We first introduce Sharī‘ah, followed by a sketch of the meaning of fiqh, both of these being basic and introductory treatments of their respective subjects. For further exploration interested readers should consult the works listed under "Jurisprudence" in my Islamic Studies Bibliography.
Sharī‘ah: literally, something like ‘the way,’ or ‘the path to the watering hole (or spring),’ and refers to divine law or God’s will in Islam. Historically, the term Sharī‘ah refers to all the elements of a proper, i.e. righteous life; this includes moral behavior, proper respect towards Allāh, correct belief, personal piety, and so on. In other words, it means the right way to live one's life as a Muslim in conformity to God’s will. In more recent times, the scope of its reference has narrowed to that which falls under the rubric of Islamic law (fiqh), but there is a logical, conceptual and practical difference between Sharī‘ah and fiqh. The latter involves the human process of understanding and implementing the divine law. It is a serious (religious, epistemological, ontological, ethical…) mistake to conflate Sharī‘ah and fiqh, or to use these terms, as often happens today, as synonyms. The Sharī‘ah, writes Khaled Abou El Fadl, ‘is God’s Will in an ideal and abstract fashion, but the fiqh is the product of the human attempt to understand God’s Will. In this sense, the Sharī‘ah is always fair, just and equitable, but fiqh is only an attempt at reaching the ideals and purposes of Sharī‘ah (maqāsid al-Sharī‘ah). [….] The conceptual distinction between Sharī‘ah and fiqh was the product of a recognition of the inevitable failures of human efforts at understanding the purposes or intentions of God.’
The function of Sharī’ah is here analogous or similar to that of Natural Law intimations among the Stoics and both religious and secular Natural Law doctrine as it developed from and after Grotius. Recently, Abdullahi An-Na‘im has made the provocative argument that ‘precisely because sharī‘a is supposed to be binding on Muslims out of religious conviction, a believer cannot be religiously bound except by what he or she personally believes to be a valid interpretation of the relevant texts of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Yet, given the diversity of opinions among Muslim jurists, whatever the state elects to enforce as positive law is bound to be deemed an invalid interpretation of Islamic sources by some of the Muslim citizens of the state.’ Moreover, such ‘objections to the enforcement of sharī‘a through positive law and the notion of an Islamic state do not, of course, preclude Muslims from personally conforming with every aspect of sharī‘a.’
We might describe the function of Sharī‘ah along the order of a Platonic Form, at least in its ‘bedrock version’ as outlined by T.K. Seung in Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993). In this account, intuition and construction are two integral processes intrinsic to the functional role of Platonic Forms (or ‘Ideas,’ ‘Archetypes,’ etc.). Platonic Forms—like the Sharī‘ah—are (is) fairly indeterminate, while nonetheless serving as normative, intuitive, and largely nonpropositional foundations (in theory, accessible to any Muslim) for constructing (propositional, hence legal) models as guides for determinate social realities, thus, for example, (the Form) Justice is only the normative foundation for constructing principled models of determinate social orders, none of which fully realizes Justice, and all of which endeavor to approach Justice, succeeding by degrees. What is more, the attempt to instantiate or embody the model is never wholly successful, given the nature of the human condition and the model’s idealized qualities in reference to the Form itself: ‘The indeterminacy of Platonic Forms makes them flexible standards, and their flexibility assures their eternal durability.’ Sharī‘ah is like the Platonic Form in being universal, abstract, and ‘indeterminate,’ and thus cannot directly serve as a normative standard (i.e., any interpretation of the Divine Will needs religiously rationalized and principled justification by way of textual hermeneutics and exegesis). This is perhaps one reason Norman Calder writes that, ‘in modern academic analysis of Islamic law, the word Sharī‘ah is of little use: what we can study and describe is always fiqh.’ Fiqh represents a Platonic-like endeavor to translate Sharī‘ah into direct, concrete, and normative models for particular contexts. As with Platonic intuitionism in which all human beings have access to Platonic Forms, all Muslims, as noted by An-‘Naim above, have access to Sharī‘ah, indeed, they are under a spiritual obligation to attempt to understand (and live by that understanding) the divine law. Such understanding is necessarily partial and fallible and may vary according to the individual (every Muslim is different): ‘Indeterminacy and relativity are inseparable in the domain of realization.’ The divine nature of Sharī‘ah means that it retains a normatively transcendent and evaluative function whatever the extent of its positivization as fiqh. In other words, law as such, or positive law, cannot exhaust the evaluative function of divine law as one’s understanding of same can always deepen, one’s intuitive discernment can always be keener. As a transcendent (nonpropositional) guide for action, and despite its integral relation to Islamic law, Sharī‘ah should not be confused or conflated with any of its specific principled and propositional constructions by way of fiqh, or any political proposal for a putatively Islamic state. Nonetheless, fiqh can serve as an aid in coming to understand divine law insofar as it enables us to obtain further, dialectical insight into that which transcends positive law; discursive reasoning and rational understanding, in other words, and in this case intrinsic to the Islamic science of jurisprudence, are part and parcel of the process of acquiring (intuitive or nonpropositional) insight into divine law. That is to say, there is a dialectical relation between divine and human law that represents, in epistemic terms, a dialectic between propositional knowledge and ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ in a Platonic sense or ‘knowledge by presence’ after Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī: ‘The insight that transcends words cannot be attained except by means of words; what cannot be spoken of becomes manifest in the very act of speaking.’ Like Socrates in the agora, Islamic scholars (jurists, theologians and philosophers) can examine and refute propositions that claim to fully or finally capture the nature or essence of the Divine Will, that pretend to fully embody or ‘positivize’ the Sharī‘a. The jurist’s fallible, limited, and historical understanding of Sharī‘ah, in other words, is evidenced by his facility with ’usūl al-fiqh: how he has arrived at the determination of law, rather than simply the result, that is, the legal determination or ruling itself, or, in the case of furū‘ al-fiqh, the persuasiveness of the arguments explicating the concepts and rules that relate to religious rituals and ethico-religious conduct in the widest sense.
And it is fitra, the Islamic term that designates our primordial inclination or general predisposition to the good as a constituent feature of human nature, that allows individual qua individuals, to have insight into the Divine Will (and thus functions like soul memory in Platonic thought: permitting individual intuitive awareness, however dim or partial, into the Good; this insight is what Socrates set out to awaken in the interlocutors of the dialectical dialogues). In fact, fitra can serve as the Islamic equivalent of individual conscience, according individuals in effect the right of principled objection to interpretations of Sharī‘ah that violate their sincere and sustained endeavors (made in the context of the Islamic tradition) to realize this dispositional awareness of ‘the Good,’ the Divine Will or Sharī‘a.
That said, consider the following comments from Professor Haider Ala Hamoudi, as a ‘legal realist,’ from his blog ‘Islamic Law in Our Times: A Realistic Assessment of Islamic Law in Today’s World’ (http://muslimlawprof.org/), as they help us appreciate the difference between concern with the ‘conceptual’ and focus on the ‘empirical’ or how, in practice, the normative is entangled or even conflated with the descriptive (what others term 'fact/value' entanglement):
In Islamic studies departments, there's this notion of shari'a as this sort of idealized, highly stylized logic driven system that is sort of somewhere in the sky that nobody can see, and then there's fiqh, which is any given juristic interpretation of this beauty written down on paper always with the flaws of that jurist, and then there's actual law, which bears no necessary relationship to either. [….] Certainly shari'a and fiqh, the ideal and then the imperfect reflection of the ideal (still not real) is a favorite of this group, their law review articles go to great lengths to explain the difference between the two, because one must understand how this all works, this lovely thing up there in the sky, its shadow in the academy and then if you're lucky they'll attempt to relate all of that to reality in a way that is, ummm, perplexing. [….] [A]s with any law or rule of social order, when you want to understand what the shari'a is, you have to see what the shari'a actually does. What role in the social order? How? Who has the authority to declare it? Where and when does it conflict with national law and how do Muslims of various sorts react to that? Where is it important to most? Where do some care and not others? THAT is law.
And in one sense that is true enough, but in principle and practice we need to keep in mind the necessary metaphysical, logical or conceptual, and legal distinctions that make a difference to our understanding of what is normative, prescriptive and descriptive (this allows, for instance, appreciation for the fact that what we might describe in any given case as normative or prescriptive is contingent or contestable and that there are may be principled differences of opinion--and arguments to be made--as to what is to properly count as prescriptive or normative).
So, for example, we should bear in mind the normative argument made by Abdullahi An-Na‘im:
When observed voluntarily, Sharī‘ah plays a fundamental role in shaping and developing ethical norms and values that can be reflected in general legislation and public policy through the democratic political process. But…Sharī‘ah principles cannot be enacted and enforced by the state as public law and public policy solely on the grounds that they are believed to be part of Sharī‘ah. If such enactment is attempted, the outcome will necessarily be the political will of the state and not the religious law of Islam. The fact that ruling elites sometimes make such claims to legitimize their control of the state in the name of Islam does not mean that such claims are true. The fact that the state is not a religious institution is the historical experience and current political reality of Islamic societies. [….] [D]ispelling the dangerous illusion of an Islamic state that can enforce Sharī‘ah is necessary for legitimizing and implementing the principles and institutions of constitutionalism, human rights, and citizenship in Islamic societies. Abdullahi An-Na‘im, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharī‘a. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Finally, we will grant the last word to Mohammad Hashim Kamali as evidence for the proposition that there need not be any inherent conflict—let alone contradiction—between Sharī‘a and democratice theory and praxis. This is true despite the historical fact that ‘with reference to justice and basic rights…the traditional fiqh in the areas of al-ahkām al-sultāniyyah (principles of government) and siyāsah shar‘iyyah (Sharī‘ah) has fallen short of reflecting the Qur’ān’s comprehensive conception of justice in the sphere particularly of rights and liberties.’ The following is a summary of points made by Kamali on behalf of our claim:
1. Notwithstanding certain reservations, some Muslim commentators have noted the Islamic credentials of formal constitutions in present-day Muslim countries; these constitutions, on the whole, pay greater attention to basic rights and liberties, the foundations of accountable and representative government, and as such tend to be in greater harmony with the basic principles of Islam. [….]
2. In response to the question whether a formal constitution was Islamic, and whether any objectionable elements therein invalidated the whole of a constitution, Muhammad Rashīd Ridā (d. 1935) issued a fatwā that may be summarized as follows: If a constitution seeks to establish a good government, defines the limits of power and ascertains criteria of accountability, then it would be in harmony with Islam. Should there be an instance of disagreement with any of the principles of Islam, only that element should be addressed and amended. For after all many of the great works of fiqh also contain errors, but this does not invalidate the whole of the endeavor or manual in which such an error might have occurred. [….]
3. [Despite] a lack of consensus over the basic definition of “right” in the
Islamic discourse, the word “haqq” is often said to convey a basic meaning
regardless of definitions. Haqq (right) in the Qur’ān occurs in several places and carries a variety of meanings, which include justice, right as opposed to falsehood, a legal claim, an obligation, something that is proven and an assigned portion. The many meanings of haqq in the Qur’ān may be said to be a cause sometimes of ambiguity, even misunderstanding. For instance the shared meaningof haqq between a right and an obligation has persuaded Western Islamologists to draw…the unwarranted conclusion that Islam recognizes only obligations but no right inhering in the individual. This is tantamount to turning a blind eye to the affirmative stance of the Qur’ān and Sunnah on the rights of the individual, including his right to life, right to justice, right to equality, right of ownership, rights to sustenance and support within the family, parental rights, right of inheritance and so forth. Islam’s commitment to justice and its advocacy of human dignity could not be sustained without the recognition of rights. [….] We may add…that Islam’s perspective on rights and liberties is somewhat different from that of constitutional law and democracy and their underlying Western postulates. Islam, like other great religions, is primarily concerned with human relations. In ordinary life, people do not live primarily in terms of rights against others but in terms mutual relationships involving love, compassion, self-preservation and self-sacrifice in pursuit of happiness and peace for themselves and their loved ones. The great religious traditions teach people, with good reason, that such things are not a matter of course nor are they always a question of rights. This would partially explain why most religions tend to emphasize moral virtue, obligation, love and sacrifice even more than the individual’s rights and claims. [….]
4. [T]here are differences between the theistic view of right and freedom when compared to what they mean in a secular context, but we also note that taking a totally secular approach to them is not advisable in the Islamic context. We believe that human rights and democratic values would benefit if religious values are also taken into consideration. [….] For the religious reformers to carry forward their struggle for democracy and human rights, they should be seen as authentic articulators of change espousing an alternative from within rather than without the tradition. [….]
5. For moderate Muslim thinkers, Islam’s exhortation to justice does not preclude people’s interpretation of it. On the subject of women’s rights, for example, it is suggested that women’s isolation from public life has been due to backward customary impositions on the Qur’ānic discourse. Thus what is needed is to restore women’s originally independent status in the Qur’ān, and provide a social context where women can exercise their freedom and independence. [….] Political parties and associations are permitted, and Islam stands for consultative and constitutional government with limited powers subjected to the rule of law. Basic rights and freedoms must be protected and government is accountable to the people. Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Sharī‘ah Law: An Introduction (Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2008).
Fiqh: understanding, knowledge; Islamic jurisprudence (law) as derived from Sharī‘ah (lit., the way; divine law, God’s will). Strictly speaking, Sharī‘ah is perfect: immutable and infallible, God’s will as abstractly and ideally understood, while fiqh is fallible and changeable, the product of a human attempt to understand that which is divine. There is, in other words, a logical, conceptual and practical distinction between Sharī’ah and fiqh, however much the latter is inspires the former. Nonetheless, and in the words of Knut S. Vikø, ‘It is more common to use “Sharī’a” as a name for the Islamic legal rules that we actually see applied in our human existence. Then one distinguishes between fiqh as the science used to derive the legal rules from their sources and the Sharī’ah as the result of this endeavor, the actual body of laws and rules in all their variations and internal inconsistency.’ As Norman Calder observes, there are two broad types of jurisprudential literature: usūl al-fiqh (‘roots’) and furū‘ al-fiqh (‘branches’) (there is a third type, the tabaqāt—biographical—genre which is common beyond fiqh proper and not treated here). Islamic law itself is the product of the application of usūl al-fiqh (the ‘roots’ or sources of law), the principles and methods through which practical rules are developed from the tradition’s foundational sources: a) the Qur’ān, b) the Sunnah, (or ahādīth) c) ijmā‘ (consensus) of Muslim scholars on a legal rule about a topic not explicitly covered in the aforementioned sources (Shī‘ī jurists deny this is possible; and differences arise as to the possible value of ‘implied’ or ‘silent’ consensus, with Hanafī jurists speaking in its favor), and d) analogy (qiyās), involving reliance on precedent. In conjunction with these sources, subsidiary or supplemental presumptions and principles may aid the jurist in deriving interpretive rules: istihsān (considerations of equity and the application of discretion or preference, the ratio legis or ‘effective cause of the ruling’ differing from one obtained strictly through qiyās); ‘unregulated interest’ or masālih mursalah, explained by Wael Hallaq as arising in relation to a rationally suitable benefit motivated by public interest ‘that is not sustained by textual evidence,’ later this method of reasoning was approved provided ‘it could be shown that the feature of public interest adopted in a case was suitable (munāsib) and relevant (mu‘tabar) whether to a universal principle of the law or to a specific…piece of textual evidence’ (Hallaq); and istishāb, the rational presumption of continuity. There are four major schools (madhhabs) (five, when we add the Shī‘ī) of Islamic law: the Hanafī, the Hanbalī, the Mālikī and the Shāfi‘ī, along with a fair number of other teachers and ‘schools’ (e.g. the Zāhirī, Zaydī, Ibādī, and Ismā‘īlī) throughout Islamic history. In Twelver Shī‘ism, the Usūlī school of jurisprudence predominates. After Shāfi‘ī, the jurist’s decision in a new case of law must fall into one of five categories: the obligatory (wājib), the recommended (mandūb), the permissible (mubāh), the prohibited (harām), or the repugnant (makrūh). Calder defines the scope of the second type of jurisprudential literature:
[Furū‘ al-fiqh] sets out…concepts and rules that relate to conduct, and arguments about them. Its headings are purity, prayer, fasting, alms, pilgrimage…and then such topics as warfare, marriage, divorce, inheritance, penalties, buying and selling, judicial practice, etc., in variable order. The whole is a conceptual replica of social life, not necessarily aspiring to be either complete or practical, but balanced between revelation, tradition and reality, all three of which feed the discussion and exemplify the concepts.
Thus described, this literature is reminiscent of both Mishnah and Talmud in Judaism.