The Islamic system of law, known as Sharia (or Shari’a or Shariah), derives from four sources: the Holy Koran ( Qu’ran), Sunnah, Ijma and Qiyas. The Holy Koran, being the word of God ( Allah), is the principal source. The Sunnah comprises the accepted deeds and statements of the Prophet Mohammed, accepted by the whole Islamic world (the Ummah). Ijma is a consensus among religious scholars (the Ulema) regarding solutions to matters not specifically covered in either the Koran or the Sunnah. In difficult cases, where there’s no information to provide the basis for a clear decision, ‘analogous consideration’ ( Qiyas) is applied in conjunction with the three other sources of the law.
In Sharia law, as in other legal systems, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The plaintiff and defendant are equal before the law – i.e. in a court of law – and it’s incumbent upon the former to provide proof of guilt. This involves producing two or four eyewitnesses, depending on the seriousness of the crime. If a plaintiff isn’t able to produce eyewitnesses, he can insist on the defendant swearing an oath as to his innocence. If the defendant refuses to take this oath, he’s judged to be guilty, as perjurers suffer hellfire and eternal damnation according to Muslim belief. Jews and Christians swear a different oath, but it has equal validity. A judge ( qadi) presides over the court and can put questions to all parties at will. There are no juries and often no lawyers to present the case for their clients. There are systems of appeal, which can be used in cases of serious crime and punishment.
According to ancient law, the payment of ‘blood money’ ( diya) for injury or death can be requested by the victim’s family as compensation. The amount of blood money required varies between the states (it’s most likely to be exacted in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and according to the circumstances of the death and to the extent of the hardship that the death will cause. For example, the death of a father of 12 would attract a larger payment than that of a child. A local Muslim’s life will be assessed for a larger financial benefit than people of other religions, faiths or nationalities. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a male Muslim’s life is worth SR100,000 (around $24,000), but Christians are worth only around half as much. And if the incident occurs in the Holy month of Ramadan, the penalty is usually doubled.
Under Islamic law, the crimes that carry defined penalties are murder, apostasy (rejection or desertion of Islam), adultery, fornication, homosexuality and theft. Interpretations of the law and punishments vary from state to state. Lesser offences might include debt, usury, alcohol and drug abuse, and use of pornography.
As an expatriate, you’re subject, of course, to the laws of the country you’re in. If you’re thought to have broken a law, you’re taken under arrest to a police station, questioned and instructed to make a statement. Up to this point, it’s highly unlikely that you will be allowed access to outside help, either legal or consular. If the offence is deemed serious enough to warrant your detention, you might have to wait some time before your case comes up. You will be allowed legal representation, but everything will be conducted in Arabic. Your statement will be translated into Arabic, and it’s important to insist that an appropriate official, e.g. a member of staff from your consulate, checks the accuracy of the translation and the content of anything you’re required to sign. If no one is available to do this, you should refuse to sign, or sign with an endorsement to the effect that you don’t have a clear understanding of the document.
In court, an interpreter will be present to assist you and an official from your embassy or consulate is likely to be present, although only as an observer. If you’re found guilty, the judge will sentence you and ask for your written acceptance of the sentence, unless you want to appeal. Appeals obviously go to higher courts, depend a great deal on the severity of the accusation and sentencing, and can take time. In very serious cases, political influence might be brought to bear on your behalf, provided that your country has sufficient influence, but this is rare. Having influence with a person in authority can be of help to you, although expatriates rarely have such influence. Locals, on the other hand, may be able to petition their ruler to seek his guidance and help. In minor cases, your employer might intervene to help, particularly if you’re valuable to him, as long as he won’t lose face.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be given a custodial sentence, this is intended as a punishment rather than rehabilitation. If you’re found guilty of a serious crime, you may find yourself in a hot, overcrowded prison, where treatment is often harsh and you might have to witness the punishment of others, including their flogging.
Ignorance of the law isn’t accepted as anexcuse before the law, so it’s as well to acquaint yourself with the laws of the country that you choose to live in.
Non-Muslim expatriates sometimes regard Sharia law as unbending and overly punitive, which it often is by western standards – and for good reason. Expatriates are largely expendable commodities and, if you’ve engaged in criminal activity, you’re sent home after punishment.
Sharia law applies throughout the Kindgom, although there have also been some secular decrees introduced as supplements to the law. Shariah law is strictly enforced through over 300 courts, which also act as courts of appeal. Both civil and criminal cases are presided over by a judge ( qadi) in the normal way. In more serious cases, such as murder, immorality and major theft, three judges are involved. The Ministry of Commerce appoints and supervises committees to hear and adjudicate commercial actions, and the Chief Justice of the country, supported by a committee of judges, sits in Riyadh and Mecca to hear appeals. The King, who is the representative of God and responsible for the enforcement of his laws, has the final authority over appeals, and crimes calling for capital punishment are automatically referred to him.
Saudi Arabia imposes the strictest punishments in the region on those convicted of breaking Sharia law and has religious police in addition to general police.
It’s vital that foreigners make themselves aware of the conduct required while living in Saudi Arabia, and particularly the following offences:
- Men being in the company of women who aren’t close relatives.
- Women being with men other than close relatives, who are treated as prostitutes and can be deported with a ‘persona non grata’ endorsement in their passports, forbidding them from returning to any Gulf state.
- Women driving cars.
- ‘Indiscreet’ dress (e.g. shorts or short-sleeved shirts for men, and uncovered hair, short dresses, exposed arms and shoulders for women).
- Practising a religion other than Islam, carrying a Bible, wearing a cross.
- Blasphemy, particularly if you swear at a Muslim, making derogatory remarks about Islam, taking the name of Allah or the Prophet Mohammed in vain, and any form of behaviour that’s deemed to be ‘immoral’.
- Homosexual acts, which are illegal throughout the region, but for which punishments in Saudi Arabia range from imprisonment to flogging to deportation; there have even been instances of capital punishment.
- Drug dealing and possession. (Note that, although most Gulf states decree capital punishment for those caught dealing in drugs, in Saudi Arabia this is invariably carried out.)