Politics, Culture and Islamic Theology – Part One: Sharia Law

by Stephanie Redfern Jones

         For those unfamiliar with Islam, there are three central interrelated aspects to the major world religion. There are of course, many more aspects to the faith1, but for the purpose of this paper, I will open with a reflection upon two: the central figure and the key texts, which will then provide the basis to open up a discussion of Sharia law.

The centrality of the prophet Muhammed (PBUH)2

         Muhammed (PBUH) is perhaps the most important historical human figure. This is because of his receptivity to divine revelation. The Prophet, according to Islam, received direct revelations from Allah (God), which he wrote down verbatim. The culmination of these revelations, shown by God to Muhammad were eventually compiled together and became the holy book of the Muslim faith; the Quran, (sometimes written Koran) believed by Muslims to literally be the word of God. As a result, aside from the centrality of the figure of Mohammed another important aspect of Muslim faith is the centrality of scripture. The third and most controversial aspect of Islamic faith is Sharia law. This relates to Muhammad because his followers made a record of his life and actions, each record known as a hadith. Sharia law is prevalent in the Quran as a sacred source of law and authority. The importance of this law for Muslims therefore originates from the two crucial aspects of Islam which are the authority of sacred scripture revealed as the writings of the Quran directly to the Prophet Muhammed.


       Literally translated ‘Sharia’ suggests ‘a path to living water’, indicating that the rules outlined in the Quran are, according to Muslims, the truthful way to live a good life and in relationship with God. In the West, Sharia law has garnered a bad reputation because of its associations with fearful human rights infringements or abuses as a result of hudud (applicable punishments for criminal or transgressive behaviour, including stoning and beheading). These practices, although by no means widely practiced in Muslim-majority countries, do occur in Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, these punishments (‘uqubat) actually only form a fifth of what is encompassed in Sharia law. In addition, in its essence Sharia law is simply the law laid out in the Quran, and as with all scriptural information, and so its application depends upon the way it is interpreted. Within Islam there are various schools of thought as to how best to interpret Sharia law. Historically, language around Sharia law has been dictated by the legal opinions (fatwas) of authoritative law-makers (muftis).

Application of Sharia

       However, in particularly traditionalist and orthodox Islamic traditions the notion that Sharia can even be interpreted is dismissed. This is because it is considered to be divinely immutable (originating from God, unchanged and unchangeable). As such, they distinguish Sharia law from Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). There are clear examples of the negative impact of Sharia law. One instance from the last twenty years has included violent outbreaks and over one hundred deaths following the enforcement of Sharia law on a predominantly non-Muslim population in Kano State in northern Nigeria, which some argue contradicts the secular constitution there. In 1999, Ahmed Sani Yerima declared Nigeria a theocracy under Sharia law and since then has been, thirteen northern states of Nigeria are entirely governed by Sharia law. The controversy exists because the population of Nigeria is not entirely Muslim, indeed there are many Christians living there who understandably do not accept Sharia law. Alhaji Al-Imam Bankole, the Chief Imam of the Mosque in Ogun State in Nigeria encourages the two religions to work together for “mutual understanding.”3 Perhaps the most important thing to note is that Sharia law is forbidden to be coerced upon any unwilling party, but of course, flawed human decision making takes law into its own hands at times and perverts the holiness of a religious intention. The purpose of Sharia law for the majority of Muslims is the help individuals in their personal relationship with God – not to enforced an Islamic law onto vast swathes of society.4

Religious Law

       Despite these examples that perhaps the enforcement of Sharia law is not the best thing for societies that are not predominantly or entirely Islamic, Sharia law should not be immediately condemned. It is a formative part of the received tradition of Islam throughout the centuries and although it has sometimes been interpreted and enforced in the wrong way does not mean it should be dispensed with. Just as the Christian and Jewish religions see the Ten Commandments as crucial parts of their own faiths, these rules too have required interpretation and some have been interpreted in the wrong way. Indeed, the Ten Commandment form a crucial part of Western legislation and so the unification between religious law and secular law is by no means anathema from a Western perspective. The point is, the human understanding of religion will never be perfect but even so we should always seek to find improvements in our human institutions as far as possible without radically changing the core integrity, history and tradition of religions.

Religion and Culture

Religion and culture, though they intertwine frequently, are categorically different concepts. Religion involves both the theological convictions including received authority, human institutions, morality and law, and other formal structures. In contrast, culture involves the lived practice of these things. As such, culture varies from community to community, country to country. In a simplistic way, it could be suggested that religion has an internal perspective, looking inwardly towards God as its central focal point; and culture has an outward perspective, acknowledging there are other non-religious elements which have to be factored into life. Inevitably, culture and religion do clash, and when this occurs, it is the responsibility of theological scholars, and the lawmakers of the countries in which religion is practiced to come to an adequate and workable compromise, which neither denies the integrity of the religion, nor disrespects the political arena of the host country.


Therefore, Sharia law forms the basis of Muslim legislation and Islamic jurisprudence, and this is accepted in many Muslim majority countries as the law of the land. Whilst the strictness of Sharia law is evident in its potential for extreme punishments, this does not rule it is out immediately as something which should be eradicated. There is much to be debated as to the level and depth of its enforcement, particularly when there are attempts to enforce Sharia law in a country which is not Muslim-majority, or has the identity of a secular state. The relationship between Western values and whether these are compatible with Islam will be the subject of the second part of this essay series on politics, culture and religion.

1 As a general introduction, I direct the reader to the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’ which provide an overview of the key aspects to the Muslim faith.

2 This stands for ‘Peace Be upon Him’ – Muslims will write this after the name of Prophets, as a mark of respect and reverence for them. The equivalent translation in Arabic is ‘SAW’, an abbreviation for sallallahu alayhi wasallam’.

3 All Africa, “Nigeria: The Sharia Law Debate”, 7 November 2016, http://allafrica.com/stories/201611071072.html, accessed on 31 May 2017.

4 Huffington Post, “Shariah Law: The Five Things Every Non-Muslim (and Muslim) Should Know,” 4 January 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/qasim-rashid/shariah-law-the-five-things-every-non-muslim_b_1068569.html, accessed 31 May 2017.

Image – ‘SHEIKH ZAYED MOSQUE‘ by Saad Mahmood licenced under CC by 2.0