Understanding Sharia: The Intersection of Islam and the Law


Sharia guides the personal religious practices of Muslims worldwide, but whether it should influence modern legal systems remains a subject of intense debate.

Friday prayers at the Wazir Khan mosque in Lahore, Pakistan.
Friday prayers at the Wazir Khan mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

WRITTEN BY Kali Robinson Last updated December 17, 2021 2:00 pm (EST)


  • Sharia is the ideal form of divine guidance that Muslims follow to live a righteous life. Human interpretations of sharia, or fiqh, are the basis of Islamic law today.
  • About half the world’s Muslim-majority countries have sharia-based laws, and most Muslims worldwide follow aspects of sharia in their private religious practices.
  • Debate continues to flare over sharia’s place in the modern world, particularly with regard to its teachings relating to criminal justice, democracy, and social equality.

What is sharia?

Why is it so controversial?

How much room is there for reform?

How do governments in the Muslim world use sharia?

How do extremist groups interpret sharia?How do Muslim-minority countries approach sharia?

Recommended Resources


Most of the world’s nearly fifty Muslim-majority countries have laws that reference sharia, the guidance Muslims believe God provided them on a range of spiritual and worldly matters. Some of these nations have laws that call for what critics say are cruel criminal punishments, or place undue restrictions on the lives of women and minority groups. However, there is great diversity in how governments interpret and apply sharia, and people often misunderstand the role it plays in legal systems and the lives of individuals.

What is sharia?

Sharia means “the correct path” in Arabic. In Islam, it refers to the divine counsel that Muslims follow to live moral lives and grow close to God. Sharia is derived from two main sources: the Quran, which is considered the direct word of God, and hadith—thousands of sayings and practices attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that collectively form the Sunna. Some of the traditions and narratives included in these sources evolved from those in Judaism and Christianity, the other major Abrahamic religions. Shiite Muslims include the words and deeds of some of the prophet’s family in the Sunna. However, sharia largely comprises the interpretive tradition of Muslim scholars.

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Rule of Law and Development


In the Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, Member States noted that “the rule of law and development are strongly interrelated and mutually reinforcing, that the advancement of the rule of law at the national and international levels is essential for sustained and inclusive economic growth, sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and hunger and the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, all of which in turn reinforce the rule of law”. They therefore called for consideration of that interrelationship in the post-2015 international development agenda. At the international level, the body of international instruments, including those concerning international trade and finance, climate change and protection of the environment and the right to development, establishes internationally agreed standards which support sustainable development.

At the national level, the rule of law is necessary to create an environment for providing sustainable livelihoods and eradicating poverty. Poverty often stems from disempowerment, exclusion and discrimination. The rule of law fosters development through strengthening the voices of individuals and communities, by providing access to justice , ensuring due process and establishing remedies for the violation of rights . Security of livelihoods, shelter, tenure and contracts can enable and empower the poor to defend themselves against violations of their rights. Legal empowerment goes beyond the provision of legal remedies and supports better economic opportunities.

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Hmong-American Sheng Thao, mayor-elect of Oakland, California

Oakland’s Next Mayor Highlights Political Rise of Hmong Americans

new york timesSheng Thao, the daughter of refugees, will become the most prominent Hmong American politician when she leads the California city of 440,000 residents.

Sheng Thao at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland last month. Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Amy Qin

By Amy Qin – Dec. 28, 2022

Over platters of fried rice, egg rolls and crab rangoon, Sheng Thao took the microphone and asked for support in June from several dozen people gathered at a Hmong restaurant in Wisconsin.

Ms. Thao, 37, was running to become the mayor of Oakland, Calif., but she took a detour to the Upper Midwest because it has some of the nation’s largest communities of Hmong Americans.

When Ms. Thao spoke, Zongcheng Moua, 60, found himself nodding along, never mind that he lived 2,000 miles away from California. Like Ms. Thao’s parents, Mr. Moua landed in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing the war in Laos nearly 50 years ago. His siblings, like Ms. Thao’s parents, struggled to adapt to life in the United States after arriving with no money, formal education or language skills.

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Council on Foreign Relations – Daily news brief Dec. 29, 2022

Editor’s note: There will be no Daily Brief until Tuesday, January 3, in observance of New Year’s Day.
Top of the Agenda

Russia Rejects Ukraine’s Peace Conditions, Bombards Its Power Grid

Russia fired nearly seventy missiles (WaPo) at Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities today in what appeared to be one of its biggest strikes on Ukraine’s energy grid. Ukraine’s military said it shot down fifty-four of the missiles. The attack came hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s rejection (Al Jazeera) of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s conditions for peace. 
In recent weeks, Zelenskyy has promoted a peace plan in which Russia would face a war crimes tribunal and give up occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. A Kremlin spokesperson yesterday rejected the possibility (NYT) of ceding the territories, while Lavrov said today that Kyiv’s plans to drive Russia out of eastern Ukraine were an “illusion.” 
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Pictures of the Year

December 29, 2022
By the staff of The Morning
Good morning. Today we look at some of the most memorable photos published in The Times this year.
Photographers for The New York Times trod around the globe in 2022 to document news, history and everyday life, whether embedded alongside troops on the front lines in Ukraine, chronicling lawmakers in the halls of Congress or reporting from floods and wildfires on several continents.
Near the end of the year, The Times publishes its annual Year in Pictures feature. This edition of The Morning is a tribute to the work of The Times’s photographers.
The photos
Millions of people fled Ukraine in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion, seeking refuge in other countries. Desperate families shoved their way onto a train leaving the capital, Kyiv, in early March:

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