Demystifying “Shariah”

By Nasim Rehmatullah and Amjad Mahmood Khan  Shariah is a misunderstood and misused concept. Critics of Islam frequently employ terms … Continued

By Nasim Rehmatullah and Amjad Mahmood Khan
Shariah is a misunderstood and misused concept. Critics of Islam frequently employ terms like “creeping shariah” to stoke fear amongst the masses. The Park 51 controversy and the increasing  media focus on Islam provide an opportunity to educate Americans about the true teachings and practices of Islam concerning shariah.

Shariah literally means “a path to life-giving water,” and refers to a defined path upon which all God-fearing people are advised to tread. It is grounded in the recognition of God’s existence. Shariah presupposes that there is a God.  God reveals His desire of how man should shape his destiny, and God’s will is manifested in the form of certain laws or principles.  These laws or principles constitute shariah.

Shariah is not unique to Islam.  Every faith has its own form of shariah. In the United States, for example, our legal system already permits some narrow civil matters to be settled through alternative dispute resolution.  Among such alternative mechanisms is the beit din, or rabbinical law courts. American Jews routinely go before beit din to arbitrate real estate deals, divorces and business disputes.

In Islam, shariah can be divided into five main branches:  ibadah (ritual worship), mu’amalat (transactions and contracts), adab (behavior)> (morals and manners), i’tiqadat (beliefs), and ‘uqubat (punishments). Islam prescribes certain laws or principles that govern all five main branches. At its core, shariah is intended to develop and sustain a moral and just society.

The Qur’an does not specify any specific form of government other than a beneficent  one that is based on adl or absolute justice:

“Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency and manifest evil and transgression. He admonishes you that you may take heed.” (16:91).  

There is no mention of religion in this verse.  Pluralism and religious tolerance are Islamic values. The Qur’an stresses: “There is no coercion in religion” (2: 257). Legislating shariah would mean imposing practices on people who do not share the underlying beliefs behind those practices. Shariah mandates the strict practice of absolute justice regardless of differences in faith, race, creed or any other distinction. True Islamic teachings, as practiced by the Prophet of Islam, promote a secular government with equal rights and privileges for its citizens and a separation of mosque and state. For example, the Prophet of Islam famously applied Talmudic law in resolving disputes among the Jews.  

Unfortunately, certain Islamic countries have failed to observe the precondition of absolute justice before imposing shariah.  Instead, they have unjustly imposed shariah as an instrument of power and control. Western nations scrutinize and magnify these examples. Countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have enmeshed religious extremism with political power resulting in a brutal brand of governance they brand “shariah.”

Extremists and their religious clerics invoke shariah to justify the killing of the innocent and vulnerable. They abandon the Quranic principles of governance in favor of discriminate and grossly improper applications of Islamic law.  They view shariah as an instrument of conquest and carnage instead of justice and decency.    

Religion should not be the business of the state.  As Muslims who believe in the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has a clear vision that religion should not legislate in the domain of man’s relation to God.  Islam offers guiding principles in matters of man’s relation to man.  These principles can easily be translated into secular laws based on justice, tolerance and love for mankind. The law of one’s homeland has predominance over all other laws. True shariah is conducive to a system of government that is beneficent, ensures universal human rights and minority protections and dispenses absolute justice for all people.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the oldest Muslim organization in North America, has consistently advocated the principles of non-coercion, absolute justice and separation of mosque and state. Its motto is: “Love for all hatred for none.” For the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, there can never be any contradiction between being observant Muslims and being loyal, law-abiding citizens.

Nasim Rehmatullah, a physician, is Vice Chairman of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.  Amjad Mahmood Khan, an attorney, is National Director of Public Affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

  • Bethesdan

    That’s all well and good. Sharia, in its original form and original intent, may have been tolerant and pluralistic. But, it has no place in the modern world, and even less so in the United States of America. It is neither moral nor just; it is cruel, misogynistic, and archaic. Thanks for trying to explain, though. It can’t be easy being a Muslim in present-day America.

  • WmarkW

    If you take Islam, and remove the Quran, Hadiths, and imitation of Muhammed as the most perfect man who ever lived, what you’re left with is Unitarianism — there’s one God who wants you to act morally and be charitable to your neighbor.But your recipe for getting there is essentially to take away everything but God and what should be obvious to any secularist, and then take away God because of the First Amendment. You’re left with “Man is the measure of all things.”Yay. Dump religion as source of laws. But then why call it Sharia? Just call it “obvious secular principles that everyone of any religion or none should be able to accept.”

  • qrashid

    Very clear and straight forward.I wish the narrow minded fear promoting individuals like Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar would have the courage to discuss their concerns of Shariah law with the authors of this article.However, they won’t, because they know that they stand on nothing, and that they would not be able to respond to the very clear cut logical and true explanation provided here.Kudos to the authors. You have done an excellent job explaining that Shariah law is not something to impose, nor something that can ever be imposed. I am confident that sincere non-Muslims will recognize truth for what it is. Thank you for publishing this article Washington Post.

  • Saima1

    Thank you for a wonderful article. The true message of Islam has been distorted by the actions of the radical and extremists so called Imams. It is mentioned in Chapter 2, v. 257 of the Holy Quran, “There should be no compulsion in religion.”

  • Latif_AZ

    I would like to thank Washington Post for publishing this excellent article. Finally, I and my fellow Americans are able to get information on Islam from mainstream medium. Posted comments show that there are some doubters, but unless Muslims are able to have a place at the table and present their point of view, how will people formulate informed opinions? I hope the trend continues which I am sure will help in lifting the veil of ignorance and people will come to appreciate the beauty of Islam. Thank you Mr. Rehmatullah and Mr. Khan for well written and information packed article.

  • saadkaramat

    Excellent article that gives keen insight into a very misunderstood concept. As a muslim, I am intrigued to learn more about the logic behind Sharia as it is practiced today. How do “Islamic” nations justify their oppresive and unfair use of Sharia? What is their reasoning? I would be intrigued to read an article on this topic..

  • FazalAhmadi

    First I thank Washington Post for publishing the excellent article. Every prophet not only Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) every prophet first created a healthy climate for the law of God to be imposed, willingly not compulsorily. And when the society was ready, then the laws were introduced and stiffened further and further, until the whole code was revealed. That society was capable of carrying the burden of the law of religion, whether you call it Shariah law or any other law.The question is that every country has a climate and not all the flora can flourish in that climate. Dates flourish in deserts but not in the chilly north. Similarly, cherries cannot be sown in the desert; they require a special climate. Shariah also requires a special climate. If you have not created that climate (A society free from lies and falsehood, a society Full of love and affection for fellow human beings and a society of God fearing and Godly people) then Shariah cannot be imposed.Please log on at to know about real Islam.

  • ACinNYC

    The article is clear in its explanation of Shariah. But unfortuntately, the majority of Muslim countries that try to implement Shariah do not have the view presented. As much a trying to explain what Shariah is to the American public, it needs to be explained to the Muslim leaders who use it as a means of controlling the populous.

  • SalaamB

    Thank you very much to the Washington Post for publishing a solid and easy to read piece on something as seemingly complex as Sharia. The authors broke it down to a level that I could understand. I had no idea that Sharia meant “a path to life-giving water”. This makes me want to learn more about Sharia because if it is claiming that it is such a path, then it is worth looking into to see if the translation is justified by the practice.

  • SNLDallas

    Very informative article. Thank you Washington post for publishing the article. Hopefully this will remove some misconception about the true meaning of Shariah.To learn more about true teaching of Islam and Shariah laws Please visit

  • ayeshaminhas80

    This is an excellent explanation of Sharia law. It clearly breakdown the meaning and how it should be followed. I am sure that this article will clear allot of misunderstanding

  • samar_malik

    Very nice article removing missunderstanding about Islam and Sharia.

  • raziraashid

    Kudos to the authors. well thought out article.No doubt Islam and intolerance are poles apart. No religion advocates violence. The essence of all religions is goodness.Unfortunately, many educated people learn lessons in ‘Islam’ from the acts of heartless terrorists and start hating Muslims and Islam.True, bigoted mullahs who give birth to terrorists has done great harm to Islam. We must know that hating Islam or Muslims is no solution to so called ‘Islamic Terrorism’.While combating terrorism we should encourage the peaceloving Muslims to promote Islam which propagates universal brotherhood.The Ahmadiyya community is well known for its peaceloving nature but it does not get the attention of the media it deserves.It is the only community that has shown the most flawless restraint even in the midst of cruellest persecution.Despite decades of systematic state sponsored persecution Ahmadis never resorted to taking out processions or sloganeering.And recently even after the killing of 80 innocent Ahmadis, no Ahmadi ever took to the streets.What else could be the proof of their being law abiding citizens.If we want terrorism to end men of reflection in world governments must rise to the occasion and call a spade a spade.You cannot keep on pleasing the countries that nurture terrorism and yet talk of combating terrorism.While crushing terrorism all out efforts must be taken to protect the innocent people be it Ahmadi Muslims or otherwise.Peace has no alternative.

  • seagerjoe

    Wow. What a great article. I was under the impression that Sharia just meant Islamic Law. I feel like I have been negatively conditioned to the word. “a path to life-giving water” what a beautiful phrase

  • zahh77

    All praise belong to Allah , there is a Bukhari hadith which says present religion in a clear and simple way .

  • zahh77

    There is a hadith which says ” please present Islam in an easy way ” thats very clear and simple .

  • karims

    Thanks for publishing this article Washington post .

  • dotnetmac

    jazakahhah! Islam’s teaching is very simple, but due to some mullah’s it is understood by the world as overcomplicated. thank you for posting this superb article.

  • sarmad_Ahmed

    This is a great article for removing many misconceptions about Islam & the term “Shariyah” & also for presenting its true perspective. Islam as understood & presented by “Ahmadiyya Movement” is the need of the time when there is an increasing unrest in the world due to wrong interpretation of Islam by majority narrow minded Mullahs.

  • ahmedmensah

    Thanks a lot for posting this article. It is very clear that Islam has been hijacked by these extremists. These people only pursue their political and other selfish motives in the name of Islam. If all Muslim sects could display LOVE and TOLERANCE as Ahmadis do, Islam would show clearly as a most beautiful religion as it originally is. PEACE. Ahmad Mensah -GHANA.

  • srageelden

    True shariah is conducive to a system of government that is beneficent, ensures universal human rights and minority protections and dispenses absolute justice for all people.The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the oldest Muslim organization in North America, has consistently advocated the principles of non-coercion, absolute justice and separation of mosque and state. Its motto is: “Love for all hatred for none.” For the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, there can never be any contradiction between being observant Muslims and being loyal, law-abiding citizens.

  • zimal

    Thanks for publishing this article Washington post.

  • zimal

    Thanks for publishing this article Washington post.

  • sarmad_Ahmed

    It is an excellent article clarifying many misconceptions about Islam & the term “Shariyah”. The Peaceful & tolerant Islam as understood & practiced by Ahmadi-Muslims is the need of the time. It is the ONLY hope of better future of the world keeping in view the increasing extremism practiced & preached by the Mullahs belonging to almost all other sects of Islam.

  • I-touch-the-future

    Fellow readers, peace!I thank the Washington Post and Messrs. Rahmatullah/Khan for presenting this informative article. The concept of shariah has been twisted into a bugaboo by demagogues both in the US and overseas. I request all seekers of truth to delve into matters pertaining to the Islamic faith at That site has an incredible treasure-trove of info.Post, please encourage more articles like this.Peace to all!

  • abassdemo

    Now let’s leaders both Muslim and Christian sit together for Amendment between there Religion because of our Future Generation’s.

  • abassdemo

    ”The author also disclosed his visions on and revelations to the opponents of Islam. If anyone has doubt, he can attain certainty of observation with regard to these Divine revelations, which are a gift of God, by staying in the company of the author”

  • Evscam

    Very good piece. Shariah is rarely discussed in the West apart from in the context of fear and panic. This article marks a welcome change, and demonstrates Islam’s compatibility with modern secular democracy.

  • Abubakar Bullo

    Muslim defendants r growingly getting frustrated and impatient wid stale arguments and find religion as a blind faith wid little relevance to d times they r living in….This article reflects d same picture of a mindset attempting to defend an imaginary castle already fallen..