Junk Explained: Here’s Everything Jacqui Lambie Doesn’t Know About Sharia Law

Paging Jacqui Lambie!

The concept of Sharia law has once again grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons, with public fears of the unknown being amplified lately by elected members of Parliament denouncing the Islamic way of life as a danger to Australian society. Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie has come out strongly against Sharia in recent weeks, saying it “obviously involves terrorism” and telling Muslims who follow it to “get out,” despite not having a huge amount of knowledge on what Sharia law actually is.

Lambie’s not the only politician to use Sharia as an all-purpose boogeyman; in 2006 then-Federal Treasurer Peter Costello said that there was no place for Sharia in Australia and that to live in Australia “you do have to believe in democracy, the rule of law and the rights and liberties of others,” strongly implying that Sharia advocates otherwise.

Since Lambie’s outburst there has been a spate of ‘explanatory’ articles that have shed some light on what Sharia means for the modern-day Muslim. While these have explained part of the picture, it is important to also understand the origins of Islamic law and how it’s changed over the centuries; what most people don’t know is that the misappropriated ‘Sharia’ invoked today by extremist groups and regimes is radically different from the original product, not least as a result of Western colonisation and modern imperialism.

So here it is: a comprehensive, contextual rundown of what Sharia law is, what practising it looks like, and how it was shaped into what it is today.

What Even Is Sharia? 

The word “sharia”, taken literally, is Arabic for “path” or road to a watering hole or place of salvation. The five universal principles that underlie Sharia are ‘protection of life’, ‘mind’, ‘religion’, ‘property’ and ‘offspring’; rulings in Sharia law are based around the protection and promotion of these five areas and, logically, decisions that see their degradation are fundamentally unIslamic.

In practical terms, traditional Sharia is quite unlike any “legal system” as we understand the term in the modern West — a bunch of acts and legislation sitting in a library — but more a constantly changing and evolving process to try and ensure society lived intelligently and ethically. It was not written down in a legislative state-based form like today’s law, giving it the freedom to be able to be constantly revised and improved upon. Sharia was kind of like Java; you need it for everything, but it was always being updated.

Perhaps most importantly, the foundation of Islamic law was not linked to a state’s authority because at the time of its birth in the seventh century, the concept of the “state” was non-existent. Rather, it was about finding a balance for society through a combination of rationalist thought and religious morality, determined by knowledgeable members of the community rather than any government or set of rulers

Because Sharia relies on a large element of interpretation, finding an answer to any one question can be very difficult — at any one time there can be a number of different interpretations of the same set of facts — but this interpretive element allows for a healthy amount of legal pluralism, giving Sharia the flexibility to be relevant to all times and places as long as it adheres to Islam’s original principles.

Where Does Sharia Law Come From, And What Does It Cover?

The main sources of Sharia law are the Islamic holy book, the Quraan, and the Prophet Muhammed’s (Peace be upon Him) sayings and actions, known as the ‘Sunnah’, from which Muslims derive their understanding of how to live a good life. The Sunnah are explicit and largely general, like “pray” and “don’t pray while drunk”.

The practical detail for Islamic law, which goes into a bit more detail, comes from different interpretations of the Quraan and Sunnah and sits under the banner of jurisprudence, or ‘usul al-fiqh’. Usul al-fiqh covers quite a lot, but it essentially means interpreting the broad rules set out in Islam’s two main legal sources into law that is relevant to the current time and place.

This interpretation takes the form of two main methodologies — consensus and analogy. Consensus refers to the agreement of the learned community on particular issues, largely retrospectively; for example, the standard number of extra prayers Muslims pray during Ramadaan (the month of fasting) was a result of consensus.  Analogies are about making common-sense judgments based on what is already known — “don’t drink beer because wine is prohibited”, for instance.

The laws themselves are broadly split into two types — laws relating to an individual’s relationship with God (ibadat) and the laws that govern society (muamalat) — and can be further categorised into four fields: ‘rituals’, ‘sales’, ‘marriage’ and ‘injuries’. They cover almost everything to do with how Muslims live their day-to-day livesPrayer, fasting, food and drink are covered in the first category, followed by sales, loans, cultivating wasteland, and shares in the second. The third looks at marriage, familial support and custody rights, while the fourth illustrates the laws of war and peace, homicide and the Quranically regulated infractions.

The rules about individual actions — ibadat — are pretty uncontroversial, and by following these rules Muslims in Australia practise Sharia without infringing on the rights of others. The rules that govern society are what come to mind when “Sharia” is generally referred to in the media. One of the main rules of this part of Sharia law (which you probably haven’t heard of) is that Muslims must follow the laws of the land they are in, regardless of who is governing. By following the ‘law of the land’ — Australia, for example — Muslims are following Sharia. Muslims aren’t seeking to “impose” Sharia law on Australia — they’re living and practising it already, despite inflammatory and inaccurate depictions to the contrary.

But Sharia has changed over time, and if we’re going to properly understand it, it’s important to examine when, how, and why that happened.

Colonisation Changed Everything, Including Sharia

The advent of modern colonisation, starting with the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch entering India and Indonesia in the late 16th and 17th Centuries, would eventually lead to some pretty drastic changes in how Sharia was practised and understood.  With the arrival of the colonisers in predominantly Islamic communities came the concept of the nation-state — and with it, codifying (translating and writing down) laws.  The colonisers viewed Islam as a threat to the system and civilisation they understood, and began thoroughly remodelling Islamic legal systems.

Started by the Governor of Bengal Warren Hastings in the 1770s and followed by the Dutch in the 1880s, western powers began separate projects to translate, write down and convert the Sharia — as they understood it — into written law.  In doing so they turned Sharia’s fluidity rigid, and hollowed out the interpretive core that Sharia law depended on. Islamic law became unable to do what it needed to do to function.

What’s more, this process actually wound back progressive aspects of Islamic law to conservative Western standards. Sharia and Islamic law had bestowed women with rights and privileges that were advanced and equalising; when the laws were translated into colonising languages, those nuances were removed and the patriarchal colonising culture prevailed, writing the rights women had enjoyed under Sharia out of the system entirely. The “Sharia” notion that a man is the head of the family to be obeyed without question was a post-colonial inclusion that completely changed the original intention of the Islamic ruling, and Governor Hastings, along with his counterpart Governor-General of India Charles Cornwallis, felt like Islamic law allowed criminals to escape punishment too easily, complaining that Sharia was “founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed”.

Given Islamic law’s current reputation, this is kind of ironic.

Sharia law may sound foreign, especially if you don’t know much about it, but it doesn’t need to be feared. At its essence, it’s about finding a way to live a good life, and by practising as Muslims (praying, fasting, eating good kebabs), millions of people around the world are following Islamic law without coming into conflict with the law of the land. By and large, Muslims are well accommodated in the current legal system and there is no reason why this should change. Fear-mongering around Sharia law as a “threat” to Australian society serves only to bolster the damaging and dangerous “us and them” narrative, ultimately helping no one but the terrorists themselves.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an experience junkie and loves not fitting into stereotypes.  She has written for the Griffith Review, Sydney Morning Herald, Fin Review and currently in the process of penning an entire book.  A mechanical engineer and petrol head with a passion for social justice and terrible puns, she tweets @yassmin_a.

Feature image via Danumurthi Mahendra on a Flickr Creative Commons licence.



  1. TYSN says:

    You spelt Muhammad wrong

  2. Hi, there are actually a number of different ways to spell Muhammad (Mohammad, Muhammed, Mohamed etc. etc.), largely based on the variety of Arabic being used. Same applies to Qu’ran/Quraan/Koran. See here for more:

  3. Abdul says:

    The first half of the article is reasonably accurate but the section on the codification of the Sharia is completely inaccurate and to suggest developments in India and Indonesia imacted the implementation of the Sharia is flat out wrong. To suggest that the codification began under Western rulers is also wrong and about 1000 years late on when this process started.

    Great scholars like Imam al-Shafi‘i had been doing this exact work 1000 years before the author suggests, judges were issued with written handbooks across the Muslim lands and debate and codification took place amongst the many great scholars. Again Kitab al-Risala was written 1000 years before your author suggests such things were taking place. So to the works of Abu Hanifah.

    It is insulting to the great Imams, the scholars and companions (peace be upon them all) to suggest that 1000 years later, in the far off lands of Indonesia, that their written works and scholarly thought and influence was drastically changed by colonialists. Lack of understanding of the Sharia, it’s development and written history is no excuse for trying to assert the laws of Allah are somehow so “fluid” that they could be so modified by a few Colonialists operating outside of the majority of Muslim lands.

    This article must be removed or corrected, it does no service to Islam or the Non Muslims who wish to be further educated on the true history of the laws of Allah most high.

  4. Emily says:

    This is a great history lesson, I’d be interested to know more about the laws regarding women that were “advanced and equalising” prior to colonial times, and how exactly these changed. I readily admit I don’t know much about sharia, beyond the fact that it is often used as an excuse for barbaric and sexist acts against women by fundamentalist groups (eg This is clearly only one (awful) example of women’s rights under sharia, it would be great to have some real examples of sharia laws (past or present) that are in fact fair and equal in their approach to the sexes. Perhaps another article on women under sharia? Just an idea….

  5. Yassmin says:

    Salams, and thanks for your comments. I don’t claim to be at all a scholar and so if you have more information I would love to be educated on the manner.

    I did not mean any insult to any of the historical leaders, judges, imaams and sheiks – in fact, their work is how I strive to live my life. However, as far as I understood it, Sharia allows similarly educated judges and imaams to take that information and apply it to this day and age as well, which is the strength of Sharia and Islam?

    I’d love to be pointed in the direction of your thinking for this to be explained further and best to you, inshallah.

  6. boots88 says:

    So what’s your opinion on killing apostates?

  7. Todd Sam says:

    Thanks for posting. Sounds horrible!

    All modern societies must be working toward a secular humanist state. Sharia sounds like it’s working toward the exact opposite (like all/most religions). This in itself is extremely offensive.

    The idea of religion deciding what is a moral and intelligent society should be offensive to anyone with an education.

  8. Yassmin says:

    :) Thanks for the question:

    I refer to an answer given by a guy who I respect as a scholar from the US who conveniently uses tumblr:

    “Should someone be killed for leaving Islam? Overwhelmingly, the answer is no. Why do people do that today? For a huge range of reasons, that entail reactions to Westernization, neo-Colonialism, rejection of all sorts of stuff and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc etc. So, that’s today, and it has little to do with formal Islam.

    As far The Qur’an is concerned, there are **no** punishments on this earth for leaving Islam.

    “As for anyone who denies God after having once attained to faith — and this, to be sure, does not apply to one who does it under duress, the while his heart remains true to his faith, but [only to] him who willingly opens up his heart to a denial of the truth -: upon all such [falls] God’s condemnation, and tremendous suffering awaits them: (107) all this, because they hold this world’s life in greater esteem than the life to come, and because God does not bestow His guidance upon people who deny the truth. They whose hearts and whose hearing and whose sight God has sealed — it is they, they who are heedless! (109) Truly it is they, they who in the life to come shall be the losers!” [16:106-108] Muhammad Asad

    There is obviously more to the answer, you can read it here >>

    We’re told no compulsion in religion. If people do the wrong things in the name of the religion, are you going to blame the religion or the people? Duno if that gets anyone out of jail free, but there you have it (as far as I can explain). My personal opinion? We should be merciful and let people choose.

  9. Yassmin says:

    Thanks! I actually have a friend doing a PhD on this so it is definitely an area with a lot to look at. Perhaps an idea indeed! Here are some blog type places to start though: >> Wiki of course, although I can’t speak to the veracity of all the information there >> A great blog which talks about common misconceptions people have about Islam and Muslims >> List of books that might be interesting as well

    I hope that is a good start!

  10. Yassmin says:

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for commenting! I respect that you think that religion is offensive, but that’s okay, we can disagree on this point :)

    I guess the cool thing about a civilised society is that even though we can be a little offended by each others’ choices, we can still respect each other and live together harmoniously right?

  11. TYSN says:

    I originally thought that might have been the case. Thanks for clarifying that for me! :)

  12. boots88 says:

    I’m not talking about sentencing people to death, I’m talking about punishment in any shape of form. I should have been more clearer, in the Islamic world (ignore the extremists) among academics and clerics in charge of the legal system that apostasy should receive some form of punishment?

    What do Islamic scholars think of people such as Hazma Andreas Tzortzis who misinform the public for the sake of promoting Islam?

    And here’s a personal question, I’m just going to be blunt: Why do you choose to subscribe to Islam? Do you feel as if it is a choice to follow any religion if one were, for a lack of a better word, bombarded by a certain culture and system of beliefs?

  13. roccolore says:

    Sharia Law = stoning rape victims, hanging gays, beating women for not wearing potato sacks, and death sentences for non-Muslims.

  14. ToddSam says:

    Of course! Though surely any attempts to move away from a secular society should be discouraged, even while defending the rights of others to believe whatever they like in their own private life.

    One other thing I’d be interested to hear more about… your article doesn’t address concerns raised over Islam/Sharia and misogyny, particularly as a lot of the Lambie coverage has been over the wearing of the burka, or niqab. A lot of people respond to this is “why do women wear them?” To which the obvious response is, ‘they can wear whatever they like.’

    But then you need to look at why they feel they need to, and in my research the answer generally leads to – because they want to honour god. Okay, fine. But then why does a god desire such a thing? And to that question the only answers I can find mostly refer to Quran 33:59, which is appalling. Happy to hear your thoughts or clarification.

    Yes, we should all defend the rights of others to believe what they like in their private life, but any element of a religion that promotes sexism and inequality must not be excused or ignored.

  15. elkks says:

    I’m curious, may I ask does the learned community that comes to consensus on legal matters include women? If it does not 1. why not? 2. are women’s interests adequately protected without the direct involvement of women in decision making?

  16. SirOsis OfThuliver says:

    What a coincidence. Everything was going so well for Islam then “THE WEST” came along and made Islamic societies do all the naughty bad things it does now. No “us and them” narrative there…
    There are no perfect societies but this “hey Sharia is just nice people doing nice things in their private life and no threat to secular society” argument is a little thin. Sure your Lambies often represent xenophobic parts of our society and we all don’t do a history course in every culture we interact with but, by and large, the fear people have around Islam, besides plain white-bread xenophobia, comes from REAL incidences of child marriage and shitty attitudes to women, homosexuals and non-believers. Telling people the right name for the head dress and the rosy history of Sharia law isn’t going to change that perspective.

  17. SirOsis OfThuliver says:

    What I mean is, sure, a law is a law is a law – it’s just something nutted out by people and people in positions of power to govern society. To that end, yeh, Islamic jurisprudence is similar to any other system. The tension doesn’t arise because of the word “Sharia” being involved so much as it arises because it’s an area of social authority that legitimates doing things in one part of society that the wider secular society has turned against. This “history lesson” is just going to be shared on facebook by people who didn’t read past the headline to flash their multicultural credentials to their mates whilst looking down their nose at someone they want marginalized (Lambie) for not knowing things they themselves didn’t know.

  18. SirOsis OfThuliver says:

    I think you got filed in the too hard basket Todd…

  19. Ken says:

    Before those beautiful, peaceful Islamic communities of Indonesia were colonised by the bad men, which religions had Islam driven out? Buddhism? Hinduism? All of them except for small pockets here and there?

    Where are all the Christians of the middle east (they were before islam)? One would think there would be lots – but they seem gone too.

    Why does saudi arabia execute atheists? Why does Iran execute gays? Do they have a different koran to you?

    Finally, secular laws aren’t just in libraries – they are enforced every day by police and courts. Amazing!