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Book Review: History of justice in early Islamic courts

29th Mar 2019
Book Review: History of justice in early Islamic courts

(Photo: Harvard University Press)

Justice and Leadership in Early Islamic Courts. Edited by Intisar A. Rabb & Abigail Krasner Balbale. Pp 241. Harvard University Press. 2017. HB. £35.95.

The book explores how justice was administered from the time of the rise of Islam, 632 to 1250. According to the editors, most studies that examine the early history of Islamic Law, the “primary focus has been on the origins, authenticity, and authority of particular legal institutions and rulings.” (P xv) However, this book widens the sources and areas of focus by examining the workings of courts and judicial procedure, on social context, and with “attention of how and why the courts and the people associated with them functioned in early Islamic societies.” (P xvi)

The book brings together ten leading scholars of Islamic law who draw on diverse sources for judicial practise and procedure – use of evidence, use of knowledge of a judge regarding a case he is judging. It also looks at the independence of the judiciary, how it managed to make a judgement when the ruler was a plaintiff, etc. It gives a really fascinating account of the way the judges made decisions of various cases and in some instances even making jokes in the court.

The chapters are divided into three parts: ‘Judicial Procedure and Practice during the Founding Period of Islamic Law’, ‘Concepts of Justices in the Abbasid East’, and ‘Judges and Judicial Practice in the Islamic West.’ The first chapter deals with the early period from 632 to 750. The four essays focus on how social and pragmatic factors shaped judicial discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence from non-Muslims and professional witnesses.

The second chapter covers the period between 750 to 1258. The three essays look at how scholars attempted to integrate changing legal and political ideals of justice especially in changing social and pragmatic factors. The third chapter deals how judicial process developed in the Islamic West during the same period of time. They highlight tensions between idealised legal concepts elaborated in legal treaties and actual legal practices and norms as they played out in courts.

The book was inspired by the scholarship of Roy Parviz Mottahedeh and composed in his honour. This book is a refreshing look on the history of Islamic law as it looks at the court proceedings in a novel way in the early Islamic period. It is also easy to read and a very useful contribution to the understanding of the practice of Islamic law. I highly recommend this valuable book.

 

Abdul Adil 

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