The word “sharia” conjures up various images in the minds of non-Muslims, but the current discourse on the subject is infected by the commonly held belief that sharia is a limited, harmless and anachronistic add-on to Islam which Muslims can simply ignore at their discretion.
This belief is false.
According to the venerable Encyclopaedia of Islam, “Within Muslim discourse, sharia designates the rules and regulations governing the lives of Muslims, derived in principal from the Qur'an and hadith.”
This celebrated reference work, compiled by some of the world’s most renowned experts on Islam, notes that sharia “in its widest sense covers all aspects of religious, political and civil life. In addition to the laws regulating ritual and religious observances, containing orders and prohibitions, it includes the whole field of family law, the law of inheritance, of property and of contracts and obligations, in a word provisions for all the legal questions that arise in social life; it also includes criminal law and procedure, and finally constitutional law and laws regulating the administration of the state and the conduct of war. All aspects of public and private life and business should be regulated by laws based on religion”.
This understanding of sharia as both a religious and a political system is a mainstream view among Muslim scholars. For example, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (d.1979), one of the most influential Muslim writers of the twentieth century, articulated the idea as follows:
The sharia thus prescribes directives for the regulation of our individual as well as collective lives. These directives affect such varied subjects as religious rituals, personal character, morals, habits, family relationships, social and economic affairs, administration, the rights and duties of citizens, the judicial system, the laws of war and peace and international relations...The sharia is a complete way of life and an all-embracing social order.
In other words, Islam is not just all-encompassing, but totalitarian, comprehensively regulating all aspects of life, from private and personal matters to politics and state governance. This image of Islam as a “complete way of life” that controls everything and leaves nothing to human intuition is regularly cited by Muslims as a positive aspect of the religion when seeking to win new converts.
While sharia derives originally from the Qur’an and hadith, it was subsequently (i.e. by the end of the ninth century) codified into a comprehensive corpus of law by Muslim scholars, who continue to enjoy exclusive authority over its interpretation and application. As the shorter single-volume edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam explains:
[T]he knowledge of the sharia is authoritatively communicated through the system of fiqh [jurisprudence], which has been worked out by the four orthodox [Sunni] schools to the most trifling details, and the authority of which is ultimately based on the infallible ijma [consensus of the scholars]. Every orthodox Muslim is bound to accept it…[I]t is not everyone’s affair to ascertain from the fiqh books with sufficient technical knowledge how the law affects a particular case; the non-specialists rather require instruction from experts. This is done through fatwas (legal opinions), and a scholar who gives fatwas is called a mufti.
The encyclopaedia also contains some additional important observations about sharia. For example, it refutes the common misconception that sharia is merely an “extremist” plug-in for Islam that has no relationship to mainstream practice of the faith: “On the whole, the sharia is the most characteristic phenomenon of Islamic thought and forms the nucleus of Islam itself.” It also notes that sharia does not just apply to Muslims, but also to “the activities of the tolerated members of other faiths so far as they may not be detrimental to Islam.”
Even though sharia was first codified over a millennium ago, it has remained essentially unchanged ever since, even into the modern day, due to the stultifying concept of the “closing of the gates of ijtihad”.
Ijtihad is the process of re-evaluating the Qur'an and instating a point of Islamic law based upon this evaluation. Only a select few Muslims are considered qualified to perform ijtihad, and since the death of Ahmad ibn Hanbal – founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence – in the ninth century, no one has been recognised as a mujtahid of the first class. This means that critical examination of the Qur'an, and alteration of laws which may now be considered out-dated, is discouraged in the Muslim world, and so theological progression within the faith has stagnated. Reliance of the Traveller, a classic manual of sharia, states: “When the four necessary integrals of consensus exist, the ruling agreed upon is an authoritative part of Sacred Law that is obligatory to obey and not lawful to disobey. Nor can mujtahids of a succeeding era make the thing an object of new ijtihad, because the ruling on it, verified by scholarly consensus, is an absolute legal ruling which does not admit of being contravened or annulled.”
Therefore the rulings of ancient jurists and scholars are just as applicable to the lives of Muslims today as they were hundreds of years ago. This is demonstrated by the fact that Cairo's Al-Azhar University – the highest spiritual authority in Sunni Islam – authorised Reliance of the Traveller, which was written in the fourteenth century, as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community” as recently as 1991. They didn't say it was an interesting historical document, or a valuable insight into what Muslims used to believe. They said it conformed to Sunni orthodoxy today.
That's what they believe, and so do all too many Muslims around the world today. Don't let the bogus "experts" get away with telling you otherwise.