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Article 7: Right to equal protection by the law

Case Study: SHARIA LAW
  • Sharia law, the traditional Islamic law, is a far-reaching moral code that prescribes how Muslims should best conduct their lives.
  • It was originally conceived to regulate all aspects of life in Muslim societies, from the behaviour and habits of individuals to the workings of the criminal justice system and financial institutions.
  • In 2002, it came under intense international scrutiny when it was revealed that a young Nigerian woman had been sentenced to death by stoning for bearing a child out of wedlock.
  • One third of Nigeria's states have adopted a strict interpretation of Sharia law following the return to civilian rule in 1999.
  • Human rights advocates are charging that, in some countries, the Sharia law does not protect men and women or Muslims and non-Muslims equally and thus violates international human rights agreements.

A Moral Code

Long associated in the non-Muslim world with severe punishments such as stoning and amputations, the system of traditional Islamic law known as Sharia is often criticised but rarely understood.

It was originally designed to regulate all aspects of life in Muslim societies, from the behaviour and habits of individuals to the workings of the criminal justice system and financial institutions.

It stipulates, for instance, that men and women must dress modestly, refrain from alcohol and pray five times per day. It also prohibits banks from collecting interest.

The Sharia derives from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, known as the Sunna.

Varying Interpretations

The implementation of Sharia varies tremendously in the world's predominantly Muslim societies.

In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, and in the Taleban-era Afghanistan, which are governed by Islamists who view Islam as a political ideology as well as a personal faith, a strict interpretation of the Sharia serves as the supreme law of the land.

In the majority of Muslim countries, however, the Sharia is applied selectively. Some countries adopt only a few aspects of Sharia law; others apply the entire code.

While some aspects of traditional Sharia law are still present, the legal systems of these countries have also been deeply influenced by European-style common and civil law.

Severe Punishments

Within Sharia law, there is a category of crimes known as the hudud (Koranic) offences, for which there are specific penalties for particular crimes. For example, fornication is punished by stoning, the consumption of alcohol by lashing, and theft by the amputation of limbs.

The penalties for hudud offences have not been adopted in all Islamic countries. Many predominantly Muslim countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, have not adopted the hudud penalties in their criminal justice systems.


Supporters of the hudud penalties argue that they serve as an effective crime deterrent.

Moreover, they also argue that the hudud penalties are rarely carried out. They are more symbolic as the fear of punishment promotes lawfulness.

Sharia Revival

In some parts of the Muslim world, a stricter interpretation of Sharia law appears to be making a return. In recent years, some Muslim leaders have advocated 'pure' Sharia law, complete with a reinstatement of the traditional punishments for the hudud offences.

In September 1999, several of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim northern states began to adopt a strict interpretation of the Sharia law. By late 2002, 12 out of Nigeria's 36 states had done so.

The new laws impose segregation of the sexes and traditional punishments for the hudud offences.

Women have been banned from working outside of the home and from sharing taxis and buses with men. Fornication outside marriage is now punishable by stoning and theft by amputation.

The sale and consumption of alcohol has also been prohibited, and is punishable by public lashing.

Equal Protection

Both non-Muslim and Muslim human rights activists have charged that the application of Sharia law in some countries has breached international human rights law as codified in numerous conventions and treaties.

They have argued that in some places, the application of Sharia law does not offer equal protection for men and women. Critics say it favours men.

In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

For example, in Saudi Arabia, a women's testimony in court is worth half that of a man's testimony, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 2002.

Under the so-called zina (fornication) law in Pakistan, extramarital sex is punishable by public whipping or even stoning to death.

If a woman is raped, she runs a high risk of being charged with zina, particularly if she becomes pregnant. In order to prove an absence of consent, however, a woman is required to provide four witnesses to the rape, a near impossible task.

In Nigeria

In the northern Nigeria state of Katsina, Amina Lawal, a 30 year-old divorcee, was convicted by a Sharia court in March 2002 for bearing a child out of wedlock. The charges against the alleged father of Amina's baby, however, were dropped after he denied having had sexual relations with her.

With the help of several human rights and women's organisations, Amina filed an appeal against her death sentence. Despite this, her conviction was upheld in August 2002.

The court's ruling has renewed tension between Nigeria's Muslim and Christian communities. While Muslims make up 50% of Nigeria's population, Christians are a substantial minority that make up 40% of the population.

Christians in states that have reinstated Sharia law are worried that their rights will not be equally protected before Sharia courts. They argue that the new laws create an atmosphere of intimidation.

Human rights organisations all over the world have urged that Sharia law be interpreted in a manner that is in accordance with international human rights standards and the conventions of international law.