Sharia as a Path to God
Andrew F. March
For many of us in America, “Sharia” is a household word, familiar from the media and political debates. But what is Sharia and how much do ordinary Americans really know about it? We may think of it as “Islamic law” but that doesn’t tell us very much if we know little about the Islamic tradition. I’m not a Muslim myself, but I am a scholar of Islamic law, and I often find myself introducing Sharia to college students whose only knowledge of Islam might come from news reports about distant and confusing events.
I tell them that for Muslims, Sharia means the “way” or “path” to God. I also explain that it’s broader than just law, and it refers to the very idea of God communicating with humans through revelation. This is why for Muslims, the Sharia includes God’s messages to previous prophets, from Noah to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. This shouldn’t be a surprise—Muslims see God’s revelation to Muhammad SAW as a continuation, and completion, of the message revealed to the earlier Jewish and Christian prophets.
But while the Sharia is not just law, it is law. It contains rules of behavior. But Muslim legal scholars of the past described the Sharia not so much as a codified rulebook, like our tax code, nor as merely a set of higher principles, like the idea of natural law, but as the ongoing search for God’s prescriptions for human action. Like the Mosaic law, the Sharia is the discovery of the rules that will allow believers to obey God.
Muslims understand that these rules of Sharia reflect broader purposes and values. Scholars and theologians have traditionally said that the entire Sharia is designed to protect human welfare, which they define through 6 core universal interests: life, religion, reason, wealth, family and honor.
For example, the Sharia prohibits the consumption of alcohol. But scholars don’t just say that this is because God has forbidden it – but also because it is God’s will that humans protect and preserve their reason or intellect, which is necessary for making correct moral decisions.
The Sharia also prohibits sexual relations outside of marriage. This is not just because of divine decree, but because it preserves family bonds. At the same time, the Sharia prohibits false accusations of sexual immorality. This protects human dignity and honor, which are necessary for living a good life. So the Sharia should first be understood by its goals and values before its rules.
What then are those rules? And if they are not codified, how are they known? Muslim jurists discovered these rules through 4 primary sources: the Quran, the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), the universal agreement about a matter by the Muslim community (or its scholars), and the careful use of analogy.
Law usually refers to the public sphere, but most of the Sharia’s rulings are about private spiritual practice, such as prayer, fasting, charity, and so on. And while rulings on social relations from marriage, divorce, sales, contracts, and inheritance remain a living part of the Sharia, their implementation in modern societies varies from country to country. Sometimes it is based purely on personal conviction—as in the case of American Muslims voluntarily giving to charity or following Islamic finance laws.
Importantly, very few of the areas of behavior and social relations the Sharia governs have only a single rule on which all jurists agree. Scholars always accepted and recognized reasonable disagreement, because interpretation could rarely provide complete certainty about God’s intentions.
Yet this did not mean that anyone could just impose their own understanding of God’s law on others, especially through force. While the Sharia also encompasses certain rulings on civil procedure, aspects of crime and punishment, and even warfare, only public authorities could establish courts with the power to enforce Sharia rulings.
Today, this has changed in a number of ways. In nations where Muslims are minorities—such as the United States—Muslim scholars emphasize that the Sharia makes it obligatory for Muslims to follow the secular laws of the lands where they live.
In many Muslim majority countries, it is now the state alone, and not scholars who specialize in the Sharia, that decides what will be enforced in courts. And the state’s rules are completely divorced from the sophisticated methods and culture of traditional scholars.
So when we say that some modern states apply the Sharia we need to remember that states may have picked and chosen certain rulings, but isolated rules alone don’t represent the meaning and spirit of the Sharia.
But this is what is still true for Muslims today, they see the Sharia as primarily about finding the path to God, and about making this world an abode of justice. In other words, for Muslims, the Sharia is about protecting the most important human interests and values, life, religion, wealth, reason, family and honor.
I’m Andrew March for the Emir-Stein Center.
|About the Speaker(s)/Author(s):|
Andrew F. March taught for ten years in the Political Science Department at Yale University, and has taught Islamic Law at Yale and NYU law schools. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of political philosophy, Islamic law and political thought, religion, and political theory. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar.
For more details:
Andrew March | Department of Political Science | UMass Amherst
Andrew F. March | Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
Andrew F. March | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Andrew F. March – People – Berggruen Institute