Natural Law and Sharia

My paper on “Natural Law and Sharia” has been accepted for publication in the proceedings of the 2009 IIIT Summer Institute on “Contemporary Approaches to Qur’an and Sunnah.’  The Introduction is reprinted below and a preprint of the entire paper is available at

On Natural Law and Shari`ah

a paper delivered August 3, 2009

to the IIIT Summer Institute 2009

on “Contemporary Approaches to Qur’an and Sunna”

by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Minaret of Freedom Institute


Contemporary writers are sharply divided on the issue of the compatibility of the notion of “natural law” as it is contemplated in the West with the Islamic concept of shari`ah. This issue was highlighted in last year’s IIIT summer seminar in contesting perspectives offered by a number of panelists, most notably in the views of Mahmood Ayoub and Robert Crane. I shall outline the historical development of both of these notions, explore the points of congruence and tension, and offer tentative conclusions about their reconciliation that should make a fertile starting point for continued discussion and analysis.

A principle issue is the fact that the understanding of natural law itself changed in the West between the time of the ancient Greeks and modern times. I shall argue that the stereotype of a “Western” understanding of natural law that has been uniform through time is fallacious and that, to the contrary, ancient and modern Western conceptions of natural law are in tension with one another in ways that parallel the debates in Islam between, for example, the philosophers and al-Ghazali.

I shall propose an analytical framework for understanding the issue in which we segregate the notion that natural law constitutes principles about nature that are logically unavoidable (epistemological rationalism) from the notion that it constitutes principles that are God-given (divinely dictated). I shall attempt to adduce Qur’anic textual support for the latter conception and then to demonstrate that this understanding is found in Islamic scholarship in opposition to epistemological rationalism. Further, by comparing the writings of al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufayl with modern Western writers like John Locke I shall argue that modern Western natural law theory is closer to the view of law as God’s word than to the ancient Greek notion of axiomatic truth.

Finally, I shall argue that not only is the debate of natural law vs. Shariah misframed, but that it is misguided in that the important debate today is between natural or divine law on one hand and positive or man-made law on the other. The important question is the one put to us by the Qur’an: Shall we be ruled by Allah or by men?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

One Response to “Natural Law and Sharia”

  1. You mean “principal” rather “principle.” Principal means the main.

Leave a Reply