The Islamic Law analysed in the context of eight Muslim countries

This article was published in Oasis 15. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:47

Book review of Robert W. Hefner (ed.), Shari‘a Politics. Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington (IN), 2011


Since 2008 when the two seminars took place out of which Shari‘a Politics emerged, the subject has become – if possible – even more topical. As yet there are few works that offer such a complete coverage of the issues as this one. It has two leading merits: for each one of the eight Muslim countries it covers, the volume provides masses of data that are the fruit of interviews and fieldwork. At the same time it offers a uniform interpretation both in its historical contextualisation and with regard perspectives on the future.

The basic idea is that today sharia is at the heart of heated debate in Muslim societies, debate that is no longer limited to the traditional custodians of religious knowledge. In some countries like Northern Nigeria, the introduction of sharia is experienced as progress compared to local traditions, in particular for the greater role that it attributes to the individual. This paradoxically seems to apply to women too, as is demonstrated by the emergence of girls’ schools and the insistence on matrimonial rights that, while they codify a juridical inferiority, are however preferable to tribal traditions.

A counter-example comes from Afghanistan, where sharia is still confused with local customs, the reason for which is that ‘the way to instill respect for what appears to be alien concepts [to Afghan society] is to root them in an existing Islamic tradition’ (203-204). However, with the evolution of society some aspects become very much more problematic: corporal punishments (stoning, cutting off hands etc.), the juridical inferiority of the woman, the treatment of religious minorities, freedom of conscience.

The country that has chosen the way that is probably the most coherent is post-revolutionary Iran: the result however has been disastrous, and the contribution by Baktiari documents the growing impatience of the population, which leads to an open hostility towards the clergy and sometimes in anti-religious attitudes. Saudi Arabia on the other hand is another story, for its regime of ‘forced collaboration’ between ‘ulamâ’ and King which history has passed down and which makes a reform from within very difficult.

The new force here is the Islamist opposition. However other countries are moving towards a conception of sharia as an ethical reference rather than as a juridical system. What matters here are the objectives of sharia, the spirit rather than the letter of juridical prescriptions. This seems to be the case with Turkey, where the problematic aspects of the Law are often considered to be mere Arab customs. A member of the religious movement Nurcu declares significantly in an interview: ‘In some Muslim countries you have sharia without Islam’ (173). The contrast could not be more striking with Pakistan, a country initially modernist almost like Turkey, but a country in which the government has become entangled in a confrontation with the ‘ulamâ’ and the Islamists which has resulted in a chronic deficit of legitimacy.

Egypt on the other hand seems to find itself on a middle ground: what has changed since the revolution is not the terms of the debate, but the power relations. A more positive case is that of Indonesia, in spite of the attempt to introduce Shi’a-style norms first into the Constitution (without success) and then into the various provinces. In any case – and the observation has a more general application – the process of ethicisation ‘does not amount to the privatization of religion’ (46).

The book has a happy ending: the authors are in fact convinced that, for all the difficulties and steps backwards, ‘over the long term, the Law will remain a guiding force in Muslim affairs only by responding to and elevating the participatory and pluralistic aspirations of our’ (48). Even though the most recent developments suggest that we must be cautious, to say the least the alternative is clear: sharia as the law of the state, incompatible in some of its aspects with democracy, or sharia as an ethical reference, that can be integrated into a plural society open to the religious dimension. The choice is up to Muslims.