Sharia is an Arabic word that translates to ‘the path’ and describes a route to somewhere good. We mistakenly equate it with meaning ‘Islamic law’, but more accurately, the Sharia is a body of ethics and principles that should yield good laws. These ethics and principles come from the idea that by being fair towards his fellow humans, to animals and to the planet, man is serving God.
The Sharia wants to promote justice, protect people and stop harm – objectives which are to be found in most legal systems, particularly one that has evolved over time such as the English Common Law tradition. Where those objectives are met, the spirit of the Sharia can be said to be present. In fact, the very early Muslims (including the Prophet Muhammad) didn’t use the word ‘Sharia’ in its legal sense as we do today.
The word ‘Sharia’ provokes much unease today and is also largely misunderstood – neither the Sharia nor the Quran are a mere list of fixed laws and rigid rules of ‘do’s and don’ts’, though the Quran is held as the most important inspiration for law. Not surprisingly, a lot of this unease is related to the area of crime and punishment.
It is true that some of the punishments applied in some Muslim states today are contrary to modern ideas of punishment. Some forms of punishment found in Islamic texts are similar to those in Biblical sources and in some cases traditions were adopted from various regions that Islam spread to.
Today, questions are being asked about the position of such punishments and debates are taking place within Islamic legal scholarship about the relevance and application of such punishments.