An Introduction to Shariah (Islamic Law)

“And as for those who strive for Us, surely we will guide in Our ways.” (29:69)

Meaning and Nature

Shari’ah literally means road, drinking place, and the legal and social practice of a people based on the revelations of their prophet. Among present day Muslims, it has come to be understood as Islamic law or the Islamic code of conduct outlined by the Qur’an.

The Shari’ah of the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad (s), is one in essence. It is the natural law and direction prescribed by Allah for humanity. However, as a road, reflecting one of its literal meanings, it evolves in character taking on the characteristics of the land and time it traverses. The individual paths of the prophets, which are in truth tracts of the same road, guide to one destination though their features differ in form and evolutionary phase in order to suit the requirements of their eras and peoples.

The Shari’ah of the Prophet Muhammad (s) is the Shari’ah of the Prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in its completed form. It is that stretch of the road nearest its destination, that spring which is in full flow, and that tent which can accommodate all human needs until the last day.

During The Life Of The Prophet (S)

Shari’ah during the life of the Prophet (s) was dynamic and fluid. It unfolded in two phases: the first featured the private and individual practice of the Muslims in the hostile environment that was Mecca. The second featured their public, social, and economic practices in the friendly environment of Medina. Each phase required a certain mode of behaviour and demanded a specific sense of priorities.

For the Muslims of Mecca whose foremost concerns were the realization of divine unity within the heart, reflection upon death and the transient nature of the world, and preparation for the next world, the Shari’ah was very much a road whose signposts were the divine revelations which continuously unfolded on the tongue and in the actions of the Prophet (s).

It was a dynamic path of action and direction. There was no preoccupation with the formulation of law in written form or spoken jargon. There in was only an acceptance of guidance by the heart and a simultaneous translation of the same into action.

Being people of fitrah, the early Muslims found the Shari’ah easy to assimilate and embody because it was transmitted by the Prophet (s) as the original life pattern of the human being and not as a formal science or legal system. Furthermore, it took into consideration their circumstances and digestive capacities and did not demand sudden compliance to a whole spectrum of legal guidelines.

In this way the early Muslims were instilled with the wisdom of acknowledging their limitations and the resolve to act according to the Shari’ah of the moment with the trust that Allah would provide the guidance and law required at the right time.

In its Medina phase, the Shari’ah broadened in aperture from that which encompassed the activities of the individual in Mecca to that which would encompass the activities of a living Islamic society in Medina. The individual whose inner enlightenment and corresponding outer code of behaviour were of paramount importance in Mecca was now shown that the existence of a spiritually and physically evolving society was equally important, and in fact absolutely essential if the individual was to reach his or her maximum human potential. The cell of Mecca became the body in Medina.

The unfoldment of the Shari’ah in its full social context began when the ethical and admonitory language of Meccan revelations took on a more legal and regulatory tone in Medinan revelations. Still, as in Mecca, the unfoldment of the Shari’ah was gradual for though there was till no external impediment to its application Qur’ anic guidance saw no -j grounds on which to discontinue its spontaneous nature whereby the need for law and direction was addressed when it arose. In this way, every issue or problem was dealt with according to its merits and particularities.

During the Prophet’s life, the Shari’ah was always transmitted in words or in action in a spontaneous fashion. There was no formal study of segregated subject matter nor was there the public or private tabulation of law. Living the din was based on transmission and receptivity accompanied by transformation and appropriate activity. The creation was the book, its phenomena were the words, and the Prophet (S) was the teacher of their meaning, and this meaning was divine presence – the home of the human soul. This meant that Medina was organic. It was in harmony with the natural
universe for its growth and development followed the same pattern, which may be termed as the universal Shari’ah.

Living Shari’ah, the Purpose and Aim

Shari’ah is the Islamic way of life and conduct. By establishing boundaries, the Shari’ah prevents the dissipation of energy and directs its practitioner along the swiftest and easiest path to fulfilment. The basic role of the Shari’ah is to prevent and resolve social confusion and discord. It is a course of disciplines which combine to give a person a firm grip upon divine guidance so that distraction and turbulence are minimized. Every law of the Shari’ah stems from Allah’s commandment to Adam:

“And do not draw near to this tree so that you become one of the wrongdoers.” (2:35)

The tree symbolized the dispersion (disturbance of earth) and transience of all that is in creation.

Attraction to the fruit of the tree removed Adam and Eve from the realm of unity to the realm of separation, from beyond time and space into time and space dimension. Any action which is not in harmony with Allah’s way will do the same, and is thus a fruit of the same tree which must be avoided.

Knowledge broadens the way, but increased choice plays a major role in the way people approach the Shariah wrongly. The truth is that the way narrows and choice decreases with the increase of knowledge. You become aware that this is beneficial and that is harmful. You know that by performing salat you are confirming your connection with the Real by abandoning into the higher, thereby realising it. So you do not fail to pray.

In the beginning, application of the Shari ‘ah is based on trust that it is the divinely revealed way. Later on it is based on knowledge and conviction. What must be remembered when approaching the Shari ‘ah is that it is the road to appropriate action, and there is no avoiding it. If there is trust, faith, and correct intention, then one experiences:
“And as for those who strive in us, surely we will guide in our ways.” (29:69)

Imam Ali gave an ideal approach to application of Shari’ah when he said:

“Even if one does not attain everything, one does not abandon everything,” and

“Do not abandon what is easy because of what is difficult.”

The Prophet Muhammad {s} said:

“Whoever takes a step to Allah, Allah takes ten steps to him.”

Once the intention to draw near to Allah is manifest in the application of the Shari ‘ah to whatever degree one is able, all manners of openings, insights, and gifts will be experienced. What previously was difficult and incomprehensible will become easy and understood. Acting according to the Shari’ah with trust will lead to adhering to it with knowledge and conviction.

Ultimately, Shari ‘ah becomes outer law and direction mirroring inner knowledge and true awareness. When this occurs, you are free within limitation – a soul within a body. Otherwise everything is in varying degrees of chaos.

Imam Luqman Ali ©