Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of "The Great Theft" is an accomplished Islamic jurist and scholar. He is a professor at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches Islamic Law, human rights law, and international and national security law. He identifies the central place of Shari'a as a symbol of the relationship with the Divine for the vast majority of Muslims of both Sunni and Shi'i persuasions:
"The role played in Islam by self-proclaimed experts is partly explained by the paradoxical nature of Shari'a itself. As noted earlier, Shari'a is, on the one hand, the sum total of technical legal methodologies, precedents, and decisions; it is also, on the other hand, a powerful symbol of the Islamic identity. For the trained jurist, Shari'a is a legal system full of complex processes and technical jargon, but for the average Muslim, Shari'a is a symbol for Islamic authenticity and legitimacy. Throughout Islamic history, the layperson (who in all likelihood knew very little of the technicalities of Shari'a) revered Shari'a as a sacred bridge to the Almighty God. For example, in a well-known passage, the famous Muslim jurist Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350-1) conveys a sense of the reverence and adoration with which the Shari'a was held in Islamic history. He states:
The Shari'a is God's justice among His servants, and His mercy among his creatures. It is God's shadow on this earth. It is His wisdom which leads to Him in the most exact way and the most exact affirmation of the truthfulness of His Prophet. It is His light which enlightens the seekers and His guidance for the rightly guided. It is the absolute cure for all ills and the straight path which if followed will lead to righteousness....It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. If it had not been for the fact that some of its rules remain (in this world,) this world would become corrupted and the universe would be dissipated....If God would wish to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the Shari'a which was sent to His Prophet...is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.
In this passage, Ibn al-Qayyim is speaking of Shari'a not as a technical legal system, but as a symbol, which despite its remarkable diversity and pluralism represents the unified Muslim identity. Because of Shari'a's symbolic role and its ability to appeal to and mobilize popular Muslim sentiment, activists and the leaders of puritan movements have found it necessary to exploit Shari'a in order to win significant popular support." (2005, pp. 39-40)
~Excerpted from "The Great Theft - Wrestling Islam from the Extremists," by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl.