Shariah & Fiqh


The term Shariah comes from an Arabic word meaning “path to the water,” which reflects the concept that Shariah is divine guidance drawn mainly from the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings and guidance of Prophet Muhammad saws) for the purpose of helping humanity draw close to the Creator and live in kindness and justice with His Creation. The term Shariah is used by Muslims to refer to the values, code of conduct, and religious commandments or sacred laws which provide them with guidance in various aspects of life.

While Shariah is often translated as “Islamic law,” a more accurate term for “Islamic law” in Arabic is fiqh which refers to the human endeavor to interpret and apply Shariah.

Shariah is derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) by qualified scholars who use an interpretative process that includes qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and ijma (consensus) and also relies on precedent. This process of interpreting Shariah is called fiqh in Arabic, which means “deep understanding.” Fiqh is determined by qualified religious scholars who use their knowledge, understanding, and individual judgement to interpret religious law.

Fiqh is an interpretation of Shariah and, like halakha or Jewish law, is an ongoing effort and process. Because much of Shariah is interpretative, it has a degree of flexibility that allows it to function in different societies and cultures. Thus, Islamic law or fiqh has historically functioned in diverse areas in the world, generally with a demonstrated record of tolerance and pluralism towards different cultures and religions.

Shariah addresses both personal and communal aspects of life. Shariah can be divided into two broad areas:

  • Guidance in religious worship (ibadat), which is the central focus of Islam
  • Guidance in worldly matters (mu’amalat) such as visiting the sick, taking care of our parents, marriage, inheritance, investments and business affairs, etc.

It can be further divided into three more specific areas:

  • Religious worship and ritual: Muslims practice their acts of worship (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.) or rituals in the same manner as people of other faiths.
  • Private social interactions (marriage, business, etc.): All religions have rules for marriage and ethical economics, these are private and voluntary.
  • Public law issues (criminal law, war and peace, etc.)

Any observant Muslim would consider him or herself to be Shariah-adherent. It is impossible to find a Muslim who practices any Islamic ritual and does not believe himself or herself to be complying with Shariah.

Almost all religions have some kind of sacred law. Sacred law derives its authority from the Creator or the religion’s founder, appeals to the heart and conscience, and is a spiritual guide for the believer.

Muslims can follow Shariah (Islamic values and way of life) in the same way that adherents of other religions follow their sacred laws, values, and lifestyles. The basic parts of Shariah (rituals, marriage and family life, charity and ethical business practices) are private and voluntary.

“Fatwa” is an Arabic term that means a ruling or legal opinion that has been deduced by a qualified Islamic scholar (or someone claiming authority in Islam) on issues pertaining to Islamic law that generally have not previously been decided. Since these opinions are non-binding, Muslims are free to choose whether or not to follow them.