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Oxford Islamic Studies Online: What is Shari’a?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

One of the singular best references about Islam, in all its complexity and diversity and nuance, is an online and free collection of essays and reference articles: Oxford Islamic Studies Online. It builds on the classical Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam, as well as several other major reference works, and will be continually updated online. As such it’s a fantastic source (far superior to Wikipedia) for anyone writing, learning, or even critiquing about Islam.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the content is not free, but there are “Focus” articles which serve as gateways on specific topics that are immensely useful in their own right. For example, “What Is Shari?ah?” by Tamara Sonn. A large excerpt follows:

The body of Islamic law does undoubtedly contain
elements that are startling in the light of contemporary Western norms.
And today, there is lively debate among Muslim scholars over many of
the laws that most concern non-Muslim observers, particularly those
dealing with democracy, pluralism, the rights of women and of
minorities, and the status of the traditional ?ud?d punishments.

contemporary Islamic thinkers fully endorse pluralism, including full
equality for all citizens. Egypt’s Fahmi? Huwaydi?, for example, argues
for equal rights for non-Muslim minorities based on the overall goal of
Islamic law, which is to establish justice. In order to achieve justice
in today’s world, he says, democracy is essential. Democracy has been
shown to be successful in the West, and it is the most effective way to
implement the Qur’?n’s command to govern through consultation (sh?r?).
While sh?r? has been exercised in various ways throughout history, in
order to result in justice today it must be anchored in a government
that recognizes the right of people to choose their ruler, and this
right must be shared equally by all citizens. Egyptian legal scholar
Salim al-Awa (Sali?m al-?Aww?) also argues in favor of democracy,
saying that Islam places authority with the people, and all citizens
have equal rights to choose, women and non-Muslims included.

Tunisian thinker Rachid Ghannouchi (R?shid Ghann?shi?) argues for
Muslim participation in secular democracies, again based on the
Qur’?nic principle of participatory governance, sh?r?, which he defines
as the authority of the community. Muslims must work with whoever is
willing to help achieve essential Islamic goals such as “independence,
development, social solidarity, civil liberties, human rights,
political pluralism, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the
press, or liberty for mosques and Islamic activities.”

European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan concludes that any government
conforming to Islamic principles must allow for communal consultation,
including both men and women, and that the most efficient means of
doing that today is through a consultative council made up of elected
members. He also insists that any representatives be chosen on the
basis of competence in various areas pertinent to daily life, rather
than heredity or some other unearned criterion. This competence allows
them to exercise ijtih?d, that is, to deliberate and formulate ways to
achieve Islamic principles in today’s circumstances, instead of relying
on models appropriate to circumstances that no longer exist.
Consequently, Ramadan concludes, Islam is completely opposed to
theocracy. Not only must Islamic government be conducted through
consultation, it also requires freedom of conscience. This is based on
Ramadan’s reading of the Qur’?n’s prohibition of compulsion in matters
of religion (2:256). Thus, he says, people must have the right to
choose their leaders, express their opinions, and live–male and female,
Muslims and non-Muslim–under equal protection of the law, as was the
case in the Prophet’s time under the Constitution of Medina. He argues
that, although there is no unique model of Islamic government, basic
principles have been provided which Ramadan calls “a framework to run

In a similar vein, Ramadan recommends a moratorium on
the implementation of ?ud?d punishments. Other scholars agree, focusing
specifically on the prohibition of apostasy (renouncing one’s
religion). For example, the former chief justice of Pakistan, Dr. S. A.
Rahman, argues that the prohibition of apostasy under threat of capital
punishment violates the Qur’?n’s fundamental insistence on freedom of
conscience. Egypt’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti? Ali Gomaa
(?Al? Jum?ah), also rejects the death sentence for apostasy, arguing
that if punishment is due, it will come in the afterlife. There is even
debate about whether or not some of the ?ud?d punishments have been
properly understood and interpreted in the first place. Tunisian
historian Mohamed Talbi explains that the law requiring capital
punishment for apostasy resulted from a confusion of apostasy with
treason. Leading American Muslim scholar Professor Ali A. Mazrui takes
a slightly different approach. He argues for rethinking the ?ud?d
punishments, saying that the punishments laid down fourteen centuries
ago “had to be truly severe enough to be a deterrent” in their day, but
“since then God has taught us more about crime, its causes,the methods
of its investigation, the limits of guilt, and the much wider range of
possible punishments.”

There is wide ranging opinion regarding
precisely which laws should be subjected to ijtih?d. It is common for
conservative scholars to identify the laws they believe should be
preserved as shari?ah and therefore not subject to ijtih?d. Reformist
thinkers tend to place greater emphasis on the distinction between
shari?ah and fiqh. This discussion has been a feature of Islamic
discourse throughout history.

The full article is well worth reading in its entirety.

(via Svend, who has been developing his own reference work on Islam that’s worth bookmarking as well).

  • svend

    Thanks for the HT, Aziz. Just to clarify, I was just one of a horde of contributors to that encyclopedia, which was published last year.

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