FAQs About Shariah


Date published: Mon, 12 May 14

What is Shariah?

Shariah is the Arabic word for ‘the path’, which refers to the guidance for everyday life derived from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet to enable Muslims to live a morally-informed and spiritually enriched life. It is a moral-ethical system of norms and ideals to which Muslims are constantly aspiring. Shariah is not only a set of legal strictures; it is also about being a good parent, a good neighbor, a good PTA member, a good fireman.

Shariah — popularly known as Islamic law — is a product of Muslim jurists ’understanding and interpretation of the Quran and the Prophet’s tradition. There is no formalized code of Shariah. Other than issues related to doctrine and belief, i.e. belief in one God, belief in God’s prophets, belief in the Day of Judgment,  the vast majority of these religious decrees are subject to very wide interpretations.

Shariah, like Jewish Halacha law and Catholic Canon law, is a comprehensive way of life that covers beliefs, acts of worship, supplication, social relations, marriage and dietary restrictions. Both the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Shariah promote freedom of worship.

Does Shariah change over time?

Shariah as God’s will and guidance for the humanity does not change over time. However, the interpretation and application of the Quran and tradition of the prophet may change according to circumstances, time and place.

The fiqh (jurisprudence) tradition of trying to uncover the true meaning of Shariah in every day life is a long and rich tradition of constructive dialogue and plurality of opinions based on ijtehad (independent critical reasoning) of Muslim jurists and ijma (consensus building).

Are penal laws part of Shariah?

The most talked about punishments today – and most misunderstood — are the ones rendered for the so-called “Hudood” crimes that are specified in the Quran.  There are three things that one should know about such penal laws: First, while these laws are part of Shariah, they can only be applied in a socio-economic context that has already eliminated the conditions that tend to exacerbate crimes. Secondly, the strict evidentiary requirements that the Quran demands in cases such as adultery are virtually impossible to meet. Thirdly, as a result of strict evidentiary requirements, throughout the entire history of the Muslim world very few such punishments were delivered. Today, enforcement of such punishments in Muslim societies are few and far between.

The point for our fellow-Americans to know, however, is that American Muslims have never never sought to have Shariah’s penal laws introduced in the U.S.

Is Islam compatible with democracy?

Only a few decades ago there was an intense debate among scholars whether Catholicism was compatible with democracy. Today we witness the same debate about Islam and democracy. The fact is that Islam enjoins Muslims to decide their public affairs through free debate and mutual consultation. All early successors to the Prophet were selected as rulers with free consent of the people and ruled through Shura, an early form of parliament or consultative assembly.  The consent of the majority was always sought out in all public policies and decisions.  The fact that some Muslim countries today are not democratic does not mean that Islam as a religion is incompatible with democracy. There were many South American societies that were under military dictatorships until recently. Obviously, it was not their religion that caused them to be undemocratic.
The facts on the ground, as determined by major surveys such as the Gallup World Poll, reveal a desire for greater democratization in the Muslim World. When asked what they admire about the West, majorities of Muslims’ top three spontaneous responses were: (1) technology; (2) the West’s value system, hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation; and (3) fair political systems, democracy, respect of human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality. In general, Muslims see no contradiction between democratic values and their religion. Muslims want neither a theocracy nor a secular system that is devoid of religious values and moral principles; they opt for a third model in which religious principles and democratic values coexist (From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito pp. 190-191)

Do American Muslims want Shariah in the United States?

American Muslims, like their fellow Americans, fully stand by the U.S. Constitution with all its obligations and rights. But like their fellow Americans, they would also like to practice their faith pursuant to the First Amendment. No more and no less. Muslims do not – and have never demanded to – impose Islamic penal laws in the U.S. They do not even apply alimony and many other laws that other faiths enjoy. It is a total misconception that Muslims want to introduce Shariah in the United States. American Muslims practice Shariah in their religious obligations such as praying, fasting and abstaining from alcohol. They do not seek to impose Shariah on anyone.

IS Shariah a threat?

For American Muslims it is simply inconceivable how anyone can think that Shariah is a threat to American society or its values. Muslims only want to observe Shariah norms in their religious matters and personal lives. How does this constitute a threat to anyone? They do not want to impose it on others; they do not force anyone to subscribe to it; and, most important, their observance of Shariah does not conflict with any law of the United States.

Do American Muslims follow U.S. laws?

Absolutely. American Muslims follow U.S. laws like any other law abiding citizen of the United States. Shariah enjoins Muslims to become better believers and productive members of society. In that regard, Muslims do follow Shariah: they strive to be honest, truthful and trust worthy in their dealings; they abstain from alcohol and pork; they pray to God to protect them from immoral practices; they feed the poor and the needy; and they fulfill the rights of their families, their neighbors and the communities where they live.

Does Shariah practiced by American Muslims Conflict with The US Laws?

Absolutely not. The U.S. Constitution forbids any other framework of public law. As citizens and residents of the U.S., Muslims are contractually bound to obey the Constitution. Islamically, Muslims are not permitted to disobey the laws of the land or formulate such laws that would conflict with those on which the founding fathers established this country. Just like all other citizens, Muslims also seek protection within the U.S. judicial system and participate in this democracy as best they can.

Can Muslims be loyal citizens?

Yes. Muslims are taught to respect the laws of the land they live in as long as they can still effectively practice their religion. Islam is a faith, a way to be in a relationship with God and to be in community with others. Like other people of faith whose values are inspired by religious tradition, Muslims can be and are engaged and concerned citizens.

What would Shariah look like in the U.S.?

Shariah in the life of Muslims of the U.S. would mean the observance of its norms in personal and private contracts, including those involving marriage, inheritance, and mutually agreed transactions among Muslims.   However, any such private contracts would have to be fully consistent with the local, state and federal laws and the U.S. Constitution.

Are other faiths in America allowed to practice their religious laws?

Yes. All other religions are free to practice their laws as long as they do not impinge on U.S. civil or criminal code. This means that the Jewish Halacha law is allowed to be practiced. So is the Catholic Canon law that governs the church affairs.

What did the founding fathers say about religious freedom?

The founding fathers made it abundantantly clear that religious liberty should be protected. This was then codified in the Constitution by the First Amendment in 1789. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment made it clear that while the U.S. does not stipulate a religion for its citizens, it guarantees the freedom of religion to all its citizens.

What does Islam say about religious freedom?

This very concept of religious freedom is enshrined in the Qur’an when it states “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). All Muslims must abide by this injunction of the Quran. Islam does not accept conversion by force whether in the U.S. or in any Muslim country.

Who is behind the anti-shariah hysteria?

“A small group of individuals, foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America. They provide critical funding to the right-wing think tanks that peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam—in the form of books, reports, websites, blogs, and carefully crafted videos and talking points that anti-Islam organizations and some right-wing religious groups use as propaganda for their constituency. Some of these foundations and wealthy donors also provide direct funding to anti-Islam grassroots groups. Their modus operndi is to spread hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims by raising the non-existing Shariah issue. (Read more in the report, Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America)

Why do Muslim women wear veils?

Many Muslim women wear veil or a hijab because they see it as a religious obligation.  Islam prescribes a modest mode of dress for both males and females. The emphasis is on modesty and not on any specific mode and style of dress. The Quran commands modesty for both men and woman, and says in regards to women “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty” (24:31)
Does Islam approve of honor killings?

Absolutely not. Islam strictly prohibits honor killings; in fact, it prohibits the taking of an innocent life for any reason. Specifically, early Muslims were warned and prohibited against the murder of newborn girls – a barbaric practice in the Arabian peninsula before the introduction of Islam.
“Honor killings are murders, usually committed by male family members against female family members who are accused of “immoral” behavior (violating social norms, modesty, and sexual codes) that is seen as breaking the “honor codes” of a family or community. As the products of strong patriarchal value systems, these codes reflect deeply rooted social and cultural concepts of honor and shame, and women are seen as responsible for maintaining family and community honor. . . Honor killings have occurred across cultures and across religions…but none of the world’s religions, including Islam, approves such murders.” (From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito)

Are women second class citizens in Islam?

No.  Islam regards men and women as equal in the eyes of God. Whenever God addresses the human race with respect to their duties towards Him, He addresses them as “Believing men and believing women,” thus acknowledging both as equal in His eyes and honoring them both equally.

The advent of Islam greatly improved the status of women, prohibiting female infanticide and abolishing women’s status as property.  Women were granted the right to own property, do business, receive a dowry, retain their maiden names and maintain financial independence from their spouses, and, most important, the right to divorce.

What does Islam say about domestic violence?

“Domestic violence is a serious social problem in the West and globally, and the Muslim world is no exception. Many grassroots movements and women’s organizations who work to eradicate domestic violence through education emphasize Quranic teachings about the rights and responsibilities of men and women.

Many verses in the Quran teach that men and women are to be kind to and supportive of each other. Love, compassion, equity and justice in family relationships are emphasized and cruelty is forbidden. Quran (30:21) states, “And among his signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy in your [hearts]: behold, verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” Quran (4:19) further commands, “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness. On the contrary, live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing through which God brings about a great deal of good.” The last Quranic verse revealed (9:71) was about relations between husband and wife in which women and men are described as being each other’s protecting friends and guardians, emphasizing their cooperation in living together as partners, rather than adversaries or superiors and subordinates. Likewise, the Prophetic traditions note Muhammad’s respect for and protection of women. Muhammad said, “The best of you is he who is best to his wife.” Muhammad’s wife Aisha narrated that Muhammad never hit any servant or woman and never physically struck anyone with his own hand.” (From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito pp. 114-115)

What does Islam say about female circumcision?

Female genital mutilation is “neither an Islamic practice nor widespread among Muslims. Rather, it appears to be an African tradition that remains in practice in countries like Sudan and Egypt, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” (From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito p 111)

What does Islam say about forced marriage?

“There is a common misconception that in Islam women are forced into marriage, having no right to choose their husbands . . . In Islam a woman’s consent is absolutely necessary for the marriage to be considered legal and legitimate.. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: A divorcee or a widow(er) must not be  married until he/she is consulted, and a virgin must not be married, until her permission is sought. There is this well-known Hadith (tradition) of the Prophet according to which a woman petitioned the holy Prophet that her father married her to a person whom she did not like; the Prophet revoked her marriage for her. (From Would You Like to Know Something about Islam? by Mohammad Ahmed)

Why does Islam allow polygamy?

Islam did not introduce polygamy nor does it encourage it. In fact, polygamy is found in many religious and cultural traditions, yet we tend to identify it particularly with Islam. Islam limited the number of wives as against the existing custom that was common and widespread, whereby men in pre-Islamic Arabia could have as many wives as they wanted. Because seventh-century Arabia was the scene of frequent tribal wars and combat, when men were killed in battle, it was impossible for their widows and orphans, or unmarried sisters or nieces, to survive without their male bread earners. It was in this context that the Quran allowed men to have more than one wife but only under strict condition that they maintain equality and justice between them. The Quranic command restricts a male’s right to an unlimited number of wives, while also using the umbrella of marriage as a protection for women in a violent society. “Although polygamy is practiced in some Muslim societies, the vast majority of Muslims are monogamous.” (From What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito p 112-113)

Minorities in Islam

How does Islam treat minorities?

Muslims, as followers of the Abrahamic tradition, are taught to respect people of all faiths (or no faith at all). Further, Jews and Christians enjoy a special status in Islam as ‘People of the Book’ because they received divine revelation such as the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospel. Muslims specifically are taught to believe in all the prophets beginning with Adam all the way through Moses, David and Jesus (who Muslims believe was a prophet). The Islamic position in regard to the followers of other faiths is clearly stated in the Quran: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians – anyone who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62). Muslim rulers allowed for and encouraged Christians and Jews to abide by the laws of their texts and practice their religion freely. There has never been any incident of systematic persecution of religious minorities throughout Islamic history. The history of Muslim rule in Spain, the Ottoman Empire and the Moghul rule in India is a testimony of how the civic rights of non-Muslims were protected and their religious freedom was guaranteed.

How do Muslims view Christians and Jews?

Jews and Christians enjoy a privileged status in Islam as ‘People of the Book’ because they are the recipients of divine revelations. Muslims specifically are enjoined to believe in all the Biblical prophets beginning with Adam all the way through Moses, David and Jesus (who Muslims believe was a prophet). The Quran clearly states that the followers of the Jewish and Christian faith who believe in God and the Last Day, and are righteous shall have their reward with their Lord and that they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve (2:62). Mary, the mother of Jesus is mentioned in the Quran (3:42). Islam believes in the virgin birth of Jesus and the Quran recognizes the miracles of Jesus. In fact, an entire chapter in the Quran is dedicated to Mary.

Prophet Muhammad hosted about 60 Christian clergy in his mosque for three days and had a mutual dialogue with them on faith related topics. He personally looked after them and made sure that their stay with him was comfortable.

Does Islam suppress other religions and beliefs?

No. God mentions in the Quran that if He so wished He would have made all of mankind into one nation, but it is His Wisdom that people have different beliefs and that there is no compulsion in religion. For the Quran acceptance or rejection of a faith is a matter of free will: “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve…” (18:29). Every human, the Quran affirms, is responsible for his or her own deeds.

Does Shariah encourage killing apostates?

The Quran stipulates no punishment for apostasy. Hadith, or the prophetic tradition, refers to only those cases that involve political treason, not apostasy. Also, these hadith are not generally regarded as impeccable in their authenticity. In addition, there has never been a consensus among the Muslim jurists on the punishment of apostasy; on the contrary, some classical jurists have rejected such punishment.

Of greater importance is the fact that the Quran is explicit and insistent on the freedom of faith and conscience for all. Islam upholds the freedom of choice in faith as the Quran says: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” There is no ambiguity about this fundamental teaching of the Quran.



  1. Gender Equity in Islam by Jamal A. Badawi, Ph.D.
  2. The roles of Muslim Majority and Muslim Minority Communities in a Global Context by Imam Mohamed Magid & Humera Khan
  3. Fear, Inc.The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America by Wajahat Ali, Eli Clifton, Matthew Duss, Lee Fang, Scott Keyes, Faiz Shakir


  1.  Apostasy and Religious Freedom by Louay Safi
  2.  Female Genital Mutilation by Muslim Women’s League


  1. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam by John L. Esposito
  2. Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed
  3. Would You Like To Know Something About Islam? The Time Is Ripe by Mohammad Masood Ahmed
  4.  Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century by John L. Esposito (Editor), Ibrahim Kalin
  5. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan
  6. Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong
  7. In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan
  8. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists by Khaled M. Abou El Fadl
  9. More in Common Than You Think: The Bridge Between Islam & Christianity by William W. Baker
  10. Shari’ah Law: An Introduction by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
  11. Islam: The Straight Path by John L. Esposito