Sharia Law Guide That Includes Definition, Purpose, and More

Sharia Law Guide That Includes Definition, Purpose, and More

Sharia law is a complex network of beliefs and practices, says Imam Daayiee Abdullah, in this guide about one of the most misunderstood concepts in Islam. 

In my forty-plus years of traveling in the Muslim communities around the world, I met diverse Muslims. I learned about the intersection Sharia law has always had with culture, and that it is a complicated topic. My hope is that I make it easier explaining it to you.

Sharia law comes from beliefs, culture, and the law. At the particular land in which the particular version of Sharia develops. I show many examples of this throughout this guide, but suffice it to say that Sharia is not easy to describe without beliefs, culture, and existing laws. 

In the coming sections, I will expand into Sharia by presenting in the environments in which it develops, including its purpose, school of thought, and the different ways in which diverse contemporary Muslim countries apply it.


Sharia law is complex. Its complexity has to do with the diverse interpretations, historical contexts, cultural variations. And also its intersection with modern legal systems and societal norms. Unlike civil law, for example, Sharia can bend to the point of allowing that which is against its very basic foundations.

To illustrate the complexity of Sharia, we must look at Islamic history, especially during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. First, Muslims were in Mecca. Prophet Muhammad and Muslims faced persecution, ostracism, and hardship because of the opposition from Quraysh leaders. The Quraysh, the tribe that Prophet Muhammad belonged to, took it upon themselves to punish him and his followers.

Thirteen years later, Prophet Muhammad and Muslims migrated to Medina. In Medina, they found refuge and established a thriving community. While they continued to face challenges, including tribal conflicts, they enjoyed newfound freedom to practice Islam. Prophet Muhammad’s leadership solidified, and the community grew, laying the foundation for the development of Islamic governance and social structure.

After having “won” the war, so to speak, Prophet Muhammad and Muslims returned to Mecca. Upon returning to Mecca, they faced less hostility. They peacefully conquered the city, pardoning many former adversaries. It marks a triumph moment as Islam spread, and the Kaaba was once again for monotheistic worship, symbolizing the consolidation of Islamic authority in Arabia.

In this case, we can see three types of Sharia: one under persecution, one under migration, and one under total freedom. As a result, throughout this guide, you will see Muslims experiencing these very examples. 

Sharia’s success comes from its flexibility to adapt to the environment in which Muslims find themselves. Whether they are in countries where they are the majority or ones in which they are minorities, Muslims have Sharia to guide their lives.

Definition of Sharia

Sharia, in Arabic (شريعة), has the meaning of a physical path or pathway, a street or road. In the sense of human relationships, it is a guide and/or method of behavior or action. This meaning is both linguistic and practical. As a result, and generally speaking, the spectrum of Sharia – as utilized in Islamic jurisprudence and in the application of Sharia as governmental action – covers a wide range of possibilities as a legal system. 

Sharia’s legal system inculcates the four major branches of Islam, including Sunnism, Shi’ism, Sufism, and other denominations of the faith. For example, the terminology range from mandatory to forbidden in terms of religious and social obligations. These terms may make sense in very diverse and sometimes contradictory ways when one considers the possibilities in how the legal courts interpret Sharia in each school of theological thought. 

In other words, Sharia is not a one-size-fits-all legal theory or system.

Sharia law has five rules that Muslims use on a regular basis. Muslims use these rules to define, determine, or judge their thoughts, speech, and actions. These rules are obligatory or fard (فرض), recommended or mustahab (مُسْتَحَبّ), permitted or mubah (مباح), discouraged or makruh (مكروه), and forbidden or haram (حرام). 

Sharia’s definition is, therefore, complex. 

Sharia Law Basics

Sharia Law Basics
Sharia nurtures meaning through principles, sweeping laws, ethics, and flexibility.

Muslims believe that Sharia law is ultimately a guide to a method of behavior or action. Not unlike secular law in the West, the purpose(s) are very similar and often overlap. 

Many Americans, including Muslims, do not know that U.S. law incorporates many aspects/concepts of Sharia within its broad tenets. This is because these tenets make up the law “for the people and by the people.” Therefore, beyond the theocratic foundation of Sharia, the basic goals as they relate to the principles that guide Sharia, including one’s relationship to one’s spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, are the same. 

That said, there are some differences. In numerous instances, because Western law is usually the rule of law for the people, Sharia, for example, continues to be focus on governance under the rule of religion. In practice, this entails a particular school of thought’s theocracy being the foundational source of the law. For example, the basic Sharia laws of Saudi Arabia are from Sunni beliefs, whereas the basic Sharia laws of Iran are from Shia.

Secular legal systems, on the other hand, are based upon a separation between a person’s personal belief system and the laws of the government. The government’s sovereignty is based on legislative processes, i.e., representatives of the people develop the laws of the nation (municipal, state, and national).

Islamic law initially instituted with Prophet Muhammad and then passed on to community leaders under a system of a caliphate or dynastic ruler. It has only been under the legal system changes during colonialist hegemony that some Muslim states now have parliamentary forms of governance but Islamic theological thought still heavily influence them.

Sharia Law

Sharia law is very diverse. In Islam, there are three major denominations: Sunnism, Shi’ism, and Sufism. Each of them has their own Sharia. Sunnism has four schools of thought, meaning it has four types of Sharia.

Sunni schools of thought are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali, and the Hanafi is historically the most popular. Among these four, the Hanafi school is relatively more liberal, whereas the Hanbali is rigid in its adherence to literal interpretations of texts and strict adherence to the teachings of early Islamic scholars.

Shi’ism has several schools of thought, but the three main ones are the Twelver Shia, the Zaidi Shia, and the Isma’ili Shia. The Ismaili Shia, particularly in its Nizari form, is more liberal because of its focus on allegorical interpretations of religious texts, flexibility in religious practice, and engagement with modernity. On the other hand, the Zaidi Shia is relatively more conservative because of its adherence to a stricter interpretation of Islamic law, as well as its focus on preserving traditional norms.

Finally, the main schools of Sufism include the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Chishti, and Suhrawardi orders. The Sufis are very interesting because they also follow another school of thought. For example, most Qadiris are Sunni, whereas most Naqshbandis are Shia. Qadiris are the most conservative, focusing on religion, whereas Chishtis are the most liberal, focusing on art like music and dance.

Sharia law, therefore, is very diverse. For example, the Sharia of the Chishti Sufis presents a Muslim culture where singing and dancing are good Islamic behavior, whereas singing and dancing are not acceptable at all to the Hanbalis of Sunnism.

Progressive Islam Sharia

I wanted to separate this community because we are very different than the traditional Muslims. Progressive Muslims come from diverse backgrounds and may be of Sunni, Shia, Sufi, or even non-religious backgrounds. 

Progressive Islam is, therefore, as I describe in my book, a unique path. Our Sharia is not even “defined,” if you will, although we define what Progressive Islam is. Instead, we are Muslims who believe in our individual Muslim identities and unite for the values of compassion, empathy, fairness, and solidarity.

If there is a Sharia for Progressive Islam, it is one that supports social justice, equality, and environmental sustainability since these are the modern issues we tackle as a community. That means we are against sexism, we do not accept homophobia, and we do not dictate Muslim identity, to name a few. 

Finally, Progressive Islam is about in engaging in political activism, community mobilization, and advocacy for policy reforms that align with our beliefs. For example, MECCA Institute, the non-profit organization I started in 2014 that focuses on education and research. 

Do I believe these are what form the Sharia of Progressive Islam? Absolutely! Our community’s dedication to these values is rooted in the Quran, Islamic history, and the countless Muslims who have contributed to these ideals. 

Purpose of Sharia

The purpose of Sharia is to maintain a robust socio-religious atmosphere where Muslim believers can live their lives as individuals and familial groups. Sharia gives them a method by which they can settle disputes amongst themselves and their neighbors. Therefore, Sharia is a way to fulfill our roles as believers in the community.

That is, Sharia has always been a tool to regulate how Muslim believers approach their individual lives as members of the larger Muslim society, their interactions between the various Muslim denominations, and their governmental interactions. Sharia helps us uphold the good and negate the bad by following key principles, values, and practices in the Quran. 

Sharia also provides guidance in the lives of Muslim families and larger tribal groupings and how they support each other in building the community, as well as resolving any disputes that might arise without relying upon physical harm as a resource. Additionally, these Sharia concepts and goals are applicable to how Muslims interact and react to non-Muslims in governmental administration but do not heavily influence non-Muslims’ religious beliefs and practices.

Sharia’s purpose is not to take away the flexibility of Muslim and non-Muslim believers of the Abrahamic faiths in responding as believers in the one God and finding peace and prosperity between various nations. In various time periods, however, we do find that some Muslims of antiquity, and also in modern times, codified Sharia to the point where it became overly rigid and enforced harshly.

These oddities in legal obsession were usually based on the history of their cultural practices or their denomination’s religious interpretation(s) rather than a broader and inclusive Quranic interpretation derived from the different schools of thought.

Key Principles of Sharia

Sharia values include principles such as justice, equality, and mercy. It focuses on family cohesion, personal integrity, and the cultivation of community solidarity. Sharia upholds human rights and the rule of law, and it promotes welfare, social justice, and moderation in all aspects of life.

In a nutshell, Sharia is guiding individuals to uphold fairness and treat others with dignity. A great example of this is how the Quran requires us to treat orphans. We are to honor orphans (Quran, 89:17), give them their rightful property (4:2), and provide for them out of love for God (2:177). As a result, stealing from orphans carries a harsher sentence in Sharia because it becomes an aggravated offense. 

All of the basic principles of Sharia, therefore, come to us through the Quran. The differences in application may come from specific madhab (School of Thought) differences, but Muslims tend to agree on the general principles of justice, equality, and mercy, and so on.

Sharia Law in Practice

Sharia law revolves around worship, morality, legal matters, and social governance, all guided by its principles.

The Quranic concept of human cohabitation, which relates to and promotes the development of harmony within intimate human relationships, is as foundational as the creation of the human species. Therefore, the establishment of hegemonic tribal groupings and the development of societies are extensions of this principal value. 

An example of the Quranic concept regarding human cohabitation promoting harmony within relationships is in the focus on mutual respect, kindness, and compassion between spouses, as in many verses, including verses 21 of Sura 30. The Quran uses the love and mercy between spouses as a sign of goodness. This concept extends to the broader societal context as it encourages cooperation and cohesion among individuals and communities, and it ultimately contributes to the establishment of harmonious societies.

As an extension, this relates to the development of patriarchal familial development through hegemonic masculinity in early dynastic rulership. In the same way that individuals find ways in which they can maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships, power dynamics can be through Sharia. It was a way of making sure that such relationships met certain standards without resorting to harm and disenfranchisement. Therefore, Sharia expands on this concept to include harmonious relationships between families and/or tribal groups and clans. 

The historical accounts of male rulers asserting authority as a way to maintain stability meant they had to uphold patriarchal structures that they had to claim aligned with Quranic principles. By enforcing traditional gender roles, enacting laws and policies that favored male leaderships, as well as reinforcing patriarchal norms through cultural practices such as rituals, ceremonies, and religious teachings that stressed the authority of men in family and community affairs, Islamic rulers were able to harmonious relationships between diverse groups.

Sharia and Morality

Sharia’s guidance in moral and ethical conduct for individuals is based upon the Quran’s message that human beings must live by certain moral standards, and their individual ethical conduct must maintain an individual’s dignity and privacy. The Quranic message encourages harmony amongst believers without the imposition of adherence to certain beliefs or regulations that are unethical or a form of intimidation to force another to believe or behave in such a way that hinders them from living their life without coercion.

Verse 256 of Sura 2 asserts that “There shall be no compulsion in the religion,” which indicates the freedom to choose faith and ethical conduct without coercion is integral to promoting individual dignity and privacy. This principle creates harmony among believers while discouraging the imposition of beliefs or regulations.

The Quranic message reinforces the principles and/or values that relate to maintaining high moral and ethical standards in each believer’s interpersonal human relationships in public and/or private, whether personal, intimate, economical, or political. Therefore, a balance must be adhered to in guiding how one responds to peaceful and aggressive behavior(s) that errors on the side of mercy and compassion rather than physical and emotional or trauma-inducing harm.

Of course, morality extends to the community. Communities guided by Quranic principles must cultivate an environment where mutual understanding and cooperation are present without imposing religious or ethical mandates on others. For example, this is the harmony and inclusivity that Progressive Muslims work hard to create.

Sharia and Economy

Sharia demands a culturally acceptable balance that guides how one responds to peaceful and aggressive behavior(s) that errors on the side of mercy and compassion rather than physical and emotional or trauma-inducing harm. In a dispute, for example, Sharia favors mediation over punishment as a way of using the principles of mercy and compassion to preserve community harmony and individual dignity.

Sharia utilizes similar guidelines as it relates to business relationships between merchant and merchant and merchant and supplier to the general public. It establishes patterns of conduct that are often from parables and stories in the Abrahamic faith traditions but also depends heavily on customs (“urfs”) that shape these interactions within their society. 

Sharia rules and regulations are to ensure economic equality. Practices such as giving fair measurement without cheating the buyers, fulfilling all aspects of a contract negotiated, and avoiding taking advantage of the other party or parties are part of Sharia’s economic guidance. These extend to the person, the community, and even the society.

Sharia also provides such guidelines to make sure that there is a standard by which people interact, regardless of their position within these various contractual relationships. Therefore, if it is found that the minimum standard(s) are not met as contracted, the offending party could face punishment for deliberately breaking the terms of the contract without fully meeting the agreement between the contracting parties. 

Over time, enforcing these standards cultivates trust, stability, and fairness by promoting economic prosperity and social cohesion within society.

Sharia and Order

What is consistent within the administration of Sharia, whether it is on an individual, familial, community, or governmental level, is that it demands a culturally acceptable balance. This balance must be adhered to and guides how one responds to peaceful and aggressive behavior(s) that errors on the side of mercy and compassion rather than physical and emotional or trauma-inducing harm.

When we look at Sharia in discussing the administration of justice and the opposition to oppression, two aspects come to mind. The first is that religious and governmental agents for the state provide individuals with the basic standard(s) that assure harmonious relationships in their interactions. Naturally, this includes approaching their religious leaders and institutions, as well as their governmental agencies and rulers. 

Another example is that Sharia, while providing a pathway for seeking punishment for those who cause harm to believers, also inculcates the Quranic message’s demand for mercy and compassion at all times. In this case, the standards must be in place that mercy and compassion are part of the equation. 

The second is to provide for the greater community a form of social order. Religious leadership and government administration should be able to oversee the interactions between individuals and their religious leaders, institutions, and government agents/agencies. It also means that there is a maintenance of a police force for public order and a standing military force as it relates to foreign governments. 

Historically, Sharia was not always a way to provide social order. In some instances, Sharia was used to create chaos. Once again, it is because Sharia is not one-size-fits-all.

Sharia Influence on Life

The overall goals of Sharia are foremost focused on personal. Areas of importance include personal conduct, whether in public or in private, and the protection of life and family dynamics, as well as the protection of health, the fulfillment of religious duties, the maintenance of human dignity, the protection of economic practices, and the protection of property. 

Therefore, guidelines that have been extrapolated from the early seventh-century practices of Prophet Muhammad come from the 13-year period in Mecca and the 9-year period of the nascent Muslim community of Medina, where these practices were reevaluated and expanded. These earlier practices, some of which are grounded in pre-Islamic Arab/bedouin tribal behaviors, are foundational to the Sharia regulations that uphold Islamic law today. 

The laws have, over the centuries, expanded through a process of fiqh, or legal jurisprudence. Sharia has developed as a form of governance that adjusts as conditions and circumstances change geographically. This has been the standard throughout the past 15 centuries as instituted by the form of governance beginning with the caliphate, dynastic rulers, and administrative officers of the Islamic Empire. 

Sharia plays a crucial role in cultivating an environment that upholds religious freedom. It offers guidance not only for personal behavior, family interactions, and economic dealings among Muslims but also facilitates a legal framework accommodating diverse faiths. This system includes separate courts for Muslims to address legal matters according to Islam while also providing avenues for religious courts to Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslim communities residing in Islamic jurisdictions. Surprisingly, this arrangement supports a dual legal structure, accommodating the needs and practices of various religious groups coexisting within the same society.

Sharia and Religion

At the end of the day, Sharia is a religious concept, topic, and law, depending on the context.

Sharia has diverse guidelines for all areas of life, but it is a religious law. Under the best of circumstances, Sharia separates the individual person and community from the larger society. However, Sharia also provides a form of oversight where individuals, families, and communities can interact with governmental administration in seeking fair treatment and justice from abuse and oppression found in society. 

Therefore, when disputes arose in Mecca or Medina in the 7th century, they would turn to Prophet Muhammad for his guidance. It was usually related to a particular aspect of life. In the Quran, there is the example of a woman who went to Prophet Muhammad to complain about her husband’s treatment (Quran, 58:1). Although the specifics of her case are not in the verse, it indicates that she had a dispute with her husband.

Unfortunately, as the Islamic Empire expanded, later generations of Muslim believers relied on established figures and specially trained governmental appointees, including Jewish and Christian believers, who administered the courts and rulings over the legal disputes in that region. Government-appointed religious and academic scholars were associated with the maintenance of the court system. These people provided guidance to avoid corruption by enforcing the directives of Sharia and dynastic rulers.

Each area expanded its Sharia laws based on their religious beliefs. So, the Sunni and Shia areas in the larger empire had Sharia laws that slowly drifted from one another as the Islamic Empire expanded.

Since then, Sharia laws have become denominational-oriented. Today, they are as diverse as the Muslim community itself.

Codification of Sharia

The development of Islamic jurisprudence heavily influenced how Sharia became codified based on a patriarchal social system. This codification, in actuality, stiffened and made inflexible the diverse possibilities in how a Muslim believer’s individual juridical decision could be made that took into consideration the various differences and conditions and circumstances that could influence the rendering of an illegal decision.

Within Muslim societies across the past 15 centuries, Sharia has been shaped and reshaped by various forces, including both religious and political forces. This “narrowing of interpretation(s)” came through various scholars that are accepted as foundational to them. Thus, many diverse schools of thought in the early centuries of Islam took on a more rigid understanding. So, Sharia’s evolution in Muslim societies over centuries shows religious influences that are based on patriarchal cultures.

This same phenomenon also occurred from political influences that promoted the rulers and governmental administration that enforced the courts and their rulings. Sharia has never been a “one size fits all” formulation of law and has been negatively influenced to become more and more rigid over time.

Therefore, as it relates to historical women’s rights, diversity of sexual orientation, and acceptance of wider community perspectives, the codification of Sharia caused many Muslim believers, and in other ways those under Sharia dominance, to limit their expectations of their personal, familial, community and governmental responses would be through the mosques and courts in curbing injustices and oppression of Muslims that often had the underpinnings of greed, rapacity, and avarice of rulership/leadership and administrators of the state. 

Flexibility of Sharia

Sharia, in a way, operates the same way as any other law. As such, Sharia is not immutable and has, within its historical framework, the ability to adjust based on the time and place where Muslims live as visitors and residents in Muslim and non-Muslim lands.

As more Muslims become more fully aware of their rights as believers and how those rights are adaptable under various types of circumstances and conditions, their understanding is given access to “pathways” of Sharia that allow them to adjust their obligations.

For example, when traveling, a Muslim can combine obligatory prayers in regards to the amount of time one is located in a place. [If one is not residing in a place for four days or shorter, one can continue to shorten their prayer times by combining two prayers, cutting down the number of times for prayer in a day.]

This same rule can apply to Muslims who live in non-Muslim lands that allow people to interact in ways that are not specifically “Muslim-culture” oriented. For example, how they dress, the foods that they eat, the medical treatments they obtain, or business practices not followed in Muslim states, as long as they do not violate the Quranic principles. It is in this framework that Muslims can still use the principles of Sharia in guiding their lives. 

Unfortunately, numerous Muslim sects have denigrated the breadth and depth of the legal system by utilizing antiquated ahadith books that promote “certainty” in a legal determination. In the process, they ignore the legal tradition of Sharia’s flexibility and mutability based upon circumstances and conditions. Therefore, it is quite often why I use the analogy or metaphor to express the Sharia “point of view” as one of “If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it!”

Misconceptions of Sharia

As the Islamic Empire expanded, misconceptions about Muslims and their ways of life spread. Some of these misconceptions center on Sharia, its laws, and how Muslims apply them. I would say the most persistent misconception about Sharia law is that it must be forced on all and that any opposition would lead to death by the sword. 

Historically, this stereotype took root when the Western Christian crusades (Popes of Rome) decided to take sovereignty of Jerusalem and the “holy lands” from the Muslims. It was a strategy to get the everyday Christians in Europe to go along with their plans. Therefore, scholarly tomes were used to further exploit several centuries of Western academic teaching, promoting the false narrative that Islam was spread by the sword.

Other misconceptions of Sharia in modern Western countries include equating it solely with harsh punishments and oppression of women, overlooking its diverse interpretations and applications. This oversimplification neglects its role in areas such as ethics, family law, and personal development, contributing to fear and misunderstanding.

Muslims have several ways to overcome this. We can engage in open dialogue, education, and outreach to dispel these misconceptions. We can also highlight Sharia’s principles of justice, compassion, and personal development. This would show its compatibility with modern values. Encouraging community involvement and interfaith dialogue would also nurture understanding and promote a more accurate portrayal of Sharia.

Sharia and U.S. Laws

Muslims are often surprised to learn that Prophet Muhammad is honored at the U.S. Supreme Court. The walls of the court present ancient lawgivers, including Moses and Muhammad. The frieze portraying Moses exhibits him holding the Ten Commandments, with only commandments six through ten visible. 

Despite the portrayal of Prophet Muhammad on the Supreme Court’s wall as an honor, some well-meaning Muslims mistakenly construed it as insulting. In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) requested the removal of Prophet Muhammad’s image from the marble frieze, citing Islamic teachings against artistic depictions of him. They also objected to the portrayal of him with a sword, noting it perpetuated negative stereotypes about Muslims. 

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in one of his few decisions that I wholeheartedly supported, rejected CAIR’s request. He asserted that the artwork aimed solely to acknowledge Prophet Muhammad as a significant figure in legal history, not to promote idol worship or Islamophobia. Subsequently, though, the court clarified in tourist materials that the portrayal was a well-intentioned tribute by the sculptor.

It is of utmost importance that Muslims, both in the West and around the world, recognize that the portrayal of Prophet Muhammad at the Supreme Court honors him as one of the historical “lawgivers” who influenced the men who were the writers of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that are incorporated into the American legal system today.

We Muslims can demonstrate Sharia’s positive impact by highlighting Prophet Muhammad’s teachings of justice, compassion, and tolerance. This would nurture understanding and reduce misconceptions, thus discouraging the current trend of State bans on Sharia across the nation. 

Sharia Frequently Asked Questions 

Sharia Frequently Asked Questions

Sharia questions come from both Muslims and non-Muslims. I have been asked these questions around the world in one form or another. People inquire about Sharia for various reasons. Some are seeking to understand its principles, its role in governance, and its impact on personal and societal matters.

Curiosity, academic study, and discussions about religious and legal systems also prompt questions regarding Sharia. My answers are based on my experience as a Muslim who has lived in several Muslim-majority countries, a lawyer, someone who has studied fiqh, and my experiences leading a Muslim organization since 2014.

What is Sharia?

Sharia is an Arabic word that means “path.” It is the Islamic “path” to living life. As a result, Sharia guides Muslims on matters of faith, ethics, morality, and daily life.

Sharia is derived from Islamic scripture and traditions, and, for many Muslims, it governs personal conduct entirely. It categorizes actions as obligatory, recommended, disliked, or permitted. This means that it can guide a Muslim in matters of behavior, beliefs, and morality. 

Because of its diversity, it can guide two people on the same subject in a very different way. For example, Salafis (an extreme form of Islam) do not believe Muslims should be friends with non-Muslims. However, Sufis are told how they can be friends with anyone. So, the Sharia, in this case, shows you how diverse it can be. 

What is Sharia Law?

Sharia law is a type of law that is used in Muslim countries. This law is derived from the Islamic holy book of the Quran, the oral tradition of Hadith, and the work of the Ulema or Muslim scholars. 

Once again, this is another area where Sharia is very diverse. Consider the way Sharia is used in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the UAE, the legal system applies Sharia law to Muslims’ personal matters.

In Another example, Muslim communities in Pakistan and Turkey are very different in their relationship to Sharia. Both countries are Muslim-majority countries, but Turkey’s Muslim communities are very secular. 

What Purpose Does Sharia Serve?

The purpose of Sharia is to guide the Muslim person, family, community, and country in the ways that God intended. As a result, its purpose drastically changes depending on things such as the person, the location, and more. 

In Muslim communities, Sharia is how people decide on marriage, divorce, inheritance, and many other areas that are important to the social lives of Muslims. For example, Sunni Muslim men can have up to four wives.

However, Sharia application changes drastically when Muslims are in non-Muslim countries. For example, Sunni Muslims in the United States can only marry one wife because U.S. laws require that. As a result, Sharia is flexible, giving precedence to the country’s laws. 

In another example, Sufi Muslims are often the target of sectarian violence in some Muslim countries, especially where the Salafi or extreme versions of Islam are the dominant practice. Sufi communities in those countries are allowed to hide their status as Sufis per Sharia.

On the other hand, the same Sufi communities are openly in the practice of their beliefs in countries where the law is on their side. In this case, Sharia allows them to stand up for their rights since it won’t endanger their lives. 

How Do the Quran and Sharia Differ?

Sharia is based on human interpretation of the Quran, as well as guidance from the oral tradition of Prophet Muhammad and the work of succeeding scholars. On the other hand, the Quran is the word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad. 

All Muslims have the same Quran. The Arabic of the Quran is the same in Sunnism, Shi’ism, Sufism, and other Islamic denominations. They recite the Quran the same way, they pronounce the words the same way, and they glean similar lessons from the verses.

On the other hand, the oral tradition of Prophet Muhammad, widely known as “Hadith,” is contested in various denominations. For example, Sunni hadiths are not always accepted in Shia, and Sufi Muslims may reject both. 

Speaking of Hadith, the same denomination will often classify them in various levels. For example, Sunni hadiths are classified as authentic, sound, and weak. Authentic is the strongest or most believable, while weak is the least believable. 

Therefore, Sharia is widely diverse. The Sharia of one school of thought within a denomination may be very different from that of another. For example, there are four competing ways to deal with homosexuality in the four Sunni schools of thought.

What is the Difference Between Sharia and Fiqh?

Fiqh is the human understanding and interpretation of the Quran through jurisprudence and legal reasoning that leads to the expansion of Sharia. That is, Sharia law is based on a particular fiqh in a particular school of thought.

Fiqh (فقه), which means “jurisprudence” in Arabic, is the mother of all laws in Islam. Fiqh includes the understanding and interpretation of Islamic primary sources, such as the Quran and Hadith, through principles and rulings derived from them, the work of other scholars, and so on. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Sharia is based on Sunnism’s Hanbali school of thought, which is based on the fiqh of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. 

The reason different Muslim countries have different Sharia is because there are different jurists who altered those laws to be different. Of course, as confusing as it sounds, it means they are related very closely, although they are different. Basically, you need fiqh to create Sharia law. 

What States Have Adopted Sharia Law? 

States that have adopted Sharia law include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Qatar. These countries use Sharia law at various levels. Nigeria, for example, is mostly non-Sharia, whereas Saudi Arabia is virtually all-Sharia. 

Once again, these countries are very diverse in the way they present their Sharia. In Saudi Arabia, for example, no one can eat pork. A non-Muslim eating pork can result in fines, imprisonment, and deportation. This is because Saudi Arabia has a form of Sharia that is very extreme, known as Hanbali, because they follow a Salafi philosophy called Wahhabism. 

On the other hand, pork is served widely in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has a different type of Sharia based on the Hanafi school of thought. As a result, they have pork in the grocery stores, restaurants serve it, and you can make it at home without any legal issues. 

Saudi Arabia and UAE are neighbors, they are Arabic-speaking people, and they are both Sunni.

Is Sharia Law Legal in the United States?

Yes. Muslims can integrate Sharia principles into their personal lives through adherence to Islamic dietary laws, observing religious holidays, and conducting personal matters such as marriage and divorce according to Sharia guidelines.

Muslims are also allowed to use Sharia law in their personal matters through voluntary arbitration or mediation, typically in family or business disputes. Unfortunately, there has been a growing number of states trying to limit this part of Sharia law in the United States.

That said, it is important to note that the U.S. Constitution does not allow religious laws over all citizens. As a result, Sharia law is not legal in the United States on anyone except by voluntary. However, Canon Law, the Christian religious law, is also not legal here, even though it is a Christian-majority country. This is because the United States is a secular country.

For non-Americans, it does not always feel that way since we use the word “God” throughout governmental discourse, properties, and so on. However, there is such a thing as a “Separation of Church and State” to indicate its secular nature. 

As noted previously, however, the United States does not disallow Muslims from practicing Sharia law in a private setting as long as it does not conflict with the laws of the country.

How is Sharia Law Different from Western Laws?

Sharia law is very different from Western laws. Whereas Western laws tend to be secular and represent the overall interests of the public, regardless of their religion, Sharia is specific to Islam and Muslims. Sharia’s purpose is to help Muslims lead the best Islamic life they can. 

Western laws, like those found in North America and Western Europe, are secular laws. Secular laws are legal principles separate from religious doctrines. Even though Western laws used to be based on Christian laws, a gradual drift from that led to a complete change, where today, most of it is non-religious.

Sharia, on the other hand, is a Muslim religious guidance. Its laws, therefore, are based on Islam and not other religions. As a result, this is very different from the laws of a particular Western nation. 

Nonetheless, Muslims living in a Western country like the United States practice Sharia on a personal or communal level. The flexibility of Sharia ensures a means for Muslims to utilize and work within a given country’s laws. Therefore, Muslims adapt their Sharia so as not to violate the country’s secular laws. 


Muslims, for better or worse, can choose to decide to live in societies where Sharia affects their lives in diverse ways. Muslims who live in Muslim-majority countries can find themselves in complete Sharia (like Saudi Arabia), a mix of Sharia and colonial laws (like Pakistan), or be completely secular (like Turkey). The national experience of these Muslims, therefore, is naturally diverse. 

Likewise, sizable Muslim minorities in otherwise non-Muslim-majority countries can exercise to have communal Sharia (like in India), have both (like the United States), or remain completely secular (like France). Whether they have their own Sharia courts, or choose to exercise in Sharia arbitration, or simply rely on secular laws, Sharia gives Muslims that flexibility.

This guide has attempted to offer a complete picture of Sharia, even if in short overview. My hope is that it has given you a chance to understand Sharia from a neutral perspective, although I have offered the Progressive Islam point of view several times to illustrate the diversity.

For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Sharia is an interesting aspect of a Muslim’s life. It can be personal, or familial, or communal, or even national! Therefore, this is a difficult institution to sum up in one guide. I have put together a list of articles that focus on specific aspects.

On this page, you will find articles about Sharia and women, LGBT, immigrants, and more. These articles are meant to expand on this guide so as to offer you a wider perspective on this topic. 

Imam Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute and the author of “Progressive Islam,” a historic book that defines Progressive Islam. 

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