A recent headline caught my eye as I was surfing the internet: "Philadelphia mosque leaders try to cut off man’s hand – police.” The thief in question had been accused of stealing jars of money from the house of prayer after morning worship. Where would they get this idea from? Sura 5:38 of the Quran says, “Cut off the hands of thieves, whether they are male or female, as punishment for what they have done – a deterrent from God.”
Which brings us to the topic of sharia law: why does it exist? What is its purpose? Is there anything similar in Christianity?
In both Judaism and Islam, laws and jurisprudence have arisen to lead and guide adherents through the complexities of daily life. After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Jews developed the Talmud. Without the centralizing authority of the temple, Jewish believers needed a way of guarding the Torah and living by it obediently. In a similar way, Sharia developed to help Muslims obey the Quran and live out their faith obediently. Sharia, in Arabic, means “the well trodden path to the watering hole.” As such, sharia is a guide for Muslims in the daily practice of their faith. Living their faith according to the rightly guided path is very important in order to truly submit to Allah. Sharia helps them do this by showing them actions that are obligatory, meritorious, permitted or forbidden.
Muslims discern this rightly guided path through four sources. All schools emphasize the importance of the Quran as divine revelation, and then the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad (Sunna) as the ideal to follow. Schools of sharia differ on the importance of the last two sources of authority; reasoning and consensus by scholars. Some schools limit the importance of reasoning in their school of sharia.
With the exception of Roman Catholic canon law, the church has never fenced the Bible in a similar way. This is because in contrast to other faiths, Christians believe in the active assistance of the Holy Spirit in helping us to live out God’s law. This became obvious early on in the church as exemplified by the Jerusalem Council’s decision to not burden the Gentile believers beyond four requirements because “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” To quote David Shenk in his book, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, “That decision involved a dialogical engagement of scripture, the community of faith, and the Holy Spirit…the church would not develop a Talmud as in Judaism or Sharia as in Islam” (204). Through the Holy Spirit the law is not so much written in ink but on our hearts (Jer. 31:33).
One of the challenges for Muslims who become followers of Jesus is the lack of structure, rules and regulations – in a sense the path is no longer as clear. But how wonderful to know that we have a God who loves us and who is actively working at changing our hearts and helping us to live according to His ways. As Paul encourages us in Galatians 5, let us keep in step with the Spirit as we live our lives for Jesus Christ.