Meaning and applications
Sharia means “the clear, well-trodden path to water” in Arabic. While it is the religious law of Islam, there are only a handful of countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran – where all aspects of sharia, including “hudud” punishments such as the cutting of hands and stoning people to death, for criminal offences, are applied.
“The majority of Muslim countries do not implement sharia criminal law at all. The interpretations and applications of sharia vary a lot between different countries,” Jamila Hussain, senior lecturer in Islamic Law at the University of Technology, Sydney, said.
“You get a few countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan that purport to apply the whole of sharia in their legal system. Then you have a lot that apply it partially, usually in post-colonial countries. In Malaysia, for Muslims there is a sharia system for family law and for minor criminal punishments. You can’t really say every aspect of sharia is applicable in every part of the world, because it is not.”
The interpretation of sharia also differs from country to country and scholar to scholar, although most scholars agree broadly on many aspects of the verses that the laws are derived from, Halim Rane, senior lecturer at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at Griffith University, said.
“And that’s why we get a multiplicity of interpretations when it comes to Islamic law.
“Even in many Muslim countries today, if any aspect of sharia is implemented, it’s piecemeal. Many Muslim countries implement aspects of the family law and not necessarily is sharia implemented comprehensively,” Dr Rane said.
“We have to keep in mind that sharia was something that was developed in the 8th, 9th, 10th century and so many of those things were particular to the time, place and circumstances of that pre-modern era. So many of the aspects of sharia may not be applicable today.”
Sharia in Australia
Ms Hussain said: “One of the principles of sharia is that, if Muslims live in a non-Muslim country, they are expected to obey the law of the land. Which, in this case, is Australian law unless it clearly conflicts with Islamic law. For example, if the federal government passes a law that everybody should drink beer on Friday, Muslims couldn’t do that because Islamic law says you can’t drink alcohol.
“We don’t have any recognition of sharia in Australia and we are probably not likely to have [recognition].
“For the most part, if you live in Australia, you can still obey sharia because there is very little conflict. That is something that a lot of the media and politicians simply do not get. There’s not much conflict at all. The problem is that most of the time when you mention the word sharia, you are thinking of hudud punishments like the cutting of hands and stoning people to death. They don’t apply except in very few countries.”
Dr Rane said: “Here in Australia, Muslims are a minority and the law of the land is not based on sharia. In saying that, at the end of the day, sharia is concerned about the promotion of people’s benefits and rights and the prevention of harm to people as individuals and societies collectively. So my perspective is that the higher objectives of Islamic law are already met by the higher objectives of the existing laws that we have here in this country.
“There is no jurisdiction for Islamic courts in this country. In an Islamic state, [a punishment] would be something that is done through proper legal processes, meaning it is brought before a court, a judge would officiate and would prescribe what the punishment is. The law is not to be taken into the hands of individuals.”