AskDefine | Define Sharia

Dictionary Definition

sharia n : the code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed; "sharia is only applicable to Muslims"; "under Islamic law there is no separation of church and state" [syn: shariah, shariah law, sharia law, Islamic law]

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Alternative spellings


way to the water


  1. traditional Islamic religious law; it covers the totality of religious, political, social and private life making no distinction between religion and life, in other words between transgressions of moral rules (sin) and of social rules.


Islamic religious law

Extensive Definition

This article is about Islamic religious law. For the fictional character in One Thousand and One Nights see Shahryar.
Sharia (Arabic: ) is the body of Islamic religious law. The term means "way" or "path to the water source"; it is the legal framework within which the public and private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Islamic principles of jurisprudence and for Muslims living outside the domain. Sharia deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business, contracts, family, sexuality, hygiene, and social issues.
There is no strictly static set of laws of sharia. Sharia is more of a system of how law ought to serve humanity, a consensus of the unified spirit, based on the Qur'an (the religious text of Islam), hadith (sayings and doings of Muhammad and his companions), Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and centuries of debate, interpretation and precedent.
Before the 19th century, legal theory was considered the domain of the traditional legal schools of thought. Most Sunni Muslims follow Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki or Shafii, while most Shia Muslims follow the jaafari school of thought and are considered Twelvers.
Islamic law is now the most widely used religious law, and one of the three most common legal systems of the world alongside common law and civil law. During the Islamic Golden Age, classical Islamic law had a fairly significant influence on the development of common law,

In the context of Islam

Mainstream Islam distinguishes between fiqh (deep understanding, discernment), which refers to the inferences drawn by scholars, and sharia, which refers to the principles that lie behind the fiqh. Scholars hope that fiqh (jurisprudence) and sharia (law) are in harmony in any given case, but they cannot be sure.
Sharia has certain laws which are regarded as divinely ordained, concrete and timeless for all relevant situations (for example, the ban against drinking liquor as an intoxicant). It also has certain laws which derived from principles established by Islamic lawyers and judges (mujtahidun).

Sources of Islamic law

The primary sources of Islamic law are the Qur'an and Sunnah.
To this, traditional Sunni Muslims add the consensus (ijma) of Muhammad's companions (sahaba) and Islamic jurists (ulema) on certain issues, and drawing analogy from the essence of divine principles and preceding rulings (qiyas). In situations where no concrete rules exist under the sources, law scholars use qiyas — various forms of reasoning, including by analogy. The consensus of the community or people, public interest, and others are also accepted as secondary sources where the first four primary sources allow.
Shi'a Muslims reject this approach. They strongly reject analogy (qiyas) as an easy way to innovations (bid'ah), and also reject consensus (ijma) as having any particular value in its own. During the period that the Sunni scholars developed those two tools, the Shi'a Imams were alive, and Shi'a view them as an extension of the Sunnah, so they view themselves as only deriving their laws (fiqh) from the Qur'an and Sunnah. A re-occurring theme in Shi'a jurisprudence is logic (mantiq), something Shi'a believe they mention, employ and value to a higher degree than Sunnis do. They do not view logic as a third source for laws, rather a way to see if the derived work is compatible with the Qur'an and Sunnah.
In Imami-Shi'i law, the sources of law (usul al-fiqh) are the Qur'an, anecdotes of Muhammad's practices and those of the 12 Imams, and the intellect (aql). The practices called Sharia today, however, also have roots in local customs (al-urf).

Islamic jurisprudence

Islamic jurisprudence is called fiqh and is divided into two parts:
  • Usul al-fiqh (أصول الفقه) — roots of the law: the study of the sources and methodology
  • Furu' al-fiqh (فروع الفقه) — branches of the law: the practical rules
The comprehensive nature of Sharia law is due to the belief that the law must provide all that is necessary for a person's spiritual and physical well-being. All possible actions of a Muslim are divided (in principle) into five categories:
  • obligatory
  • meritorious
  • permissible
  • reprehensible
  • forbidden

Classical Islamic law

The formative period of Islamic jurisprudence stretches back to the time of the early Muslim communities. In this period, jurists were more concerned with pragmatic issues of authority and teaching than with theory. Progress in theory happened with the coming of the early Muslim jurist Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (767-820), who laid down the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence in his book ar-Risālah. The book details the four roots of law (Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas) while specifying that the primary Islamic texts (the Qur'an and the hadith) be understood according to objective rules of interpretation derived from careful study of the Arabic language.
A number of important legal concepts and institutions were developed by Islamic jurists during the classical period of Islam, known as the Islamic Golden Age, dated from the 7th to 13th centuries. therefore, sharia, Islamic law, is founded on the Qur'an and the Sunnah. However, sharia was not fully developed at the time of Muhammad's death, but rather it evolved around the Muslim community or Ummah through which it would serve.
When sharia began its formation in the deserts of Arabia about 1,400 years ago, the time Islam was born, a sense of community did not exist. Life in the desert was nomadic and tribal, thus the only factor that tied people together into various tribes was through common ancestry. – no matter the location or the culture.
However, people do not change overnight nor do their habits of everyday life – sharia was indeed guided through its development by lifestyles of the tribes in which was initially absorbed into Islam. Thus, through the understandings of the tribe, Islamic law would be a law of the community – for the community by the community – even if initially proposed by an individual “for they could not form part of the tribal law unless and until they were generally accepted as such.” without contradiction, tribal life bought about a sense of participation. Such participation is further reinforced by Muhammad who stated, “My community will never agree in error” and thus, later recorded as a hadith.
After the death of Muhammad sharia continued to undergo fundamental changes, beginning with the reigns of caliphs Abu Bakr (632-34) and Umar (634-44) in which many decision making matters were brought to the attention of the Prophet's closest comrades for consultation. In AD 662, during the reign of Mu'awiya b. Abu Sufyan, life ceased to be nomadic and undertook an urban transformation which in turn created matters not originally covered by Islamic law. According to Justice Gamal Moursi Badr, Islamic law is like common law in that it "is not a written law" and the "provisions of Islamic law are to be sought first and foremost in the teachings of the authoritative jurists" (Ulema), hence Islamic law may "be called a lawyer's law if common law is a judge's law." For example, every Waqf was required to have a waqif (founder), mutawillis (trustee), qadi (judge) and beneficiaries. Under both a Waqf and a trust, "property is reserved, and its usufruct appropriated, for the benefit of specific individuals, or for a general charitable purpose; the corpus becomes inalienable; estates for life in favor of successive beneficiaries can be created" and "without regard to the law of inheritance or the rights of the heirs; and continuity is secured by the successive appointment of trustees or mutawillis." The trust law developed in England at the time of the Crusades, during the 12th and 13th centuries, was introduced by Crusaders who may have been influenced by the Waqf institutions they came across in the Middle East. The introduction of the trust, or "use" was primarily motivated by the need to avoid medieval inheritance taxes. By transferring legal title to a third party, there was no need to pay feudal dues on the death of the father. In those times, it was common for an underage child to lose many of his rights to his feudal overlord if he succeeded before he came of age.
The precursor to the English jury trial was the Lafif trial in classical Maliki jurisprudence, which was developed between the 8th and 11th centuries in North Africa and Islamic Sicily, and shares a number of similarities with the later jury trials in English common law. Like the English jury, the Islamic Lafif was a body of twelve members drawn from the neighbourhood and sworn to tell the truth, who were bound to give a unanimous verdict, about matters "which they had personally seen or heard, binding on the judge, to settle the truth concerning facts in a case, between ordinary people, and obtained as of right by the plaintiff." The only characteristic of the English jury which the Islamic Lafif lacked was the "judicial writ directing the jury to be summoned and directing the bailiff to hear its recognition." According to Professor John Makdisi, "no other institution in any legal institution studied to date shares all of these characteristics with the English jury." It is thus likely that the concept of the Lafif may have been introduced to England by the Normans and then evolved into the modern English jury.
The precursor to the English assize of novel disseisin was the Islamic Istihqaq, an action "for the recovery of usurped land", in contrast to the previous Roman law which "emphasized possession in resolving such disputes." The "assize of novel disseisin broke with this tradition and emphasized ownership, as is found in the Islamic law of Istihqaq." Islamic law also introduced the notion of allowing an accused suspect or defendant to have an agent or lawyer, known as a wakil, handle his/her defense. This was in contrast to early English common law, which "used lawyers to prosecute but the accused were left to handle their defense themselves." The English Parliament did not allow those accused of treason the right to retain lawyers until 1695, and for those accused of other felonies until 1836.
Islamic jurists formulated early contract laws which introduced the application of formal rationality, legal rationality, legal logic (see Logic in Islamic philosophy) and legal reasoning in the use of contracts. Islamic jurists also introduced the concepts of recession (Iqalah), frustration of purpose (istihalah al-tanfidh or "impossibility of performance"), Act of God (Afat Samawiyah or "Misfortune from Heaven") and force majeure in the law of contracts. However, recission, frustration and other core concepts in the law of contract are relatively recent introductions into the Law of England, dating back to the Victorian period. Early case law indicates that it was impossible to rescind a contract for frustration even where performance became impossible.
Other possible influences of Islamic law on English common law include the concepts of a passive judge, impartial judge, res judicata, the judge as a blank slate, individual self-definition, justice rather than morality, the law above the state, individualism, freedom of contract, privilege against self-incrimination, fairness over truth, individual autonomy, untrained and transitory decision making, overlap in testimonial and adjudicative tasks, appeal, dissent, day in court, prosecution for perjury, oral testimony, and the judge as a moderator, supervisor, announcer and enforcer rather than an adjudicator.

Comparison with law in the United States

Similarities between Islamic law and the common law of the United States have also been noted, particularly in regards to Constitutional law. According to Sameer S. Vohra, the United States Constitution is similar to the Qur’an in that the Constitution is "the supreme law of the land and the basis from which the laws of the legislature originate." Vohra further notes that the legislature is similar to the Sunnah in that the "legislature takes the framework of the Constitution and makes directives that involve the specific day-to-day situations of its citizens."
The earliest known lawsuits may also date back to Islamic law. There was a hadith tradition which reported that the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (580-656) attempted to sue a Jewish subject for recovery of a suit of armour, but his case was unsuccessful due to a lack of competent witnesses. The concept of a lawsuit was also described in the Ethics of the Physician by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931) of al-Raha, Syria, as part of an early medical peer review process, where the notes of a practicing Islamic physician were reviewed by peers and he/she could be sued by a maltreated patient if the reviews were negative.
The earliest known prohibition of illegal drugs occurred under Islamic law, which prohibited the use of Hashish, a preparation of cannabis, as a recreational drug. Classical jurists in medieval Islamic jurisprudence, however, accepted the use of the Hashish drug for medicinal and therapeutic purposes, and agreed that its "medical use, even if it leads to mental derangement, remains exempt" from punishment. In the 14th century, the Islamic jurist Az-Zarkashi spoke of "the permissibility of its use for medical purposes if it is established that it is beneficial." According to Mary Lynn Mathre, with "this legal distinction between the intoxicant and the medical uses of cannabis, medieval Muslim theologians were far ahead of present-day American law."

Other similarities

Precursors to common law concepts in property law were found in classical Islamic property law, including the concepts of leasehold (including duty to take and keep in possession and holdover tenancy), joint ownership (including partition, pledge, bailment, lost property, license and trespass), acquisition (including intestate succession), duress (Ikrah), transfer by sale (including contract formation, meeting of the minds, declaration, duress and risk of loss), transfer by gift, rights and restrictions on transfers (including restraint on alienation, appurtenance, fixture, preemption, mortgage and water rights), will (including entitlement to shares, revocation, ademption, lapse, abatement and ambiguity), attacks on ownership (including concepts of theft, robbery, usurpation, nuisance, and defense of necessity), and causation (including remote consequences, intervening human cause, concurrent cause and uncertain cause). Many of these concepts were summarized in Islamic juristic texts, including the Hidayah by the Hanafi jurist al-Marghilani, the Minhaj al-Talibin by the Shafi`i jurist Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi, the Mukhtasar by the Maliki jurist Khalil ibn Ishaq al-Jundi, the Fatawa-e-Alamgiri by Hanafi jurists, and the Kasani.
While some see the Islamic concept of Istihsan as being equivalent to the concept of equity in English law, others see it as being equivalent to the "reasoned distinction of precedent" in American law, in which case Istihsan may be referred to as the "reasoned distinction of qiyas (reasoning by analogy)". John Makdisi writes:
Other precursors to common law concepts are found in classical Islamic law and jurisprudence, including advocacy, ratio decidendi (illah), arbitrary decision-making, legal opinion, discretion, public policy (Istislah and Maslaha), The "European commenda" limited partnerships (Islamic Qirad) used in civil law as well as the civil law conception of res judicata may also have origins in Islamic law. The concept of an agency was also an "institution unknown to Roman law", where it was not possible for an individual to "conclude a binding contract on behalf of another as his agent." The concept of an agency was introduced by Islamic jurists, and thus the civil law conception of agency may also have origins in Islamic law. The Siete Partidas of Alfonso X, which was regarded as a "monument of legal science" in the civil law tradition, was also influenced by the Islamic legal treatise Villiyet written in Islamic Spain.

Influence on international law

The first treatise on international law (Siyar in Arabic) was the Introduction to the Law of Nations written at the end of the 8th century by Mohammed bin Hassan al-Shaybani They dealt with both public international law as well as private international law.
These early Islamic legal treatises covered the application of Islamic ethics, Islamic economic jurisprudence and Islamic military jurisprudence to international law, and were concerned with a number of modern international law topics, including the law of treaties; the treatment of diplomats, hostages, refugees and prisoners of war; the right of asylum; conduct on the battlefield; protection of women, children and non-combatant civilians; contracts across the lines of battle; the use of poisonous weapons; and devastation of enemy territory.}}
The Islamic legal principles of international law were largely based on Qur'an and the Sunnah of Muhammad, who gave various injunctions to his forces and adopted practices toward the conduct of war. The most important of these were summarized by Muhammad's successor and close companion, Abu Bakr, in the form of ten rules for the Muslim army:
Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.
Islamic law also introduced "two fundamental principles to the West, on which were to later stand the future structure of law: equity">Equity (law)equity and good faith", which was a precursor to the concept of pacta sunt servanda in civil law and international law. Islamic law also "introduced it to international relations, making possible the systematic development of conventional law, which became a partial substitute for custom."
There is evidence that early Islamic international law influenced the development of Western international law, through various routes such as the Crusades, Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily, and Reconquista of al-Andalus. In particular, the Spanish jurist Francisco de Vitoria, and his successor Grotius, may have been influenced by Islamic international law through earlier Islamic-influenced writings such as the 1263 work Siete Partidas of Alfonso X, which was regarded as a "monument of legal science" in Europe at the time and was influenced by the Islamic legal treatise Villiyet written in Islamic Spain.

Influence on legal education

Madrasahs were the first law schools, and it is likely that the "law schools known as Inns of Court in England" may have been derived from the Madrasahs which taught Islamic law and jurisprudence.

Human rights

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