The Arabic word shari’ah refers to the laws and way of life prescribed by God for his servants. It deals with ideology, faith, behavior, manners and matters of daily life. We recognize that customs and traditions, good taste, and civil law all have some authority over people in every culture, preventing them from doing certain things and obliging them to do others. So it is to be expected that religion, too, would have some authority over people. In Islam, this authority rightfully belongs to God and is derived from His final revelation.
The Islamic Shari’ah is a divinely ordained legal system whose primary objective is benefit to mankind. Its principles are designed to protect people from evil and direct them to what is best in all aspects of life. Moreover, its benefit is for everyone – rich and poor, rulers and ruled, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, whose right to worship and manage their personal and family affairs according to their own norms is explicit. The Shari’ah provides injunctions that guarantee justice, promote the general welfare, preserve order, safeguard human rights, and define responsibilities.
Its established constants are derived from the texts of the Qur’an and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and have been confirmed by a consensus of Muslim scholars both in theory and practice. These basic principles are agreed upon by all, while differences over variables are acceptable and, in fact, provide the flexibility necessary for the system to accommodate changing circumstances.
Besides defining methods of Islamic worship, the Shari’ah provides an outline for thought and education based upon such moral values as justice, generosity, chastity, honesty, mercy and respect for humanity in general. It provides the standard for social and political issues – the choice of a ruler, consultation within the government, opposition to injustice, defense of truth and right, individual and collective duties, intellectual enlightenment based on evidences and proofs, respect and tolerance for the viewpoints of others, and the encouragement of open and frank discussions.
Generally, anything that is neither known to be harmful nor mentioned as forbidden in Islamic law is permitted. In what pertains to daily life, all is allowed except for was explicitly prohibited in the Qur’an or by Prophet Muhammad, and this includes everything harmful, whether or not it is considered so by limited human perception. What is forbidden in Islam is a small segment of the whole, so that what is permitted is sufficient to make what is forbidden unnecessary. For example, the encouragement and facilitation of lawful marriage greatly reduces the temptation toward fornication and adultery. When Islam forbids sexual relations outside the framework of marriage, the aim is to purify individuals and societies physically and morally. Similarly, interest can be replaced by lawful business gains, gambling replaced by competition in sport and religion, fornication replaced by lawful marriage, and forbidden food and drink replaced by healthy food and drink.
The general purpose and objectives of the Shari’ah do not change. It clearly defines what is prohibited and considers all other things to be permissible. Only harmful things have been prohibited, and whatever has benefit has been permitted. Islamic legislation maintains a balance between the needs of the individual and society, allowing neither to outweigh the other.
The inner deterrent of man’s moral conscience is fully integrated with external supervision. Islam stresses the role of the individual conscience and is concerned with cultivating within it the fear and love of God and the hope for His mercy. This ensures that an individual will be responsive to the commandments of God even when there is no external monitoring system and that he or she will voluntarily avoid what prohibited. However, the system does not rely exclusively upon the conscience. It complements its role by providing laws to be upheld by society and enforced by the judicial authority.
It is true that the system includes a few severe penalties for certain types of criminals, but in practice, crime has always been drastically reduced within societies that applied Islamic Shari’ah, and this is the real purpose of its legislation. Crime and punishment cannot be treated as separate issues. When the Shari’ah is considered in totality, one finds that initially every measure is taken to provide what is lawful and block all avenues leading to the unlawful. Moreover, punishment cannot be applied unless it is established beyond any doubt that the crime was committed by someone of legal age and sound mind having knowledge of its prohibition and without being under the least compulsion. Further, an additional burden of providing trustworthy witnesses in some cases makes conviction highly unlikely. In light of the numerous constraints, a determined transgressor, once convicted in a court of law, may rightly be made an example as a further deterrent to others. Thus, the system is not only just but most merciful to society as a whole.
On another level, the Shari’ah operates to satisfy the sense of justice of the victim and his heirs. Contrary to what some people suppose, there is no capital punishment for murder. Retribution is a legal decision given to the victim’s family and carried out by the courts according to their instruction. They have three options:
- They can demand that the state executes the murderer on their behalf.
- They can opt instead for a payment of blood money from the murderer.
- They can forgive the murderer and forgo any kind of compensation.
Forgiveness in this world, however, does not necessarily mean acquittal in the Hereafter. A would-be offender is deterred not only by the threat of physical or pecuniary punishments, he is first and foremost accountable before God, who may forgive or punish as He sees fit.
One of the features of Islamic legislation is that it has a moderate approach to issues and problems regarding the relationship between the individual and society. The Shari’ah has left particular areas open for scholars to make interpretive judgments according to changing norms and circumstances. It responds to the demands of social progress in a way that keeps it compatible with the practical realities of a changing world and reconciles the issue of progress with that of ideological continuity, striking a balance between progress and continuity in mailers of human life. At the same time, it maintains continuity in its primary goals and objectives. Its religious, moral, economic and social values remain constant, governed by a set of unchanging principles.