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Often translated as "Islamic law" the shari˓a is better understood as the path of correct conduct that God has revealed through his messengers, particularly the prophet Muhammad. The earliest sources indicate its meaning as a "way of belief," either Muslim or non-Muslim, and it was used to translate the word Torah into Arabic. Jurists tend to prefer the term fiqh (understanding) in their books on jurisprudence, leaving shari˓a as a general term. Intention (niyya) to fulfill one's duty to God is often as important as the act itself, and every action should be conceived as worshipping God.

This focus on God extended to a medieval institutionalization of the shari˓a that limited human authority. Even today, there is no central authority for matters of Islamic law in Sunni Islam (some Shi˓ites have developed authority structures), and Muslims may seek advice from a number of different authorities (muftis) before making up their mind. Further, actions are assigned one of five "shari˓a values" (ahkam); between required and forbidden are: recommended, indifferent, and disapproved. These valuations have led some to describe shari˓a as ethics rather than as law. Arguably, postcolonial legal institutions have utterly changed the Muslim's relationship to shari˓a, both by codifying the law and by replacing shari˓a courts.

Shari˓a in Western discourse has come to signify Islam as moribund or authoritarian, perhaps reflecting Christian presumptions of a distinction between law and gospel. Rhetorical use is also found among Muslim intellectuals, some of whom urge a "return" to shari˓a focusing primarily on issues of public dress and ritual conduct, but also invoking the idea of the shari˓a as a total way of life.

See alsoLaw .


Calder, Norman. "Shari˓a." In Vol. 9, Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962.

Goldziher, Ignaz. Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Weiss, Bernard. The Spirit of Islamic Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Jonathan E. Brockopp