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Sharīʿah

By:
Knut S. Vikør
Source:
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

Sharīʿah

The term Sharīʿah is used only once in the Qurʾan (xlv, 18: “We have put you on the Sharīʿah of commandment, so follow it”). The root meaning of the word is in the area of “path, road,” and it is thus of a group of words referring to “way” in a religious context (ṣirāṭ, ṭarīqah, sulūk). The term is also rare in the ḥadīth corpus, and it was thus probably only later that it came to have its current meaning of the rules and commandments God has established for mankind. Some scholars link this religious meaning to a Bedouin concept of Sharīʿah as “a road to a watering place,” but Sharīʿah may have been used earlier for “a set of rules,” independently of this nomadic reference to a watering place. Closely linked to the noun is the adjective sharʿī, “legal, according to the revelation,” and the active agent shāriʿ, “legislator” (that is, God). More modern is the verbal noun tashrīʿ used for legislation in general, including modern state legislation.

The Sharīʿah is often translated as “Islamic Law,” but it encompasses all rules (aḥkām) God has laid out for mankind, including many that are outside the area of “law” in Western understanding, such as the rules of ritual worship (this partly coincides with the distinction between two large categories of rules: of ʿibādāt, man’s relation to God, thus worship, and muʿāmalāt, man’s relation to man).

The term Sharīʿah thus clearly links its rules to God and the divine revelation, but the precise meaning and usage of the term can be ambiguous, in particular how it relates to fiqh, the scholarly science or understanding of the law. Fiqh normally refers to the methods used by the scholars of law (the fuqahā’) to discover and systematize the divine will into a set of rules. This law is then called the Sharīʿah. However, fiqh may also refer to not just the method, but also the results of this human activity, reserving the term Sharīʿah for the divine will as it is with God only. In that case, any change or reform of a specific rule of Islamic law would only amend the human fiqh and have no bearing on the unchangeable nature of the Sharīʿah itself. In popular usage, this unchangeable Sharīʿah may also refer to just the unambiguous (qaṭʿī) rules of the revelation deemed not to require human interpretation.

It is also common to give the term Sharīʿah a wider meaning of “justice” or a “just law.” This can be linked to it representing God’s “intentions,” maqāṣid; such as justice and social welfare. Then any law fulfilling that intention of promoting a just society and not contradicting the text of the Revelation can be termed sharʿī. Thus, contrary to the Western identification of “the Sharīʿah” with certain of its practical rules, such as the ḥudūd criminal laws, Muslims often associate the term with more general ideals like social and political justice, thus over 90 percent of Egyptians in a recent Gallup poll associated it with such positive values.

Bibliography

  • Hallaq, Wael B. A History of Islamic Legal Theories. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 1997.
  • Mogahed, Dalia. “What Egyptian Women (and Men) Want” www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/10/ what_egyptian_women_and_men_want?page=0,3 (March 10, 2011).
  • Vikør, Knut S. Between God and the Sultan: An Historical Introduction to Islamic Law. London: Hurst, 2005.
  • Weiss, Bernard G. The Search for God’s Law. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992.
  • Weiss, Bernard G. The Spirit of Islamic Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
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