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.