What is Shariah Law?

J. Scott Bridger — March 2, 2016

(Originally published online with the Baptist Messenger.)   

In August of [2013], an Oklahoma federal judge struck down a 2010 constitutional amendment approved by 70 percent of the state electorate forbidding the courts from considering Islamic law (shariah) in their decisions.

Oklahoma is one of several states that have either passed laws, or are seeking to do so, that would prohibit their courts from appealing to “international” or “foreign” precedents in their legal decisions. Islamic groups have criticized such moves as anti-Islamic.

Proponents of such laws, however, argue that they are necessary to stem the tide of cases where American justices are formulating judicial decisions based on precedents that originate in Islamic law and are contrary to rights and privileges shared equally by all citizens under the constitution. One example is the 2009 court ruling in New Jersey that refused to honor a wife’s request for a restraining order against her husband on the basis that the man believed it was his religious right to have non-consensual sex with his wife. The court’s decision in this regard was later overturned, but this case illustrates the willingness some justices display towards entertaining the legitimacy of shariah-based legal decisions.

Issues of this nature raise a number of questions for Christians and necessitate an informed response. Part of forming that response is understanding the origins and role of shariah law in the Muslim worldview.

According to the Qur’an, when Adam violated God’s command not to eat from the tree, he was punished by being cast down to the Earth, and he was told to follow God’s “guidance.” By doing so, he would preserve his life (e.g., see Qur’an 20:115-24). Over the course of human history, the Qur’an says that divine guidance has been delivered to humanity via God’s human agents—his prophets and messengers.

The guidance they delivered consisted of instructions and laws humanity needs to structure their lives so as to live in accordance with the will of God. People can please God so long as they follow his divine law code. Violations of this code, however, are met with severe punishment; thus, part of the role of God’s prophets and messengers has been to warn people about the coming Day of Judgment should they fail to heed God’s word.

Muslims believe that the final and most authoritative version of these divine laws and instructions were revealed to Muhammad in two sources: the Qur’an and Muhammad’s sunnah. The sunnah refers to the reports, sayings, conduct and example of Muhammad observed by his companions and their successors. These traditions were passed down orally through chains of transmitters until, according to Muslim belief, they were providentially preserved in the earliest biographical works on the life of Muhammad called sira and the canonical collections of these reports called hadith.

For religiously-minded Muslims, the life and example of Muhammad, both in terms of his personal conduct and his example in economic, political and military affairs in the early Islamic community, is the supreme standard for judging human behavior and, indeed, for regulating human societies.

Over the centuries, Muslim scholars utilized these authoritative sources to delineate five categories (ahkam) for classifying various behaviors and actions. These categories range from obligatory to prohibited. (In actuality, the Qur’an contains very little practical instruction, so most of what is in Islamic law derives from the hadith. For instance, the Qur’an says nothing about praying five times a day, but seems to suggest that Muslims pray three times a day).

Along with the sources mentioned above, commentaries on the Qur’an and records of legal discussions and decisions have come to form large body of literature collectively referred to as shariah. In theory, Muslims believe the shariah contains a comprehensive system governing every aspect of their lives, from how to brush one’s teeth to how to conduct financial transactions. In practice, most Muslims demonstrate a wide range of attitudes and responses to the dictates of the shariah law since legal experts often contradict one another, and there is no centralized governing body enforcing these decisions. Today, the binding nature of legal decisions depends upon the status of shariah law in a particular country.

What is important for Christians to remember when befriending Muslims is that the true story of this world, including the role of God’s prophets in history, is only preserved in the comprehensive and self-contained narrative found in the Bible—from Genesis to Revelation. All of us, including Muslims, are dwelling within the story narrated in Scripture. That story is encapsulated in the Bible’s four grand plot moves: creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

The Bible’s story is the story of the cosmos; it alone contains the truth as to why the world is in its current state despite the best efforts of men to legislate and regulate human behavior. Moreover, it is only in Christ and through the power of His life-giving Spirit that individuals and societies can be forgiven of their sin and transformed—from the inside out.

J. Scott Bridger, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Global Studies and World Religions at Criswell College in Dallas Texas. He lived in the Middle East for over 10 years and earned his PhD from Southeastern Baptists Theological Seminary. 

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