Friday, May 18, 2018

What is sharia law?

From The Sociology of Islam: Knowledge, Power and Civility (p. 79-80):

Based on a Qur’anic keyword meaning the “straight path,” the sharia was first elaborated by Muslim scholars as a philosophical and theological rather than a strictly legal concept (W.C. Smith 1962).

Yet over time and by virtue of the force represented by the rising importance of Sufism as a discipline stressing the inner truth, the sharia, as much as it was seen as the manifestation of divine Will (shar`), also came to represent the outer dimensions of the ethico-religious code of Islam. The sharia happened to be identified with the more systematic dimension of the Islamic normativity, the one that could be formulated in terms of legal norms which, in turn, would be liable – to a not yet exclusive extent – to be enforced. Apart from this technically legal dimension, the sharia covered a comprehensive concept of norm, which included ritual and dietary rules, as well as rules about family, commerce, and social relations more in general. However, this normative idiom, reflecting basic values of humanity, justice, and equality, never became a code in the sense of a closed (and univocally ‘searchable’) text. It rather preserved an inherent, inner pluralism and contestability in the form of a cumulative tradition articulated in translocal schools and local, contextualized sets of practices variably drawing from most pre-Islamic customs.

This is why the understandings of sharia and related practices have been historically dependent on the types of knowledge and the varieties of culture prevalent on a local scale, as well as on the degree of social contention and reconstruction that they authorized. The convergence between concretely practiced Islamic jurisprudence and the idea of sharia was therefore a diversified, gradual, and (at least till the colonial era) never fully accomplished process… Modern attempts to systematize and implement sharia, whether associated with ‘liberal’ and ‘reformist’ or with ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘puritan’ interpretations (all labels that, originating in Western history, should be taken with a grain of salt), have been hardly able to extinguish its historic dynamism. Yet they certainly contributed to obfuscate the consciousness of this dynamism among a mass public, which in the colonial and postcolonial eras has been more prone to appreciate its new rigidified contours.

It is a myth to assume that sharia is a universal, coherent legal code that is ready to be applied. Any missiological approach to Muslims that claims sharia is some sort of spiritual force that means the same thing to all Muslims everywhere has not done enough contextual analysis.

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