SEE: Southern and Eastern Europe

SA: South Asia

SEA: Sout East Asia

CE: Central Asia

MENA: Middle East and North Africa

SSA: Sub-Saharan Africa

What is Shari’ah law? Is this a difficult question to answer, or is it no question at all? A great misconception even among Muslim communities themselves is that there is one absolute, codified set of laws that we have access to and recognise as the objective Islamic Shari’ah, and that this is identical everywhere in every Muslim majority country where some kind of ‘Shari’ah’ law is implemented.

Shari’ah is defined as the “moral and legal code of Islam” that offers “guidance for nearly all aspects of life”; in its broadest conception, it “refers to the ethical principles set down in… [the Quran and living example of the Prophet Muhammad (Sunnah) as recorded in Hadith literature]”. Stricter definitions take what appears to be explicit commands in the Qur’an and Ahadith as given, sometimes far removed from their intended context. Further, some Muslims even hold that the “Islamic jurisprudence that comes out of the human exercise of codifying and interpreting these principles”, or fiqh, is also to be included as constitutive of Shari’ah.

The boundary between human interpretation of divine law and what the actual divine law entails, however, is still the center of much debate and there is no unanimous consensus over the matter. Further, based on some of the teachings the Qur’an informs us of, diversity is not to be rooted out or condemned, but rather recognized as part of Allah’s divine plan for humanity.

As a few points in case, this article will now consider different aspects of the findings from Pew’s 2013 “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” report to discern the reality of Muslim (lack of?) consensus on certain Shari’ah-related issues.

The following statistics are based on the answers given by a sample of 38,000 Muslims across different regions and countries (making up a fraction of 67% of the entire Muslim population) where Muslims were either the majority of the populace or at least a 10 million-strong minority. Excluded from the survey are China, India and Saudi Arabia for safety reasons or disagreements over Pew’s methodology.

1. Support for Shari’ah

A. Supporting Shari’ah as State Law

In the SSA, where generally Muslims are about 20% of the population, over half (52%-74%) of the sample want Shari’ah to be official law of land, whereas Muslim- majority (90%+) countries elsewhere range between 8-27% desire for Shari’ah to be implemented.

It is worth noting that data from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that conflict may hamper confidence in religious freedoms, and in turn enhance anxiety, hence, desire to retain and strengthen Islam’s prominence and the strength of the community.

Higher religiosity is the only factor consistently linked to higher acceptance of Shari’ah, followed by age in very few countries in the MENA region.

B. Imposing Shari’ah on Non-Muslims

In the SA and MENA regions, medians above 50% support severe criminal punishment and even execution of ex-Muslim apostates. Even so, in SA, SEA and MENA (where support for merging Shari’ah with state law is highest) medians of at least 51% hold that Shari’ah should only apply to non-Muslims. Egypt is the exception, with 55% of Muslims asked claiming that Shari’ah should apply to all.

94% in SEA, 91% in MENA, 87% in SA, 70% in SSA, and 61% of surveyed Muslims in SEE believe that belief in God is necessary for morality. In only 2/38 countries asked did 41-45% of interviewees say morality is not necessarily linked to faith. Most possibly, Shari’ah for them is not religion-specific morality but the objective standard of morality and justice universally shared by all.

C. Muslim’s Duty to Proselytise

In Lebanon 52% say proselytizing is a religious duty, 44% say it is not, whereas Indonesian Muslims disagree (65% say it is not, 31% say it is).

Roughly half of the Muslims surveyed in CA, SE do not believe that their faith obliges them to convert others. Only Azerbaijan and Tajikistan differ in this respect- in the former, 42% say it is a religious obligation, 36% disagree, whereas the latter is the only country in the region where a majority over 50% (69%) hold that proselytisation is fard kifayah- a religious duty.

2. Clash of Civilisations

A. Modernity and Science as irreconcilable with Islam

Most (surveyed) Muslims across all regions deny that being devout is incompatible with modernity; in SEA generally fewer than 1/3 say Islam conflicts with modernity, and at the highest, 4/10 in CA and SEE agree that there is an incompatibility.

Only about 1/3 in most countries in the SA and MENA regions agree that there is a conflict, with the exceptions of Lebanon, Tunisia, and Bangladesh, where 45-55% feel modernity and devotion are in conflict.

In all but two of SSA countries, at least 3/10 say modernity and Islam are incompatible, making this the region most likely to view this opposition.

In 13/22 countries asked, at least half of the sample professed acceptance of evolution and at least half of Muslims in 17 countries say no conflict exists between science and Islam; only in 2/23 countries asked were more than half of the sample convinced there was a tension.

Taking the number of times people pray daily as an indicator of religiosity, no significant link between religiosity and likelihood to view modernity or science as a threat to devotion was found.

B. Women’s rights

In roughly half of the 39 countries surveyed, women are more likely to champion women’s freedom to choose to veil herself or not in public, fewer however support more equality in terms of divorce and inheritance When it comes to divorce and equal inheritance, and generally it is the case that women are just as likely as men to support women’s rights.

C. Death Penalty and Amputations

The report shows that the Muslim sample groups asked “differ widely in how they interpret certain aspects of [Shari’ah], both severe punishments and other issues such as divorce”, hence varied in their comfortability with implementing severe punishments, as “[w]hile most favo[u]r using religious law in family and property disputes fewer support the application of severe punishments”.

3. Muslim Commitment to Interfaith Relations

A. Common Ground

In only 3/37 countries where the question was asked do at least half of Muslims say they know a great deal or some about Christian/Buddhist beliefs and practices, with at least half of Muslims surveyed in 5/7 countries in the MENA region a majority of saying that Islam is very different to Christianity, Palestinian Muslims being divided on the issue.

At least half of Muslims surveyed in the SSA region say they are knowledgeable about Christianity, except for Niger where only 1/5, 17% are more likely than their counterparts in other regions to say that Islam and Christianity have a lot in common.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only country outside SSA where about half (51%) of Muslims say they know about Christianity.

The report found that Muslims who say they know at least something about Christianity are considerably more likely than those with less knowledge to believe the two faiths have a lot in common.

B. Relationships with People of Other Faiths

Relatively few Muslims surveyed report having non-Muslim friends, and in 22 countries outside of the SSA region (where inter-marriage is more common), few Muslims are accepting of inter-marriage with non-Muslims.

There seems to be a link between higher levels of religiosity (times prayed daily) and lower acceptance of intermarriage.

C. Interfaith Meetings

Muslims in SSA more frequently attend inter-faith meetings, with over 50% of Muslims in Mozambique, Uganda and Liberia tending to participate in inter-faith classes and meetings at a higher rate than Muslims in other regions.

Thailand is the only non SSA region country where over half (56%) of the Muslim population attend interfaith projects with their Buddhist neighbours.


It should now become clear from the above-made points that there is no absolute consensus on all aspects of Shari’ah, although there are points of broad consensus. It is interesting to note however that so few Muslims know about other religions or even other denominations within Islam; it can be assumed that were the opposite to be the case, greater mutual understanding and less propensity to view Islam as at war with the rest of the world could possibly result.

As noted in the pew report “instituting [Shari’ah] in the domestic-civil sphere frequently mirror[s] a country’s existing legal system”, as populations are reluctant to experiment with new forms of government in favour of what is already familiar to them. Interestingly, this also sheds light on hermeneutics- the study of interpretation itself; oftentimes people with specific agendas will see their agendas reflected back to them when reading scripture, which acts as a kind of mirror into the soul. Intolerance breeds intolerance when tyrannical persons set out to interpret Shari’ah and (unconsciously or otherwise) project their own will and prejudices onto their interpretations of scripture, casting social malaise as a religious problem all the while distracting populaces from the deeper political abuses that are largely (more) responsible for societal disfunction. Arguably the best way to counterbalance these effects within Islamic societies is to consider all Islamic perspectives in all their nuance, as a means to gradually engaging more with other religious groups as a means of recognising the common ground humanity shares and the common struggles we all face and can work together to counteract.