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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy

John L. Esposito

What is Islamic law?

Islam means submission to the will of God. Therefore Muslims put primary emphasis on obeying God as prescribed in Islamic law. Islam's worldview is a vision of individual and communal moral responsibility; Muslims must strive or struggle (jihad) in the path (shariah) of God in order to implement God's will on earth, expand and defend the Muslim community, and establish a just society. The purpose of Islamic law is to provide the guidelines and requirements for two types of interactions: those between human beings and God, or worship, and those between human beings, or social transactions. Both have private and public dimensions, and both give Islam a prominent public role in Muslim community life.

Throughout history Islamic law has remained central to Muslim identity and practice, for it constitutes the ideal social blueprint for the believer who asks, “What should I do?” It is important to note that elaborating the law was the work of religious scholars (ulama), rather than judges, courts, or governments. The law's comprehensive coverage including regulations ranging from religious rituals to marriage, divorce, and inheritance to setting standards for penal and international law, provided a common code of behavior and connection for all Muslim societies.

While in Christianity theology is the queen of sciences, in Islam, as in Judaism, law is the primary religious science. There is a strong distinction between Christianity's emphasis on orthodoxy (or correct doctrine or belief) and Islam's emphasis on orthopraxy (or correct action).

Sunni Muslims recognize four official sources to guide the development of Islamic law: the Quran, the Sunnah (example) of Muhammad, analogical reasoning (qiyas), and consensus (ijma). Shii accept the Quran and Sunnah as well as their own collections of traditions of Ali and other Imams whom they regard as supreme authorities and legal interpreters, and substitute reason for analogy (qiyas).

Quranic texts provide moral directives, setting out what Muslims should aspire to as individuals and achieve as a community. The Sunnah of Muhammad (recorded in hundreds of traditions describing the Prophet's private and public life and his individual and communal activities) illustrates Islamic faith in practice and supplements and explains Quranic principles. Qiyas is used to provide parallels between similar situations or principles when no clear text is found in the Quran or Sunnah. For example, a broad prohibition of alcohol is deduced from a specific prohibition of wine, based on the altered mental state that both substances cause. The fourth source of law, consensus (ijma), originated from Muhammad's reported saying “My community will never agree on an error.” This came to mean that a consensus among religious scholars could determine permissibility of an action.

Concern for justice led to the development of other legal principles that guide decision making where there are several potential outcomes. Among them are equity (istihsan), which permits exceptions to strict or literal legal reasoning in favor of the public interest (maslaha) or human welfare to assure a flexibility enabling judges to arrive at just and equitable decisions. These mechanisms allowed for multiple interpretations of texts based on context, necessity, and consensus.

Differences exist between the major Islamic law schools that reflect the diverse geographic, social, historical, and cultural contexts in which the jurists were writing. In the modern world, Islamic law faces the challenge of distinguishing the divine prescriptions and eternal principles of the Quran from regulations arising from human interpretations in response to specific historical situations. Many ulama, representing the traditional and conservative strains in Islam, continue to equate God's divinely revealed law with the laws in the legal manuals developed by the early law schools. Reformers, however, call for change in laws that are the products of social custom and human reasoning. Reformers say that what is unchanging relates to the Muslim's duties and obligations to God (worship). Laws that relate to social transactions or obligations, which are contingent on social and historical circumstances, are subject to change. Consequently, reformists have reclaimed the right to ijtihad (independent reasoning) to reinterpret Islam to address contemporary issues and meet needs in modern societies.

Legal reforms remain a contested issue in many contemporary Muslim countries. Most Muslim states, such as Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Morocco, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have Western-inspired constitutions and legal codes blended with Islamic laws. However, family law, which is viewed as the “heart of the Shariah” and the basis for a strong, Islamically oriented family structure and society, has remained intact in most Muslim countries. Nevertheless, significant reforms in marriage and divorce laws have occurred in many countries to protect and expand women's rights, although some scholars argue that these modern gains have not gone far enough in securing women's Quranically ordained rights.

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