Shari'a is an Arabic word meaning “path” or “way.” Today the term is used most commonly to mean “Islamic law,” the detailed system of religious law developed by Muslim scholars in the first three centuries of Islam and still in force among fundamentalists today.
Shari'a tries to describe in detail all possible human acts, dividing them into permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram). It subdivides them into various degrees of good or evil such as obligatory, recommended, neutral, objectionable or forbidden. This vast compendium of rules regulates all matters of devotional life, worship, ritual purity, marriage and inheritance, criminal offenses, commerce and personal conduct. It also regulates the governing of the Islamic state and its relations to non-Muslims within the state as well as to enemies outside the state. Shari'a influences the behavior and worldview of most Muslims, even in secular states where it forms no part of the law of the land.
Islam teaches that shari'a, as God’s revealed law, perfect and eternal, is binding on individuals, society and state in all its details. By logical extension, any criticism of shari'a is heresy. Muslims who deny the validity of shari'a in any way are labeled as non-Muslims (infidels) or apostates (those who convert to another religion) by traditionalists and Islamists. As such, they face the threat of being prosecuted for apostasy, a crime that carries the death penalty in shari'a.
The mandates of shari'a are extremely harsh compared to modern Western standards. They infringe on many modern principles of human rights, religious freedom, and equality of all before the law. For example:
Hudud punishments are the severe penalities prescribed by shari'a for offenses defined as being against God himself. The punishments for these crimes are seen as divinely ordained and cannot be changed by humans. These include 100 lashes or stoning to death as punishment for adultery; 80 lashes for false accusation of adultery; amputation of limbs for theft; 40 or 80 lashes for drinking alcohol; imprisonment, amputation or death (by crucifixion in serious cases) for highway robbery; and the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Methods of execution for apostasy can include decapitation, crucifixion, burning, strangling, drowning, impaling, and flaying. Apostates are denied a decent burial after their deaths, and the Muslims who participate in killing them are promised an eternal reward in paradise.
Discrimination on the basis of religion is fundamental to shari'a. By religious edict, Islam must be dominant; only Muslims are considered to be full citizens. Jews and Christians are defined as dhimmis (literally “protected” i.e. permitted to live). However this protection is on condition that they do not bear arms, know their lowly place in society, treat Muslims with respect, and pay a special poll tax (jizya).
Shari‘a divides the world into two opposing domains: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-Harb). Muslims are supposed to wage jihad to change the House of War (where non-Muslims are dominant) into the House of Islam, dominated by Muslims. While some modern Muslims reject this aggressive understanding of jihad, and see it merely as a strengthening of personal faith, most agree that jihad includes defending Muslim territory and Muslims from any form of aggression; this leaves the door open to interpreting any conflict involving Muslims as a case of defensive jihad. Islamic terror groups justify their atrocities by references to the shari'a rules on jihad.
Shari'a discriminates on the basis of gender. Men are regarded as superior. Women are treated as deficient in intelligence, morals and religion, and must therefore be protected from their own weaknesses. Shari'a rules enforce modesty in dress and behavior and the segregation of the sexes. These regulations place women under the legal guardianship of their male relatives. Women are inherently of less value than men in many legal rulings. A man is allowed up to four wives, but women can have only one husband. A man can divorce his wife easily; a woman faces great obstacles should she want a divorce from her husband. A daughter inherits half as much as a son, and the testimony of a female witness in court is worth only half that of a male witness. In cases of murder, the compensation for a woman is less than that given for a man.
Shari'a courts often display a clear gender bias. This is seen in the widespread practice of accusing rape victims of illicit sexual relations (zina), an offense which carries punishments ranging from imprisonment and flogging to death by stoning.
Female genital mutilation is widespread among some Muslim communities, especially in Egypt, East Africa, Yemen, and Indonesia. Many Muslim leaders see the practice as essential for preserving women’s chastity on which family honor largely depends.
In shari'a there are differences between the various schools of law as to the extent of what a woman may reveal in public. The Hanafi and Maliki schools of law permit face and hands to be revealed in public, thus there is no need for a veil over the face. Among Hanbalis there are two opinions, some permitting the revealing of face and hands, others forbidding it. The Shafi‘is demand that a woman’s face and hands be covered in public, thus demanding some kind of veil over her face.
Both Qur’an and hadith urge modesty in women’s dress and command them to cover themselves in public. The problem is a matter of interpretation of the original Arabic words used.
Most Sunni Muslims believe shari‘a to be completely unchangeable, although Shi'as allow for the possibility of interpreting and adapting it to new circumstances. Since the nineteenth century, there have been efforts at reforming shari'a in a liberal direction in order to accommodate it to the modern world, but in the contemporary Muslim world, the traditionalists and especially the Islamists -- upholders of the traditional view of shari'a -- are now dominating public opinion.
Of particular concern for Americans are cases where Muslim litigants seek -- sometimes successfully -- to have their cases in U.S. courts decided by principles of Sharia law. As of May 2011, the Center for Security Policy (CSP) had identified 50 examples in 23 states “where Muslim-Americans had their cases decided by Sharia Law against their will.” In one case, a Trial Court judge had ruled based on Moroccan Sharia law, even though those involved were not Moroccans or even Muslims. In Tampa, Forida, a judge had ruled that a dispute between two Muslim parties would be solved in accordance with Sharia, overruling the objections of one party. And in a notorious New Jersey case, a judge had exonerated a Muslim man of raping his wife because Sharia allowed him to do so. (The ruling was later overturned.) The 50 instances cited by CSP represented just a fraction of the total number of such cases.
Adapted mostly from "What Is Shari'a?" (published by the Barnabas Fund, January-February 2007).