Far from a medieval code of capital punishments, the Shari’ah is a dynamic ethico-legal system designed to safeguard and advance core human values. In fact, just as the US Constitution references the basic human values of unity, justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty, so too each of these is also a fundamental value of the Shari’ah.
The two, however, diverge at a fundamental point – their source. Whereas the US Constitution was written by great men, the Shari’ah derives from canonical scriptural sources that have been continually interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries like Christian Biblical Law and the Halakha of the Jews. The comparison between the US Constitution and the Shari’ah, in fact, is based on an oft-made error that is made time and again.
The word Shari’ah quite literally denotes the “way to a watering place”, indicating that the ethics, morals, and legal principles contained in it lead its adherents to the very source of life. Interestingly, the word Halakha denotes “the path that one walks.” This “path” is a set of moral and ethical values, not just a series of do’s and don’ts that are to be applied with no regard to context. Muslims believe that all of God’s prophets – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, John, Jesus, and Muhammad, among others espoused a “shari’ah” for each of their communities.
The rules of the Shari’ah are derived from the Qur’an and the model behavior of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, which complements and/or supplements the Qur’an on issues where it may be silent or require clarifying teachings. “Islamic law” is not just the Shari’ah but rather is a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists over the last 1,400 years. That period is marked by a remarkable intellectual diversity with dozens of schools of legal thought at one point.
Interpretation is the endeavor of scholars in each generation. In other words, some rules can change with time and place. The articulation of the Shari’ah is based on built-in mechanisms which aim for articulations of “Islamic Law” to be purpose-driven and considers the prevailing customary, social and political contexts of the time. This makes the system fluid and dynamic. In the words of the leading African American Muslim intellectual Dr. Sherman Jackson, the Shari’ah is “the negotiated result of competing interpretations”.
Practically, the twenty-first century finds us in the providential position of being able to look back on this tradition in order to find that which will benefit us today as well as develop new positions for situations which may lack direct precedent.
The sensationalism over the Shari’ah we see time and again is simply fear mongering. As much as it may bother those who spread hate, American Muslims put core tenets of the Shari’ah into practice every day when they operate soup kitchens, donate their time to community service, get married or divorced, practice their professions, run their businesses, have children, visit the sick, and much more.
Simply stated, the purpose of the Shari’ah is not to establish theocracies, to subjugate non-believers or to subject people to capital punishments. Rather, the Shari’ah, aims to facilitate a believer’s attaining God’s pleasure, secure human welfare in this life and attain human salvation in the hereafter—ideals common to all Abrahamic faiths.
The experience that Egypt went through can be taken as an example of this. The period of development of Shari’ah was begun by Muhammad Ali Pasha around the early nineteenth century and was continued by the Khedive Ismail who attempted to build a modern state in Egypt. This meant a reformulation of Islamic law, but not a rewriting of it.
Many people are under the impression that Egypt adopted French law. This is not the case. Islamic law was rewritten in the form of French law, but retained its Islamic essence. This process led Egypt to become a modern state run by a system of democracy.
None of the Muslim scholars of Egypt objected to this. Muslims are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them. The principles of freedom and human dignity, for which liberal democracy stands, are themselves part of the foundation for the Islamic worldview; it is the achievement of this freedom and dignity within a religious context that Islamic law strives for.
The flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law is perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of religion to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the Shari’ah that an authentic, contemporary, moderate, and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world today.