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Islamic law is called Sharia. Its main sources are the Qur'an and the Hadith, but ijma, the consensus of the community, was also accepted as a minor source. Qiyas, reasoning by analogy, was used by the law scholars (Mujtahidun) to deal with situations where the sources provided no concrete rules. The practices called Sharia today, however, also have roots in local customs (Al-urf).

Sharia or Shariah (شريعة) is the body of religious law governing the cultural life of Islam, in its Sunni and Shia (but not the Sufi) branches. Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular life, and hence Sharia covers not only religious rituals and the administration of the faith, but every aspect of day-to-day life. There are no modern parallels to this concept, but the caesaropapism of the Byzantine empire, in which religious and secular life were blended into one, and law ultimately derived from the written word of God was embodied in the ruler, may bear some useful parallels for the historian, in spite of the many obvious differences.

The Islamic jurisprudence is called fiqh and is divided into two parts: the study of the sources and methodology (usul al-fiqh - roots of the law) and the practical rules (furu' al-fiqh - branches of the law).

1 Dietary laws

2 The role of women in Islam

3 Circumcision

4 Holidays

5 Muslim apostates

6 History and background

7 Practice of Sharia

Table of contents

Dietary laws

When eating meat, Muslims may only eat from meat that has been slaughtered in the name of God, and meets stringent dietary requirements. Such meat is called pure, or halal. Islamic law prohibits a Muslim from eating pork, monkey, dog, cat, any carnivores, and several other types of animal, as these animals are haram (forbidden). For the meat of an animal to be halal (lawful) it must be one of the declared halal animals, it must be slaughtered by a Muslim, and the animal may not be killed by any cruel or prolonged means. The animal is killed by slicing the jugular veins, and thus rendering the animal unconscious immediately, the blood then flows out from the body, and the animal dies in its sleep. Some Muslim clerics have ruled that the animal does not have to be killed by a Muslim, but may be slaughtered by a Jew as long as it meets their strict dietary laws. Thus, some observant Muslims will accept kosher meat (meat prepared in accord with Jewish law) as halal.

The role of women in Islam

Islam does not prohibit women from working, but emphasizes the importance of caring for house and family for both parents. In theory, Islamic law allows each spouse to divorce at will, by saying "I divorce you" three times in public. In practice divorce is more involved than this and there may be separate state proceedings to follow as well. This practice is valid within most of the Muslim world today. Usually, the divorced wife keeps her dowry from when she was married, if there was one, and is given child support until the age of weaning at which point the child may be returned to its father if it is deemed to be best.

Islam does not prohibit women from working, but women are generally not allowed to be clergy or religious scholars. Many interpretations of Islamic law hold that women may not have prominent jobs, and thus are forbidden from working in the government. This has been a mainstream view in many Muslim nations in the last century, despite the example of Muhammad's wife Aisha, who both took part in politics and was a major authority on hadith. Nevertheless, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Bangladesh, all predominately Muslim nations, have had female heads of government or state (e.g. Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Tansu Ciller and Khaleda Zia respectively).

A Muslim may not marry or remain married to an unbeliever of either sex (2:221, 60:10). A Muslim man may marry a woman of the People of the Book (5:5); traditionally, however, Islamic law forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man[1].

Dress code

The Qur'an also places a dress code upon its followers. For women, it emphasizes modesty without an overt call for any specific covering of any body part; men have a dress code which is more relaxed: the loins must be covered from knee to waist. The rationale given for these rules is that men and women are not to be viewed as sexual objects. In practice, men dictate what women are allowed to wear in many culturally Islamic countries. Infringement of these rules in some "Muslim" nations may result in beatings. Some Islamic women are viewed as oppressed by the men in their communities because of the required dress codes. However, some Muslim women choose to follow dress code because they believe it is an order from Allah. One of the garments women are required to wear is the hijab (of which the headscarf is one component). The word hijab is derived from the Arabic word hijaba which means "to hide from sight or view", "to conceal". Hijab means to cover the head as well as the body. Most Muslim scholars have based the amount of covering that a female Muslim must wear in front of those that are considered non-mahram (people she can marry) men on the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

Domestic justice

According to most interpretations, authorization for the husband to physically beat disobedient wives is given in the Qur'an. First, admonishment is verbal and secondly a period of refraining from intimate relations. Finally, if the husband deems the situation appropriate, he may hit her:

"Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great." (Qur'an 4:34 English translation: MH Shakir)

The medieval jurist ash-Shafi'i, founder of one of the main schools of fiqh, commented on this verse that "hitting is permitted, but not hitting is preferable."Early jurists added that the hitting specified should only be with a miswak, or small toothbrush, interpreting it in light of the Hadith “If it were not for the fear of retaliation on the Day of Resurrection, I would have hit you with this miswak (tooth-cleaning stick).” (Reported by Ibn Sa`d in his Tabaqat)[1].

The Arabic verse uses idribûhunna (from the root daraba ضرب), whose commonest meaning in Arabic has been rendered as "beat", "hit", "scourge", or "strike". Besides this verse, other meanings for daraba used in the Quran (though not with a human direct object) include "to travel", "to make a simile", "to cover", "to separate", and "to go abroad", among others. For this reason - particularly in recent years (eg Ahmed Ali, Edip Yuksel) - some consider "hit" to be a misinterpretation, and believe it should be translated as "admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and separate from them". Certain modern translations of the Qur'an in the English language accept the commoner translation of "beat", but tone down the wording with bracketed additions.

Several Hadith urge strongly against beating one's wife, such as: "How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her? (Al-Bukhari, English Translation, vol. 8, Hadith 68, pp. 42-43), "I went to the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) and asked him: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them. (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah), Number 2139)". However, some suggest that these Hadith were later abrogated, noting that in the Farewell Pilgrimage, he said:

Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have right over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like. But if they do that, you can chastise them but not severely. Their rights upon you are that you should provide them with food and clothing in a fitting manner. (narrated in Sahih Muslim, on the authority of Jabir) [1]

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, says that:

"If the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion, and reasoning with her. If this is not helpful, he should sleep apart from her, trying to awaken her agreeable feminine nature so that serenity may be restored, and she may respond to him in a harmonious fashion. If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts. In no case should he resort to using a stick or any other instrument that might cause pain and injury. Rather, this 'beating' should be of the kind which the Prophet (peace be on him) once, when angry with his servant, mentioned to him, saying, 'If it were not for the fear of retaliation on the Day of Resurrection, I would have beaten you with this miswak (tooth-cleaning stick)' [as reported by Ibn Majah and by Ibn Hibban, in his Sahih].[1]

"Honor killings" are, in the Western world, often erroneously identified as part of Islamic teaching, though they are in fact a cultural practice which is neither exclusive to, nor universal within, the Islamic world. Such killings take place within the Muslim communities around the Mediterranean as well as in Bangladesh, Brazil, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Punjab in India[1], and non-Muslim parts of West Africa; while in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, the status of the practice is unknown.

The stated reason for honor killings is the belief that the woman had caused the clan or family to lose honour by her sexual activity and therefore deserved to be killed. Islamic teaching holds that life is given by Allah and should not be taken lightly, but it allows severe punishment, up to and including capital punishment, for certain kinds of crime; these include, in strict interpretations, all extramarital sexual relations (zina') by both men and women—though only married adulterers may be punished with death. The interpretation and application of these laws relating to marriage and chastity has varied in different eras and places. See Islamic view of marriage


Circumcision for males involves the removal of the foreskin and is customary in most Muslim communities. It is normally performed at different ages in different cultures. Female circumcision is not part of mainstream Islam on an international scale, but is performed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike across East Africa and the Nile Valley, as well as parts of the Arabian peninsula and South-East Asia. In both areas, the custom predates Islam. Many African Muslims believe that female circumcision is required by Islam, although no such custom is alluded to in the Qur'an, and no Hadith exists purporting to mandate it.


  • Friday is an important day in the life of a Muslim and it is believed that any devotional acts done on this day gain a higher reward. This day however should not be understood as a Sabbath, for Muslims reject the belief that God rested after Creation. Believers attend congregational prayer at the local mosque, perform prayer and listen to a sermon by the Imam. When the holidays occur, it is according to the lunar Islamic calendar. This calendar does not correct for the fact that the lunar year does not match the solar year. Therefore, the Islamic months precess each year; they shift relative to the Gregorian calendar.
  • Ramadan - month long observance of fasting during daylight hours.
  • Feast of Breaking the Fast (Eid-ul-Fitr), or the Little Feast (al-Eid saghir)- occurs at the conclusion of Ramadan and is held on the first day of the month of Shawwal.
  • The Big Feast, (Eid-ul-Adha), also "The Feast of Sacrifice" (Kurban Bayram) - two months and 10 days after the Little Feast. Animals are slaughtered to commemorate Abraham's sacrificing of a ram instead of his son Ismael. Those who are able make a pilgrimage to Mecca do so just before this date, on the Hajj.
  • Ashura - the 10th day of the month of Muharram This is the day on which God saved Moses and the Jews from Pharaoh in Egypt as he crossed the Red Sea (the Exodus day). The prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have fasted along with the neighboring Jewish communities on this occasion, and according to narrations, Muhammad planned on fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram. This is also the day on which Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, was killed in in the Battle of Karbala. For Shi'a Muslims this is a day of mourning. Many Sunni Muslims also commemorate this event, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than the Shi'a. The observance of this day is frowned upon by fundamentalists.
  • Muslim New Year - not generally celebrated as an official Islamic holiday, although many Muslim communities have devised or revived some kind of new year ritual celebration. This celebration is frowned upon by fundamentalists.
  • The Prophet's Birthday (Al-Mawlidu N-Nabawi Sh-Sharif) - Some scholars consider this holiday to be an innovation in the religion, as Muhammad himself did not celebrate it, except by fasting. This holiday is prohibited by the Islamist movement (fundamentalist Islam). Some Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia forbid Muslims to celebrate this holiday.

Muslim apostates

In some interpretations of an Islamic state, conversion by Muslims to other religions is forbidden and is termed apostasy. In Muslim theology, apostasy resembles the crime of treason, the betrayal of one's own country. Penalties may include ostracism or even execution if they live or have lived in an "Islamic State" and are deemed enemies of the state. By analogy, in the age of nation states, a person who commits treason (turning state's secrets to a foreign power, or spies for a foreign power, etc) is subject to severe penalty—historically, death. In contrast, a person who lives in a Western country such as the United States (or even many Muslim countries) will suffer no significant penalty for converting to another religion.

Some people claim that Muslims who convert to Christianity can be at risk. See any of the works of Ibn Warraq, who claims to be an outspoken former Muslim. (However, it's important to note that none of Ibn Warraq's personal claims can be checked or confirmed, since he uses a pseudonym.) A well-known example of a Muslim "apostate" undergoing persecution is that of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses prompted Khomeini to issue a Fatwa (religious opinion) for his execution. However, others suspect that Khomeini issued this fatwa more because of the lampooning of Khomeini himself that Rushdie included in his book.

History and background

The authority of Sharia is drawn from two major and two lesser sources. The first major source is specific guidance laid down in the Qur'an, and the second source is the Sunnah, literally the 'Way', i.e. the way that Muhammad (the Prophet of Islam) lived his life. (The compilation of all that Muhammad said, did, or approved of is called the Hadith.) A lesser source of authority is Qiyas, which is the extension by analogy of existing Sharia law to new situations.

Finally Sharia law can be based on ijma, or consensus. Justification for this final approach is drawn from the Hadith where Muhammad states; "My nation cannot agree on an error." The ummah, or community of Muslims, comes together with each applying his ijtihad, or independent thought and judgement, to achieve this consensus. The role of ulema, i.e. scholars, is critical, since they are the ones who study the Islamic law and therefore have authority to represent it. Sharia has largely been codified by the schools (maddhabs) of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh).

The comprehensive nature of Sharia law is due to the belief that the law must provide all that is necessary for a person's spiritual and physical well-being. All possible actions of a Muslim are divided (in principle) into five categories: obligatory, meritorious, permissible, reprehensible, and forbidden. Fundamental to the obligations of every muslim are the Five Pillars of Islam.

In theory, there is no conflict between the process as outlined by Muhammad and very progressive and consultative political movements, e.g. green parties. In fact, the latter even defined Four Pillars of the Green Party, to some degree in imitation of Islam's Five Pillars, and in admiration of the idea of a consensus-driven process of the whole community coming to some well-reasoned conclusion compatible with science and scholarship. In practice, however, there is often incredible tension between conservative, liberal or secular forces:

Practice of Sharia

Most countries of the Middle East and North Africa maintain a dual system of secular courts and religious courts, in which the religious courts mainly regulate marriage and inheritance. Saudi Arabia and Iran maintain religious courts for all aspects of jurisprudence. Sharia is also used in Sudan, Libya and for a time in modern Afghanistan. Some states in northern Nigeria have reintroduced Sharia courts. In practice the new Sharia courts in Nigeria have most often meant the re-introduction of relatively harsh punishments without respecting the much tougher rules of evidence and testimony, such as the necessity of four eyewitnesses, with a woman's testimony counting no less than that of a man. The punishments include amputation of one/both hand(s) for theft and stoning for adultery. Such measures are usually introduced to gain support of local ulema who are often community leaders in rural areas. Muslim scholars tend to agree that Muhammad himself would not run courts along these lines in an otherwise secular society, nor introduce these punishments into societies rich enough to afford prisons and rehabilitation and cohesive enough to prevent accused criminals from being killed by outraged victims and communities.

An unusual secular-state example is a Sharia arbitration court being established in Ontario, Canada. That province's 1991 arbitration court law allows disputes to be settled in alternative courts to avoid backing up the court system. The court would handle disputes between Muslim complainants. Its critics fear that the misogyny inherent in some forms of Sharia could end up influencing the Canadian justice system, but its proponents say those who do not wish to go by the court's rulings are not forced to attend it.

Like Jewish law and Christian canon law, Islamic law has no one, set meaning for all times and places. In the hands of moderates, religious law can be moderate, even liberal. In the hands of post-Englightenment readers of philosophy, religious law is relegated to ritual (as opposed to law in a civil sense), or even to just being history. In the hands of fundamentalists, it becomes legally enforced against all people of a faith, and even against all people that come under their control. Islamic law to American Muslims in Dearborn, Boston, or Houston is a very different thing than Islamic law to religious Muslims in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gaza Strip, western China, Nigeria[1], Indonesia, or Pakistan. All of them are following Islamic law, yet it varies as much as individual Muslims vary.