Adapted from a Khutbah (sermon) by Imam Atif entitled “What is Sharia Law?”
“And then We set you, (O Prophet), on a clear high road in religious matters. So follow that and do not follow the desires of those who do not know.” Qur’an 45:18 In this verse, God (The Eternal and Absolute, may he be glorified) is commanding the Prophet Muhammad (prayers of blessings and peace be upon him) to take the righteous path, the Arabic word used here is “sharia.” Today people call it Sharia Law to emphasize that it is a set of rules or law. What is Sharia Law? Let’s explore this concept further…
In the current climate, the Sharia Law has become buzz word for Islamophobes who use this term as a weapon against Muslims. They claim that sharia law is a barbaric system that Muslims use against others. They claim that “creeping sharia” is a threat to Non-Muslims in America and that Muslims will force others to live under sharia law. This is an absolute failure of mutual respect and understanding of other religions which results in a rhetoric that teaches people something harsh and negative about a word that is so spiritual for Muslims. Sharia was meant to be a source of mercy, and guidance from God for all Muslims.
What is sharia law in both theory and practice?
Dr. Sherman Jackson, a Muslim American scholar, describes sharia in very easy terms, “At the most basic level, sharia is the Muslim universe of ideals. It is the result of their collective effort to understand and apply the Quran and supplementary teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (called Sunnah) in order to earn God’s pleasure and secure human welfare in this life and attain human salvation in the life to come.” Therefore sharia means morals, ethics, ideals; a way that we’re supposed to follow in our day to day life.
The literal meaning of sharia is, “the path that goes down towards the water,” water being the source of life. Sharia is providing a pathway of success, something that the Muslim needs to survive. It is providing what is essential for the Muslim’s well-being in both a physical and religious sense. We embrace that by following the Quran and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad. Without following the Sunnah (the teachings and life example of the Prophet Muhammad) there is no way we can find success or even understand the Quran properly. Some Muslims think they can follow sharia without following the Sunnah and this idea is a dangerous form of misguidance that would lead a person astray from the path that God has prescribed.
God has said about Prophet Muhammad, “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds” (Qur’an 21:107). When people ignore the Sunnah, they implement the verses and the commandments of the Qur’an in a harsh and strict way. Certainly the implementation may be literal; but it violates the spirit of the Qur’an and what God has intended from the verse. This is all because they don’t understand the mercy of Prophet Muhammad and the Sunnah and they do not look at context and character of the Prophet. This is what it means for God to tell us that the Prophet Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all the worlds.
Much of the modern justice system is founded upon the classical methodology that the Muslims have used in the implementation of sharia regarding criminal matters. The function of justice in sharia is to preserve the sanctity of the individual and ensure that rights are maintained for all in society. For example; a person cannot be found guilty of a crime if poverty has driven him to steal. It is seen as a failure of the Muslims in an Islamic society that a person has fallen to such a level of hardship. This attitude is the soul of Islam and is an aspect that Islamophobes have failed to see.
We are not talking about what’s happening in Muslim majority countries. Due to influence from colonial powers and the imposition of modern structures of state, many Muslim countries have failed to implement Sharia law in a proper format. They have become secular governments that call their governance sharia when it is not the method revealed by the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. This is why injustice can be found in these countries just as it is found in other countries all over the world.
What is Sharia Law Punishment?
Many people are under the misconception that sharia is only the penal system, the laws for punishment or crimes. The reality is that sharia is much bigger than that, much more vast. It includes many things such as how we worship. Sharia includes our business transactions and social contracts such as marriage and divorce. There are issues of inheritance and methods of finance that are addressed. These are personal laws that Muslims choose to follow because this is something that will bring them closer to God and bring them closer to success as it is defined in Islam. Sharia is an indivisible and integral part of our religion.
Imagine if you were to say to Christians and Jews that they are forbidden to live according to the Ten Commandments! We cannot do these things because this country does not base laws on bigotry. It is against all the principles that this country was supposedly based upon. The foundation of this country will shake if Muslims are denied their right of freedom of religion. That exercise of religion includes the right to follow the sharia.
One of the greatest misconceptions is that Muslims want to enforce sharia law in America upon non-Muslims. How is it remotely possible for a minority of less than 5% to force anything on the other 95%? Not only that, but if we look at the example of the Prophet Muhammad and his peaceful dealings with Jews, Christians and Pagans in Madinah while Muslims were the ruling body, we can see that sharia law was only for the Muslims. When these groups would have disputes, each group was allowed to handle matters according to the laws of their own faith and custom. The Constitution of Medina is a model of interfaith society and coexistence because it recognized the rights of each group in equity with one another.
What is Sharia Law connection to force or coercion?
Muslims cannot force someone into Islam. This is because God says in the Quran “There shall be no Coercion in matters of faith” (Qur’an 2:256). That’s a fundamental law of Islam! Yes, Muslims are directed by God to speak the truth to tell the world about Islam as a complete way of life, but there can never be a use of force. There is not even permission to deceive others. The concept of deception and force is not taught by Prophet Muhammad nor can it be found in the long history Islamic scholars or of Muslim rulers and Islamic states. Unfortunately in the present day, there are people that are doing this in the name of Islam. Since this is not what Islam preaches, it is more important than ever for Muslims to take extra effort to practice every aspect of sharia in our lives to express the reality to the world. All people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, need to understand what this religion is truly about; and what sharia truly means.