The decision by a swath of northern, predominantly Muslim states
in Nigeria to adopt a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law
in 2000 has sparked sporadic clashes among residents and posed
some problems for the government.
For followers of Islam, many edicts of morality and lifestyle
are found in the body of Islamic law known as "Sharia"
-- a set of religious rules that are observed in various ways
around the Islamic world. Some states adhere strictly to codes
of conduct outlined in the Quran while other more moderate nations
have attempted to include aspects of Islamic law in more secular
forms of governance.
is Sharia law?
The word Sharia means "the path to a watering hole"
but is often translated as "the way" or "the path."
It offers guidelines for everyday life, including prayers and
donations to the poor. As addressed in the Quran, Sharia prescribes
modest dress for both men and women and has been interpreted to
require single-sex schools and transportation.
factors determine the underpinnings of Islamic law. The Quran
(the Islamic holy text), the Sunna (the prophet Mohammed's teachings)
and Muslim scholars' legal rulings all contribute to the collective
body of Sharia laws.
At its broadest meaning, Sharia includes two major components
-- rules governing acts of worship, or al-ibadat, and laws covering
human interaction, or al-mu'amalat.
It is this second branch that has caused the most political turmoil.
The laws contain violations known as "Hadd" offenses,
which include sexual intercourse outside of marriage, alcohol
consumption, highway robbery, theft and murder.
Sexual offenses can carry a sentence of stoning to death or flogging.
Theft can be punished by the loss of a hand.
Since Sharia is interpreted and practiced in different forms
around the world, not all predominantly Islamic societies implement
such penalties for committing a Hadd offense.
Like several Middle Eastern countries, Egypt recognizes Sharia
as part of its jurisprudence but chooses not to enforce severe
Hadd penalties as part of state law. Instead, adultery is often
punished with short prison sentences.
Parts of Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran are all known
to have adopted the Sharia punishment code, but still enforce
penalties with varying levels of consistency. Despite the toppling
of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the new Afghan parliament
adopted relatively hard-line Sharia laws and at one point attempted
to execute a man who had converted to Christianity, forcing him
to flee to Italy.
Iran is one of the few countries known to have carried out death
by stoning sentences. In other countries, these sentences are
often commuted to lashings or prison terms.
law in Nigeria
For centuries before Muslim leaders in Nigeria adopted Sharia
law as part of their state-run legal system, Islamic code was
practiced in the area that would become northern Nigeria.
When the region came under British rule in the early 1900s, the
British allowed the use of Sharia, but did not permit the enforcement
of amputations or executions as punishments.
After the country gained independence, Nigerian leaders relied
predominately on establishing secular courts and suppressed the
use of Sharia penalties, fearing they would inflame tensions between
Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
Although Christians are not subject to Sharia law, its use has
created an atmosphere of unease and intimidation between religious
groups, often leading to violence.
Nigerian attorney Muzzammil Sani Hanga told the PBS program Frontline
in 2001 that corruption and crime contributed to the re-emergence
of the Sharia penal code in certain states.
"I believe the clamor for the implementation of Sharia is
like an open show of defiance against the government, which is
perceived by the Muslims as the sole agent of corruption in this
country, "he said.
Nigerian leaders also have drawn a distinction between those
who may use Sharia for political gains and those who want to observe
the Islamic law solely for religious reasons.
"The genuine Sharia, Islamic Sharia, is part of the religion
and is part of the way of life of a Muslim and part of the way
of life of Nigerians," Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
told the news service allAfrica.com in 2001.
"It is what I call political Sharia that is new and that
will come and go, because if you want to use Sharia to achieve
political ends it will not hold. It may stick for a while, but
it will not hold," he said.
Sharia implementation continues to raise difficult questions
in Nigeria and around the Muslim world on how to separate the
secular and religious systems.
Nigeria's population "encompasses more Muslims than the
population of any Arab country, including Egypt," African
studies scholar Ali Mazrui told a conference sponsored by the
Nigeria Muslim Forum in 2001. "But can the Sharia be implemented
at the state level without compromising secularism at the federal
Nigeria's Sharia law simmered as an internal dispute until 2002
when Amina Lawal, a 30-year-old divorced Muslim woman who had
a child out of wedlock, faced charges of adultery in a Sharia
Lawal was convicted in March 2002, and a Sharia court sentenced
her to death by stoning at Bakori in northern Nigeria's Katsina
Lawal's sentence and others like it have triggered outrage from
human rights groups opposed to the death penalty and physical
Obasanjo said if Lawal's case reached the Supreme Court, he would
make sure it was overturned, a move that could have prompted widespread
protests among Muslims in the north.
The public outrage and international pressure mounted ahead of
her appeal and when the Sharia court heard her arguments in September
2003, the court overturned her death sentence, saying authorities
had not allowed her to adequately defend herself in the original
"The law of justice has prevailed over the law of man. Amina
is free to go, to do what she wants," Lawal's lawyer, Hauwa
Ibrahim, said at the time.
Since the decision, Nigerian court officials have carefully treaded
the line between religious law and the national court system and
many of the differences between the two systems have quieted.