2 What Is Sharia?

This articles gives the basics. Let’s define what it is before we critique it. This article is Part 2 in the sharia series.

This article in the series is intended for educators, journalists, judges, legislators, city council members, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and everyone else who occupies the “check points” in society; they initiate the national dialogue – they are the decision- and policymakers.

They have heard the critics of sharia and believe the critics exaggerate. The intellectual elites may even believe the critics are “Islamophobes.” Islam is a world religion, so it deserves respect, after all.

Yet the elites may also have gnawing doubt that the critics are at least partially accurate. Can they be all wrong, all the time? The elites have heard disturbing reports coming out of the Islamic world, and even in their own world.

Defenders of sharia post articles online seeking to allay the secret doubts of the intellectuals. The apologists seem to have one main goal in mind: to communicate the message that there is nothing wrong with sharia.

As to the more specific purpose of this present article, it defines the terms and identifies the major legal scholars.

We begin with the Quran and hadith, the two main sources or foundations of sharia, and then move on to sharia itself.

A quick note before we begin in earnest: in this series the designation “Classical” is used. We don’t need to complicate its definition. For our purposes it begins with the death of Ali in A.D. 661 and goes into the fourteenth century when the law books and commentaries were still flourishing. Especially noteworthy is the eight century when the earliest biography of Muhammad the Islamic prophet was written by Ibn Ishaq, and the ninth century when the oral traditions were gathered, edited, and written down into various volumes, now known collectively as the hadith.


Islam flows out of the life, words, example and revelations of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, messenger, or apostle, sent from Allah. The revelations he got from his deity were mainly recited on the mosque pulpit in Medina. Some of the earlier ones were cited in various places in Mecca, like the Kabah shrine where the black stone is housed, or in the marketplace.

Then he moved to Medina in A.D. 622, because the Meccans persecuted him. The revelations did not stop. He recited them in various places like the marketplace, on his travels, and in the mosque itself.

They were written down in the Quran. Since they came directly from Allah, the Quran is sacred and inspired. It is binding on all Muslims, if they interpret it correctly.

The Oxford Dictionary of Islam says the Quran is:

. . . The book of Islamic revelation; scripture. The term means “recitation.” The Quran is believed to be the word of God transmitted through the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran proclaims God’s existence and will and is the ultimate source of religious knowledge for Muslims. The Quran serves as both record and guide for the Muslim community, transcending time and space. Muslims have dedicated their best minds and talents to the exegesis and recitation of the Quran because the Quran is the criterion by which everything else is to be judged; all movements, whether of radical reform or of moderate change, whether originating at the center or at the periphery of the Islamic world, have grounded their programs in the Quran and use it as support.[1]

What is so striking about that excerpt is that the Quran transcends time and place. It is cross-cultural and ahistorical; that is, it is applicable to any society today and in the future. The second feature in the excerpt is that the Quran judges all movements of change and reform.

The Quran was written in a time (the seventh century) and a place (Arabia, and specifically the Hejaz or western Arabia). To believe that every verse can be brought forward and applied to the modern world means that the reform of Islam is very difficult.[2] The Quran is a very conservative book, religiously speaking, to say the least.


However, not everything Muhammad did or said made it in the sacred book. In fact, most of what he did or said did not make it in. But he had close companions and others who remembered his words and deeds.

Soon after his death they loved to tell stories about him. “I remember what Allah’s messenger said in this situation.” Or “we were with Allah’s apostle when we fought the pagans at such-and-such battle.” “The prophet ruled that this or that action should be punished or forgiven.” These are the oral traditions, handed down from one generation to the next.

Eventually, some conscientious Muslim scholars observed that the traditions may have been distorted and grew to be unreliable and unsound or were never reliable or sound in the first place. The scholars sifted them by requiring a chain of narrators to be of utmost integrity and honesty.

Did the traditions contradict clear verses in the Quran? Then they were rejected. Were they embarrassing? They were suspect – too bad since embarrassing ones may have the chance of being the most reliable, because a devout and reliable Muslim of authority would never frivolously pass on a tradition that he believed would embarrass his prophet, so the transmitter believed it was true.

In any case, collectors and editors wrote them down in their books, and this body of writing is called the hadith, which may be defined briefly as the reports and narrations and traditions of Muhammad’s deeds and words that take on a sacredness and a binding force. Sometimes they report on the words and deeds of his closest companions who carry their own special authority.

In addition to that brief definition of the hadith, let’s find a more official one. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam says:

Hadith: Report of the words and deeds of Muhammad and other early Muslims; considered an authoritative source of revelation, second only to the Quran (sometimes referred to as sayings of the Prophet). Hadith (pl. ahadith; hadith is used as a singular or a collective term in English) were collected, transmitted, and taught orally for two centuries after Muhammad’s death and then began to be collected in written form and codified. They serve as a source of biographical material for Muhammad, contextualization of Quranic revelations, and Islamic law. A list of authoritative transmitters is usually included in collections. Compilers were careful to record hadith exactly as received from recognized transmission specialists… The science of hadith criticism was developed to determine authenticity and preserve the corpus from alteration or fabrication. Chains of authority and transmission were verified as far back as possible, often to Muhammad himself. Chains of transmission were assessed by the number and credibility of the transmitters and the continuity of the chains (isnad). The nature of the text was also examined. Reports that were illogical, exaggerated, fantastic, or repulsive or that contradicted the Quran were considered suspect. Awareness of fabrication and false teaching has long existed but became a major issue in academic circles in the twentieth century due to early reliance on oral, rather than written, transmission. Traditionally, the body of authentic hadith reports is considered to embody the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.[3]

In the New Encyclopedia of Islam Cyril Glassé, a Muslim, says that the hadith traditions form the foundation of Islamic law and there was the need to write them down so the community could refer to them:

The Hadith were accorded the role of basis of law in Islamic jurisprudence by the universally accepted methodology of ash-Shafi’i [see below]. It then became inevitable that as Islam unfolded in History, the need for the tangible support which Hadith could provide for intellectual and cultural developments called forth the “missing” or “unspoken” Hadith that were now required. If in the first centuries the standard by which Hadith were measured was that of an impeccable isnad, the growing needs of an expanding Islam of later times added de facto another, one of verisimilitude in the eyes of a developed and sophisticated religious community.[4]

Then Glassé says that great care was taken by reliable hadith editors and collectors to get the traditions right.

The collections of Bukhari and Muslim were scrupulously compiled in the first two and a half centuries of Islam. Their authenticity was assured by the criterion which the people of the time found most valid, that of an authoritative isnad, or chain of transmission. The method was based on the assumption that it was unthinkable for God-fearing men to lie about matters which they held sacred; each human link in the chain vouchsafed the others. If in the isnad there were persons whose integrity could be doubted for any reason, however small, the authenticity of the Hadith was to that extent weakened. Biographical study also served to establish the plausibility of the transmissions. Naturally, fabricated Hadith also had fabricated isnad, but criticism of the matn [text of the hadith] would be equivalent to dogmatic discussions of Islam itself – thus analysis discussions turned around the isnad, but often as euphemism for a discussion of the contents.[5]

As noted, Bukhari[6] (d. 870) and Muslim[7] (d. 875) are considered the most reliable, with Bukhari carrying the most weight. Abu Dawud[8] (d. 875) is another authentic collector and editor.[9]


So with that background in mind, we can formally define it.

Sharia, sometimes spelled shariah or even shareeah, is Islamic law derived from the Quran and the hadith.[10] With these two sources it is no wonder that many Muslim jurists, indeed the average Muslim, believe that sharia is divine.

And if it is divine, then it must be the foundation of Islamic nations and wherever Islam becomes dominant. It must be implemented, gradually if a nation is non-Islamic and constitutionally if it is. But before we go too far down the path toward the purpose of sharia, we need to formally define it.

We begin with the word “sharia” in the Quran. The three-letter root of sharia is sh-r-‘ and its verb form can mean, among other things, “to lay down law, to ordain, to enact (a law)” (Quran 42:13, 21).[11] In its two noun forms (sharia and shirah) it can mean “an open way, a clear way, a right way . . . a Divine law, an access” (Quran 5:48; 45:18).[12]

Moving on to other sources, we see that the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam define sharia as “the road to the watering place, the clear path to be followed, as a technical term, the canon law of Islam.”[13]

The Dictionary of the Holy Quran adds that the verb and noun forms signify, “establish a law, appoint a religion … law or institution prescribed by God; right way or mode of action … system of divine law; way of belief and practice.”[14]

These definitions imply that sharia is a whole way of life.

Expanding on sharia’s literal definitions, the Oxford Dictionary of Islam says:

Two terms are used to refer to law in Islam: sharia and fiqh. Sharia refers to God’s divine law as contained in the Quran and the sayings and doings of Muhammad (hadith). Fiqh refers to the scholarly efforts of jurists (fuqaha) to elaborate the details of sharia through investigation and debate. Muslims understand sharia to be an unchanging revelation, while fiqh, as a human endeavor, is open to debate, reinterpretation, and change.[15]

Next, Islamic law comes from Allah, but it is found in historical contexts, but despite the human interaction with it in history, it is divine and absolute. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam says:

Allah’s law is not to be penetrated by the intelligence … i.e. man has to accept it without criticism, with its apparent inconsistencies and its incomprehensible decrees, as wisdom into which it is impossible to enquire. One must not look in it for causes in our sense, nor for principles; it is based on the will of Allah which is bound by no principles, therefore evasions are considered as a permissible use of means put at one’s disposal by Allah himself. Muslim law which has come into being in the course of time through the interworking of many factors, which can hardly be exactly appreciated, has always been considered by its followers as something elevated, high above human wisdom, and as a matter of fact human logic or system has little share in it.[16]

However, Islamic law, though having a divine origin, can be explored, in order to find the most suitable ruling and interpretation. Yet Islamic scholars must not put too much stress on theory. Instead, sharia, as we just observed in the Dictionary of the Holy Quran, comprises all areas of life and society, including tolerated faiths, if they are not “detrimental to Islam.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam continues:

A modest enquiry into the meaning of the divine laws so far as Allah himself has indicated the path of enquiry is, however, not prohibited. There is therefore frequent reference to the deeper meaning and suitability … of a law. But one must always guard against placing too much stress on such theoretical considerations. For this very reason, the [sharia] is not “law” in the modern sense of the word, any more than it is on account of its subject matter. It comprises, without restriction, as an infallible doctrine of duties the whole of the religious, political, social, domestic and private life of those who profess Islam, and the activities of the tolerated members of other faiths so far as they may not be detrimental to Islam.[17]

Despite sharia’s divine origins and its intention to swallow up all aspects of life and society, there is wiggle room, so to speak.

As noted, fiqh is the science of applying and interpreting sharia, done by qualified judges and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh emerged, led by these scholars: Malik (d. 795), Abu Hanifah (d. 767), Shafi’i (d. 820), Ibn Hanbal (d. 855). They in turn had students who added their own opinions to those of their teachers, even many generations after the founding jurists lived. In other words, fiqh is open to interpretation, and it is not necessarily binding outside of a court of law.

In this series of articles we keep track of a few differences between the various schools, but mainly we will observe the remarkable unanimity on how to implement divine Islamic law. It is this consensus in various rulings, like death or imprisonment for apostates, which implies that we should not take this “wiggle room” too far. When a sharia judge rules in his courtroom, the decree is indeed binding.


Sharia is divine Islamic law that has its roots in the Quran and the traditions (hadith) about Muhammad. Since Allah inspired the Quran, and Muhammad lived the perfect life in conformity to the Quran, sharia is believed to have a divine origin.

However, interpreting sharia is not divine, but can be changed and reinterpreted.

Maybe it is here that we can hold out hope that Islam can evolve and fit into the modern age.



1 Introduction to a Series on Islamic Sharia Law

2 What Is Sharia?

Political Islam

3 Mosque and State in Early Islam

4 Jihad and Qital in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Law

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

6 No Freedom of Religion in Early Islam

7 No Free Speech in the Quran, Traditions, and Sharia Law

Marital, Domestic and Women’s Issues

8 Women’s Status and Roles in Early Islam

9 Domestic Violence in Early Islam

10 Divorce and Remarriage in Early Islam

11 Marriage to Prepubescent Girls in Early Islam

12 Polygamy in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

13 Veils in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

Sexual “Crimes” and Punishments

14 Adultery and Fornication in Early Islam

15 Homosexuality in Early Islam


16 Thirty Shariah Laws

17 How to Judge Sharia

18 Why Sharia Is Incompatible with American Values

More Punishments

Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling

The Law of Retaliation in the Quran and Early Islam

Thieves, Give Muhammad a Hand!

Crucifixion and Mutilation in the Quran

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ed. Jonathan Esposito (New York: Oxford UP, 2003), 256.

[2] The series does not explain the Bible and how to interpret it properly, especially the interrelations between the Old and New Testaments, law and grace. But readers may be curious about it. If so, they may click on my study: How Christ Fulfills the Law. Christianity does not bring every verse in the Old Testament forward to the world today. There are hermeneutical (interpretive) principles that guide Christians.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, 101-02.

[4] Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, rev. ed., (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991), 161.

[5] Ibid. 160.

[6] Bukhari, Sahih Bukari, 9 vols. trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997). Cited as Bukhari, this edition is used throughout this series of articles. We will reference it by the book title, the volume in the nine-volume set, and the hadith number, which are placed sequentially. So, for example, Marriage, 7.5204 means the Book on Marriage, vol. 7, hadith no. 5204. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[7] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, 4 vols., trans. and ed. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1992), throughout this series of articles cited as Muslim, and then the same standard referencing system applies: book title, volume number, and hadith number.

[8] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abu Dawud, 3 vols., trans. Ahmed Hasan (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984, 2004), throughout this series cited as Abu Dawud, and the same standard referencing system applies: book or section title, volume number, and hadith number.

[9] There are six so-called sahih (sound) hadith collectors: the three named in this article and Abu Isa Muhammad at-Tirmidhi (known as Tirmidhi) (d. 892 or 915); an Nasai (d. 915); and Ibn Maja (d. 886) (Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, rev. ed., [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991], 159).

[10] The other two sources, consensus and analogical reasoning, take us too far afield and into needless complications for our purposes, but sometimes we will note the consensus of the Muslim legal scholars.

[11] Hannah E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Quran, Los Angeles: UCP, 1983), 1142.

[12] Ibid.

[13] H.A.R. Gibb and J. H. Kramer, Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden: Brill, 1953), 524.

[14] Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin: Noor Foundation, 2003), 287, with a few mechanical adjustments, like lower case letters instead of upper case or punctuation.

[15] Oxford Dictionary, 148.

[16] Gibb and Kramer, Concise Encyclopedia, 525.

[17] Ibid.

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