have set you on the right path. Follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant men. . ." (The root word for "sharia" being translated into "path" in this verse.)

Sharia is believed by Muslims to be the divinely ordained legal system of Islam. It governs every aspect of life: politics, economics, hygiene, marriage and family relationships, diet, warfare, crime. Everything is covered.

Unlike the Christian belief about the Old Testament Law of Moses being limited in time, Muslims by and large believe that Sharia is the law to be carried out today. (I will deal with the New Testament view of the Law of Moses in forthcoming articles.) Sharia has been compiled over the centuries from direct sayings in the Quran as well as from the Hadith (traditions about Muhammed's life).

There are four Sunni schools of Islamic law. I am currently reading an English translation of one of those schools. The book is Reliance of the Traveller by noted Islamic scholar Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri (translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller and published in 1999).

In the introduction, the author states, "The four Sunni schools of Islamic law, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali, are identical in approximately 75 percent of their conclusions. ... The present volume [The Reliance of the Traveller] represents one of the finest and most reliable short works in Shafi'i jurisprudence."

Next Page: What does Sharia teach about Jihad? It isn't always against non-believers...