Sharia, Part 1 of 3
As I mention in my unpublished manuscript, Muslim Mechanics, the sole purpose of the Muslim religion is to establish sharia law in all the lands on the earth. If you follow sharia, you will worship one God using ordained rules and rituals. Many non-Muslims are familiar with sharia, but they don’t understand what it encompasses. For that matter, as I note in my manuscript, many jihadis fighting for the Islamic State caliphate only had a shallow awareness of how comprehensive it was. In this 3-part analysis of sharia, I will detail a little history of sharia and what it includes.
The literal Arabic translation of the word sharia is “the road to the watering place.” In Arabia, water is the gift of life, and the road to the water hole is that route to stay alive and flourish. Muslims think of sharia as the road they must follow according to Allah’s will. The concept of sharia represents boundaries. If a believer stays within the limits of sharia, they are on the road that God has set forth for them.
One must be aware of two rules as we examine the complexities of Islamic law or sharia. The first rule to know is that Islam is a complete way of life. In most discussions of Islam, one is likely to find a statement to the effect that Islam is not just a religion but a way of life. Often read as a throw-away line to those unfamiliar with the topic, the statement represents a position that is meant to be deliberate and genuine. Consider these two points: first, Islam is not a religion along the norms of Christianity or Judaism to be practiced once a week in a church or synagogue – primarily, as practiced in the West, as part of the broader secular community. Second, “as a way of life,” Islam is governed by laws that encompass every aspect of life. “Islam is not just a religion but is a complete way of life” puts readers on notice that Islamic law governs all actions of all believers. Consequently, readers should base their assessment of Islam on its “total way of life” reality.
The second rule to understand is that sovereignty belongs to Allah alone. Islamic law comes exclusively from Allah. The verse of the Qur’an, “Judgment is for God alone” (6:57), is often cited in support of this principle. As the exclusive law-creating authority, Allah is the sole lawmaker and the only sovereign. Because Allah transcends mortality, time, and space, his revealed law applies to all humankind through time and space until the Last Day. Allah’s law can never be legally overruled by non-sovereign entities, including humankind. This assumption challenges Western concepts of democracy that argue that man has the right to legislate law on his authority – which is another way of saying that man has the right to assume the sovereignty that allows for the making of his rules. A disconnect between Islamic and Western theories of preeminence exists that may not be reconcilable.
Because of this second rule, sharia undercuts Western notions of democracy in Islamic countries. It is challenging to implement democratic reforms when a country’s constitution states that “no law shall contradict Islamic law.”
First, the Qur’an
Many people believe, and rightly so, that the Qur’an is the primary source of sharia. The Qur’an, as Muslims believe, was communicated by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Starting in 610, Gabriel gave Muhammad many messages from God. Over the next twenty-two years, Muhammad received messages from Gabriel in dreams, visions, and trances. However, as we examine the content that was later written and codified from these heavenly interactions, less than ten percent were laws. While there are over 6,000 verses in the Qur’an, there are estimates from 200 to 800 scriptures related to legal codes or actual legal rulings. One source provided this classification:
1. 350 verses on repealing objectionable customs such as banking and gambling
2. 140 verses on holy matters and religious law
3. 70 verses on family law
4. 70 verses on commercial law
5. 30 verses on procedural and administrative law
6. 25 verses on treaties and international law.
Other supporting verses are too general to have the precision and point of legal rules. For example, the Qur’an prescribes that a Muslim ought to act in good faith, that he must not bribe judges, and that he must refrain from gambling and exploitation. Still, it does not stipulate what legal effects apply if these commandments are disregarded. Jurists and religious scholars are not in agreement as to how much judicial content lies hidden in the Qur’an. Computations of this nature differ according to one’s understanding of and approach to the meaning of the Qur’an. In summary, the Qur'an provides religious authority but is severely limited on the legal jurisdiction. In short, the purpose of the Qur’an is not to regulate people’s relationships with each other but their relationship with their creator.
In October 1765, the Virginia Gazette, the local newspaper in Williamsburg, Virginia – which also served as the only bookseller in this British colony – sold to Thomas Jefferson a two-volume set of the Qur’an. Back then, it was titled The Alcoran of Mohammed. George Sale had translated it in 1734 from Arabic to English, and law professors of that time considered the Qur’an a book of the law, as well as religion. At the time of purchase, Jefferson was 22 years old and had studied law for three years. He openly acquired other classics as well, but his acquisition of the Qur’an was to gain an insight into Islamic law. To Westerners, the Qur’an represented the law of the Ottoman Empire, a conglomeration of countries and territories governing over 25 million people, thus making it worthy of study. As he was to find out some 30 years later when dealing with the Barbary pirates, the Qur’an, as a source of Islamic law, was very limited, like an iceberg with only a small part of its structure visible above the waterline.
Next week, we look at the next level of sharia.