Joseph Schacht, a leading Western scholar on Islamic law, perfectly described the great legal tradition of Muslims as “the epitome of the Islamic spirit, the most typical manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the kernel of Islam itself” (An Introduction to Islamic Law [Clarendon Press, 1964], 1). But to grasp this kernel of Islam is no easy undertaking, not least because it is so much more than a collection of legal opinions. Islamic law sits at the intersection of scripture (Qur’an and hadith), theology, ethics, textual hermeneutics, and social reality. Historically, it spans more than 1400 years, and geographically, it is found in every corner of the world. The academic study of this discipline produces tens of books every year and many more journal articles. These studies can be daunting for the uninitiated reader, in part because of technical language that sits between learner and subject matter. As a teacher of Islamic law at the university level, I am often asked by students to suggest an introductory guide to the subject. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find one that is accessible, engaging, and nonreductive at the same time. Mashood A. Baderin’s Islamic Law: A Very Short Introduction is therefore a welcome contribution.
The main contours of the history of Islamic law are sketched in chapter 1. Legal developments are neatly divided into several periods: the formative, the pre-classical, the classical, the post-classical, the modern, and the post-modern. Technical terms appear from the get-go, but as with every chapter in the book, they are translated and explained in comprehensible English rather than awkward legalese. Chapter 2 is a self-contained argument in support of the idea that Islamic law should be categorized as law proper, over against the view that Islamic law is no more than an unenforceable system of religious norms. H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law, which sets out the conditions under which law exists, is drawn upon intelligently in support of this. Chapter 3 covers legal theory from both Sunni and Shi’i perspectives. The chapter leads neatly to several chapters that cover various areas of law from both substantive and procedural angles. These are family law, inheritance, commercial law, criminal law, and international law. A very useful chapter on the administration of justice precedes a final chapter on the future of Islamic law.
One of the strengths of this book is that it manages, despite its size, to include discussions of some of the big questions about Islamic law that currently divide the scholarly community. When broaching these, Baderin takes a balanced approach, setting out both sides of the debate before presenting his own, often persuasive final word. A good example of this is the contestation over how formative the Prophet Muhammad’s era was for the development of Islamic law. On one side, Ignaz Goldziher and Josef Schacht argued that the Prophet and his immediate successors were only concerned with religious norms and not with legal development as such (6). On the other side, Harald Motzki, Wael Hallaq, and others have argued that the foundations of Islamic law were clearly laid in the Prophet’s era. Baderin weighs up the differing analyses before concluding that the Prophet’s era did not establish a standardized system of law, but his era does qualify as the formative period inasmuch as the foundations of Islamic law were laid, with the Qur’an and Sunnah as its main sources (7). The willingness of Baderin to engage in these debates is certainly a strength of the book.
It is regrettable that Baderin completely overlooks the work of Muslim feminist scholars, who have in the last two decades produced a rich body of scholarship that is forcing new ways of conceiving Islamic law and—via activist networks—has been the impetus for legal reform in some Muslim majority countries. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Omaima Abou-Bakr, Asma Lamrabet, Sofia Rehman, Amina Wadud and Mulki Sharmani are just some of the scholars who could easily have been cited in the book. There are of course others who would be equally deserving of mention. The failure to flag the important work of female scholars might suggest to those new to the subject that Islamic law is exclusively a male domain. And while this has indeed been the case for much of its history, this is no longer the situation today. I would hope to see this rectified in a future edition. A rather more minor criticism of the book is that it lacks a glossary of technical terms.
In general, this is a well-executed book which is extremely readable and intelligently organized and will give those who are approaching Islamic law for the first time the confidence to delve further. It is exactly the sort of book I would recommend to students of Islamic law at all levels of study, as well as to general readers.
Mustapha Sheikh is an associate professor of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies at the University of Leeds.
Date Of Review:
March 17, 2023
Mashood A. Baderin is professor of laws at SOAS, University of London. He specialises in Islamic law, human rights, international law, and law and development in Africa. His books include Islamic Legal Theory, Vol. 1, Ashgate Islamic Law Series, (2014); Issues in Islamic Law, Vol. 2, Ashgate Islamic Law Series, (2014); Islamic Law in Practice, Vol. 3, Ashgate Islamic Law Series, (2014); and Islam and Human Rights: Selected Essays of Abdullahi An-Na'i, (2010).
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