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Book Review: Development of Shariah and its role in the modern world

26th Oct 2018
Book Review: Development of Shariah and its role in the modern world

Understanding Sharia – Islamic Law in a Globalised World. By Raficq S Abdulla and Mohamed M Keshavjee. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London and New York. 2018. Pp321. HB. $40.63.

This is an excellent book which sets out the development of the Shariah in a very approachable manner. The different schools of thought in Islam and the way the Shariah has evolved over time in these jurisdictions is ably articulated. In a time when the very notion of the Shariah is becoming infused with negativity, the authors have done a marvellous job of demystifying and, dare one say, detoxifying the term.

The breadth of the time span and the range of issues covered means that a lot of subjects only get a brief mention. However, the reader has access to very good references to follow through any line of inquiry which raises their curiosity.

On some occasions, a wider context would give a better appreciation of the issue under discussion. As an example, the debate on Muslim attitudes towards “suicide” bombings has been engaged in the book. It is surprising that only Imam Khomeini and Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadhlallah have been mentioned in this context whereas both are neither advocates nor major players in this debate. For a proper appreciation of this debate, the context of asymmetrical warfare and indiscriminate extrajudicial killings in the form of “shock and awe barbarity” by the proponents of the “civilised” world could provide a better backdrop to evaluate the positions of various advocates and opponents from all schools of thought within Islam. The book’s authors, hailing from South Africa, would easily appreciate the similar moral dilemmas surrounding “necklacing” of informers in apartheid South Africa. Oppression and injustice without any redress in law always create these dilemmas and are not unique to the understanding of the Shariah.

An additional area which has yet to be dealt with adequately is the evolution of the Shariah in contemporary Islamic states. There have been references to some issues in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but no discussion of the important developments leading to the institutionalisation of “maslahah” [public interest] of common good into Shariah law in that country. This development has the potential to embed environmental, ethical and equity issues in a lasting manner. Similarly, the evolving dispensation in Tunisia could also provide important markers for seeing the possibilities within an enlightened Muslim jurisdiction.

Globalisation and the impending de-globalisation pose its unique challenges which have begun to be addressed in the book. Further elaboration could lead to useful insights. A couple of points will suffice here.

By its very definition the Shariah, as ably articulated in the book, cannot be universal. It is the lived experience of Muslim peoples rooted in their cultures and norms. Their interpretations are thus likely to be very diverse. What a globalised world does is to juxtapose these diverse interpretations and pose new challenges. Thus, to oppose genuine interpretations as invalid or not permissible is unlikely to gain acceptance. It is rather that the varied interpretations allow for cross-fertilisation and enrichment of the whole corpus of the Shariah. This phenomenon is also leading to the blurring of the demarcation between the legal schools of thought. More than ever before the whole lived experience of Muslims becomes the fertile ground from which to draw answers to emerging challenges.

However, there was a critical obstacle in this development. For over half a century the West positioned itself to be the moral compass of the “civilised” world. Under this self-assumed umbrella Western agendas were peddled as universal. Other cultures and customs were demonized. Now that the West has become prey to populism bordering on fascism and its neoliberal world order is in disarray, the soft power of this moral compass is rapidly eroding away. Already anybody positing the democratic dispensation in Trump’s USA vis-a-vis the Chinese political dispensation would struggle to have an unopposed hearing.

This is not to argue for facile multiculturalism as expertly articulated in the book. However, one can easily see this affecting the practice and interpretation of the Shariah. “Universal” norms would need to be articulated in a global setting rather than pander to any agendas or vested interests. The West will have to learn to be humble and adopt a more inclusive language than maintain an aura of superiority. Ironically, freed from a hegemonic conspiracy genre, this will allow for a much more robust debate on the evolution of the Shariah amongst Muslims than has been hitherto possible.

The range of issues tackled in the book and the very approachable way these are dealt with would make the book a worthwhile read for Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

Mohammed Hasan



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