The word ‘Sharīʿa’ has come to be associated primarily with Islamic law. However, the Arabic term existed before Islam; its incorporation into Islamic vocabulary derives from the Qur’anic verse ‘We have set thee on a clear path (sharīʿa) of commandment’ (45:18).
The word’s original meaning as the path (route, way) to a watering place holds considerable significance in understanding its relation to social governance, particularly with respect to bettering quality of life. There is in this meaning a much more elemental aspect of life, beyond law. Water’s value in the arid landscape of Arabia, the site of the Islamic revelation, is obvious, but this resource is universally necessary for sustaining human existence. Examining the original sense of the word is important in understanding the larger objective of the sharīʿa. Despite its identification with religious law, its underlying idea reflects a more fundamental purpose to support and to enrich life. Viewed through the prism of the Qur’anic verse, the word gains the meaning of travelling the path that leads to essential nourishment at the well of spiritual and material fulfillment. The symbolic significance of the Islamic sharīʿa in relation to its original meaning as a path to the life-giving resource of water points to the indispensability of spirituality and the ethics that derive from it for the individual and community.
In this sense, [sharīʿa] is much more profound than merely a set of rules and regulations; it is the support for governing the development of both the person and society.
Excerpted from Karim H. Karim’s article ‘Sustaining and Enhancing Life’ from Dr Amyn Sajoo’s The Shari‘a: History, Ethics and Law