Sharia means "path" and is Islamic sacred law, or guidance, derived from the Koran and precepts of Muhammad himself. There are varying interpretations of sharia depending on the sect and region and like all sociopolitical codes, there are myriad ways of applying it. Though Western media often sensationalizes the most strict aspects of sharia, it is actually more of a guide for every aspect of Muslim life.
In reality, sharia is an all-encompassing system that touches on every aspect of human existence from criminal elements to the spiritual. It is "enforced" informally by imams or formally by judges if the state itself follows sharia. In Britain, for instance, sharia is addressed as a private affair within the Muslim community. It is also known as the "path to the watering hole," the source of life. God himself tells followers of Islam to "follow the clear and right way."
Sharia was at the center of Islam's so-called Golden Age from the 7th to 13th centuries. It is divided into five categories: ritual worship, transactions and contracts, morals and manners, beliefs and punishments.
Scholars through the ages have interpreted and reinterpreted sharia and Shia and Sunni Islam each have their own interpretations. Where sharia is not clear, imams use their own best – reasoned – judgment. Sunni Islam tends to look to the first three generations of Sharia jurisprudence for clarity; Shia (Persian) Islam emphasizes a broader interpretation with an emphasis on "logic." Sunnis look first for compatibility.
Sharia is in use in secular states and theocracies alike. Blended systems make use of both sharia and constitutional law, with constitutional law having precedence in various areas. A few Islamic states utilize sharia as a check to a sole ruler's power, with scholars having a say in how sharia is interpreted and applied. With increased communication, Muslims are homogenizing sharia and making it more or less immutable to local custom.
Additionally, sharia is benefitting from the increased fundamentalism of Sunni Whabbism. Sharia provides a cultural touchstone as well as a fully Islamic jurisprudence.
In the more fundamental cultures, sharia can be used as a justification for aggressive approaches to Western enculturation. Historically, sharia played a role in pulling Islam together, tying the tribes to one another with shared values and lifestyle precepts.