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There are two sources of Shari’a: The Qur’an, which many Muslims consider to be the literal word of Allah; and the “Sunnah,” the divinely guided tradition of Islam’s, Prophet Muhammad. The interpretation of Shari’a is called “fiqh,” or Islamic jurisprudence. Because fiqh is man-made, it can be changed; Shari’a, for many Muslims, is devine and cannot be changed.
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In Islam, the origin of shari’a is the Qur’an, and traditions gathered from the life of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (born ca. 570 A.D. in Mecca). The formative period of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) stretches back to the time of the early Muslim communities. In this period, jurists were more concerned with pragmatic issues of authority and teaching than with theory.
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The origins of Islamic law is a field of inquiry fraught with difficulties. These proceed mostly from two problems; first, a dearth of securely datable “formative period” evidentiary materials; and, second, problematic reasoning on the part of inquiring scholars.
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Not too long ago, North Carolina approved a bill that prohibits judges in that state from considering “foreign laws” in making their legal decisions. Six other states have acted similarly about “foreign laws.” Why didn’t these states mention “Shari’a law” as did Oklahoma? The reason is that two federal courts ruled as unconstitutional the singling our of Shari’a. Thus, those states that want to pass anti-Shari’a laws have had to resort to using the wider phrase, “foreign laws.”
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The beginnings of the schools of law in Islam go back to the late Umayyad period, or about the beginning of the second Islamic century, when Islamic legal thought started to develop out of the administrative and popular practice as shaped by the religious and ethical precepts of the Qur’an and the hadith.
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This is a divisive topic around which there are considerable differences of opinion, heightened emotion, and deep confusion. One speaker I heard explained the difference between Shari’a and Islamic law better than I had ever heard it explained, and he did it in one short sentence. He said that the U.S. Constitution is to Shari’a as American law is to Islamic law.
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If Shari’a law is for Muslims, what is its place in a Muslim-majority nation? If the answer seems obvious, that may be part of the problem. But another part is understanding Shari’a law in the first place, and in a helpful article on the blog of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grand Mufti Dr. Shawki Allam elaborates on what it is, and what it is not.