How do we know what is Sharia?


Painting by John Frederick Lewis (1872)


Question from a Correspondent

After studying history, politics, society, and culture, I realized that multiple factors shaped what we call Sharia.  This means to profess this idea of perfect faith and Sharia would be wrong. But to many people such questions are tantamount to heresy.  To question prophetic reports (hadith) and the revealed law, Sharia, will make people ostracize me.

The issue that many people do not understand, is that the earliest scholars and people who wrote the law, could have manipulated it.  People could have done so for various reasons. This makes people say to me: “but then you can doubt anything, and you won’t have a religion.”  This answer is not good enough for me to believe everything I hear.

So perhaps my questions are:

1. How do we go about ascertaining the laws of Islam?

2. Which ones were time-bound? Which ones can change?  Any opinion you offer will be appreciated.

My Reply

The way I understand the Islamic tradition, and to the best of my knowledge, to ask questions and engage in research are not offenses. So the questioner should have no qualms nor feel shy to reflect on what he or she had discovered during their investigations. In a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, he is reported to have said:  “Is not inquiry the remedy to a malady?” (1) In fact, one should face questions, no matter the discomfort it provides.  Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the famous eleventh century thinker, frequently cited a phrase: ‘it is preferable to have an intelligent adversary than an ignorant friend.’ So friends, books and research that provoke critical thinking and challenge one’s commitments are far superior allies than the false security that mediocrity and unquestioned ideas provide.

Faith is always a work-in-progress.  One struggles with faith on a daily basis. Prophetic sayings suggest that one wakes up a believer and retires at night as an unbeliever, and vice versa, a realistic assessment of the human condition during which one tries to find What meaning to the mystery of life.

What we call Sharia, consist of material and sources that stem from the Qur’an and the Sunna but their interpretation have always been the work of humans and were supplemented by the prevailing social and political spirit of the time.  The various founders of the law schools and jurists subsequently have interpreted these materials in good faith and in terms of the spirit of their times. So sure, the interpretation of these sources and their accompanying rules also change with a change in time and place, especially those rules that are derived from custom and social practices that continue to change over time.  And yes, political conditions also impacted the interpretation of the law.

To have faith in a transcendent God does not mean that one had automatically and correctly fathomed the moral will that God had made available to humans.  I would not see “perfect faith” as identical to “Sharia” although people do use both interchangeably.  Sharia is wrongly equated as a set of laws and rules, when in fact it is better viewed as a set of moral and ethical values.  These rules have been presented as a set of do’s and don’ts, but optimally Shari`a is an embodied set of values, values that one internalizes and acts according to it’s imperatives.

The laws of Islam are generated and developed by tradition.  Tradition too is susceptible to change.  One can possibly say that the notion of Sharia as it evolved over time can be identified with some core values, but is not restricted to these.  So I would say that justice, fairness, compassion, love and integrity are some of those core values.  How these manifest themselves in practice are susceptible to change.

1.   أ و لم يكن شفاء العي السؤال

About ebrahimmoosa

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
This entry was posted in Islamic Law/Ethics, Muslim Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to How do we know what is Sharia?

  1. Socrates says:

    This blog is DIHLIZ-ICIOUS.
    Keep it coming.
    – Soc


  2. Nazo says:

    The questioner asked some excellent questions! I’ve been pondering the same things recently, and it all makes sense now. What we call the law of God (“Shari’ah) is actually the interpretations of a group of people (of the same gender) of the Quran and sunnah. I sometimes wonder what they would say if they were to wake up from death and see that we have taken their understandings, their conclusions as if they are facts, as if they are the words of God. They said what was relevant for their times, their societies, their circumstances; there is no reason for us to assume they were to be applied to all Muslims of all times of all places. No doubt, they studied Islam and tried hard to understand Islam and to teach what they believe were the best things to be taught to others, but they were humans nonetheless. And if they could offer their scholarly opinions and perspectives on Islamic matters, then so can our scholars of today and all other times. If not, what makes one group more qualified than another? The time? The length of the gap in the time between them and the Prophet’s death?


  3. Sajjad says:

    Salam and thank you for the comment Prof. Moosa. I agree wholeheartedly that the Shariah is best seen as a system of values and ethics that has goals (maqasid) and ends to which it means to direct human beings. I learnt from my late teacher, Sh. Al-Phahim Jobe, that we need to differentiate between Shariah, Fiqh, and Qanoon.

    Shariah is contained in the two sources of Islam – the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It is as you’ve defined it. Fiqh is the contextualized derivation of relevant rules that are to serve the ends of the Shariah. As you mentioned, our scholars acted in good faith to reflect the intent of the Law giver in their deliberations. Yet we also know that in many cases they were open to differing with each other and even with themselves (the case of Imam Al-Shafi’i between his first period and later period is but one example). If the scholars can question their own line of thinking there should be nothing holding us back from asking questions either. I should also mention that within the Fiqh the area of mu’amalat is more prone to rethinking in different contexts than the area of ‘ibadaat. Finally, Qanoon is the set of administrative and procedural rules used by a government to run the affairs of their jurisdiction. There is nothing sacred about Qanoon. It’s simply “red light stop, green light go”.

    It’s critical for us to impart these simple nuances to Muslims and non-Muslims… elevating the level of discourse as a result.

    And Allah Knows Best.


  4. Husain says:

    Thank you for the article. I would say the problem lies ultimately in the idea of muslims that Islam and its laws, books, wisdom are all perfect. This is perhaps one of the best marketing tactics of all, I mean to make sure people believe in in strongly, never sway, and are willing to give their lives for it, it would be best to make it seem like theres no flaws at all.

    Still even with the laws developed from some sayings, eg lets say how women should deal with their husbands, could the sayings have been invented to keep a values already valued entrenched?In other words was shariah altered to suit people?

    The next logical idea would be then to get all people together to form a sort of global ethical and moral code. This would already have difficulty, because to each, somethings are inherently “wrong”.

    Ultimately to really solve this, one would have to remove bias, and such a goal is perhaps best solved by neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and mystics. Are the majority ready to put their “faith”, their going to hell or heaven in the hands of scientists? How would they even begin to understand that somebody out of their faith, might be in a better position to tell them what is better or right?


    • ebrahimmoosa says:

      Husain, I think you are thinking abstractly and a bit too skeptical, don’t you think? I think you have a strong empirical approach to the study of religion and you think it works like an algorithm or social science. Religion involves affect, emotions and poetics, although it does not exclude empirical evidence and reason. But it occurs in different mixes.

      Ultimately, I think people agree on what they see as their self interest. If people do not act according to their self-interest they are heading for perdition. Sayings do not have to be invented. Statements of the Prophet and the Companions often mirror their circumstances. Most of their circumstances that they approved went by without comment. At times they approved a custom or a value. The bottom line is that Muslim ethics believe in the fundamental good in people, community and society and tries to optimize the overall good of the default condition. Revelation and teachings are rather commentaries on the lived conditions.


  5. sam says:

    But the values you speak of as being essential and manifested as different substantive rulings in varying circumstances, were they too not derived from the ahadith and earlier rulings, if the origins of these near-universal values are to be found in the maqasid? So how can we come up with something universal (in the absolute sense) from something varying and something certain from that which is suspect? Is it even possible to speak of an Islamic ethics to which the law must conform given that Islamic ethics emerge as a result of second order derivation/interpretation, not from the Sources directly but from expositions on, and applications, of those sources?
    I’m just wondering because the question of the appropriate balance between relativism and absolutism has been one that has been the chief theoretical debates within the social sciences over the past one and half century and more often than not, thinkers have come up with a somewhat arbitrary combination of the two most relevant to their concerns. How would this debate and solutions proposed within it have a bearing on this discussion of Islamic law and ethics, because like you, I too understand the Islamic intellectual tradition as part of culture at large.


  6. Husain says:

    Personally, Im actually very much a non literalist when it comes to my understanding of religion.

    Besides anything else, the one reason I had to ask such a question was because there are so many differences amongst muslims. Indeed any religion has sects. While this is fine for me, I would say a vast majority of these people become antagonistic towards each other, and this is where conflict starts.

    So for me, if we actually proove that sharia was not this fixed thing that people thinks it to be, that there is supposed to be and was much room for interpretation and updating, it would basically if taught to the youth of today, make it easier for a culture of understanding and tolerance to develop. This should encourage debate, and this will lead to further good conclusions.

    You are right, it is about poetics, emotions. I dont think its being too sceptical, because almost anything of use in the world we would not use without asking why we are using, or if it works.

    Ultimately the only one thing which is common to all people is science and nature, thats why I feel it can be used to level out things. But to do this ,would take years.


  7. Pingback: 2010 in review | DIHLIZ: The Spaces In-Between

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