2 What Is Shariah?
Its Two Main Foundations: the Quran and Hadith
by James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.
This series of articles about Islamic shariah law is intended for educators, journalists, judges, legislators, city council members, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, TV and radio talk show hosts, and everyone else who occupies the “check points” in society; they initiate the national dialogue and even shape the flow of the conversation — they are the decision and policy makers.
They have heard the critics of shariah and believe the critics exaggerate. The intellectual elites may even believe the critics are “Islamophobes.” Islam is a world religion, so it deserves respect, after all.
Yet the elites may also have gnawing doubt that the critics are at least partially accurate. Can they be all wrong, all the time? The elites have heard disturbing reports coming out of the Islamic world, and even in their own world.
Defenders of shariah post articles online seeking to allay the secret doubts of the intellectuals. This series quotes extensively from the defenders. The apologists seem to have one main goal in mind: to communicate the message that there is nothing wrong with shariah.
As to the purpose of this present article, it defines the terms and identifies the major legal scholars.
We begin with the Quran and hadith, the two main sources or foundations of shariah, and then move on to shariah itself.
Table of Contents:
Islam flows out of
the life, words, example and revelations of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet,
messenger, or apostle, sent from Allah. The revelations he got from his deity
were mainly recited on the mosque pulpit in Medina. Some of the earlier ones
were cited in various places in Mecca, like the Kabah shrine where the black
stone is housed, or in the marketplace.
Then he moved to
Medina in A.D. 622, because the Meccans were going to kill him. But the
revelations did not stop. He recited them in various places like the
marketplace, on his travels, and in the mosque itself.
They were written
down in the Quran several decades after he died. Since they came directly from
Allah, the Quran is sacred and inspired. It is binding on all Muslims, if they
interpret it correctly.
The Oxford Dictionary of Islam says the
. . . The book of Islamic revelation;
scripture. The term means “recitation.” The Quran is believed to be the word of
God transmitted through the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran proclaims God’s
existence and will and is the ultimate source of religious knowledge for
Muslims. The Quran serves as both record and guide for the Muslim community,
transcending time and space. Muslims have dedicated their best minds and
talents to the exegesis and recitation of the Quran because the Quran is the
criterion by which everything else is to be judged; all movements, whether of
radical reform or of moderate change, whether originating at the center or at
the periphery of the Islamic world, have grounded their programs in the Quran
and use it as support.
What is so striking
about that excerpt is that the Quran transcends time and place. It is
cross-cultural and ahistorical; that is, it is applicable to any society today
and in the future. The second feature in the excerpt is that the Quran judges
all movements of change and reform.
The Quran was
written in a time (the seventh century) and a place (Arabia, and specifically
the Hejaz or western Arabia). To believe that every verse can be brought
forward and applied to the modern world means that the reform of Islam is very
The Quran is a very conservative book, religiously speaking, to say the least.
everything Muhammad did or said made it in the sacred book. In fact, most of
what he did or said did not make it in. But he had close companions and others
who remembered his words and deeds.
Soon after his death
they loved to tell stories about him. “I remember what Allah’s messenger said
in this situation.” Or “we were with Allah’s apostle when we fought the pagans
at such-and-such battle.” “The prophet ruled that this or that action should be
punished or forgiven.” These are the oral traditions, handed down from one
generation to the next.
conscientious Muslim scholars observed that the traditions may have been
distorted and grew to be unreliable and unsound or were never reliable or sound
in the first place. The scholars sifted them by requiring a chain of narrators
to be of utmost integrity and honesty.
Did the traditions
contradict clear verses in the Quran? Then they were rejected. Yet there still
are some passages which contradict statements of the Quran; occasionally hadith
are even abrogating the Quran. One example is the hadith of stoning the
adulterers which takes priority over the verse of the Quran which demands
flogging. Nonetheless, most hadith were rejected if they contradicted the
Next, were the
various passages embarrassing? They were suspect — too bad since embarrassing
ones may have the chance of being the most reliable, because a devout and
reliable Muslim of authority would never frivolously pass on a tradition that
he believed would embarrass his prophet, so the transmitter believed it was
In any case,
collectors and editors wrote them down in their books, and this body of writing
is called the hadith, which may be defined briefly as the reports and narrations
and traditions of Muhammad’s deeds and words that take on a sacredness and a
binding force. Sometimes they report on the words and deeds of his closest
companions who carry their own special authority.
In addition to that
brief definition of the hadith, let’s find a more official one. The Oxford Dictionary of
Hadith: Report of the words and deeds of Muhammad and other early
Muslims; considered an authoritative source of revelation, second only to the
Quran (sometimes referred to as sayings of the Prophet). Hadith (pl. ahadith;
hadith is used as a singular or a collective term in English) were collected,
transmitted, and taught orally for two centuries after Muhammad’s death and
then began to be collected in written form and codified. They serve as a source
of biographical material for Muhammad, contextualization of Quranic
revelations, and Islamic law. A list of authoritative transmitters is usually
included in collections. Compilers were careful to record hadith exactly as
received from recognized transmission specialists… The science of hadith
criticism was developed to determine authenticity and preserve the corpus from
alteration or fabrication. Chains of authority and transmission were verified
as far back as possible, often to Muhammad himself. Chains of transmission were
assessed by the number and credibility of the transmitters and the continuity
of the chains (isnad). The nature of
the text was also examined. Reports that were illogical, exaggerated,
fantastic, or repulsive or that contradicted the Quran were considered suspect.
Awareness of fabrication and false teaching has long existed but became a major
issue in academic circles in the twentieth century due to early reliance on
oral, rather than written, transmission. Traditionally, the body of authentic
hadith reports is considered to embody the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the New Encyclopedia of Islam Cyril GlassÃ©,
a Muslim, says that the hadith traditions form the foundation of Islamic law
and there was the need to write them down so the community could refer to them:
The Hadith were accorded the role of basis of law in Islamic
jurisprudence by the universally accepted methodology of ash-Shafi’i [see
below]. It then became inevitable that as Islam unfolded in History, the need
for the tangible support which Hadith could provide for intellectual and
cultural developments called forth the “missing” or
“unspoken” Hadith that were now required. If in the first centuries
the standard by which Hadith were measured was that of an impeccable isnad, the growing needs of an expanding
Islam of later times added de facto another, one of verisimilitude in
the eyes of a developed and sophisticated religious community.
Then GlassÃ© says
that great care was taken by reliable hadith editors and collectors to get the
The collections of Bukhari and Muslim were scrupulously compiled in the
first two and a half centuries of Islam. Their authenticity was assured by the
criterion which the
people of the time found most valid, that of an authoritative isnad, or
chain of transmission. The method was based on the assumption that it was
unthinkable for God-fearing men to lie about matters which they held sacred; each human link in the chain vouchsafed
the others. If in the isnad there were persons whose integrity could be
doubted for any reason, however small, the authenticity of the Hadith was to
that extent weakened. Biographical study also served to establish the plausibility
of the transmissions. Naturally, fabricated Hadith also had fabricated isnad,
but criticism of the matn [text
of the hadith] would be equivalent to dogmatic discussions of Islam
itself — thus analysis discussions turned around the isnad, but often as
euphemism for a discussion of the contents.
As noted, Bukhari
(d. 870) and Muslim
(d. 875) are considered the most reliable, with Bukhari carrying the most
weight. We also occasionally use Abu Dawud
(d. 875), another authentic collector and editor.
Shariah, sometimes spelled sharia or even
shareeah, is Islamic law derived from the Quran and the hadith.
With these two sources it is no wonder that many Muslim jurists, indeed the
average Muslim, believe that shariah is divine.
And if it is divine, then it must be the
foundation of Islamic nations and wherever Islam becomes dominant. It must be
implemented, gradually if a nation is non-Islamic and constitutionally if it is.
But before we go too far down the path toward the purpose of shariah, we need
to formally define it.
We begin with the word “shariah” in the Quran.
The three-letter root of shariah is sh-r-“˜ and its verb form can mean, among
other things, “to lay down law,
to ordain, to enact (a law)” (Quran 42:13, 21).
In its two noun forms (shariah and shirah) it can mean “an open way, a clear
way, a right way . . . a Divine law, an access” (Quran 5:48; 45:18).
Moving on to
other sources, we find that the Concise
Encyclopedia of Islam define shariah as “the road to the watering place,
the clear path to be followed, as a technical term, the canon law of Islam.”
The Dictionary of the Holy Quran adds that
the verb and noun forms signify, “establish a law, appoint a religion … law
or institution prescribed by God; right way or mode of action … system of
divine law; way of belief and practice.”
definitions imply that shariah is a whole way of life.
shariah’s literal definitions, the Oxford
Dictionary of Islam says:
Two terms are used to refer to law in Islam: shariah and fiqh. Shariah refers to God’s divine law
as contained in the Quran and the sayings and doings of Muhammad (hadith). Fiqh refers to the scholarly efforts of
jurists (fuqaha) to elaborate the
details of shariah through investigation and debate. Muslims understand shariah
to be an unchanging revelation, while fiqh,
as a human endeavor, is open to debate, reinterpretation, and change.
Next, Islamic law comes from Allah, but it is
found in historical contexts, but despite the human interaction with Islamic
law in history, it is divine and absolute. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam says:
Allah’s law is not to be penetrated by the intelligence … i.e. man has
to accept it without criticism, with its apparent inconsistencies and its
incomprehensible decrees, as wisdom into which it is impossible to enquire. One
must not look in it for causes in our sense, nor for principles; it is based on
the will of Allah which is bound by no principles, therefore evasions are
considered as a permissible use of means put at one’s disposal by Allah
himself. Muslim law which has come into being in the course of time through the
interworking of many factors, which can hardly be exactly appreciated, has
always been considered by its followers as something elevated, high above human
wisdom, and as a matter of fact human logic or system has little share in it.
However, Islamic law, though having a divine
origin, can be explored, in order to find the most suitable ruling and
interpretation. Yet Islamic scholars must not put too much stress on theory.
Instead, shariah, as we just observed in the Dictionary of the Holy Quran, comprises all areas of life and
society, including tolerated faiths, if they are not “detrimental to Islam.”
In that light, the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam continues:
A modest enquiry into the meaning of the divine laws so far as Allah
himself has indicated the path of enquiry is, however, not prohibited. There is
therefore frequent reference to the deeper meaning and suitability … of a
law. But one must always guard against placing too much stress on such
theoretical considerations. For this very reason, the [shariah] is not
“law” in the modern sense of the word, any more than it is on account
of its subject matter. It comprises, without restriction, as an infallible
doctrine of duties the whole of the religious, political, social, domestic and
private life of those who profess Islam, and the activities of the tolerated
members of other faiths so far as they may not be detrimental to Islam.
Despite shariah’s divine origins and its
intention to swallow up all aspects of life and society, there is wiggle room,
so to speak.
As noted, fiqh
is the science of applying and interpreting shariah, done by qualified judges
and legal scholars. Over the first two centuries after Muhammad’s death in A.D.
632, four main Sunni schools of fiqh
emerged, led by these scholars: Malik (d. 795), Abu Hanifah (d. 767), Shafi”i
(d. 820), Ibn Hanbal (d. 855). They in turn had students who added their own
opinions to those of their teachers, even many generations after the founding
jurists lived. In other words, fiqh is open to interpretation, and it
is not necessarily binding outside of a court of law.
In this series of articles we keep track of a
few differences between the various schools, but mainly we will observe the
remarkable unanimity on how to implement divine Islamic law. It is this
consensus in various rulings, like death or imprisonment for apostates, which
implies that we should not take this “wiggle room” too far. When a shariah judge rules in his courtroom,
the decree is indeed binding.
A quick note before
we begin the series in earnest: the designation “Classical” is used in the
articles. We don’t need a complicated definition.
For our purposes it
begins with the death of Ali (the fourth caliph and Muhammad’s cousin and
son-in-law) in A.D. 661 and goes into the fourteenth century when the law books
and commentaries were still flourishing. Especially noteworthy is the eight
century when the earliest extant biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq
(d. 767), and the ninth century when the oral traditions were gathered, edited,
and written down into various volumes, now known collectively as the hadith.
The time before
Ali’s death will be known in this series as “original Islam.”
Shariah is divine Islamic law that has its roots
in the Quran and the traditions (hadith) about Muhammad. Since Allah inspired
the Quran, and Muhammad lived the perfect life in conformity to the Quran,
shariah is believed to have a divine origin.
However, interpreting shariah is not divine, but
can be changed and reinterpreted.
Maybe it is here that we can hold out hope that
Islam can evolve and fit into the modern age. But it will be very difficult to
reinterpret shariah laws that are based squarely on clear Quranic laws. So we
should not be naÃ¯ve or overly optimistic about the reform of Islam; it
certainly will not happen overnight, and maybe not even in our lifetime.
 The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ed. Jonathan Esposito (New York: Oxford UP,
 The series does not explain the Bible and
how to interpret it properly, especially the interrelations between the Old and
New Testaments, law and grace. But readers may be curious about it. If so, they
may click on my two studies: How Christ Fulfills the Old Testament and How Christians Benefit
from the Old Testament. Christianity does not bring every verse
in the Old Testament forward to the world today. There are hermeneutical
(interpretive) principles that guide Christians.
Oxford Dictionary of Islam, 101-02.
 Cyril GlassÃ©, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, rev. ed., (New York: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1991), 161.
 Ibid. 160.
 Bukhari, Sahih Bukari, 9 vols. trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh:
Darussalam, 1997). Cited as Bukhari, this edition is used throughout this
series of articles. We will reference it by the book title, the volume in the
nine-volume set, and the hadith number, which are placed sequentially. So, for
example, Marriage, 7.5204 means the Book on Marriage, vol. 7, hadith no. 5204.
The hadith are searchable online at the Center
for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern
 Muslim, Sahih Muslim, 4 vols., trans. and ed. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi (Lahore,
Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1992), throughout this series of articles cited
as Muslim, and then the same standard referencing system applies: book title,
volume number, and hadith number.
 Abu Dawud, Sunan Abu Dawud, 3 vols., trans. Ahmed
Hasan (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984, 2004), throughout this
series cited as Abu Dawud, and the same standard referencing system applies:
book or section title, volume number, and hadith number.
 There are six so-called sahih (sound) hadith collectors: the
three named in this article and Abu Isa Muhammad at-Tirmidhi (known as
Tirmidhi) (d. 892 or 915); an Nasai (d. 915); and Ibn Maja (d. 886) (Cyril
GlassÃ©, The New Encyclopedia of Islam,
rev. ed., [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991], 159).
The other two sources, consensus and analogical reasoning, take us
too far afield and into needless complications for our purposes, but sometimes
we will note the consensus of the Muslim legal scholars.
 Hannah E. Kassis, A Concordance of the
Quran, Los Angeles: UCP, 1983), 1142.
 H.A.R. Gibb and J. H. Kramer, Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden:
Brill, 1953), 524.
 Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin: Noor Foundation, 2003),
287, with a few mechanical adjustments, like lower case letters instead of
upper case or punctuation.
Gibb and Kramer, Concise