Updated: Sep 9, 2021
An account of the Sharia Law and its Interpretations
To many, the words ‘Sharia Law’ conjure horrors of hands being cut off, of adulterers being beaten and women being oppressed. In fact, no religious law has had worse press than the Sharia has in contemporary times, thanks to the misrepresentation, manipulation and misuse of the Sharia. Islamic regimes, politicians, clerics, radicals have all used the Sharia to rule in the name of God. But what exactly do we know of this law? What are the consequences that it has had? To answer these questions and more, here is Perspectoverse’s Srishti Choudhury.
John Walker Lindh, a soldier captured as a combatant during the United States invasion of Afghanistan, once said, "I don’t recognize any law but the Sharia of Islam. There is no compromise." Notably, the absolute nature of his belief seems almost frightening, but what is more so is that years after the invasion, this belief is now more prominent than ever. And by looking at the state of affairs, this rejuvenation isn't going to be reversed anytime soon.
But before we indulge ourselves in the nitty-gritty of this code, what is the Sharia Law? Fact is that there is no clear definition. Different people understand and apply the Sharia in different ways, but if we put the broad concepts together, this is what a definition would sound like: Sharia is Islam’s legal and spiritual system, both divine and philosophical. Divine, because it is believed to be God’s will for mankind; philosophical because it is based on the human understanding of what that divine will is.
In Arabic, the Sharia translates to ‘the clear, well-trodden path to water.’ The human interpretation of the Sharia is called the fiqh, which literally means ‘understanding’.These terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Sharia is considered divine, permanent and infallible, but its understanding is human. It is a set of rules put together by Muslim scholars over the centuries. These rules have been drafted and applied to suit those in power.
The rules come primarily from three sources- the Quran, Islam’s Holy Book; the Sunnah, accounting the deeds of Prophet Muhammad and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet.
However, there is no single law book, no definite statute and no set judicial proceedings to determine what the Sharia is. It is basically a vast collection of different, often conflicting interpretations. These interpretations gave birth to six schools of thought - namely Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Halbali belonging to Sunni Islam. The fifth and sixth, Ja’fari and Zaydi are Shia versions of Islam.
The Hanafi School is the oldest surviving school of Islamic law, and the one with the largest following. It originated in Kufa, present day Iraq, but soon spread to both the Mughal and Ottoman empires and can now be found from Turkey to Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and as far as Western Europe and North America.
The school’s founder, Abu Hanifa, was a trader as a young man. In 763 C.E. He was imprisoned for refusing to collaborate with a judiciary he considered corrupt. He died in prison four years later. Besides drawing on the Quran and the prophet’s (Peace be upon him) life, this group took to logical arguments which complemented their understanding of Islam to address social isues.
The Maliki school is named after Imam Anas bin Malik, 715 C.E., who, to fund his studies, sold the ceiling beams of his house to buy the books he needed. He unquestioningly advocated personal freedom, famously issuing a fatwa that stated no person should be forced to swear allegiance to the ruling government in Medina, and was heavily flogged for doing so.
The Shafi’i school of thought is named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, a precocious student, who is described by students as the master architect of Islamic law. His greatest achievement was to lay down the roots of a common framework for all schools of Islamic thought to follow when producing legal judgement on issues of faith and how it should be practised.
The Hanbali school was developed in Baghdad, although today the followers of the school are restricted to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The founder of this school, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal was taught by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi’i school. We, therefore, find a direct link between the Shafi’i and Hanbali school. This institution bases its teachings on the Quran.
The Zaydi sect is the most prominent in Yemen. The followers of this school are known for their political activism. The beliefs of this school are closer to the orthodox Hanafi Sunni school. They recognize the principle of an election as the basis of the succession and consider the Imam as nothing more than a ‘right guide’.
The Ja’fari sect is the school of jurisprudence in Twelver and Nizari Shia Islam, named after the sixth Imam, Ja’far as-Sadiq. In Iran, Ja’fari jurisprudence is enshrined in the Constitution. It differs from the predominant madhhabs of Sunni jurisprudence in its reliance on itjihad, as well as on matters of inheritance, religious taxes, commerce, personal status and the allowing of temporary marriage or mut’a.
The different versions of the Sharia do not differ in the fundamentals of faith, but in their practice. They differ in how they pray, how they settle marital disputes, resolve legal matters and deliver punishments. However, the problem begins when religion interferes in governance. Many Muslims who embraced the Sharia thought of it as a substitute for the law of the land. The Sharia was only supposed to be a way of life, not to be associated with political power.
France, Britain and other European powers had colonised much of Asia and Africa. When they left, leaders of the newly formed Muslim majority countries faced a dilemma. Should they govern based on previously established Islamic values, or should they adopt the system of governance practised by their colonial masters? They chose the Sharia as the basis of their legal justice system, and this gave birth to all kinds of theocracies, hardlined and moderate. In 1932, Saudi Arabia was formed as a theocratic monarchy. In 1979, Iran witnessed an Islamic revolution. Until then, Iran was a secular monarchy. After the revolution, the clerics assumed power and Iran was converted into an Islamic republic. In 1996, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan and started a terror regime based on the Sharia. The Taliban enforced the most patriarchal and discriminatory aspects of the charter. They selectively picked certain verses from the Quran and legalized draconian practices, namely polygamy, triple talaq and genital mutation.
Over the years, it is Muslim women who have fallen victim to the atrocities committed in the supposed name of God. They cannot choose to have an abortion, travel without a male guardian, educate themselves and are entitled to little or no inheritance. The list of restrictions is just as appalling as it is repulsive. Despite its misuse, the Sharia is deemed as a way of life by more than 1.8 billion Muslims the world over.
A set of rules advanced by a Prophet can never mean to affect any human being adversely. The Sharia law is a subject that demands proper study and research. Most importantly, all of its followers should be allowed to have independent interpretations supported by reason. The problem arises when one fundamentalist assumes ultimate control and dictates the lives of innocent civilians. The law must also evolve with time. Outdated practices should be terminated and modern, secular ideas embraced. Everybody should be allowed and encouraged to have an opinion and not allow their identity to be subsumed by a group of fundamentalists who misrepresent the entire community.
In a world of 7.8 billion perspectives, there should always be space for another.
Written by Srishti Choudary
Illustrated by Ayushi Banerjee