“It’s culture, not religion” is a phrase often used to explain away problematic practices common in Muslim countries and communities. Sharia is Islamic law that has influenced societies with different languages, cultures, histories, and interpretations of Islam. In the face of a worrisome incident, many Muslims believe that Islam has been misinterpreted, while others believe it agreeable to Islamic teachings. Is it accurate to say that the negative aspects of Sharia are not based on Islamic teachings, that the negative influences are primarily external to religion?
To answer this truthfully, one must go to the Islamic religious texts. Sharia is derived primarily from the Quran and hadith. The Quran is the holy book of Islam, believed to be the literal word of God. It is believed to have passed verbally from the angel Jibril (Gabriel) to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who then relayed it to his followers over the course of two decades. It is the ultimate authority in Islam, traditionally believed to be a guidance for all times. A hadith is a report that describes the actions of Muhammad and his followers. They are important in understanding the Quran as they supplement many of its verses, and have played an essential role in the development of Islamic jurisprudence. The hadith are second only to the Quran.
The importance of hadith is in its practical application. For example, the Quran instructs Muslims to pray, but does not clearly specify how or how often. The Hadith gives instruction on not only how to pray, but clarifies that Muslims must pray five times a day. Individual hadith are classified as (1) sahih (“authentic”), which is the highest classification, (2) hasan (“good”) or (3) da’if (“weak”). The classifications are based on how credible the hadith collectors found the chain of narration, tracing the chain to the originator of the content of the report. Unless otherwise stated, all of the hadith we use for this article are sahih hadith. Still, one should spend a moment deliberating that all of the hadith, including those classified as weak, are from Muslim sources, favored towards Islam. Finally, this article also looks at tafsir (the exegesis of the Quran) to provide more context to certain verses.
We will look at verses from the Quran and hadith on four subject areas: women’s testimony, torture, slavery, and jizya, the special tax required from non-Muslims. This article is by no means a comprehensive list of controversial topics related to Islam, but it is meant to provide a basis of understanding some influential writings in authoritative Islamic sources regarding these topics.