A futile exchange:*

Random person: “What do you study?”
Me: “Islamic legal history.”
Random person: “Oh, sharīʿah law.”
Me: “No, sharīʿah means divine law; it’s an abstract concept. I study the interpretations of divine law or laws as actually applied by Muslim societies, which is fiqh in Arabic, and I focus on the medieval period.”
Random person: “Oh, so then you study the historical sharīʿah law.”
Me: “No, I study Islamic legal history.”


Then the conversation awkwardly ends. Some form of this ineffective exchange has occurred more times than I can count. I sometimes also explain that “sharīʿah law” is redundant because sharīʿah means divine law (and “sharīʿah law” therefore would be “divine law law”). But I typically sense that the miscommunication between us is so vast that rectifying it would be a prolonged burden. I blame the term “sharīʿah” and all of the imprecisions and mythologies that surround its use in Western discourses.

Like the philosophical distinction between Truth (with a capital T) and truth (with a lowercase T), the terms sharīʿah and fiqh distinguish between the unknowable and the knowable. Sharīʿah is God’s law. But humans have to rely on their interpretive faculties to ascertain what the divine laws are and how they are to be applied; fiqh thus refers to the human understanding of sharīʿah. In Arabic, a jurist is a faqih because his/her role is to interpret law (fiqh).

Since the process of understanding divine law is not a uniform or singular one, there are multiple interpretations of what divine law is, and, consequently, there are many schools of Islamic legal thought. The sharīʿah-fiqh distinction is one that is clearly recognized in Islamic jurisprudential texts and beyond. While I am still in the process of undertaking a thorough historical study, I suspect that the conflation of the terms sharīʿah and fiqh became normative among Muslims in the modern era—particularly in the context of Islamist-based resistance to imperialism. Regardless of the precise genealogy, the use of the term sharīʿah rather than fiqh in contemporary Muslim discourses has political motivations and ramifications; in other words, it is essentially about power. Jurists or political figures who use the term sharīʿah claim more authority for themselves and their opinions (legal or otherwise) than they could if they used the term fiqh.

Some of you might be thinking that Islamic studies specialists use the term sharīʿah, so how problematic can it be? Admittedly, this does not help my case. In the past, when I have discussed this issue with my colleagues, they have argued that we cannot win this terminological battle because the use of the term is too prevalent, and the term is, in any case, used by Muslims innocuously, etc. But these rationalizations have more to do with inertia than anything else.

So why do I think my interlocutor, this random person from the futile exchange above, should not use the term sharīʿah? Because my interlocutor has no idea what fiqh is, and therefore has no idea that there are numerous Islamic legal schools of thought. My interlocutor does not realize that no consensus exists about what is contained in sharīʿah, which animates an intense and fraught socio-political struggle. Who claims to define sharīʿah is just as significant as how sharīʿah is defined. Consequently, when Western media identify a particular country as applying sharīʿah and that country is actually applying an outlying interpretation of Islamic law, then Western media is legitimating that country’s policies as “sacred” or religiously authentic. Islamic law is defined and practiced distinctly by different people in different places and at different times, but using the term sharīʿah obfuscates those subtle realities. This is why I believe that the term sharīʿah should simply not be used: most people use it incorrectly.

But inaccuracy in Western discourses is only part of the problem. The other side of inaccuracy is an ideological interest in reifying the “Other”—in this context, Muslims and their laws. Why is the transliterated Arabic term sharīʿah consistently used in Western languages instead of the more accurate translation, “Islamic law”? The repeated use of the non-translated term (sharīʿah) rather than “Islamic law” operates as a distancing and vilifying mechanism. It is easier to colonize, to abhor, and to fear people who have “sharīʿah” than it is to do the same to people who just have laws. The usage of the term “sharīʿah” helps generate xenophobia.

I would like to erase the term sharīʿah from our contemporary lexicon and replace it with Islamic law. Many people have and will continue to resist relinquishing the term sharīʿah—perhaps in line with their political agendas—but I hope that at least some will consider the politics underlying the term’s misapplication. Someday, I hope, “Islamic law” will be my interlocutor’s term of choice.