International 22/08/2021

Where and how is Sharia applied in the world?

The application of the Islamic law varies according to the interpretation of each country, branch or school

Ricard G. Samaranch
5 min
A bellessa salon in Kabul

TunisiaAfter their overwhelming entry into Kabul, the Taliban announced that they would respect women's rights, but always "within the framework of Sharia" or Islamic law. This and other statements have been rather vague, probably so as not to compromise the international community's recognition of their regime. But there is another reason: Sharia is not codified, and the definition of its content varies according to the interpretation of each country, each branch or school of Islam, or even each judge. Moreover, it evolves over time.

Sharia includes the regulations written in the Quran, in the Hadith - the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad - and matters of broad consensus among Islamic scholars. As there is no central religious authority in Islam, the last two sources mentioned lead to different interpretations. Thus, despite the fact that most Muslim countries integrate Sharia law to a greater or lesser extent into their legal system, the rights situation of minorities or women is very different.

The vast majority of Islamic countries, with the notable exceptions of Turkey or Tunisia, base their family code (which regulates matters such as inheritance or spousal rights) on Sharia law. The big difference between countries is marked by those that base their penal code on Sharia law and include hudud, i.e. corporal punishment such as amputation of limbs, whipping or even stoning. Below we explain how Sharia is applied in practice in these different contexts. Not all of them are listed. Among others, those that only allow its application in some specific regions, such as Nigeria, are missing.

Qatar, Emirates and Bahrain

The legal systems of the Persian Gulf petro-monarchies have many points in common. The main basis for discrimination against women is the system of male guardianship, which amounts to treating women in many respects as if they were minors, and which is also in force with minor differences in other countries that have an extensive application of Sharia law.

According to this principle, women must obtain their father's or husband's permission to marry, work as civil servants, travel abroad up to a certain age or receive medical assistance in reproductive medicine. Moreover, in practice, domestic violence is legal, as Sharia is considered to allow a husband to "discipline" his wife. Therefore, the police do not take these complaints seriously. The fact that in these countries, and especially in the UAE, there are many foreign workers means that in some respects there is a certain legal duality on issues such as allowing foreign women to wear bikinis on the beach. Qatar is stricter.

Saudi Arabia

Wahhabism, a school of fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, has been the official religion of Saudi Arabia since its inception. As it believes that sovereignty does not lie with the people but with God, it has neither a constitution nor a parliament, since the only law is God's law and does not admit counterweights. The Saudi monarchy is one of the countries that executes a higher number of people every year. Until last year, most executions were related to drug trafficking and minors were not spared.

With regard to women's rights, not all discrimination stems directly from Sharia, but from the traditions of a very conservative country. For example, the most famous until recently: the ban on driving a car. This rule is not present in any other Islamic country, and was abolished by the king in 2017, so that now they do not even need parental permission. However, under the male guardianship system, women still need their father's or husband's permission for many other activities relating to the strictest personal freedom, such as travelling abroad, getting married, getting divorced or leaving a shelter for battered women. However, as of 2019, they no longer need it to work.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is the only country that applies Sharia law intensively and is Shiite-majority. The rest are all Sunni. Iran is also the only country where the wearing of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, is mandatory and the law does not allow exceptions for non-Muslim minorities or foreign women, even if they are visiting officials. In other countries it may be compulsory due to social pressure. Since the establishment of the Ayatollahs' regime, achieving a relaxation of the dress code has been a constant struggle for Iranian women.

In addition to discrimination in access to the world of work, or in matters such as marriage, child custody or divorce - men only obtain this by expressing their wish to do so; women need the endorsement of a judge - there is a specific ban in Iran: until 2019 women were not allowed to attend men's sporting events, and this only changed because of pressure from FIFA, after a girl who had dressed herself as a boy to enter a match immolated herself.


Pakistan has a peculiarity: it is the country that has designed the most centralised system for codifying the application of Sharia law. Given that the Constitution establishes God as the sole sovereign over the earth, and the Sharia is the main source of law, there is a kind of Constitutional Court that considers whether laws passed by Parliament contradict Sharia. If so, it can annul them. In the last three decades, it has abolished more than 30 state laws and 200 regional laws.

Among the main problems of Pakistani women, such as discrimination in school (there are 22% more illiterate women) and the imposition of purdah (their dress has to cover the whole body), is that of forced marriages, especially of girls under the legal age of 16. The practice is common in tribal areas, and is sometimes done to settle disputes between clans or to seal the relationship between two families that already have some married members. Also of note are the existence of so-called "honour killings" or acid attacks when a woman is deemed to have violated an ultra-conservative tradition, and strict blasphemy laws that are unfairly applied to minorities.


The Maghreb region integrates much of the plurality in the Islamic world regarding the role of Sharia. In Mauritania, corporal punishment is applied in the penal code, including the death penalty for apostasy. At the other extreme is Tunisia, where Sharia is not recognised as a source of law in the Constitution, an exception in the Islamic world. Even so, its civil code, which is secular and is inspired by Western civil codes, does include some principles of Sharia. For example, in matters of inheritance, it gives twice as much of the available assets to the brother as to the sister, which Tunisian feminist movements have been fighting to change for years. In Tunisia, abortion has been free for decades.

Morocco, on the other hand, recognizes Sharia as a source of law, but in the last twenty years laws have been passed with a modern interpretation of this rule that have guaranteed new rights to women in areas such as inheritance or divorce, the ability to recognise children outside marriage as their own, or the restriction of polygamy. However, there is still a long way to go to eradicate child marriage (almost 10 per cent), the criminalisation of sexual relations outside marriage and the legalisation of abortion, which is performed clandestinely, with the risks that this entails.


In most parts of the most populous Muslim country, Sharia law applies only to matters relating to family relations. However, under a decentralised political system, the Sharia is also adopted as the basis for the penal code in the conservative province of Aceh, so that whipping as a punishment is common, and is applied even to non-Muslims.