Islam






shari'ah
sacred law


Islam
The Qur'an
   When Muhammad relocated to Medina in 622, after twelve years of revelation in Mecca, he quickly found himself with a large community of believers. At this point, the nature of Quranic revelation changed dramatically; it became less concerned with the nature of God and the human relationship to God and more concerned with social and individual duties. This societistic and nomistic focus is an integral part of Islam as a religion. The combined set of individual and social duties prescribed on every believer by the Islamic faith is Shari'ah, or the sacred law. This sacred law gives to the Muslim world a unity and coherence to society not found in any other major world religion.


Islam Glossary
Five Pillars
Hadith
   The principle source of Shari'ah is the Qur'an itself; the very core of the Shari'ah are the arkan ad-din, or the "five pillars of relgion," which prescribe all the rituals incumbent on a believer. There are, however, a plethora of social and ethical matters not covered in the Quranic revelations. For these, the Shari'ah bases its principles on the Sunnah of Muhammad. The Sunnah are the collected histories of the actions and words that Muhammad spoke outside of revelation; for the Shari'ah , the sayings of the prophet Muhammad (hadith) are the most vitally important aspect of the Sunnah. Still, the Qur'an and the Sunnah leave several social and ethical matters untouched; for these, the Shari'ah turns to the consensus (ijma') of the most religious and scholarly members of the community and to argument through analogy (qiyas), that is, by using established truths of the sacred law to come up with rules or judgements for matters not covered in the sacred law. These are the four principles of Shari'ah :the Qur'an , the Sunnah, consensus, and argument through analogy.


   Like other sacred laws, the Shari'ah consists of commandments and prohibitions covering almost every aspect of life, from marriage to criminality to the economic life of the community. In the sacred law of Islam, all human actions are divided into five types: obligatory actions, recommended actions, indifferent actions, repulsive actions, and forbidden actions. Punishments are incurred for neglecting obligatory actions or for performing forbidden actions; the three middle categories allow for a great deal of interpretive latitude in prosecution and punishment. Unlike other legal traditions, however, the Shari'ah is not only concerned with the here and now, its primary focus is on salvation, on the life after this life. The Shari'ah are not simply rules for living; they are rules for gaining salvation by performing proper actions in this life.


   The sacred law was codified in the eighth and ninth centuries—many decades after the death of Muhammad—in order to produce legal texts for legislation and jurisprudence in the growing Islamic bureaucracies. The Shari'ah is actually divided into four separate traditions named after the schools of jurisprudence (madhabs) that arose in the codification of the Shari'ah . These four different schools vary in details but not really in larger matters or organization. These four madhabs have since the tenth century divided Islamic society according to which version of the Shari'ah a region chooses to follow. The four madhabs and the regions currently dominated by each one are:


Maliki: named after its founder, Malik ibn Anas (died 795); this sacred law currently dominates in North Africa.

Shafi'i: named after its founder, ash-Shafi'i (died 820); this is the sacred law prevalent in Egypt.

Hanafi: founded by Abu Hanifah (died 767); the Shari'ah of Turkey and Pakistan (and the Ottoman and Mughal empires).

Hanbali: named after its founder, Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died 855); the Shari'ah of some areas in eastern Asia.


Islam Glossary
'Ulama
   While every Islamic society follows one of these four versions of the Shari'ah , it is recognized that human affairs are manifold and constantly changing. In order to address the relationship between sacred law and the changing world of human life, a special group of people came to be regarded as experts in the Qur'an and in sacred law: the 'ulama, or "religious scholars." To be sure, the 'ulama formed in the decades following the death of Muhammad; in the Abassid dynasty of the eight and ninth centuries, however, these religious scholars became government functionaries whose specific task was to interpret the Shari'ah . Until the twentieth century, the 'ulama was a vital part of all Islamic government. Since all Islamic society is to be founded on the the sacred law, the 'ulama had special functions in legislation, adjudication, and interpreting the law.

Richard Hooker



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1998, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-18-98