Q&A: Sharia lawIn the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on sharia law in Britain, Elizabeth Stewart explains the Islamic code

Elizabeth Stewart
Thursday February 7, 2008
Guardian Unlimited

What is sharia law?
Sharia law is frequently misunderstood as a draconian criminal justice system governing Muslims. It is instead a broad code of conduct governing all aspects of life – from dietary rules to the wearing of the hijab – which Muslims can choose to adopt in varying degrees as a matter of personal conscience.Where does sharia law come from?
Sharia, meaning “way or path to the water”, is derived from interpretation of the teachings of the Qur’an, the Hadith (the sayings and conduct of the prophet Muhammad) and fatwas – a type of jurisprudence of the rulings of Islamic scholars over many centuries.

Are there different interpretations of sharia?
There are five different schools of interpretation of sharia: one in the Shia tradition of Islam and four in the Sunni tradition. Middle Eastern countries of the former Ottoman empire favour the Hanafi doctrine and north African countries prefer the Maliki doctrine; Indonesia and Malaysia follow the Shafi’i doctrine; Saudi Arabia adheres to the Hanbali doctrine; and Iran follows the Shia Jaafari school. All the schools are similar, but some take a more literal approach to texts while others prefer a loose interpretation.

How is it applied in sharia states?
Sharia can be formally instituted as law by certain states and enforced by the courts. Many Muslim countries have adopted elements of sharia law governing issues such as inheritance, banking, marriage and contract law.

Avowedly secular Turkey is at one extreme, while the devout Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia are the other. In some religiously and ethnically diverse nations, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nigeria, states or provinces are allowed the option of applying aspects of sharia.

What are hadd offences?
The popular understanding of sharia law in Britain – such as the stoning of adulterers or the severing of a hand for thieves – relates only to a very specific set of offences known as hadd offences. Although the penalties for such offences are not universally adopted as law in most Islamic countries, these have become a potent symbol of sharia law.

Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, claim to live under pure sharia law and enforce these penalties for hadd offences. In others, such as Indonesia, the penalties have not been enforced. The majority of Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, have not adopted hadd offences as part of their state laws.

Hadd offences carry specific penalties, set by the Qur’an and by the prophet Muhammad. These include unlawful sexual intercourse (outside marriage), false accusation of unlawful intercourse, the drinking of alcohol, theft and highway robbery. Sexual offences carry a penalty of stoning to death or flogging, while theft is punished with cutting off a hand.

Is there any history of Islamic law in Britain?
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the first person to suggest Britain should adopt certain aspects of the Muslim faith. In 1213, King John I, excommunicated by Catholic Europe and faced with a revolt by his own barons, turned to the only other regional power: that of Morocco.

He sent two envoys to meet the powerful King Mohammed en-Nasir to ask for his support to quell his restive barons. In exchange, King John offered to convert to Islam and to bring his kingdom into the faith as well. But the Moroccan ruler decided that a king who was prepared to betray his own religion and subjects would probably not make a good ally, and turned him down. The two knights were sent packing and King John I was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008


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