Shariah, translating to “the way” from Arabic, is a set of guiding rules in Islam meant for direction on moral conduct and even day-to-day life. It comes from the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, and is often referred to by Muslims for guidance on specific issues, such as prayer, fasting, and penalties or punishments. The ultimate goal of Shariah is to lead Muslims to live a life in line with what God intended. Generally, Muslims follow Shariah based on the belief that it is “the revealed word of God,” rather than a set of rules or laws written by man based on faith in God.
Shariah as a Legal Code
Shariah can be applied in two contexts: as a personal guide on moral conduct, or in the official law of the state. In the latter context, there are differing opinions among Muslims about the extent to which Shariah should be enforced. Most commonly, Muslims who follow Shariah support its application to issues of family and property, as well as prayer and other religious practices, while fewer support the implementation of rules such as the execution of those who leave the religion, or cutting off the hands of thieves.
Interpretations of Shariah law are applied as the official legal code primarily in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Support among Muslims in these regions for the implementation of Shariah as a legal code is relatively high in comparison to Muslims in the surrounding areas of Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe. A criticism, however, of Shariah law being implemented is its application to all citizens of the state, regardless of religious affiliation. Non-Muslims in countries that follow interpretations of Shariah are still subject to it as the “law of the land.”
Dispelling Myths Surrounding Shariah Law
Shariah is often associated with the oppression of women, extremist ideologies, and rules that violate human rights due to their outdated conception. Various understandings and associations of Shariah have led to many misconceptions. Some of the most common myths are dismantled here.
Shariah is often wrongly considered as “Islamic law.” This is not true, as Shariah is not a direct legal code or list of rules that outline what someone following Islam can or cannot do. Rather, its interpretation is a philosophical system of guidance that sets direction on how to live an Islamic life. It is an understanding based on the Quran and various schools of thought that have existed alongside Islam.
Another misconstrued notion about Shariah is that all Muslim countries use Shariah as the law of the land. While it is true that many countries that are predominantly Muslim have a legal code that has its roots in Islam and/or Shariah, the legal and governance system existing in many of these countries today is also derived from a long history of European colonialism and other factors. Shariah is separate from the legal system in most Muslim countries, while influences of it in law may exist.
While the issue of inequality for women persists in some countries where Shariah is implemented, a common misconception is that Shariah itself is anti-women. This often comes from misinterpretations of Shariah and the rights that women are entitled to as per various understandings of the Quran. Examples of patriarchal policies such as the former ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, or the ban on women running for president in Iran are human interpretations that are contested, and not explicitly Shariah. In fact, some Islamic scholars argue that Shariah is pro-choice to a certain extent, and holds some feminist principles. Scholar Afsaruddin explains that Shariah requires a woman’s consent for marriage and allows her to initiate divorce under certain conditions.
It is important to note that dispelling these myths plays a large role in dismantling Islamophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment. While there are criticisms about Shariah law, it is detrimental to contribute to a hateful and racist narrative by remaining uninformed of the realities of these myths.