For opponents of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, the word Sharia symbolizes the threat of Islam. Marchers rallying against the center depicted the word in dripping red script, as if drenched in blood. Newt Gingrich has lectured about the problem of "creeping Sharia." Blogs such as Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs allege a conspiracy to replace the Constitution with Sharia.
What is Sharia? Simply put, it is Islamic law. Sharia governs acts of worship, such as prayer and fasting, as well as civil and criminal matters, such as marriage, inheritance or criminal transactions. But that's only one aspect of Sharia.
"Sharia is three things: an ideal religious concept, a body of jurisprudence done by groups of scholars, and legislation in Muslim countries," says Kecia Ali, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University.
In abstract, Sharia is God's will for humanity. Sharia means "the path" that God wants people to travel. The proper way of life is shown primarily through two sources. The most important one is the Quran, which Muslims believe was given to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. The other one is the activities of the prophet, which are recorded in the Sunna.
Merely consulting those texts doesn't guarantee heading in the right direction. "If you wanted to know what kinds of food you could and couldn't eat, maybe you asked somebody who was a legal authority. You wouldn't go trying to sort out the answer for yourself," Ali says.
Like Judaism, Islam has specialists who can rule on religious matters. When interpreting a law, the jurists refer to the Quran, the prophetic tradition and established scholarship. They also take into consideration community and cultural practices and apply reasoning to the problem at hand.
For example, a questioner might ask whether drinking beer is allowed. Although the Quran doesn't mention beer, drinking wine is prohibited. Jurists would deconstruct that prohibition in making their decision, says Imam Ramez Islambouli, who teaches at John Carroll University near Cleveland.
Though people might think that Sharia is a fixed, rigid set of rules dating back to the seventh century, it is the product of centuries of human reasoning and interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The third meaning of Sharia refers to legislation in Muslim countries. "People talk about Sharia law in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Morocco, and they mean the civil codes that national legislatures vote on," Ali says.
The codes aren't strictly Islamic but are byproducts of colonial regimes. Ali says that remnants of British and French law are found in India and Morocco, while a good portion of Turkish law is taken from the Swiss civil code.
"These kinds of rules call themselves 'Sharia.' It's part of how they seek to claim legitimacy for what they're doing," Ali says. "But they go through a very different mechanism than traditional jurisprudence or from the purely religious thing."
Sharia is also implemented under the American legal system, Islambouli says. For example, an Islamic marriage requires witnesses, recitation of vows and a dowry. But a couple also must get a license before the ceremony.
"We wouldn't perform the ceremony unless they had a license, because American law would not recognize a religious marriage," he says.
Afi-Odelia Scruggs is a regular contributor to The Root.