Islamic Law Lexicon :: Islamic Law (sharīʿa)

By Alicia Daniel

Citation: Sherman A. Jackson, The Primacy of Domestic Politics: Ibn Bint Al-Aʿazz and the Establishment of Four Chief Judgeships in Mamlūk Egypt, Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 1 (1995): 52-65.

*Note: All page numbers used as citations refer to the above article.

Sherman A. Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Short definition: Islamic Law: the law of Islam; the diverse practices that come from Islamic religious sources, which many Muslims follow privately out of religious conviction (even though unenforceable), and public aspects of which are sometimes enforced in some Muslim-majority countries

Long definition: Islamic law historically entails a complex legal apparatus for interpreting, applying, and enforcing the rules of Islam in Muslim societies. Islamic law is elaborated by jurists as well as by judges (qāḍīs) in courts. Therefore, sources of these rules include the Qurʾān, ḥadīth, ḥukm (court judgments), fatāwā (advisory opinions), and other interpretive tools for assessing legal meaning. Although similar to most Western courts in many ways, Islamic courts historically had their own unique procedural and substantive rules by which jurists and litigants are bound.

ʿUlamāʾ and fuqahāʾ, or scholars of Islamic law, have long been important and respected members of Islamic societies. They have also disagreed about what Islamic law mans. From the early days of Islam in the seventh century, scholars have often disagreed amongst themselves about how to interpret Islamic law. Like any legal system, Islamic law is complex and always evolving. Differences of opinion over not only the interpretation of texts but also the best way to govern a dynamic society are inevitable.

One outgrowth of such differences has been the establishment of different schools of Islamic law, or madhhabs. Each legal school (madhhab) has its own core scholars and methods of interpretation, and they often hold opposing views on issues of Islamic law. The different legal schools often exist in harmony, as shown by the establishment of “super-colleges,” where scholars from the different schools taught and studied side-by-side. However, differences in interpretation and practice can lead to sharp political divides.

Islamic law is an extremely broad legal system. In theory, it encompasses criminal law, family law, contract law, property law, religious or ritual law, and other areas. Precisely because it is so extensive, particular doctrines of Islamic law often present a variety of choice-of-law issues in our increasingly globalized world. Muslims are extraordinarily geographically and culturally diverse, together with their legal opinions. It is thus a growing challenge for many countries to effectively handle religious and legal pluralism, and Islamic law is often at the forefront of these issues. Nations the world over should educate themselves on Islamic law and the role it plays in the lives of Muslims so that they may make informed decisions on how best to address Islamic law within their own legal systems.

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