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Sharia refers to the body of Islamic law. The term means "way" or "path"; it is the legal framework within which public and some private aspects of life are regulated. Sharia deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business law, contract law, sexuality, and social issues. Some Islamic scholars accept Sharia as the body legal theory established before the 19th century, while other scholars view Sharia as a changing body.

During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community. Religious and secular law merged, and all Muslims have traditionally been subject to sharia, or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed gradually through the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative rulings, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) closed. Thereafter, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized maintenance of the status quo.

The word "Islam" means "submission." A "Muslim," therefore, is one who submits to the will of God. Shariah, frequently translated as "Islamic law," is neither a document nor a code in the strict sense, but rather an amalgamation of scriptural (Quranic) injunctions, sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, juridical rulings, and legal commentaries dealing with all aspects of social, economic and political life, similar to Jewish Halakhic law.

Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of laws - it is the legal code, not a theology, which establishes the criteria of right and wrong, proper and improper behavior. Like Halakhah, Shari'a is believed to be ordained by God and its scope to be total, ranging from the loftiest ideals to the minutiae of daily life. Even the words Halakhah and Shariah, have similar meanings and may be translated as the "path" or "road" to righteousness.

Islam as a system which enframes, confines, sets limits to what is possible according to very clear lines of what is acceptable or non-acceptable, halal or haram, what is preferred for society and community, istihsan or istihbab.

In its ideal form, Shariah ensures the rights of all in an Islamic state. Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence; it forms the basis of Shariah and is a process of ongoing interpretation. Thus it is neither static nor monolithic, and may take different forms in different countries or from one period of history to another. A classic text on Shariah, by the fourteenth-century scholar, Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, deals with a wide range of subjects, including purity of heart, fasting, divorce, backbiting, crimes, and rules of warfare.

The types of punishment presented include: (1) fixed punishment (Al-Hudud); (2) retaliation (Qisas or Qawad); and (3) punishment seeking to prevent, respect, and reform (Taazir). The Sharia model is a decentralized process to safeguard society, combat crime, and promote justice. It takes a very comprehensive approach to solving the crime problem, it combats the immoral environment that facilitates crime, and seeks to control the individual criminals. The hudud can be characterized as the Islamic "penal code" prescribed by Shariah. The rules of hudud identify punishable crimes, the types of witnesses needed to convict someone of a crime, and the punishments for various crimes.

Islam has no basic concept of inalienable rights and does not permit the individual to enjoy the freedoms of action and association characteristic of a democracy. In Islamic states, where there is no formally recognized separation between religion and law, mosque and state, Shari'a is enshrined and presented (if not always consistently implemented) as the final and ultimate formulation of the law of God, not to be revised or reformulated by mere mortal and fallible human beings. In Egypt, Algeria, and Palestine, the Shari'a is virtually ignored as a guide to specific legislation or government policy on many vital issues. The remaining Muslim countries, which adopted Western-style legal and political systems under colonial tutelage, enshrine Islamic law in their codes and constitutions to various degrees. These nations range from Pakistan, with its intense political agitation over the interpretation and implementation of Shari'a, to Indonesia, a self-proclaimed secular nation that is the home to more than 180 million Muslims.

Rather than charging interest, Islamic financial institutions typically share some of their borrowers' risks and profits through Sharia compliant assets (SCAs). A bank's profit from a 'loan' will vary with the borrower's profits from the application of the loan to new business activity. Islamic finance also avoids speculation (e.g., reliance on the occurrence of events that may or may not take place), and investing in ventures that may have components that are not in line with the values of Islam (alcohol, gambling, drugs and tobacco). Still, although Islamic financial principles may differ from those of conventional banks, in practice many differences tend to be negligible, and Islamic financial products look a lot like conventional mortgages, leasing, and business lending.

As only relatively few strictly legal precepts have been given in the Koran, and the sunna and Hadîths necessarily restrict themselves to topics relevant at the lifetime of the Prophet, new issues may be addressed by new laws o provided they do not contradict the basic Islamic tenets. The fact that Islamic law finds its' roots in the immutable word ofGod, does not, in legal doctrine, hinder the enactment of modern laws through parliaments. In the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire, in an effort tomodernize its administration and economic exchanges, codified thesharia pertaining to civil law and commercial law, the so-called Medjelle. The codification oriented itself at western codes and transformed the compendia of fiqh islamique, which consisted in collections of case law.

Takfir -- the condemnation of a Muslim by another Muslim as a kafir (i.e., disbelievers outside the pale of Islam) -- is strictly prohibited in the Quran, the Hadith, and the writings of many eminent Muslim authorities. But fatwas of apostasy and heresy as well as kufr within the Muslim ummah are neither few nor far between.

Al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly said that their goal is to reestablish the caliphate, or Islamic State, and rule it with a narrow, strict interpretation of Sharia. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was an example of rule by an extreme interpretation of Sharia. Some of the restrictions they called for include stoning to death married adulterers, amputating hands of convicted thieves, and restricting dress, as well as educational and employment opportunities for women.

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