In order to understand Islamic law (loosely refered to as Sharia), the terms Fiqh and Sharia must be defined. Fiqh has been loosely translated into English as “Islamic law” and so has Sharia, but these terms are not synonymous either in the Arabic language or to the Islamic scholars.
Fiqh literally means, the true understanding of what is intended. An example of this usage can be found in the Prophet Muhammad’s statement: “To whomsoever Allah wishes good, he grants him/her the Fiqh (true understanding) of the Religion”. Technically, however, Fiqh refers to the science of deducing Islamic laws from evidence found in the sources of Islamic law. By extension it also means the body of Islamic laws so deduced.
Sharia literally means a waterhole where animals gather daily to drink, or the straight path as in the Qur’anic verse:
“Then we put you on a shari’a (a body of laws) in your affairs, so follow it and do not follow the desires of those who have no knowledge.” (Al-Jāthiyah 45:18)
However, according to Islamic religious terminology, it refers to the sum total of Islamic laws which were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), and which are recorded in the Qur’an as well as deducible from the Prophet’s divinely-guided lifestyle (called the Sunnah).
From the previous two definitions, the following three differences may be deduced:
- Sharia is the body of revealed laws found both in the Qur’an and in the Sunnah, while Fiqh is a body of laws deduced from Sharia to cover specific situations not directly treated in Sharia law.
- Sharia is fixed and unchangeable, whereas Fiqh changes according to the circumstances under which it is applied.
- The laws of Sharia are, for the most part, general. They lay down basic principles. In contrast, the laws of Fiqh tend to be specific. They demonstrate how the basic principles of Sharia should be applied in given circumstances.
A more general definition of Islamic law (both Fiqh and Sharia) is that it is a body of divine rulings or laws which regulates the life of a muslim individual or community. There are three types of laws. The first type are the laws that regulate the devotional life of the individual or the community vis-a-vis their creator (Allah), such as the five pillars of Islam. The second type of laws regulate the relationship between individuals and/or communities, also known as the jurisprudence of transactions. The third type of laws are related to governance, such as the relationship between the ruler and his subjects and vice-versa.
Moreover, every action (or lack thereof) of a muslim individual or community falls under one of five categories of Sharia:
- Wajib (obligatory)
- Mustahab (recommened, but not obligatory)
- Makrooh (disliked or detested, but not prohibited)
- Mubah (permissible)
- Haraam (prohibited)
Last but not least, it is important to understand that the Islamic faith or creed requires the believer to believe that Islamic law or Sharia is legislated by the Creator himself for the benefit of the creation.