What Is the Shari`ah?*

God is the Creator; to Him alone, therefore, belongs the kingdom and He is the only Sovereign.

[Surely Your only Lord is God who has created the heaven and the earth... verily to Him belong the creation and the sovereignty] (Al-A`raf 7:54).


[He has created the heavens and the earth with a purpose. He wraps night about day and He wraps day about night... He has created you from one being... That then is God, your only Lord; His is the kingdom. There is no god but He] (Al-Zumar 39:5-6).

God is the Creator. To Him alone, therefore, as his only Lord and Master, man must submit his entire being:

[Your God is One God, so only to Him submit] (Al-Hajj 22:34).

[That then is God, your only Lord; there is no god but He, the Creator of everything. So Him alone serve] (Al-An`am 6:102).

God is the only true Provider. It is He Who has bestowed on man such faculties and capabilities as seeing, hearing, thinking, and articulating—attributes which man cannot live without, but which he cannot create for himself. It is He Who has made available the resources of the external world which man may discover, exploit, and develop but again, cannot create.

Yet surely man’s greatest need is to know how to live his life so as to fulfill successfully the purpose of his creation; how to relate himself to his Creator, to his own self, to his fellow human beings, and to everything around him. To Him alone he must therefore turn to seek guidance. For there is no one apart from or beside Him who can truly provide answers to man’s eternal questions or is capable of guiding him. All else can only be speculation and conjecture. And why should the One Who has provided even for man’s most trivial material needs, not also have provided for his more important moral and spiritual needs?

The Qur’an says

[Say: Is there any of those you associate (with God) who guides to the Truth? Say: only God guides to the Truth. Does then, He who guides to the Truth deserve more to be followed or he who can guide not unless he be guided? What ails you? How judge you? And most of them follow naught but speculation, and speculation can never take the place of truth] (Yunus 10:35-6).

And further

[Or, do they (claim to) have associates who have laid down for them the Way for which God gave not leave] (Al-Shura 42:21).

It was to provide for this greatest human need that God sent His prophets from amongst men in all ages and to all nations, bringing them the light of the divine guidance revealed to them. Among them were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. And Muhammad was the last of them, in no way different or new. May God bless all of them.

[He has laid down for you the Way that He entrusted to Noah, and that We have revealed to you, and that We entrusted to Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Establish fully the Way and follow not different ways] (Ash-Shura 42:13).

Man’s relationship to God is expressed by the very word Islam—submitting to Him by following His will and guidance as brought by His prophets. But this submission must be total and all embracing. A Muslim submits his entire person to his Creator as his only Lord and Master. No part of his life can be exempt from the need of divine guidance or from the writ of divine sovereignty. God and His lordship and sovereignty are indivisible; and so is man’s life in its submission to Him. It would indeed be an imperfect God Who could only be experienced or related to in the realm of the spirit or the provision of material needs like one’s daily bread—a God unconcerned, uncaring, or incompetent to help man in the more arduous and complex task of living his life. Him he worships; Him he invokes; Him he depends upon; Him he trusts; Him he seeks; and, equally important, Him he obeys. Man has been given the freedom to reject God; but, once having accepted Him, he must follow His guidance. He is not free to follow one part of it and ignore another, nor to seek guidance from sources other than God. Denial of part is denial of the whole.

[What, believe you in part of the Book and deny part thereof? And what is the reward of those who do so except ignominy in the present life, and on the Day of Resurrection to be returned unto most grievous punishment.] (Al-Baqarah 2:85)

[What, do they seek another way other than God’s Way; whereas unto Him submits whoso is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly.] (Aal `Imran 3:83)

[And who seeks a way other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him.] (Aal `Imran 3:85)

In its fullest sense, the Shari`ah is therefore virtually synonymous, and can be used interchangeably, with the word deen, which can only inadequately be translated as “religion.” Deen literally means “way of life,” “submission,” “following,” or the “way.” Though the word Shari`ah in its various derivative forms is found in five places in the Qur’an, its extensive use only came into vogue much later, for the words Islam and deen were more commonly employed to express the same meaning in the early days of Islam.

The Shari`ah includes both faith and practice. It embraces worship, individual attitude and conduct, as well as social norms and laws, whether political, economic, familial, criminal, or civil.

It may also sometimes be used to imply, in a more restricted sense, do’s and don’ts—the rules and regulations for conduct and behavior. Lastly, it is also used as the equivalent of the Islamic laws.

The Shari`ah is thus nothing less than the divinely ordained way of life for man. To realize the divine will, man must follow the Shari`ah. To live in Islam is to live according to the Shari`ah. To give up the Shari`ah or any part of it knowingly, willfully, or deliberately is to give up Islam. A Muslim must therefore do his utmost to observe and to implement the whole of it, wherever and in whatever situation he finds himself. Hence the Muslim insistence, persistence, commitment, and passion for it.

Human Freedom and Dignity

The act of total submission to God in accordance with the Shari`ah given by Him in no way diminishes human dignity, freedom, and responsibility. The act of submission is the highest act of human volition and freedom, for it implies freedom to disobey God. Indeed, in submitting to God, all the chains and shackles of every form of serfdom, servility, and bondage are broken, whether they be to other men, to ideas, to nature, to man-made objects, or to institutions. For before the affirmation of One God must come the forsaking of every false god.

More importantly, total submission to God elevates man to the state of khilafah, (viceregency), whereby he is accorded the highest place on earth by being endowed with reason, articulation, volition, freedom, and responsibility. The responsibility to follow the Shari`ah according to the Qur’an (Al-Ahzab 33:72), is the fulfillment of amanah, the trust which even the heavens, the earth, and the mountains dare not bear.

The Sources

How do we know the Shari`ah is the will of God? There are four sources:

1. The Qur’an

2. The Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)

3. ijma`

4. ijtihad

1. The Qur’an

The principal source of the Shari`ah can only be the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. These revelations are compiled in the Qur’an which, and nobody disputes this, has come down to us word for word as it was conveyed by the Prophet.

Both the meaning and the words of the Qur’an are God’s, as it clearly states in different ways in various places. It extensively uses the word “sending down” in preference to any other word to describe the process of revelation. The very first revelation was “Read.” The Prophet always clearly indicated when he was using his own words and when he was using words he had received.

The Qur’an’s main emphasis is unquestionably on faith and the moral conduct of men and nations, but it does lay down, both explicitly and implicitly, though with brevity, the principles, broad outlines, and necessary rules and regulations which are essential for the formation of the community of Islam. For one cannot be realized without the other. The trust of the Shari`ah cannot be fulfilled without the presence of moral fiber of the highest quality.

The argument that because the prime concern of the Qur’an is moral, its legislative element cannot be meant to be literally eternal, can only hold good if the Qur’an itself says so. But it does not. Nor does it in any way even suggest a different status for one part against the other. There is absolutely no Qur’anic argument or injunction that “to pray” is an eternal imperative, while “to cut off the hand of a thief” or the permission for polygamy are valid only at certain times and under certain circumstances. One can only say in the language of the Qur’an:

[Have you a Book wherein you have read (this)] (Al-Qalam 68:37)

If so, then

[Bring me any Book (revealed) before this, or evidence from knowledge.] (Al-Ahqaf 46:4)

2. The Sunnah

The Prophet himself was not a mere postman who delivered the Book of God and then disappeared. Acting under divine guidance, he not only delivered the message, but launched a movement. He changed men and society, founded a community, established a state, and spent every moment of his prophethood in guiding, directing, and leading his followers. His live example of living by God’s guidance, consisting of whatever he did or said or approved, is the Sunnah, the second basic source of the Shari`ah. The authority of the Sunnah is firmly rooted in the Qur’an and in the historically continuous consensus of the Muslim Ummah.

The explicit statements in the Qur’an in this respect are many. Every prophet was sent to be obeyed (An-Nisaa’ 4:64). The Prophet Muhammad is the last and perfect model (Al-Ahzab 33:21, 40). To obey him is to obey God (An-Nisaa’ 4:80). God and the Prophet are frequently coupled together, especially where obedience is enjoined, but the imperative “obey” is also used separately for God and for His Prophet (An-Nisaa’ 4:59). To follow and obey the Prophet is the only way one can love his God and be loved by Him and have one’s sins forgiven (Aal `Imran 3:31-32). All matters which cause differences or disputes are to be referred to God and His Prophet as the final authority (An-Nisaa’ 4:59). No one can be truly a believer unless he accepts the Prophet as the final arbiter in all affairs and submits to his decisions, willingly and free from all misgivings (An-Nisaa’ 4:65). The Prophet has the authority to permit and prohibit (Al-A`raf 7:157). And, finally, whatever the Prophet gives, must be taken; whatever he forbids, must be eschewed (Al-Hashr 59:7).

The historically continuous consensus and practice of the Ummah dates back to the moment when Abu Bakr, the first caliph, assumed office and, in his inaugural address, explicitly accepted “God and (the example of) His Prophet as deserving obedience and binding upon him.” There is also ample evidence that the first community of Islam invariably looked to the Sunnah for guidance in every sphere of life. Indeed, ever since that time, the entire Ummah has almost always been agreed on the Sunnah as the second source of the Shari`ah. The very few isolated voices that have been raised in disagreement from time to time have never enjoyed support.

The Sunnah is mostly recorded in books of Hadith (sayings or traditions). Initially, mainly because people were concerned that the reports of what the Prophet said or did or approved would get confused with the actual text of the Qur’an, they were not recorded on a large scale. Many compilations were, however, written down privately by individuals, of which authentic evidence exists. As those who had known the Prophet began to die, the need to compile his life example became pressing, and tremendous efforts were made to do so. By the middle of the third century, the first comprehensive source books, those now in use, were completed by Al-Bukhari (d. AH 256/870 CE) and Muslim (d. AH 261/875 CE). More followed and are still extant. Al-Bukhari lists 2,762 traditions and Muslim 4,000 traditions, without taking into account repetitions.

That some reports were forged by various political and theological factions was inevitable: The authority of the Sunnah was so widely accepted that to fabricate their own traditions was the only course open to the unscrupulous to project their own opinions. But first, fabrication itself constitutes strong evidence that the Sunnah was accepted as binding from the very earliest times; why otherwise bother to fabricate it? Second, the existence of historical records of forgery also proves that the problem was recognized and tackled as soon as it arose. Finally, and most importantly, to argue, as some have argued, that all the scholars of the Ummah for the first two hundred years of Islam were engaged in a carefully coordinated plot to do nothing but fabricate Hadith and put into the mouth of the Prophet their own opinions, is untenable. Such fabrication would have required a stupendous, superbly organized effort of a scope beyond even perhaps the most sophisticated means of communication available today. It is too difficult to believe that a single individual like Shafi`i, two centuries after the Prophet, when Muslims had spread far and wide, could force all the scholars and the entire Ummah against their will to accept the Sunnah as the source of the Shari`ah.

3. Ijma` (Consensus)

The consensus of the Ummah in understanding, interpreting, and applying the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah forms the third basic source of the Shari`ah. This can be the only natural, feasible, and wise course to determine the Shari`ah.

Any consensus which has a historical continuity from the days of the four caliphs and the Companions of the Prophet is accepted to be binding. Any other consensus serves as a strong precedent, but one which is nonetheless replaceable by another consensus.

Ijma` (within the limits set by the Qur’an and the Sunnah) provides a mechanism for the Ummah to undertake legislation collectively on issues and problems it may face in an ever changing world, and even venture fresh thinking on past interpretations.

The Shi`as would prefer to look to imams and mujtahids to meet this need. But the acceptance of any particular imam or mujtahid will finally also depend on the acceptance and consensus of the followers. There are no divine signs to support any particular person; and the differences have been many among the Shi`as as to who really was the imam.

4. Ijtihad (Personal Reasoning)

The exercise of reason and judgment to determine the Shari`ah is called ijtihad. It subsumes various categories of endeavor such as opinion (ra’y), analogy (qiyas), equity (istihsan), public good (istislah) and so on. Ijtihad is a precursor to ijma` and has to be exercised within the framework provided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It is a key element in ensuring the dynamism of the Shari`ah, but it is often misunderstood, misrepresented, and even misused. We shall have more to say about it later.

*Based on the book Shari`ah: The Way to God, Published by The Islamic Foundation (1981), here excerpted with some modifications from:http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Books/KM_shariah/index.htm

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