Examining Shariah

October 21, 2008Duke Law News

Oct. 21, 2008 — Duke Law students learned some of the basic facts about Islamic law, or Shariah, during a lunchtime lecture Oct. 20. Duke Professor Ebrahim Moosa, a specialist in Islamic studies who holds a joint appointment at the law school, discussed the foundations of Shariah, and the complex comingling of societal mores and textual interpretation that form the basis for Islamic jurisprudence.

“What is Shariah? That is the million-dollar question,” Moosa said. “The word ‘Shariah’ literally means ‘something that is being revealed.’ In many ways Shariah is revealed norms, norms by revelation. But in order to fathom those norms, there is a whole process.”

That process is complicated and can differ according the era, nationality, and sect of the practitioner, said Moosa, associate director of research at the Duke Islamic Studies Center. He traced the origins of the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims to a dispute over who would lead the faith after the death of the prophet Muhammed and noted how each approach legal interpretation. Within each, the different methods of scholarship of early master jurists, called mujtahid, loosely define some of the differences in the ways that Muslims interpret Shariah, he said.

In many Islamic states, the distinction between secular courts and legal structures and religious life is not as clear as it is in some other cultures. “Mosque, madrassa, and law courts are all very critical and central to Islamic culture and history,” he explained. “There is kind of a combination, or hybrid, of juro-moral ethics.”

There is an ongoing discussion in many Muslim societies about how best to balance varied views on the interpretation of Shariah and the degree to which societal changes should effect changes in the law, Moosa said.

Moosa’s lecture was presented by the Student Organization for Legal Issues in the Middle East and North Africa (SOLIMENA), a group that promotes educational, research, and professional development opportunities for students with an interest in the region and its peoples. The group is planning a conference on Darfur at the Law School in March.
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