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Sharia is the moral code and religious law of Islam.
The Arabic term Sharia (Shari'a, Shari'ah) literally means "the clear, well-trodden path to water." Muslims use the term to refer to Islamic law, which they believe to be equivalent to Allah's (God's) law. Muslims believe that, just as water is vital to human life, so the clarity and uprightness of Sharia is the means of life for souls and minds. 
All Muslims believe Sharia is God's law, but they have differences between themselves as to exactly what it entails. Modernists, traditionalists and fundamentalists all hold different views of Sharia, as do adherents to different schools of Islamic thought and scholarship. Different countries and cultures have varying interpretations of Sharia, as well. 
The Sharia regulates all human actions and puts them into five categories: obligatory, recommended, permitted, disliked or forbidden.
Obligatory actions must be performed and when performed with good intentions are rewarded. The opposite is forbidden action. Recommended action is that which should be done and the opposite is disliked action. Permitted action is that which is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Most human actions fall in this last category.
The Sharia covers all aspects of human life. Classical Sharia manuals are often divided into four parts: laws relating to personal acts of worship, laws relating to commercial dealings, laws relating to marriage and divorce, and penal laws.
- Source: Sharia, BBC. Last accessed Saturday, July 10, 2010 - 11:13 AM CET
Lit. path or road which leads to water, Islamic law, divine law, four main schools: Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali (most conservative)
It consists only about 30 ayat ul-ahkam (verses containing ordinances, nasus) of the Qur'an and about 70 ahadiths. These ordinances (nasus) are said to be self-evident (zahir) and not open to conflicting interpretations.
The Shar'ia specifies the obligatory acts (fardh), the omission of which constitutes sin, and forbidden acts (haram), the practice of which constitutes sins. Everything else, not derived from these principles, are said to be permissable (mubah).
- Source: Comparative Index to Islam
Muslims may hold in great unity and with much tenacity to the major beliefs and pillars of their religion, yet these same Muslims may differ greatly with one another. The differences may be affected by politics, legal interpretations, theological positions, and cultural variations.
Several Islamic legal traditions were in place during the first several centuries. One legal tradition may interpret and rule a harsher penalty for a violation of Islamic Law than another.
- Source: George W. Braswell Jr., What You Need To Know About Islam and Muslims Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000, page 60.
Wherever it is applied, Sharia has led - and still leads - to human rights violations - including cruel and unusual punishments (e.g. death penalty by stoning, hanging, or beheading. Amputations of hands and/or feet. Public executions, and etcetera).
Islamic Law is based on the following:
- Quran: the revealed and perfect word of Allah
- Hadith: the traditions about the life and saying of Muhammad
- Ijma: the consensus of the community under the leadership of the ulama 
- Qiyas: analogical reasoning and deduction by ulama based on the other three sources
A class of Islamic scholars and jurists called Ulama make interpretations of the law. These jurists developed schools of law. Each school may make decisions about matters such as marriage rights, divorce procedures, inheritance, and forms of punishment, which may differ from each other.
Four major schools of law are Shafite, Hanafite, Malikite, and Habalite.
- Shafite school was founded by al Shafi, who died in 820. This school is known for its classical theory of Islamic law based on proper prophetic tradition with the use of analogical reasoning for applications to new circumstances.
- Hanafite school was founded by Abu Hanafah in Iran in the eight century. More freedom is allowed in interpretation, and it is considered one of the more liberal legal traditions.
- Malikite school was founded by Malik Ibn Anas in Medina. He died in 795. He relied on the living tradition of Medina as supported by the hadith.
- Hanbalite is the latest school begun by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who died in 8565. Its interpretations of the Quran are very legalistic and literalistic. It is the dominant school in Saudi Arabia.
- Source: George W. Braswell Jr., What You Need To Know About Islam and Muslims Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000, pages 61-62.
CNN's Soledad O'Brien sits down with Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, who describes the basics of Sharia law and the difference between Islam and Sharia law.
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