Islam guides us in everything we do. Whether it is about prayer, fasting, charity, food, clothing, economics, marriage, divorce, children, or just behavior in general, Islam usually has some detailed rules or general advice on what to do and what to avoid.

The comprehensive term for this guidance from Allah is called the Sharīʿah, which literally means “the path” or “the way”. The word Sharīʿah is often translated as ‘Islamic law’ because it also covers the dos and don’ts a Muslim should live by. It is like Halakhah, which is translated as Jewish law.

The main sources of the Sharīʿah are the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad. After the Prophet passed away, Muslims could not ask him what to do in a particular situation so they resorted to making an analogy (qiyās) on what the Qur’an or Sunnah had already taught. For example, the Qur’an prohibits drinking alcohol but does not specifically talk about recreational drugs like marijuana or hashish. When the Muslim community encountered hashish, scholars used analogy to conclude that all recreational drugs which intoxicate you are also prohibited, just like alcoholic beverages.

Throughout history, Muslim legal scholars continued to be asked questions about Islam. Muslims would encounter new circumstances, or they would ask detailed questions that people did not ask the Prophet before. The legal scholars would try to give answers whenever they could and they would compile this information into books. Not long after the Prophet, they categorized their answers into five categories of desirability:

  • Obligatory [farḍ/wājib]: If you omit this act without an excuse it will be counted as a sin. If you perform it, it will be counted as a good deed. Example: praying on time.
  • Recommended [sunnah/nafl]: If you perform this act it will be counted as a good deed. If you omit it without excuse you will not incur any sin. Example: performing the morning [post-sunrise] prayer.
  • Permissible [mubāḥ]: It is the same whether you perform this act or not, it will neither be counted as a good deed nor as a sin. Example: scratching yourself during prayer, when needed.
  • Disliked [makrūh]: If you avoid this act it might be counted as a good deed. If you perform it you will not incur sin. Example: washing your left arm before the right one when washing before prayer.
  • Prohibited [ḥarām]: If you perform this act it will be counted as a sin. Example: praying without washing first.

The scholars also clarified that if you encounter a severe difficulty, or an exceptional circumstance, you should ask a scholar about your situation, since the Sharīʿah has given exceptions to certain people. There is a general principle which states: “difficulty necessitates ease”. This axiom means that whenever a person faces a very difficult circumstance, there is usually an exception to the rule to ease the burden. For example, a person who has difficulty standing for prayer is allowed to sit or even lie down and pray. The scholars documented the general rules, as well as the exceptions, in books.

When a Muslim wants to learn about the Sharīʿah they will usually go to two main sources: a manual on rules and a handbook on manners. Let us take two famous examples. The first is a rule book called the Mukhtasar of Imam Quduri who lived from 973-1037 C.E. in Baghdad. His book begins by explaining how to purify yourself before prayer in great detail. That is followed by an explanation of how to pray. It includes all the details like the call to prayer, different types of prayer, how to pray when injured, and many other issues. After prayer, he explains the annual charity (called Zakāh) and how it should be paid. That discussion is followed by what to do in the month of Ramadan and how to fast. Finally, he dedicates a chapter on how the Pilgrimage to Makkah is performed, called the Ḥajj.

Once the Mukhtasar has described the details of these acts of worship to God, it then moves onto how to deal with other people. The section on economic transactions describes the details of a sale contract, leasing, using collateral, bankruptcy, and even what to do when you find a lost item on the ground. From economics, the book moves onto marriage and divorce. It includes issues related to children and falls under the general category of Family Law. Following that, it addresses criminal law and how a government should keep society safe. Sometimes, biased media outlets imply that the Sharīʿah only refers to harsh punishments for certain crimes, known as the ḥudūd, that are presented as being uncivilized or barbaric. However, a perusal of this chapter shows that the severe punishments for certain crimes were coupled with very high standards of proof so they were rarely carried out and mainly served as a hypothetical legal deterrent.

From there, the book switches to what type of food and drink to avoid and how to slaughter animals correctly to ensure they are ‘Halal’. Afterwards, it discusses how lawsuits in front of a judge are to be handled when people have a dispute between each other. The next section is about politics and rules of war. This is followed by what type of clothing to avoid. The book concludes with inheritance and what happens after someone dies.

It should be clear that a legal text like the Mukhtasar encompasses many different aspects of a Muslim’s life. It explains the dos and don’ts of many things in detail. However, these detailed rules are not the only subjects of the Sharīʿah. Riyāḍ Aṣ-Ṣāliḥīn is a famous handbook on Islamic manners. A quick perusal through its table of contents shows that it addresses topics such as the importance of sincerity, repentance, patience, controlling anger, diminishing greed, being good to parents, visiting the sick, being kind to neighbors, taking care of animals, sleeping properly, and many other aspects of everyday life. All these things fall within the framework of the Sharīʿah.

The attempt by Muslim scholars to understand what the Sharīʿah actually says is called Fiqh, which means “deep understanding”. For example, when you wash yourself before prayer (known as wuḍū’), you wash your hands, rinse your mouth and nose, wash your face, arms, and feet, all three times. But when it comes to wiping your head and ears with water, do you do it once or three times? Muslim scholars have differed over some points like this. Some said once and others said three times. So Sharīʿah is what God wants people to do in this life. Fiqh is the understanding by experts who try to understand what it is that God wants. They agree on all the fundamentals and are usually correct in their analysis, but in places where there is some ambiguity in the Qur’an or Sunnah, they may differ and some of them will be wrong once in a while. Therefore, the Sharīʿah has some scope for change due to differing circumstances or due to a recognition of a mistake in the Fiqh process.

[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar | Oct 3, 2022 – Irvine, CA