There is a great deal of concern among some Americans about shari‘a (or sharia, or shari‘ah; there is no single “right” way of transliterating Arabic شريعة) or what is sometimes called, a bit redundantly but also somewhat misleadingly, shari‘a law or Islamic law. Much of that concern, I think, can be eliminated by learning more about what shari‘a actually is.
Herewith, a few partial and preliminary notes on the topic, with no pretense — so please don’t point it out yet; I’m not done! — of completeness:
Shari‘a refers specifically to the divine law revealed by God. Because it has been given by God, it is immutable, beyond the reach or authority of human legislators. Again, though, that’s somewhat theoretical: God’s revelations must be interpreted and applied. So the term fiqh is used to denote human scholarly interpretations and applications of shari‘a. It can be translated fairly adequately as jurisprudence.
Islam is rather similar to Judaism in this regard: Roughly speaking, I think that it’s fair to say that jurisprudence or fiqh assumes the place, among both Jews and Muslims, that theology occupies in mainstream Christendom. The construction of the vast, comprehensive legal system associated with Islam occupied the talents and lives of some of the greatest of Muslim thinkers, and it’s a truly remarkable, rich intellectual creation
Shari‘a is derived, principally, from the Qur’an and from the body of quotations from and anecdotes about the Prophet Muhammad that is known collectively as the hadith. (These record what is known as the sunna or sunnah of the Prophet, a large subject in itself that I’ll discuss in a separate entry or set of entries.) Theoretically, the Qur’an is accorded first place, and the hadith are used to supplement it. In practice, however, since the Qur’an is a book of finite length (roughly comparable to the New Testament) that does not, cannot, cover every possible subject, the much more extensive corpus of the hadith is often invoked for guidance on questions where the Qur’an is silent.
But even the hadith, which essentially ceased being created and/or recorded in the late ninth century after Christ, cannot cover every question that will arise in the vast complexity of human societies and human history. So there are additional sources to which Muslim judges and jurists look.
The first of these is qiyas, or “analogy.” Perhaps there is no passage in either the Qur’an or the hadith collections that specifically mentions x. Is there, however, something from which an analogy can be drawn?
Often, there is. But sometimes there isn’t.
So the next resource is ijma‘ or “consensus.” This is the consensus, specifically, of those who have been immersed in the Qur’an and the hadith and trained in the use of analogical reasoning or qiyas. Uneducated, uninformed, and untrained opinions are irrelevant.
More on this subject later.