(Arab. Scharia, Turk. Şeriat)
The term ‘sharia’ can have different meanings: a) the various forms of Divine commandments as revealed to the prophets, depending on the society and era involved, b) the legal system, based on Islamic principles and rules, that governs individual and social life, c) the contemporary interpretation and application of religious principles in keeping with a respective societal context.
In its fullest sense, the word ‘sharia’ encompasses the commandments and prohibitions as revealed by God through His messengers at certain times for the support of human reason.
Sharia applies, first, to the content of faith; this makes it a part of Islamic theology (kalam). Secondly, sharia contains provisions applicable to the practical lives of Muslims, and this makes it a part of jurisprudence. In jurisprudence, sharia is determined through reference not only to the Qur’an but to the Sunnah as well. Additional sources of sharia include scholarly consensus and reasoning by analogy. In Islamic theology, sharia, alongside reason and sensory experience, is the third source of knowledge, which is referred to as disclosure (khabar).
The terms ‘religion’ and ‘sharia’ are closely related. They are often used as synonyms for one another. In the revelations, beginning with the first prophet, Adam, and continuing to the last prophet, Muhammad, belief in the existence and unity of God and in the hereafter were conveyed to people as unshakable principles, and a morally flawless life commanded. These principles were referred to as religion, and their implementation as sharia. The fact that God has revealed different things to humankind at different stages shows that religion, immutable in its essence, is still dynamic and variable from a historical and cultural point of view. Accordingly, religion constitutes the universal foundation of Divine will, making a relationship between God and humankind possible, while sharia reflects Divine will under specific historical conditions. From the verse (42:13), in which God says to Muhammad that He enjoins upon him the things he enjoined upon Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus before him, there emerges the immutable in Islam that already existed in the earlier religions. The various manifestations of sharia, on the other hand, about which it is said in the Qur’an that they each in their own way a true image of the one religion (5:48), reflect the will of God in historical context. Yet the dynamics of Divine will are also indebted to the shifting needs of humankind (maslaha). It is said, for instance, that the Caliph Umar (579-644), guided by an insight into the variability of sharia, did not mandate execution of the punishment of the amputation of a thief’s hand (5:38).
In closing, it should be noted that in the modern era the interpretation of sharia, which was presented by the founders of Islamic law centuries ago, is open to other points of view on the part of legal scholars in light of different circumstances. Because the legal portion of sharia is open to new interpretations, sharia and secular law cannot be understood as mutually exclusive alternatives.