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Shari’a Law and Its Influence on Terrorism


By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Shari’a law is a term that is heard throughout multiple media and academic outlets on an almost daily basis. But what is Shari’a law? What is its significance and its impact on terrorism?

The Background of Shari’a Law

The Arabic word, Shari’a, means law of Islam. Shari’a roots are in the doctrinal understanding of Islam. The doctrine has four components: the Qur’an, the Sunna (Hadith), interpretations and consensus.

We are familiar with the Qur’an, but what about the other doctrinal components? The Sunna are the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s sayings, actions and teachings, while the Hadith are the collections of sayings that were written about the prophet.

While they are not completely synonymous, Muslims often use the Sunna and Hadith interchangeably. Outside of a literal versus non-literal interpretation of either doctrine, the only real dispute is in the number of Hadiths that are recognized within the scholarly elements of the various Islamic sects (Sunni and Shia, for example).

The interpretations refer to the schools of jurisprudence, or fiqh. In Sunni Islam, there are four historical schools of fiqh, which are named after their founders: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi’i. These jurists of traditional Islam provide the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna for their respective schools.

The consensus refers to the Muslim people. The community of believers is known as the Umma. Along with the Ulama (the religious leaders), the Umma essentially provide consensus on how far the interpretations of Islamic law impact the laws of daily life. For this reason, most present-day nation-states have a preferred school of fiqh that guides the laws of that country.

To Understand Terrorism, Understand Shari’a

For many Westerners, understanding the significance of Shari’a law provides an understanding of how it impacts terrorism. Al Qae’da and ISIL are religious terrorist organizations. They attempt to leverage Shari’a for ideological and recruiting purposes.

However, there is no single Shari’a law. For instance, Islamic law has varying interpretations between the respective schools and the country where one lives. The shari’a laws in Afghanistan are not the same in Jordan or Turkey.

ISIL has demonstrated that they reject the traditions of fiqh, as demonstrated in the Ulama’s Letter to Baghdadi. This document was sent to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL and a self-proclaimed caliph (a political and religious leader). ISIL’s rejection of Islamic traditions, including Shari’a, enable ISIL to create their own interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna, while they reject the interpretations and consensus of the Islamic community.

Shari’a is not a set of established rules to follow like a checklist. Historically, Shari’a was developed and cultivated by the Islamic community, including those religious leaders that continue to apply the interpretations of the jurists to the present day and the nation-state in which they reside.

It is imperative for Westerners to comprehend the true nature of Shari’a. Understanding Shari’a has significant implications regarding how we develop strategies against organizations like ISIL and how we help the Islamic Umma as they focus on educating their own people when it comes to terrorist organizations who misrepresent Shari’a and use it as a weapon.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.