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Islamic law


This article forms part of the series
Vocabulary of Islam
Five Pillars
Profession of faith
Prayer - Alms
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Holy Cities
Mecca - Medina
Najaf - Karbala
Hijra - Islamic calendar - Eid ul-Fitr
Eid ul-Adha - Aashura - Arba'in
Mosque - Minaret
Mihrab - Kaaba
Muezzin - Imam - Mullah
Ayatollah - Mufti
Texts and laws
Qur'an - Hadith - Sunnah
Sura - Fiqh - Fatwa
Sharia - Hisba
Sunni - Shi'a
Hanafi - Maliki
Shafi'i - Hanbali
Wahhabism - Salafism
Twelvers - Ismailism
Mu'tazili - Druze
Asharism - Sufism

Traditional Islamic law is called Sharia or Shariah(شريعة). Like most religious cultures, Islam classicallydrew no distinction between religious and secular life. Hence Sharia covers not only religious rituals, but many aspects ofday-to-day life. However, this traditional view of religious law is opposed by modern liberal movements within Islam .

The main sources of Islamic law are the Qur'an and the Hadith , but ijma , the consensus of the community, was alsoaccepted as a minor source. Qiyas , reasoning by analogy, was used by the law scholars( Mujtahidun ) to deal with situations where the sources provided noconcrete rules. The practices called Sharia today, however, also have roots in local customs ( Al-urf ).

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


Dietary laws

When eating meat, Muslims may only eat from meat that has been slaughtered in the name of God, and meets stringent dietaryrequirements. Such meat is called pure, or halal . Islamic law prohibits a Muslimfrom 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 species, it must generally beslaughtered by a Muslim, and it may not be killed by excessively cruel or painful means. The traditional means of slaughter is byslicing open the jugular veins at the neck, resulting in quick blood loss; a state of shock and unconsciousness is induced, anddeath soon follows through cardiac arrest.

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 longas it meets their strict dietary laws. Thus, some observant Muslims will accept kosher meat 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. Intheory, 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 aswell. This practice is valid within most of the Muslim world today. Usually, the divorced wife keeps her dowry from when she wasmarried, if there was one, and is given child support until the age of weaning at which point the child may be returned to itsfather 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. Manyinterpretations of Islamic law hold that women may not have prominent jobs, and thus are forbidden from working in thegovernment. 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 inpolitics and was a major authority on hadith . Nevertheless, Pakistan , Indonesia , Turkey , and Bangladesh , all predominantly Muslim nations, have hadfemale 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 lawforbids a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man [1] .

Dress code

The Qur'an also places a dress codeupon its followers. For women, it emphasizes modesty without an overt call for any specific covering of any body part; men have adress code which is more relaxed: the loins must be covered from knee to waist. The rationale given for these rules is that menand women are not to be viewed as sexual objects. In practice, men dictate what women are allowed to wear in many culturallyIslamic countries. Infringement of these rules in some "Muslim" nations may result in beatings. Some view Islamic women as beingoppressed by the men in their communities because of the required dress codes. However, some Muslim women choose to follow adress 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 theArabic word hijaba which means "to hide from sight or view", "to conceal". Hijab means to cover the head as well as thebody. Most Muslim scholars have based the amount of covering that a female Muslim must wear in front of those that are considerednon-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 intimaterelations. 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 theyspend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) thoseon whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obeyyou, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great." ( Qur'an 4:34English 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."Earlyjurists added that the hitting specified should only be with a miswak, or small toothbrush, interpreting it in light ofthe 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) [2] .


Circumcision for males involves the removal of the foreskin and is customary in most Muslim communities. It is normally performed at differentages in different cultures. Female circumcision is not partof mainstream Islam on an international scale, but is performed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike across East Africa and the NileValley, as well as parts of the Arabian peninsula and South-East Asia. In both areas, the custom predates Islam. Many AfricanMuslims 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 mandateit.


  • Friday is an important day in the life of a Muslim and it isbelieved 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 solaryear. Therefore, the Islamic months precess each year; they shift relative to the Gregorian calendar .
  • Ramadan - month long observance of fasting during daylighthours.
  • Feast of Breaking the Fast ( Eid-ul-Fitr ), orthe Little Feast (al-Eid saghir)- occurs at the conclusion of Ramadan and is held on the first day of the month ofShawwal.
  • The Big Feast, ( Eid-ul-Adha ), also "The Feastof 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 as recorded in the Quran. (The bible says it was his son Isaac who was to besacrificed.) 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 fromPharaoh in Egypt as he crossed the Red Sea (the Exodus day). According to Islamic tradition the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) fasted along with the neighboring Jewishcommunities on this occasion, and according to narrations, Muhammad planned on fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram.(According to Judaism the Jews left Egypt on the first day of Passover and crossed the Red Sea on the last day, both of which are celebrated as holidayswith meals.) This is also the day on which Muhammad's grandson, Husayn ,was killed in the Battle of Karbala . For Shi'a Muslims this is aday of mourning. Many Sunni Muslims also commemorate this event, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than the Shi'a. The observanceof this day is frowned upon by fundamentalists.
  • Muslim New Year - not generally celebrated as an official Islamic holiday, although many Muslim communitieshave 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 aninnovation in the religion, as Muhammad himself did not celebrate it, except by fasting. This holiday is prohibited by theIslamist movement (fundamentalist Islam). Some Arab nations, such as SaudiArabia 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 Muslimtheology, 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. Byanalogy, in the age of nation states, a person who commits treason (turning state's secrets to a foreign power, or spies for aforeign power, etc) is subject to severe penalty—historically, death. In contrast, a person who lives in a Western countrysuch as the United States (or even many Muslim countries) will suffer no significant penalty for converting to anotherreligion.

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 IbnWarraq'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 hisbook.

History and background

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

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 andtherefore 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 aperson'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 politicalmovements, e.g. green parties . In fact, the latter even defined Four Pillars of the Green Party , to somedegree in imitation of Islam's Five Pillars, and in admiration of the idea of a consensus-driven process of the whole communitycoming to some well-reasoned conclusion compatible with science and scholarship. In practice, however, there is often incredibletension between conservative, liberal or secular forces:

Practice of Sharia

There is tremendous variation in the interpretation and implementation of Islamic laws in Muslim societies today. Some believethat colonialism , which often replaced religious laws with secular ones,caused this variation. More recently liberal movements within Islam have questioned the relevance and applicability ofsharia from a variety of perspectives. As a result, several of the countries with the largest Muslim populations,including Indonesia , Bangladesh and India have largely secular constitutions and laws, with only a few Islamic provisionsin family law. Turkey has a completely secular constitution.

Likewise, most countries of the Middle East and North Africa maintain a dual system of secular courts and religious courts, inwhich the religious courts mainly regulate marriage and inheritance. SaudiArabia and Iran maintain religious courts for all aspects of jurisprudence.Sharia is also used in Sudan , Libya andfor a time in modern Afghanistan . Some states in northern Nigeria have reintroduced Sharia courts. In practice the new Sharia courts inNigeria have most often meant the re-introduction of relatively harsh punishments without respecting the much tougher rules ofevidence 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 preventaccused criminals from being killed by outraged victims and communities.

An unusual secular-state example is a Sharia arbitration court beingestablished in Ontario , Canada . Thatprovince's 1991 arbitration court law allows disputes to be settled in alternative courtsto 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 Canadianjustice 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 means different things to different people in different times and places.In the hands of moderates, religious law can be moderate, even liberal. In the hands of post-Englightenment readers ofphilosophy, religious law is relegated to ritual (as opposed to law in a civil sense), or even to just being history. In thehands of fundamentalists, it is legally binding on all people of the faith, and even on 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 [3] , Indonesia , or Pakistan . All of them are following Islamic law, yetit varies as much as individual Muslims vary.

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