I will never forget the day Nasr Abu Zaid (1943-2010), an Islamic Studies scholar and teacher extraordinaire, told me, “Shariah is not a law.” In spite of his assertion, many people—both Muslims and non-Muslims—are convinced that Shariah is synonymous with archaic legal rulings that are at odds with democracy and modernity.
What is Shariah, then, if not a law? When we see or hear the word Shariah, the word “Law” almost always follows. Shariah literally means a path—a well-trodden path such as animals use on their way to a watering hole. Shariah, then, can be understood as something that when embraced has potential to give life and sustenance.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel circa 600 C.E. That revelation—Muslims believe it to be God’s actual speech—took place over a period of approximately twenty-one years. The Qur’an contains Shariah (path) in the form of information, narrative, and poetry. Since Shariah is essentially a path that leads to life, the critical question centers on how Shariah can be appropriated, leading us to the water that sustains.
According to Noah Feldman, Shariah is more like “God’s blueprint for human life.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/opinion/sunday/a-lesson-for-newt-gingrich-what-shariah-is-and-isnt.html) After the Prophet’s death, revelation ceased. The nascent Muslim community then faced an existential question. How do we go forward with our lives? With no new prophecy to give guidance in matters that arise in day-to-day living, how do we continue along the right path as a believing community?
Muslims developed concrete expressions of Shariah by interpreting sources—Qur’an and Sunna (sayings and doings of the Prophet). Where the Qur’an and Sunna failed to address issues with no precedent, analogy (involving human reason) and consensus (among legal scholars or jurists) were put into use by those who came to be known as Sunni Muslims. The concrete expression of Shariah is technically called fiqh—the body of Islamic law. All reading is interpretation. How we understand and apply what we read varies, depending on what we, readers, bring to a text. Because human beings create fiqh through human interpretation, most scholars agree that fiqh is not divine.
Nasr Abu Zaid explained it to me like this: Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s speech—divine. As soon as that speech was revealed to Muhammad, though, the human element was interjected. “We are not divine. Because we are human, we cannot fully grasp divinity.” So, as soon as the Prophet uttered in human speech what was revealed to him, the Qur’an became human. The humanity of Qur’an is in ADDITION to its divine essence. (Most Christians today think of Jesus in the same way—fully human AND fully divine.) When jurists issue legal rulings (fiqh), those rulings are really a best guess approximation to what humans believe God has in mind. There are a variety of ways to understand and interpret Qur’an and Sunna, hence, the various schools of theology within Islam.
In the U.S. (and beyond), we at times see Muslims carrying signs that read, “Islam is the answer.” Muslims believe that. (Christians also carry signs that read, “Jesus is the answer.” Christians believe that.) What does that belief look like when manifested in people’s lives in the here and now? It varies, depending on the particularities of a people in a specific time and place. Most often, though, theologians carefully consider the faith community’s authoritative sources and interpret those sources in a way they believe will bring life and peace to the community. (Individuals are capable of doing this as well.) It’s problematic, though, when a particular interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna becomes law (human) and equated with Shariah (divine). Laws, because they are human, are not eternal. They can (and have) changed throughout Islamic history.
Most Muslims are horrified with the primitive rulings (often taken from Roman law) that call for stoning people and cutting off body parts for infractions of what so often is called Shariah. Most Christians are horrified by their own tradition’s draconian laws that burned women (and some men) alive for practicing “witchcraft”—something that usually meant going outside boundaries established by those in power. Both Muslims and Christians believe they were/are doing God’s will on earth. Lest we think that Christians’ belief carrying out “God’s will” in ghoulish ways is something that has been relegated to the past, let me assure you, it is not.
During my adult church-going days in a fairly mainstream Protestant denomination, there was great support for Christian Reconstructionism, a movement founded by Rousas Rushdoony. (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Rousas_John_Rushdoony) His teachings have had considerable influence with the Christian Right in the United States. Reconstructionism, among other things, advocates restoring harsh punishment (death) to homosexuals, recalcitrant children, adulterers, and blasphemers. I even heard people from the congregation I attended advocate stoning as a way to carry out “just” punishment.
Most Christians do not think Christian Reconstructionism is a valid lens to peer through while interpreting Scripture. In that same vein, most Muslims do not believe what is often referred to as Shariah Law (old Roman laws that advocate stoning and cutting off hands) to be a valid way of expressing the meaning and intent of the Qur’an. Both Christians and Muslims (at their best) want to create just societies.
When we hear the phrase, “The Qur’an is our Constitution” from people in Muslim-majority countries, they are reflecting their desire for legislation informed by Qur’an and Sunna. No different to my way of thinking from Christian people intent on (and often working towards) having their favorite interpretation of Scripture become the “law of the land.”
Shariah is a blueprint for living. Fiqh gives shape to the blueprint in the form of law. Once a law takes concrete form, it has outlived its usefulness, according to Nasr. I agree. Since life is in constant flux, it’s necessary to continuously tap into the spirit of Shariah, allowing the well-trodden path to inform and guide us.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.