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Sharia, Part 2 of 3

What you are witnessing in the picture is a street protest calling for Sharia in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean nation in September 5, 2014. It is not uncommon for Muslim minorities, when ruled by democratic majorities, to call for an end to democracy. The photographers name is Dying Regime. Fortunately, he posted his picture under Wikimedia Commons (Dying Regime from Maldives, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, we acknowledged that the Qur’an was the primary source of sharia. Although, out of 6,000 verses in the Qur’an, only about 10 percent have anything to do with sharia. The Qur’an is considered the primary source of sharia because it came directly from the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Two other rules that I covered are that 1) the religion is a way of life for every day of the week, every hour of the day, and 2) since the majority of the laws come directly from God or from a man inspired by God, rules made by man through our Constitution are inferior and invalid to their laws.

The second source of sharia is the Sunna, the traditions and practices of the Prophet. The Sunna was used in pre-Islamic times to describe an activity that came from ancient and traditional usage that the community was well acquainted with; later, scholars applied the term to the practice of the Prophet. In a sense, this concept is reminiscent of common law in the U.S., a code originating from community customs and judicial precedent rather than statutes. Sunna must be distinguished from the word hadith. The mixed use of the two terms sometimes leads to confusion. Hadith is the story of a specific occurrence; Sunna is the “practice” of the Prophet, his model behavior.

The Sunna that accompanies the Qur’an represents the traditions of the Prophet, his Companions, and the first four Caliphs. From a historical view, Sunna is a pre-Islamic Arabic term used chiefly in poems, meaning how someone or a community lived. Sunna is mentioned sixteen times in the Qur’an, mostly when describing the customs and lifestyles of various peoples mentioned. Frequently, Sunna comes from documented accounts of Muhammad’s (and sometimes his Companion’s) words and commandments. Sunna is the body of conventional, social, and legal practices of the Islamic community.

In Islamic law, Sunna means an action a Muslim is advised to follow because Muhammad did or would have done so in a similar situation. There are a few verses in the Qur’an that support the use of Sunna as a source of legal jurisprudence. Probably the most pertinent is this one: “The Messenger of God is an excellent model for those of you who put your hope in God” (Q33:21). This verse suggests that Muhammad, his manner of governing, decisions, customs, and way of life, would provide an excellent standard by which people should live their lives.

The Arabic word hadith means communication, story, conversation, whether religious or secular, historical or recent. The inexperienced practitioner often uses hadith interchangeably with Sunna; however, the word is used to mean “Prophetic tradition” in the Islamic discourse. Each hadith is a narration of the life of the Prophet and what he said during specific situations. Sunna is the action or direction a person should take based on what the Prophet would do, based on reliable documentation revealing what the Prophet did or said (the hadith).

While the Qur’an represents the apex of Islamic law, there is much detail it does not cover. Consequently, the reports of Muhammad’s sayings and actions were tirelessly collected by scholars from subsequent generations to supplement the Qur’an. The corpus of hadith is enormous; individual collections contain thousands of these records.

The weakness of sharia is in the hadith. It was some 200 to 250 years after Muhammad’s death that religious scholars started collecting the sayings of Muhammad. The collection of hadith became a science, with the goal being the reliability of the quote and the source. One notable collector selected only 7,300 out of 600,000 narrations for fear that the others may have been fabricated or forged. Another well-known scholar accepted 12,000 hadith out of 300,000. Muslims are known for rebuking Christian communities for adulterating their holy books, but their law is built on questionable reliability.

Here are two examples of hadith collected by different scholars:

1) “Do the opposite of what the pagans do. Cut the mustache short and leave the beard as it is.”

2) A companion asked Allah’s Apostle (Muhammad) about liquor. He forbade (its use), and he expressed hatred that it should be prepared. He (the Companion) said: I prepare it as a medicine, whereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: “It is no medicine, but an ailment.”

Supposedly, Muhammad said these quotes. You can see that the hadith refer to daily living. There are hadith that tell you which pant leg to put on first (the right leg) and hadith to tell you what to eat and how to conduct daily sanitation. So, it is easy to understand that Islam is a way of life, not just a religious belief.

The Qur’an and Sunna are the primary sources of Islamic law and are the products of divine revelation and hence cannot be overruled or changed. Consequently, most of the sharia is fixed. The outcomes of legal jurisprudence in “the four Sunni schools of Islamic law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali, are identical in approximately 75 percent of their legal conclusions. In the U.S. legal system, lawyers call these “settled issues of law.”

Next week, we look at that part of sharia that may differ from region to region.

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