How did the Sharia Law develop?

The Qu'ran

Sharia is an Arabic word, literally meaning “the right path”. It commonly refers to the traditional Islamic law, derived from the religious precepts of Islam, particularly the Quran[1] and the Hadith[2]. Islamic law or the Sharia is therefore the expression of Allah’s own command for Muslim society. In practical application it does constitute a system of duties that are compulsory and in a way even irrevocably set upon each and every Muslim strictly backed by the very virtue of his religious belief. The law itself constitutes a divinely ordained path of conduct that guides Muslims towards a practical expression of their religious conviction in the world as a whole as well as - towards the goal of divine favour of the world set to come. Muslims believe that Allah (God) revealed his true will to Muhammad, who then passed on Allah's commands to humans in the Quran. In its essence the Sharia comes from the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, which Muslims consider the actual word of God.

What is Sharia Law?

Islamic law represents one of the world's great legal systems. Like Judaic law, which influenced western legal systems, Islamic law originated as an important part of the religion. And since the Sharia originated together with Allah, it is considered to be sacred itself. Between the seventh century marking Muhammad death and the tenth century, many Islamic legal scholars attempted to interpret the Sharia in order to adapt it to the expanding Muslim Empire. In the modern era, the influences of the Western colonialism and their law systems development even generated efforts to codify Sharia. Thus, under the vast western influences, the need for a more comprehensive reform in the Islamic law became clear. The traditional Sharia law now needs to be adapted in order to meet the changing circumstances in the modern Muslim society. However, there is a specific reason behind this change and it should be sought in two principal respects in which the Sharia differs from Western law systems.[3]

Key originating differences between Sharia and Western law systems

In the first place it is known that in the Western world - religion has been largely separated by law almost ever since their early developments. Nevertheless, in the Muslim world the Sharia is not confined to purely religious matters. On the one hand, it aims at equally regulating individuals’ relationship with their neighbours and the state, and on the other - with God and their own conscience. The Islamic law is also concerned as much with ethical standards and ritual practices, as with a wide variety of “secular” legal issues, ranging from inheritance, through marriage, divorce, contracts and criminal punishments. Therefore the Sharia should not be mistaken for merely a general system of law. Instead, it ought to be considered a far more comprehensive code of behavior that embraces both private and public activities.

The second major distinction between the Sharia and Western legal systems is the result of the Islamic concept of the very law as an expression of the divine will. To furthermore emphasize this, it is important to note, that unlike often occurrences in the Western history, no conflict between church and state can be found in the Muslim world. As a result the line between the religious and secular obligations is not as well-established in the Muslim world, as it is in the Western countries. With the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, communication between the divine will and the human beings ceased to exist. That in turn henceforth fixed the very terms of the divine revelation and made them entirely immutable.[4] Thus Sharia law became quite a rigid and static system. Furthermore, unlike the secular legal systems that grow out of society and change over time with the altering circumstances that occur in society, Sharia law started being forced and imposed upon society “from above”. Because in Islamic jurisprudence it is not the society that molds and fashions the law but it is the law that precedes and controls society instead.

Origins and early historical development of Sharia

In order to better understand the Islamic law, it is important to take a look at its historical development. For the first Muslim community established under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad at Medina in 622, the Quranic revelations laid dawn basic standards of conduct. But the Quran is in no sense a comprehensive legal code. No more than 80 verses deal with strictly legal matters. Their general effect is simply to modify the existing Arabian customary law in certain important particulars.[5]

During his lifetime Muhammad as the supreme judge of the community, resolved legal problems as they arose by interpreting and expanding the general provisions of the Quran, and the same ad hoc activity was carried on after his death by the caliphs of Medina. The first caliphs from the Umayyad dynasty, who took control of the empire in 661, conquered territories outside Arabia and as a result elements of Jewish, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Christian church law influenced the further development of the Sharia at the time. The Umayyad caliphs were the first to appoint Islamic judges, qadis, to decide cases involving Muslims. Knowledgeable about the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad, qadis decided cases in all areas of the law.

The rise of Abbasid dynasty, the Sharia risky separate interpretations and unification

The Abbasid Caliphate in 755.

In 750 the Umayyads were overthrown and replaced by the Abbasid dynasty. During the 500-year rule of the Abbasids, the Sharia reached its full development. Under their absolute rule the Abbasids transferred substantial areas of criminal law from qadis to the government. And although the qadis continued to handle cases involving religious, family, property, and commercial law, the Abbasids encouraged legal scholars to further debate the Sharia vigorously. As a result a group of scholars started claiming that only the divinely inspired Quran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad should make up the Sharia. Yet, another separate group, however, argued that the Sharia should also include the reasoned opinions of qualified legal scholars. Thus different legal systems began to develop in the different provinces threatening to separate Sharia and Muslim community by risky free interprets.[6]

Soon after, in a vigorous attempt to reconcile the rival groups, one brilliant legal scholar named Shafii systematized and developed what were called the “roots of the law” at the time. He criticized both what he called “people of reason” and “people of tradition” trying to prove that neither group is absolutely true to Sharia. Shafii argued that in solving a legal question, the qadi or government judges should first consult the Quran. If the answers were not clear there, the judges then should refer to the authentic sayings and decisions of Muhammad. If the answers continued to elude the judges, they subsequently should follow and refer to the consensus of Muslim legal scholars on the matter. Still failing to find a solution, and as a last resort allowance, the judges could form their own answer(s) by analogy from “the precedent nearest in resemblance and most appropriate” to the case in hand. And although taken very contradictory at the beginning, with lots of opposing traditional Sharia interpreters, Shafii’s approach was later widely adopted throughout the Islamic world in the following years. Thus by around the year 900, the classic Sharia was formed and established. And although a number of different concepts and institutions were developed by Islamic jurists during the following centuries and they shaped different versions of Sharia in different schools of Islamic jurisprudence, all of them recognized the Sharia as the main and only law of behavior for all Muslims. The process was backed up by unified handbooks with examples, assembled by Islamic specialists in the law and prepared for Islamic judges to use in their decision makings. Moreover, the classic Sharia was not a code of laws, but a collective body of religious and legal scholarship that generally ceased to develop for the next 1,000 years.


  1. That is - the central religious text of Islam which is believed to be a revelation from God by Muslims
  2. Hadith represents a collection of reports claiming to quote what the very prophet Muhammad said on any matter verbatim
  3. Historical development of “Sharīʿah law”, Nature and significance of Islamic law -
  4. Reclaiming Tradition: Islamic Law in a Modern World -
  5. The Origins of Islamic Law & Development of the Sharia: Family, Criminal Law and procedures -
  6. Sharīʿah: Development of different schools of law -


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