Misconceptions of Sharia

Misconceptions of Sharia
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Addressing Common Misconceptions of Sharia Law

A common argument made by critics of Islamic finance is that it is based on “Sharia Law”, a phrase which elements of the media in the West have made synonymous with beheadings, stoning to death, the chopping off of hands, banning women from driving and education, full-face veils, intolerance and the like.

Such arguments fail to understand there is no single version of Sharia Law which worlds 1.6 billion Muslims follow. Sharia Law varies greatly from country to country and some elements associated by the Western media as Sharia law are cultural in nature, as well as practised by other religions such as Christian Arabs.

In this article evidence based responses against common misconceptions of Islam and Sharia Law are made by Dr. Reza Aslan and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam, and an advisor to Stanford University’s Program in Islamic Studies and the Center for Islamic Studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.

What is Sharia Law? – Primary and Secondary sources of Islamic Law

Sharia Law is interpreted from primary and secondary sources of Islamic law.

The Quran is the primary source of Islamic law. Secondary sources of Islamic law vary amongst the four main schools of Sunni Islam, Shia Islam and between countries based on local customs.

Some scholars consider the Sunnah, which is defined as “the traditions and customs of Prophet Muhammad” to be a primary source, whilst others consider it as the most important secondary source of Islamic law.

Sources of secondary Islamic law are made up of consensus, analogical reason, juristic discretion, public interest, inference, reason (fatwa’s), and local customs and traditions (urf) [1]. The existence of local customs and traditions in Islamic law creates a key difference in Sharia law amongst different groupings of the worlds 1.6 billion Muslims.

No Single Sharia Law

Collectively the primary and secondary sources of Islamic law are referred to as Sharia law. Different interpretations of secondary Islamic law means there is no one single Sharia law amongst the world’s 1.6 Billion Muslims. In a Islamic finance context these differences are the reason why some Islamic finance instruments are permitted in Malaysia, but not in Saudi Arabia. The trading of debt being an example, where due to a more liberal interpretation of fiqh by Malaysian jurists, the sale of debt (bai-al-dayn) at a negotiated price has been permitted.

For this reason we can see very different societies and norms in Islamic countries, such as when comparing Saudi Arabia with Turkey, or Malaysia with Iran, and even within countries such as comparing North West Pakistan with other parts of the country.

Sharia Law in Context

Islam is not a Homogenous Religion Unified under One Sharia Law

In the below video Reza Aslan makes the case of grouping 1.6 Billion people under one umbrella better than most, referring to people who do this as “kind of stupid”, and goes on to further outline the decentralised nature of Islam. He further states that the common misconception is of the Middle East as representing the most populace region for Muslims, yet Arabs make up only 12% of the worlds Muslims and out of the top 5 most populace Muslims countries only one is in the Middle East. The future of the Islamic world according to Reza Aslan is in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Senegal.

Oppression of Women and Female Genital Mutilation

Taking the common criticism of Sharia law, that of oppression of Women – the elected Prime Ministers or Presidents of Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia have all been women. In the United Nations Gender Inequality Index which measures gender inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status Qatar and Saudi Arabia rank above Cyprus, Poland, Portugal and Hungry.

Freedom of Speech and Democracy

In the following video Reza Aslan addresses misconceptions of Sharia law and Freedom of Speech and Democracy.

Honour Killings

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf answers common misconceptions of Islam and honour killings which have no reference in primary Islamic law.

Hand Chopping

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf answers the common misconceptions of Islam and chopping of people’s hands as punishment for theft.

Stoning and State Executions

There is no mention of stoning in the Quran [2] and it is not legal in most Muslim countries. During the Ottoman Empire there was only one stoning authorised in 500 years [3].

Just as the legal systems of the United States and the United Kingdom differ, with state executions legal in the United States, but illegal in the United Kingdom, stoning to death has occurred in Iran, but not in other Muslim majority countries.


Shaykh Hamza Yusuf answers the common misconception of Islam being intolerant of other religions, using the example of the Ottoman Empire.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sources_of_sharia
[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/special-report-the-punishment-was-death-by-stoning-the-crime-having-a-mobile-phone-8846585.html
[3] http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-publications/the-tanzimat-final-web.pdf