Friday, July 27, 2012

What is Shariah?

Its Two Main Foundations: the Quran and Hadith

By James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article about Islamic shariah law 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 and even shape the flow of the conversation – they are the decision and policy makers.

They have heard the critics of shariah 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 shariah post articles online seeking to allay the secret doubts of the intellectuals. This series quotes extensively from the defenders. The apologists seem to have one main goal in mind: to communicate the message that there is nothing wrong with shariah.

As to the 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 shariah, and then move on to shariah itself.

The Quran

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 were going to kill him. But 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 several decades after he died. 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.

The Hadith

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. Yet there still are some passages which contradict statements of the Quran; occasionally hadith are even abrogating the Quran. One example is the hadith of stoning the adulterers which takes priority over the verse of the Quran which demands flogging. Nonetheless, most hadith were rejected if they contradicted the Quran.

Next, were the various passages 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. TheOxford 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 impeccableisnad, 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. We also occasionally use Abu Dawud[8] (d. 875), another authentic collector and editor.[9]


Shariah, sometimes spelled sharia 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 shariah 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 shariah, we need to formally define it.

We begin with the word “shariah” in the Quran. The three-letter root of shariah 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 (shariah 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 find that the Concise Encyclopedia of Islamdefine shariah 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 shariah is a whole way of life.

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

Two terms are used to refer to law in Islam: shariah and fiqh. Shariah 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 shariah through investigation and debate. Muslims understand shariah 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 Islamic law 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, shariah, as we just observed in theDictionary of the Holy Quran, comprises all areas of life and society, including tolerated faiths, if they are not “detrimental to Islam.”

In that light, 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 [shariah] 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 shariah’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 shariah, 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 shariah judge rules in his courtroom, the decree is indeed binding.

The “Classical” Age

A quick note before we begin the series in earnest: the designation “Classical” is used in the articles. We don’t need a complicated definition.

For our purposes it begins with the death of Ali (the fourth caliph and Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) 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 extant biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq (d. 767), and the ninth century when the oral traditions were gathered, edited, and written down into various volumes, now known collectively as the hadith.

The time before Ali’s death will be known in this series as “original Islam.”


Shariah 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, shariah is believed to have a divine origin.

However, interpreting shariah 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. But it will be very difficult to reinterpret shariah laws that are based squarely on clear Quranic laws. So we should not be naïve or overly optimistic about the reform of Islam; it certainly will not happen overnight, and maybe not even in our lifetime.

Sharia for Dummies

by Nonie Darwish

Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf claims that the US constitution is Sharia compliant. Now let us examine below a few laws of Sharia to see if Imam Rauf is truthful or a fraud:

1. Jihad defined as “to war against non-Muslims to establish the religion” is the duty of every Muslim and Muslim head of state (Caliph). Muslim Caliphs who refuse jihad are in violation of Sharia and unfit to rule.

2. A Caliph can hold office through seizure of power meaning through force.

3. A Caliph is exempt from being charged with serious crimes such as murder, adultery, robbery, theft, drinking and in some cases of rape.

4. A percentage of Zakat (alms) must go towards jihad.

5. It is obligatory to obey the commands of the Caliph, even if he is unjust.

6. A caliph must be a Muslim, a non-slave and a male.

7. The Muslim public must remove the Caliph in one case, if he rejects Islam.

8. A Muslim who leaves Islam must be killed immediately.

9. A Muslim will be forgiven for murder of : 1) an apostasy 2) an adulterer 3) a highway robber. Making vigilante street justice and honor killing acceptable.

10. A Muslim will not get the death penalty if he kills a non-Muslim.

11. Sharia never abolished slavery and sexual slavery and highly regulates it. A master will not be punished for killing his slave.

12. Sharia dictates death by stoning, beheading, amputation of limbs, flogging and other forms of cruel and unusual punishments even for crimes of sin such as adultery.

13. Non-Muslims are not equal to Muslims and must comply to Sharia if they are to remain safe. They are forbidden to marry Muslim women, publicly display wine or pork, recite their scriptures or openly celebrate their religious holidays or funerals. They are forbidden from building new churches or building them higher than mosques. They may not enter a mosque without permission. A non-Muslim is no longer protected if he commits adultery with a Muslim woman or if he leads a Muslim away from Islam.

14. It is a crime for a non-Muslim to sell weapons to someone who will use them against Muslims. Non-Muslims cannot curse a Muslim, say anything derogatory about Allah, the Prophet, or Islam, or expose the weak points of Muslims. However, the opposite is not true for Muslims.

15. A non-Muslim cannot inherit from a Muslim.

16. Banks must be Sharia compliant and interest is not allowed.

17. No testimony in court is acceptable from people of low-level jobs, such as street sweepers or a bathhouse attendant. Women in such low level jobs such as professional funeral mourners cannot keep custody of their children in case of divorce.

18. A non-Muslim cannot rule even over a non-Muslims minority.

19. Homosexuality is punishable by death.

20. There is no age limit for marriage of girls under Sharia. The marriage contract can take place anytime after birth and consummated at age 8 or 9.

21. Rebelliousness on the part of the wife nullifies the husband’s obligation to support her, gives him permission to beat her and keep her from leaving the home.

22. Divorce is only in the hands of the husband and is as easy as saying: “I divorce you” and becomes effective even if the husband did not intend it.

23. There is no common property between husband and wife and the husband’s property does not automatically go to the wife after his death.

24. A woman inherits half what a man inherits.

25. A man has the right to have up to 4 wives and she has no right to divorce him even if he is polygamous.

26. The dowry is given in exchange for the woman’s sexual organs.

27. A man is allowed to have sex with slave women and women captured in battle, and if the enslaved woman is married her marriage is annulled.

28. The testimony of a woman in court is half the value of a man.

29. A woman looses custody if she remarries.

30. To prove rape, a woman must have 4 male witnesses.

31. A rapist may only be required to pay the bride-money (dowry) without marrying the rape victim.

32. A Muslim woman must cover every inch of her body which is considered “Awrah,” a sexual organ. Some schools of Sharia allow the face and some don’t.

33. A Muslim man is forgiven if he kills his wife caught in the act of adultery. However, the opposite is not true for women since he “could be married to the woman he was caught with.”

The above are clear cut laws in Islam decided by great Imams after years of examination and interpretation of the Quran, Hadith and Mohammed’s life. Now let the learned Imam Rauf tell us what part of the above is compliant with the US constitution?


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