Islamic Law - The Shariah

By M. Cherif Bassiouni , Professor of Law | Jan 24, 2012

The Qur'an is the principal source of Islamic law, the Sharia. It contains the rules by which the Muslim world is governed (or should govern itself) and forms the basis for relations between man and God, between individuals, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, as well as between man and things which are part of creation. The Sharia contains the rules by which a Muslim society is organized and governed, and it provides the means to resolve conflicts among individuals and between the individual and the state.

There is no dispute among Muslims that the Qur'an is the basis of the Sharia and that its specific provisions are to be scrupulously observed. The Hadith and Sunna are complementary sources to the Qur'an and consist of the sayings of the Prophet and accounts of his deeds. The Sunna helps to explain the Qur'an, but it may not be interpreted or applied in any way which is inconsistent with the Qur'an.

Copy-boards held safely out of view on their heads, students in Djenné, Mali recite a Qur'an passage from memory. (Aramco World Magazine, September-October, 1991; photo Brynn Bruijn).
Though there are other sources of law—i.e., ijma', (consensus), qiyas, (analogy), ijtihad, (progressive reasoning by analogy)—the Qur'an is the first and foremost source, followed by the Hadith and Sunna. Other sources of law and rules of interpretation of the Qur'an and the Hadith and Sunna follow in accordance with a generally accepted jurisprudential scheme.

And nor shall we be punishing until we had sent them an Apostle.
Qur'an 17:15

The Qur'an contains a variety of law-making provisions and legal proscriptions interspersed throughout its chapters (suwar) and verses (ayat). A number of rules exist for interpreting these provisions, such as the position of a given ayah within the context of the surah, which in turn is interpreted in accordance with its place in the sequence of revelations, its reference to other revelations, and its historical context in relation to particular conditions which existed at the time of the given revelation. These and other rules are known as the science of interpretation (ilm usul aI-fiqh). According to these rules, for example, one initially is to refer to a specific provision and then to a general provision dealing with a particular situation. No general provision can be interpreted to contradict a specific provision, and a specific rule will supersede a general proposition. A general provision, however, is always interpreted in the broadest manner, while a specific provision is interpreted in the narrowest manner. Reasoning by analogy is permitted, as are applications by analogy, except where expressly prohibited. Simplicity and clear language are always preferred. Similarly, the clear spirit of certain prescriptions cannot be altered by inconsistent interpretations. A policy-oriented interpretation within the confines of the rules of jurisprudence is permissible and even recommended, as is the case with the doctrine of ijtihad (progressive reasoning by analogy).

"Avoid condemning the Muslim to Hudud whenever you can, and when you can find a way out for the Muslim then release him for it. If the Imam errs it is better that he errs in favor of innocence (pardon) than in favor of guilt (punishment)."
The Prophet's Hadith

"Were people to be given in accordance with their claim, men would claim the fortunes and lives of (other) people, but the onus of proof is on the claimant and the taking of an oath is incumbent upon him who denies."
The Prophet's Hadith

Muslim scholars do not consider Islam to be an evolving religion, but rather a religion and legal system which applies to all times. It is, therefore, the application that is susceptible to evolution. Indeed, the provisions of the Qur'an are such that by their disciplined interpretation, with the aid of the Hadith and Sunna and other sources of interpretation, Islam can, as intended, provide the solution to contemporary social problems.

Fourteen centuries ago Islam was a spiritual, social, and legal revolution. Its potential for effecting progress remains unchanged. This is essentially the belief of enlightened fundamentalist Muslims. Islamic fundamentalism is not, therefore, a regressive view of history and contemporary reality. Islam at the height of its civilization, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, was neither repressive nor regressive. It was a progressive, humanistic, and legalistic force for reform and justice.

Lo! Allah commandeth you that ye restore deposits to their owners, and , if ye judge between mankind, that ye judge justly. Lo! comely is this which Allah admonisheth you. Lo! Allah is ever Hearer, Seer.
Qur'an 4:58

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