Islam: Governing Under Sharia


by Sharon Otterman

1. How have various Muslim countries applied sharia?
2. What is sharia?
3. Does sharia apply only to religious matters?
4. Is there only one interpretation of sharia?
5. What are the five schools?
6. How do the rules of each school differ?
7. Do observant Muslims have to adhere to tenets of one of the five schools?
8. Do traditional sharia laws continue to apply in modern countries?
9. How does sharia become part of the law of modern Islamic states?
10. How is sharia applied to banking and finance laws?
11. How does sharia influence modern criminal law?
12. For which crimes does the Quran mandate specific punishments?
13. Where are these laws applied?
14. What happens in the case of apostasy?
15. How is Islamic personal law implemented today?
16. What are the traditional sharia laws governing personal status issues?
17. Are non-Muslims bound by personal status sharia courts?

1. How have various Muslim countries applied sharia?

Sharia, or Islamic law, influences the legal code in most Islamic countries, but the extent of its impact varies widely. Avowedly secular Turkey is at one extreme. It doesn’t base its laws on the Quran, and some government-imposed rules–such as a ban on women’s veils–are contrary to practices often understood as Islamic. At the devout end of the spectrum are the Islamic Republic of Iran, where mullahs are the ultimate authority, and Saudi Arabia, a monarchy where the Quran is considered the constitution. In 1959, Iraq modified its sharia-based family law system and became one of the Middle East’s least religious states. Whether sharia should be more strictly applied in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is one of the most divisive issues facing the transitional government.

2. What is sharia?

Literally, it means “path,” or “path to water,” says Clark Lombardi, an expert on Islamic law at the University of Washington’s School of Law. In its religious sense, it means God’s law’the body of commands that, if followed, will provide the path to salvation. According to Islamic teaching, sharia is revealed in divine signs that must be interpreted by humans. The law is derived from four main sources:
the Quran, Islam’s holy book, considered the literal word of God; the hadith, or record of the actions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, whose life is to be emulated; ijma, the consensus of Islamic scholars; and qiyas, a kind of reasoning that uses analogies to apply precedents established by the holy texts to problems not covered by them, for example, a ban on narcotics based on the Quranic injunction against wine-drinking.

3. Does sharia apply only to religious matters?

No. Sharia governs all aspects of life, from relations between men and women to ethics in business and banking. Some aspects of sharia have become part of modern legal codes and are enforced by national judicial systems, while others are a matter of personal conscience. Entirely secular law is not an option under a classical interpretation of Islam, experts say. “In Islam, there is no separation between the secular and the sacred. The law is suffused with religion,” says David Powers, a professor of Islamic law and history at Cornell University.

4. Is there only one interpretation of sharia?

No. Five major schools of sharia developed after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and during the Middle Ages–four in the Sunni tradition and one in the Shiite tradition. A school consists of a guild, or group of scholars, that developed specific interpretations of Islamic law; over the centuries, its precedents became legally binding. Muslims in different geographical regions favored different sharia schools, a practice that continues to this day.

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