What is Shariah?

Islamic extremism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin. They are two ideologies that have the same misconceptions about Islam. They both define the Islamic “Shariah” as a “law” and an oppressive system of governance that is violent, discriminatory, degrading to women, and void of humanity.

So, what is Shariah? How is it defined in mainstream Islamic scholarship?

First, it is important to differentiate between the word “Shariah” and the word “Fiqh”. Shariah is an Arabic word for a high road. The Quran calls the Shariah a way of life set by God (Quran 45:18). On the other hand, Fiqh is an Arabic word for understanding and interpretation.

The difference between a divine message and the interpretation of the divine message is the difference between God, with all of His perfect attributes, and humans, with all their faults and deficiencies. The divine message, for believers, is immutable, but human interpretations are subject to error and change. This is a fundamental difference that cannot be ignored, because not every interpretation of the Shariah is correct or fixed. Now the question is: How do we judge?

The Quran sets a group of fundamental values, which are technically called the “objectives” of the Shariah (Arabic: Maqasid al-Shariah). These are values and principles that differentiate between correct and incorrect opinions and interpretations.

Ibn al-Qayyim’s (d. 748/1347), one of Islam’s great scholars of all time, has this to say about these principles:

Shariah is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Thus, any opinion of Fiqh that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is an opinion that is not Shariah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation.

This means that an interpretation does not necessarily define the Shariah, the behavior of a Muslim does not define Shariah, the opinion of a scholar does not define Shariah, and the action of a group or a party or a state that calls itself “Islamic” does not define the Shariah. Shariah is defined by the moral objectives and the ethical principles set in the Quran. An interpretation that defies those principles is simply wrong and un-Islamic.

It is essential for good people around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, to stand up against the wrong interpretations of the Shariah that go against the ethical principles of Islam and humanity. We are witnessing in our time an extreme and very small minority of Muslims grabbing the spotlights with their outrageous behavior. We should not allow Islamic extremism; the likes of the “Islamic State”, terrorist individuals and organizations, or Arab dictatorships – to hijack the Islamic Shariah in a way that serves their evil agendas.

When the principles of the Shariah govern its interpretation, as mentioned above, the rules and edicts become means to an end and not ends in their own rights. This opens up the practicing of Islam and its divine way of life to the evolution of state and society. Shariah is not a “law”, in the sense of a code of rules that are enforced by the state. Shariah is an ethical system of values. Ethics could certainly have an impact on the law, in any culture or society. However, the law of the land that is “Islamic” is means to achieving the ethical ends of the Shariah.

This means that the closer a society gets to the principles of the Shariah, the closer it is to being “Islamic”. Ibn Taymiyah (d. 728 AH/ 1328 CE), another great scholar of Islam writes: God establishes a state of justice, even if it were a nation of disbelievers, and would not establish a state of injustice, even if it were a nation of Muslims.