The term “shari’ah” appears constantly in news reports and political speeches, often with a negative connotation. However, those who reference sharia (or “shari’ah law”) often only have a partial understanding or misunderstanding of the concept. The actual definition of shari’ah is “path,” historically “the path to the water well.” In the context of Islamic law and ethics, shari’ah is the totality of Islamic legal and ethical norms, in a sense the path that Muslims take to live according to God’s will.
It is important to understand that shari’ah goes further than just what is permitted (halal) and forbidden (haram). This is the extent of Western notions of legal codes where we focus on the binary of what is legal and what is illegal. Shari’ah actually considers five separate categories of actions, addressing the intricacies of all outward aspects of daily life. These categories are obligatory, recommended, merely permissible, discouraged, and forbidden. Therefore shari’ah is absolutely not a legal code and in no means a penal code as it is often portrayed in the news. For example, although certain actions like smoking might not be explicitly prohibited according the Qur’an, because of its negative health effects, most scholars would consider it to be “discouraged.” Although smiling and being cheery around your coworkers may not be explicitly obligatory, being a source of goodness for others is “encouraged.” Here we get into the ethical nuances and intricacies of shari’ah beyond Western notions of legality and punishable illegality.
Shari’ah addresses two major categories of human life: ‘ibadat, or issues of worship between an individual and God such as prayer, and mu’amalat, or issues between an individual and their larger community. The inclusion of ‘ibadat under the larger umbrella of legal issues often causes confusion amongst those who would not consider religious worship a legal matter. In fact, roughly 80% of shari’ah is actions governed by God-consciousness rather than an external authority. Thus when people say that they follow shari’ah, they are often primarily referring to the fact that they pray five times a day, attend Friday prayers, try not to talk about others behind their backs, etc. These actions all fall under the category of Islamic law, yet it is up to the individual to fulfill their requirements and duties, not an external enforcing power. There is no punishment in this world for failing to perform or avoid acts governed by God-consciousness but the repercussions in the next life make these issues still very much legal matters for Muslims.