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…

What does Sharia teach about jihad? Well, in the section entitled “Jihad” on page 599 it says:

Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word “mujahada,” signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet … said as he was returning from jihad, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’

The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus is such Koranic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (Koran 2: 216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (Koran 4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolaters utterly’ (Koran 9:36); and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet … said:

“I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah.”

And the hadith reported by Muslim, “To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.”

Sharia clearly recognizes two types of jihad.  One is the greater jihad that is warfare against sin in the soul.  However, it also clearly recognizes and encourages the violent jihad against all non-believers.

Next Page: What does Islamic law say about religious freedom? Hint: It isn’t pretty…

Just a few pages before this (pages 595-596), the Islamic law code says this about freedom of religion:

Leaving Islam is the ugliest form of unbelief (kufr) and the worst. It may come about through sarcasm, as when someone is told, “Trim your nails, it is sunna,” and he replies, “I would not do it even if it were,” as opposed to when some circumstance exists which exonerates him of having committed apostasy, such as when his tongue runs away with him, or when he is quoting someone, or says it out of fear.

When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.

In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.

What other acts of faith (or non-faith) would invite capital punishment under Sharia? Here are just a few more (pages 596-597):

to speak words that imply unbelief such as ‘Allah is the third of three,’ or ‘I am Allah’– unless one’s tongue has run away with one, or one is quoting another, or is one of the friends of Allah Most High in a spiritually intoxicated state of total oblivion …

to revile Allah or His messenger …

to deny the existence of Allah, His beginingless eternality, His endless eternality, or to deny any of His attributes which the consensus of Muslims ascribe to Him;

to be sarcastic about Allah’s name, His command, His interdiction, His promise, or His threat;

to deny any verse of the Koran or anything which by scholarly consensus belongs to it, or to add a verse that does not belong to it …

for a tyrant, after an oppressed person says, ‘This is through the decree of Allah,’ to reply, ‘I act without the decree of Allah’ …

to revile the religion of Islam;

to deny the existence of angels or jinn or the heavens;

to be sarcastic about any ruling of the Sacred Law;

or to deny that Allah intended the Prophet’s message … to be the religion followed by the entire world. There are others, for the subject is nearly limitless.

While there are “secular” Muslims who believe that Sharia for the most part should not be binding on society, apparently many millions of Muslims seriously believe that this is the law that must be imposed upon all people everywhere all the time.