Skip to main content



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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Shari?a." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . 25 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Shari?a." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . (March 25, 2019).

"Shari?a." Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.