Chapter Two: Faith and Religious Identity

What is Shar’ia Law?

Islamic law, or shar‘ia, is based on a set of sophisticated legal systems, and provides a basis for government as well as for personal life. The processes of developing shar‘ia are based on strict standards. Religious legal interpretation, or fiqh, encompasses nearly every permutation of social structure, area of human activity and aspect of government.  The usul al-Fiqh are the sources of Islamic legal interpretation.  These sources are used according the sequence below:

  1. The Qur’an
  2. The Traditions of the Prophet, the Sunna, his words (Hadith) and actions, or entirety of the traditions (Sunna)
  3. Consensus of Juridical Scholars, or Ijmaʿ
  4. Analogy by Deduction, or Qiyas
  5. Process of Setting New Precedents Based on the Above Sources, Ijtihad

There is a misconception that shar‘ia is taken directly from the Qur’an without any process of interpretation, or application of legal precedents. The Qu’ran is the most important source, and must be looked to first, but it is not the only source. Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, considers five main sources to be valid authorities. The first, and most authoritative is the Qur’an, which is considered the word of God. The Qur’an, however, did not address every particular aspect of daily life, but mainly gave principles to live by. Thus, accounts of the prophet (hadith) Muhammad’s life and quotes of his words are the second most important source. In more complicated matters, the scholar can refer to the consensus of his peers. Jurist scholars then use analogies (qiyasat) when the exact case they are considering is not mentioned in these sources. For example, drugs like crack or heroin are not mentioned, but the prohibition on alcohol is issued due to its effect on the judgment and perception. This is a clear analogy the judge can use. Finally, if there is no precedent, he or she must engage in the intellectual struggle of Ijtihad. Ijtihad is based on the same root as jihad (which means to struggle – refer to “The Concept of Jihad” for more details), indicating the level of effort required for identifying new paths for new circumstances that remain true to God’s will.

Religious legal interpretation, or fiqh, encompasses nearly every social structure, area of human activity and aspect of government. There is a massive body of law from which scholars of Islamic jurisprudence may draw upon. The Sunni schools of thought, or mudhahib, are: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali, while the primary Shi‘i school of thought is Ja‘afari. Among the Sunni schools of thought, Hanbali, is the one with the most focus on purifying Islam and adhering to the Qur’an and the Sunna. This is the basis of Wahhabism and relates to the salafi movement that we explain more in subsequent sections. See Wikipedia’s map of mudhahib distribution to understand what the countries of the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions adhere to in regard to these schools of thought in Islamic legal interpretation.