As mentioned Shari’ah literally means a path to a water hole, thus, a way to the foundation of life. Shari’ah as a term only appears once in the Qur’an (Kamali, 2010) and religiously speaking means a pathway to be followed seeking contentment and deliverance.
The etymology of shari’ah as a “path” or “way” derives from the Qur’anic verse, “Thus we put you on the right way of religion. So follow it and follow not the whimsical desire (ḥawa) of those who have no knowledge” (45:18).
At the time of the revelation of this verse shari’ah did not exist as a legal system and the Qur’anic reference here is to its literal sense of an explicit faith in Allah’s designated way – Islam (Kamali, 2010).
The religious character of Islamic law emanates from the divine source – Qur’an and divinely inspired source – the Sunnah – believed to be representing God’s design for the correct ordering of all human activities. Although Muslims generally agree that they are bound by the shari’ah, there is no single understanding of it (Coulson, 1984).
The term shari’ah was not used in the initial period of Islamic history and rarely appears in the Qur’an hadiths (reports of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) (Coulson, 1984). In Arabic al-Qanun al-Islami (Islamic law) or al-shari’at al-Islamiyya (Islamic law) are often used (Coulson, 1984).
The interpretations of shari’ah and its requirements have differed historically influenced by sectarian divisions and the existence of a wide spectrum of jurisprudential schools and, in modern era, impacted by question of how to design and apply shari’ah to a constantly and fast changing contemporary human conditions and circumstances.
These have left shari’ah as a legal system with a dynamic nature and without a unified code. Despite this, shari’ah is the fundamental religious concept of Islam and the essence of Muslim faith. It is used in the Qur’an as mentioned earlier in relation to a way toward or purpose of faith.
Shari’ah is used in relation to the whole system of law and jurisprudence within the religion of Islam. The principal Islamic ethos demands Muslims to surrender to the Will of Allah in totality, and Allah’s command for Muslim ummah (Muslim community) is expressed through the shari’ah and constitutes a system of duties that all faithful believers must fulfil.
For Muslims, shari’ah is founded on the words of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’anic revelation is purported to have laid down the basic standards of conduct upon which the Prophet Muhammad established his first ummah.
The Qur’an, it has been suggested, provides a variety of ethico-legal teachings. Some of these have a universal application while others are specific to particular circumstances and material conditions. Raji al Faruqi tells us that:
“Muslims have recognized the imperatives and desiderata of the Qur’an as falling into different orders of rank or priority. Although they all belong to the divine will and are constitutive of it, Qur’anic values do not all enjoy the same degree of normativeness. Some are more fundamental and important than others. Some are direct and specific in what they demand of man; some are indirect, pointing to general directions. Some are explicit and comprehensible on first reading; others are implicit and have to be deduced from one or more Qur’anic premises” (al Faruqi, 1986: 246).
The Qur’an is taken by Muslims to present the key elements of legislation and contains legal instructions as I discussed earlier in the above section. As Hallaq explains:
“The traditional count of all legal verses comes to about five hundred—a number that at first glance seems exiguous, considering the overall size of the Quran. . . . these verses represent a larger weight than the number may indicate. It is common knowledge that the Quran repeats itself both literally and thematically, but this tendency of repetition is absent in the legal subject matter. The proportion of the legal verses, therefore, is larger than that suggested by an absolute number. And if we consider the fact that the average length of the legal verses is twice or even thrice that of the non-legal verses, it is not difficult to argue. . . . that the Quran contains no less legal material than does the Torah” (Hallaq, 2005: 21).
Muslims believe that shari’ah is by nature a text-based law originating from the sacred sources of Islam: the Qur’an as the literal word of Allah and hadith as the tradition—words and deeds—of Muhammad the Prophet. Apart from these two primary sacred sources that constitute the basis of shari’ah, there are three other secondary sources: ijma (scholarly consensus), qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and ijtihad (individual reasoning, which is an intellectual property for increasing ilm (knowledge of traditional practice and the trained capacity to deduce from it, using ray or juristic opinion). Combined, these five sources form the complete basis of shari’ah.