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What is Western Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Images By: Dimitris Karkanis, Zimmytws, Sergiyn
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Western law is law with origins in European traditions and cultures. Legal systems with a basis in European jurisprudence can be seen in force all over the world in a number of former European colonies, in contrast with other systems of law such as sharia, derived from Islamic traditions. A number of historic traditions play a role in Western law, and this legal system relies heavily on the idea of constructs like corporations and other entities to describe legal relationships and responsibilities.

One profound influence on Western law is classical culture from Rome and Greece. The common law systems in use among a number of Western nations contain legal principals and ideas lifted directly from these traditions. Christian religious texts also play a role. Canon law, the law of the Catholic church, relies on the Bible as a major source of authority and legal guidance. During the legal scholarship of the Renaissance, people integrated concepts from canon law into the legal system. Western law derives authority and values from cultural systems found in many European nations.

When Europeans colonized other regions of the world, they usually replicated their own legal systems in their colonies, regardless of any existing legal system. When former colonies became independent, they often kept the Western legal framework rather than developing new legal codes or attempting to revert to historic legal traditions. As a result, principles of Western law are visible far beyond European borders.

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Students of comparative law look at contrasts between different legal systems in use around the world and their origins. Sharia and Western legal traditions are often subjects of study because of a number of distinctive differences; sharia, for example, relies heavily on the Qu'ran for interpretation of legal issues, and violation of the law in regions where this legal system is in force is a sin, not just a legal offense, because people believe sharia is the word of God.

Western law takes a number of forms, including civil and common law systems used in places like South and North America, respectively. Modern influences on Western law include court decisions determining future interpretations of legal matters, along with legislation. While the Bible does not have as much direct influence as it once did and Western law is very secular in nature, many Western ethics and morals can trace their origins to this religious text, and thus it often indirectly informs legal decisions and changes in legal attitudes.

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