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Sharia or Shariah is the body of religious law governing the Sunni and Shia
branch of Islam. Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular
life, and hence Sharia covers not only religious rituals and the
administration of the faith, but every aspect of day-to-day life.
History and Background
The authority of Sharia is drawn from two major and two lesser sources. The
first major source is specific guidance laid down in the Qur'an, and the
second source is the Sunnah, literally the 'Way', i.e. the way that Muhammad
(the Prophet of Islam) lived his life. (The compilation of all what Muhammad
said, did, or approved of is called the Hadith.) A lesser source of
authority is Qiyas, which is the extension by analogy of existing Sharia law
to new situations.
Finally Sharia law can be based on ijma, or consensus. Justification for
this final approach is drawn from the Hadith where Muhammad states; "My
nation cannot agree on an error." The umma, or community of Muslims, comes
together with each applying his or ijtihad, or independent thought and
judgement, to achieve this consensus. The role of ulema, i.e. scholars, is
critical, since they are the ones who studies the Islamic law and therefore
are the ones with authority to represent it.
The comprehensive nature of Sharia law is due to the belief that the law
must provide all that is necessary for a person's spiritual and physical
well-being. All possible actions of a Muslim are divided (in principle) into
five categories: obligatory, meritorious, permissible, reprehensible, and
forbidden. Fundamental to the obligations of every muslim are the Five
Pillars of Islam.
In theory, there is no conflict between the process as outlined by Muhammad
and very progressive and consultative political movements, e.g. green
parties. In fact, the latter even defined Four Pillars of the Green Party,
to some degree in imitation of Islam's Five Pillars, and in admiration of
the idea of a consensus-driven process of the whole community coming to some
well-reasoned conclusion compatible with science and scholarship. In
practice, however, there is often incredible tension between conservative,
liberal or secular forces:
Practice of Sharia
Most countries of the Middle East and north Africa maintain a dual system of
secular courts and religious courts, in which the religious courts mainly
regulate marriage and inheritance. Saudi Arabia and Iran maintain only
religious courts for all aspects of jurisprudence. Sharia is also used in
Sudan, Libya and for a time in modern Afghanistan. Some states in northern
Nigeria have reintroduced Sharia courts.
(For detailed news you can consult the Sharia News Watch
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/shariawatch/ , that provides a regular update
of newsquotes on Sharia & related subjects, organized per country).
In practice the new Sharia courts in Nigeria have most often meant the
re-introduction of spectacular and gruesome punishments (such as amputation
of one/both hand(s) for theft, or stoning for adultery) without respecting
the much tougher rules of evidence and testimony (including the necessity of
four eyewitnesses, with women's testimony counting less than that of a man).
Such measures are usually introduced to gain support of local ulema who are
often community leaders in rural areas. Their examples are not always humane
or even reasonable. Muslim scholars tend to agree that Muhammad himself
would not run courts along these lines in an otherwise secular society, nor
introduce these punishments into societies rich enough to afford prisons and
rehabilitation, cohesive enough to prevent those accused from being killed
by outraged victims and communities.
Like Jewish law and Christian canon law, Islamic law has no one, set meaning
for all time and places. In the hands of moderates, religious law can be
moderate, even liberal. In the hands of post-Englightenment readers of
philosophy, religious law is relegated to ritual (as opposed to law in a
civil sense), or even to just being history. In the hands of zealots, it
becomes legally enforced against all people of a faith, and even against all
people that come under their control. Islamic law to American Muslims in
Boston is a very different thing than Islamic law to religious Muslims in
Saudi Arabia, Gaza, or Pakistan. Both are following Islamic law, yet it
varies as much as individual Muslims vary. (As is true for Jews and