Thursday, June 9, 2011

Matthew J. Nelson's "In the Shadow of Shari‘ah"

Matthew J. Nelson teaches in the Department of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, In the Shadow of Shari’ah: Islam, Islamic Law, and Democracy in Pakistan, and reported the following:
On page 99, readers with an interest in Pakistan encounter a familiar figure, namely, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, the ‘founding father’ of Pakistan, is widely known for his efforts to establish a Muslim-majority state in South Asia following the independence of British India in 1947.

On page 99, the year is 1937, and Jinnah can be found struggling to convince the Muslim majority of what would become the most powerful province of Pakistan—namely, the Punjab—to accept a new ‘Shariat Act’ ensuring that Islamic law, rather than ‘tribal customs,’ would govern South Asia’s Muslims. Unfortunately for Jinnah, the Muslims of the Punjab were not on board. In particular, they knew that the enforcement of shari‘ah would guarantee inheritance rights for all Muslim women and, thus, break up the patrilineal (all-male) landed estates that dominated the politics of the Punjab. As Muslims, many local landowners did not want to be seen ‘opposing the terms of shari‘ah.’ But, in practice, they were clearly very nervous. To make a long story short, their ‘economic interests’ did not coincide with the terms of their ‘religious identity.’

In the Shadow of Shari‘ah discusses the political implications of this challenging bind. It asks a simple, common, and increasingly important question: what happens, politically, when, following the formation of an ‘Islamic’ state, patriarchal Muslim property owners find themselves faced with the promulgation of statutes stressing the enforcement of Islamic law? How do local ideas about Islamic law affect local prospects for democracy?

Many readers will be surprised to find that the terms of Islamic law (shari‘ah) occupy two very different positions with reference to the issue of ‘politics’ and, especially, the crucial issue of ‘democracy’ in this book. First, the terms of Islamic law are contrasted with those of ‘tribal custom.’ The former embrace inheritance rights for women; the latter do not. In fact, somewhat counter-intuitively, the terms of Islamic law are shown to provide substantially greater inheritance rights for women. Second, however, the terms of Islamic law are also shown to conjure up specific notions of legal fixity. In fact most of the landowners who appear in this book are shown to regard the terms of Islamic law as completely inflexible, meaning that, although they are deeply apprehensive about the enforcement of (female-friendly) Islamic laws, they also tend to believe that they are not in a position to engage or amend those laws politically. Even as the terms of Islamic law are shown to support the rights of women, then, they are also seen as politically intractable in ways that complicate the relationship between politically negotiated laws and the basic underpinnings of ‘democracy.’

Broadly speaking, In the Shadow of Shari‘ah concerns the ways in which landowning Muslims, concerned about the enforcement of Islamic law, attempt to circumvent the terms of shari‘ah without actually trying to amend or repeal those terms. It concludes with an argument regarding the ways in which the ‘negotiated’ features of Islamic law deserve more attention than they have received so far—not only among legal experts, but also among the public and their local elected representatives. This alternative is not inconsistent with the history of Islamic law in many parts of the Muslim world. It is simply inconsistent with the practice of Islamic law as this relates to the politics of Pakistan today.
Read more about In the Shadow of Shari‘ah at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue