A lot of people ask me about Islamic law, how it works, and what I mean when I talk about the different schools. So I thought I'd write this post on Sunni Islamic law, to be followed later by one on Shi'ism.
"Islamic law" is a translation of the Arabic term "shari'a
," which literally refers to a path. In this case, it is the path of a believing Muslim in doing God's will, and encompasses all aspects of Muslim life both public and private. The people the media refer to as clerics are better thought of as scholars (ulama
), for they do not adminster sacraments, but instead study shari'a
and show the people the proper way to live. Although all Muslims are supposed to gain some knowledge of shari'a
, in practical terms most simply choose a famous scholar and follow his example.
Islamic law derives from four sources: the Qur'an, the Sunna (tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, based on the Hadith, which are individual accounts of his words and deeds), analogy from the Qur'an and Sunna (qiyas
), and the consensus of the Muslim community (ijma
). Using these sources, religious scholars perform ijtihad
, which means to strive for correct judgement and is used to refer to the practice of independent reasoning on legal questions using the four sources of Islamic law. Over time, scholars divided into schools of thought, or in Arabic madhhab
, meaning "path." These differ on the basis of methodology - how one comes to a conclusion is more important that the actual conclusion. Of these, four had lasting importance, and in the middle ages most cities had judges in each of the four so everyone could follow their own way. These are:
: Accepts local custom as another possible source of law, allows great liberty to individual scholars, as the favored school of the Turkish peoples it became prevalent throughout the old Ottoman Empire, as well as South and Central Asia and is today followed by the majority of Muslims
: Places emphasis on the practice of Medina as the community founded by Muhammad, prevalent in North Africa, West Africa and in days of yore Muslim Spain
: Believes the both Qur'an and Sunna are infallible, and tries to reconcile contradictions while placing little emphasis on analogy and consensus, it is followed today in Egypt, southern Arabia, Southeast Asia, East Africa and Chechnya and is considered the most lenient
: Elevates the Qur'an and Sunna above all else, considered the strictest, significant in the Arabian peninsula
Now in order to understand how this works in the modern world, we need to keep in mind a concept known as "The Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad
." At some point, the belief grew up among Muslims that around the year 1000, all the questions of life had been settled and independent reasoning was no longer useful. This was never actually a universal belief, but was common enough that the study of shari'a
gradually became more and more tied to the past. This has interesting effects for our impression of the madhhabs
. For example, based on procedure, the Hanafi looks fairly liberal. After all, a Hanafi scholar in California could very easily include Californian customs as one of his sources, and produce some rather liberal views. If the gates of ijtihad
are closed, however, we're left with rulings based on the customs of 10th-century Turkestan, which were somewhat different, and in some areas, such as women's rights, the Hanafi is actually the most conservative school.
In reality, however, the "gates of ijtihad
" were never quite latched, and by the 18th century, Muslim reformers had emerged to challenge the status quo. The most influential was Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who sought to "purify" the Hanbali branch of what he thought were pagan influences. A group of scholars called the Deobandis did the same thing with the Hanafi, leading to the brand of Islam practiced by the Taliban. The obvious thing to regret here, of course, is that these influential reformers have been coming at things from the wrong end, so to speak. More liberal voices are out there, too, but generally don't make headlines or take over countries, so most liberal Muslims find themselves looking at secularism as the main alternative to Islamic law as handed down through the centuries.
So the key points: Islamic law at its core is not a set code of conduct, but a diverse field of inquiry with many differences of opinion. Nonetheless, the conservative trends that cropped up during the past millennium have left it with a very conservative stamp. When Islamic law is adopted, the theoretical potential exists for a sort of "rethinking" if the community to which it is applied considers ijtihad
legitimate in the modern world. Whether or not such development actually takes place is a subject for another time, and perhaps someone who specializes more on the 20th century. Individuals, of course, follow shari'a
all the time, each according to their own conscience. Because many acts are classified as either "praiseworthy" or "reprehensible" instead of just "obligatory" or "forbidden," and because even with prohibited stuff penalties often involve God's judgement rather than a government's, this is very much within the historical mainstream of Islamic spirituality.
UPDATE: JB suggests a couple of resources for the 20th century