Sharia, or Islamic law,influences the legal code in most Muslim countries. A movement to allow sharia to govern personal status law, a set of regulations that pertain to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody, is even expanding into the West. "There are so many varying interpretations of what sharia actually means that in some places it can be incorporated into political systems relatively easily," says Steven A. Cook, CFR senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. Sharia's influence on both personal status law and criminal law is highly controversial, though. Some interpretations are used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress, and independence. The debate is growing as to whether shariacan coexist with secularism, democracy, or even modernity.
What is Sharia?
Also meaning "path" in Arabic, sharia guides all aspects of Muslim life including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial dealings. It is derived primarily from the Quran and the Sunna--the sayings, practices, and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Precedents and analogy applied by Muslim scholars are used to address new issues. The consensus of the Muslim community also plays a role in defining this theological manual.
Sharia developed several hundred years after the Prophet Mohammed's death in 632 CE as the Islamic empire expanded to the edge of North Africa in the West and to China in the East. Since the Prophet Mohammed was considered the most pious of all believers, his life and ways became a model for all other Muslims and were collected by scholars into what is known as the hadith. As each locality tried to reconcile local customs and Islam, hadith literature grew and developed into distinct schools of Islamic thought: the Sunni schools,...