Asmah Sultan Mallick is a master’s student in International Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Given the revolutions across the Middle East, with countries trying to rebuild and form stable governments better able to serve their people, the topic of sharia law has been a common subject of debate. We’ve even heard about “threats” of sharia taking over areas within the United States.
Putting these perceptions aside, my intention is neither to defend sharia nor delve into how it can or cannot be implemented. Rather, I want to shed some light on its goals.
While sharia is commonly discussed as Islamic law, the root word in Arabic–“shaare”–means path. “Sharia” refers to a path to water where people can drink and seek nourishment. As the majority of 7th century Arabs lived in or frequented desert climates, Islamic principles steeped in metaphors involving the natural environment easily resonated with the people. The connection here is that just as the path can lead to water to replenish the body, God’s path can direct the way to a meaningful life for the soul.
Islamic laws were made based on ijtihad, or interpretations. Shortly after the foundation of Islam, legal methodology was formulated and different madhabs, or schools of thought, were established. The madhabs were the means by which fiqh or “understanding” was produced. Each madhab explains interpretations of God’s laws. Often, there are differing opinions in interpretation, which accounts for some of the varying practices among Muslims. Regardless of which madhab one subscribes to, no one can say who is right or who is wrong because these laws are interpreted by human beings, and we are fallible by our nature. That is why we often hear “Allahu Aa’lam,” or “God knows best” (and thankfully so).
Before colonization, traditional Islamic legal systems included fiqh and siyasa. Fiqh consists of various interpretations of divine text, while siyasa (politics in Arabic) is composed of the governing rules of a Muslim society. However, after colonization, several Muslim countries tried to establish a western style democracy while also reconciling sharia. They mixed siyasa and the fiqhs of their preference, which took away from the plurality of traditional sharia.
Muslim scholars have reflected deeply upon the rulings in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and they have concluded that regardless of which fiqh one follows, if you look at the laws of sharia in their entirety, they aim to preserve five things: deen (religion), life, intellect, property, and lineage/honor.
Deen: The primary goal of sharia is to preserve the deen. “Deen” comes from the same root word in Arabic as debt (dayn). The parallel is that in deen, we owe God a great debt for everything that we are given. In the Quran, God says,
This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam (Submission) as your religion (deen). (Yusuf Ali Translation, 5:3)
Essentially, this means that the debt we owe God can only be paid with submitting our will to God’s will. All the rituals of worship that Muslims are supposed to perform are to preserve the deen itself.
Life: Life is obviously sacred in Islam. The Qur’an says,
One who kills a soul unjustly, it is as if he has killed humanity and the one who saves a soul, it is as if he has saved humanity. (Yusuf Ali Translation, 5:32)
Intellect: Next to life, sharia seeks to protect and preserve the intellect of human beings. Anything that affects the intellect is forbidden. This explains the reason behind the prohibition of alcohol (and by extension, all kinds of mind-altering drugs).
Property: Sharia seeks to protect the right of people to own property and that is why there are penal laws that govern the breach of this right when people steal from others.
Lineage/Honor: Islam seeks to protect the lineage and honor of people. This explains why Muslims have rules such as giving people the benefit of the doubt, discouraging spying on one another, and backbiting.
In Islam, sharia is the ideal that Muslims need to aspire toward, but not worship. The essence of worship is what’s important, and Muslims believe that God has delineated those means of worship through sharia. It is for these reasons that conversations around sharia as a threatening force are often overblown and misunderstood by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many times, discussions about sharia are nothing more than attempts by Muslims to establish a system of civil society and governance with justice and liberty, just like any other nation.
The definition of the word “sharia” as the path to nourishment points to a different meaning from how it is generally perceived by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Did Mallick’s review of sharia’s purposes change your own perception? If so, in what way? Please share your thoughts below.