by: Luqman Ali | Al-Noor, Vol4, Sha'ban/Ramadhan 1415 AH : February 1995 CE

Shari'ah literally means road, drinking place, and the legal and social practice of a people based on the revelations of their prophet. Today it is understood as Islamic law or the Islamic code of conduct outlined by the Qur'an. The Shari'ah of the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), is one in essence. It is the natural law and direction prescribed by Allah for humanity. However, as a road it involves taking on the characteristics of the land and time it traverses. The individual paths of the prophets, which are in truth tracts of the same road, guide to one destination though their features differ in form and evolutionary phase in order to suit the requirements of their eras and peoples. The Shari'ah of Muhammad is the Shari'ah of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in its completed form. It is that stretch of road nearest their destinations, that tent which can accommodate all human needs until the last day.

Shari'ah during the life of the Holy Prophet was dynamic and fluid, unfolding in two phases: the first featured the private and individual practice of Muslims in the hostile environment that was Makkah; the second featured their public, social, and economic behaviour and demanded a specific sense of priorities.

For the Muslims of Makkah, whose foremost concerns were the realisation of divine unity within the heart, reflection upon death and the transient nature of the world the Shari'ah was a road whose signposts were the divine revelations which continuously unfolded on the tongue and in the actions of the Prophet. There was no preoccupation with the formulation of law in written or spoken form. There was only an acceptance of guidance by the heart and simultaneous translation of the same into action.

The early Muslims found the Shari'ah easy to assimilate because it was transmitted by the Prophet as the original life pattern of the human being and not as a formal science or legal system. Furthermore, it took into consideration circumstances and digestive capacities and did not demand sudden compliance to guidelines. In this way, early Muslims were instilled with the wisdom of acknowledging their limitations and the resolve to act according to the Shari'ah of the moment with the trust that Allah would provide the guidance and law required at the right time.

In its Madinah phase, the Shari'ah broadened in aperture from that which encompassed the activities of the individual in Makkah to that which would encompass the activities of a living Islamic society. The individual whose inner enlightenment and corresponding outer code of behaviour were of paramount importance in Makkah was now shown that the existence of a spiritually and physically evolving society was equally important, and in fact absolutely essential if the individual was to reach his or her maximum human potential. The cell of Makkah became the Body in Madinah.

The unfoldment of Shari'ah in its full social context began when the ethical and admonitory language of Meecan revelations took on a more legal and regulatory tone in Madinahn revelations. As in Makkah, the unfoldment was gradual for, though there was no external impediment to its application, Quranic guidance saw no grounds on which to discontinue its spontaneous nature whereby the need for law and direction was addressed when it arose. In this way, every issue or problem was dealt with according to its merits and particularities.

During the Prophet's life, the Shari'ah was transmitted in words or in action in a spontaneous fashion. There was no formal study of segregated subject matter nor was there the public or private tabulation of law. Living the deen was based on transmission and receptivity and accompanied by transformation and appropriate activity. The creation was the book, its phenomena the words and the Prophet was the teacher of their meaning and this meaning was divine presence the home of the human soul. This meant that Madinah was organic. It was in harmony with the natural universe for its growth and development followed the same pattern, what may be termed as the universal Shari'ah.

Shari'ah is the Islamic way of life and conduct. By establishing boundaries, the Shari'ah prevents the dissipation of energy and directs its practitioner along the swiftest and easiest path to fulfilment. The basic role of Shari'ah is to prevent and resolve social confusion and discord. It is a course of disciplines, which combines to give a person a firm grip upon divine guidance so that distraction and turbulence are minimised. Every law stems from Allah's commandment to Adam:
And do not draw near to this tree so that you become one of the wrongdoers (Holy Qur'an 2:35)
The tree symbolised the dispersion (disturbance of the earth) and transience of all that is in creation. Attraction to the fruit removed Adam and Hawa (Eve) from the realm of unity to the realm of separation, from beyond time and space into time and space dimension. Any action, which is not in harmony with Allah's way, will do the same, and is thus a fruit of the same tree, which must be avoided.

The approach to the Shari'ah begins from where you are. Initially the nafs (self) resists accepting it. It is felt to be restrictive and limiting. But this is only because of our ego and its short-sightedness. The misconception that knowledge broadens the way and increases choice plays a major role in the way people approach the Shari'ah wrongly. The truth is that the way narrows and choice decreases with the increase in knowledge. You become aware that this is beneficial and that is harmful.

In the beginning, application of the Shari'ah is based on the trust that it is the divinely revealed way. Later on it is based on knowledge and conviction. Ultimately, it becomes outer law and direction mirroring inner knowledge and true awareness. When this occurs, you are free within limitation - a soul within a body. Otherwise everything is in varying degree of chaos.

Imam Ali (peace be upon him) gave the ideal approach to application of the Shari'ah when he said: Even if one does not attain everything, one does not abandon everything.