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?

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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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