World

What is Sharia and how is it applied?

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivers a speech during the official ceremony of the implementation of Sharia Law in Bandar Seri Begawan on 30 April 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Brunei ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced the implementation of Sharia punishments on Wednesday

Brunei has introduced a tough Islamic penal code, known as Sharia law, sparking concern from the UN and the US. The BBC explains how the Sharia system works.

What is Sharia?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sharia law acts as a code of conduct for all aspects of a Muslim's life

Sharia law is Islam's legal system. It is derived from both the Koran, Islam's central text, and fatwas - the rulings of Islamic scholars.

Sharia literally means "the clear, well-trodden path to water".

Sharia law acts as a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, including prayers, fasting and donations to the poor.

It aims to help Muslims understand how they should lead every aspect of their lives according to God's wishes.

Background on Sharia law (BBC religion)

What does this mean in practice?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sharia law decrees that men and women should dress modestly, although countries vary in how they interpret this

Sharia can inform every aspect of daily life for a Muslim.

For example, a Muslim wondering what to do if their colleagues invite them to the pub after work may turn to a Sharia scholar for advice to ensure they act within the legal framework of their religion.

Other areas of daily life where Muslims may turn to Sharia for guidance include family law, finance and business.

The many faces of Sharia

What are some of the tough punishments?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Caning is one of the punishments allowed under Sharia law

Sharia law divides offences into two general categories: "hadd" offences, which are serious crimes with set penalties, and "tazir" crimes, where the punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.

Hadd offences include theft, which can be punishable by amputating the offender's hand, and adultery, which can carry the penalty of death by stoning.

Some Islamic organisations have argued that there are many safeguards and a high burden of proof in the application of hadd penalties.

The UN has spoken out against death by stoning, saying it "constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Sharia law derives from the Koran and the rulings of Islamic scholars

Not all Muslim countries adopt or enforce such punishments for hadd offences, and polling suggests attitudes of Muslims to harsh penalties for such offences vary widely.

Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim thinker in Europe, has called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Muslim world.

He argues that the conditions under which such penalties would be legal are almost impossible to re-establish in today's world.

Governing under Sharia (external link)

Can Muslims be executed for converting?

Apostasy, or leaving the faith, is a very controversial issue in the Muslim world and experts say the majority of scholars believe it is punishable by death.

But a minority of Muslim thinkers, particularly those engaged with Western societies, argue that the reality of the modern world means the "punishment" should be left to God - and that Islam itself is not threatened by apostasy.

The Koran itself declares there is "no compulsion" in religion.

How are rulings made?

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Image caption Sharia courts are used in many countries, including Nigeria

Like any legal system, Sharia is complex and its practice is entirely reliant on the quality and training of experts.

Islamic jurists issue guidance and rulings. Guidance that is considered a formal legal ruling is called a fatwa.

There are five different schools of Sharia law. There are four Sunni doctrines: Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanafi, and one Shia doctrine, Shia Jaafari.

The five doctrines differ in how literally they interpret the texts from which Sharia law is derived.