Islamic Law

Cases, Authorities and Worldview

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Ahmad Atif Ahmad
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islamic law, as a discipline, has its own complexities arising from, among other things, the tension between its origin and its diverse applications. Because of this, teaching Islamic law is no less than a herculean task. Islamic Law: Cases, Authorities and Worldview is one of many introductory texts on the subject, and though it is written in a highly academic manner, it does away with much useless technical jargon and sophistication whole being uncompromisingly authentic. The author, Ahmad Atif Ahmad, professor of religious studies at the University of California, has grappled with the subject of Islamic law through the prism of “cases,” “authorities,” and “worldview” to engage undergraduate students in a thoughtful manner. Based on a comparative approach, it serves as an impetus for students to think through the issues of the application of Islamic law in Muslim majority and minority contexts, including the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.

The book is divided into eight chapters, and has in addition an introduction, five appendices, a rich list of books for further reading, and a research friendly index. The division of the subject matter of the book into such chapters as Madhhabs, Theorizing the Shari‘a, The Social Shari‘a, The Personal Shari‘a, and so forth is indicative of the comprehensiveness of the book as well as the meticulous attention paid by the author to his work. 

Targeting a college-level, Anglophone student without presuming any technical legal knowledge or Muslim background, Ahmad has attempted to provide a simplified understanding of Islamic law. The first unit is based on three cases involving questions of extra-marital relationships, punishment for lewd and unbecoming behavior, and prayer-work adjustments for workers. Through a detailed analysis of these cases following the procedure of “articulating the facts, identifying the ruling(s), and determining the rationale of the ruling” (8), Ahmad  has grappled with the extent of the application of Islamic law as well as the diversity of its tools. He brings into focus how the diversity of legal opinions regarding a particular issue since medieval times is helpful in solving new cases in present times. Besides, through these cases, we come to understand that Islamic law, at least in its application, is not only law in the sense of rulings imposed or backed by a force (such as a state) but also the non-binding legal opinions (fatwa) that fulfill requirements of morality rather than power.      

The second chapter is concerned with the scholarly search on part of the Islamic jurists to “‘discern’ God’s ways from His revelations (Qur’an) and his messenger’s path (Sunna)” (27). This chapter provides a comprehensive introduction to the different schools of Islamic law including Sunni schools, Shi’a schools, other living schools (like the Ibadi school) as well as the extinct schools (including those of Tabari, Ibn Abi Layla, and Sufyan al-Thawri). Besides providing brief biographical details of the founders of these schools, the author has also dealt with the tools of legal reasoning employed in these schools. 

The next chapter of the book introduces us to the basic theoretical apparatus employed in Islamic legal reasoning. It discusses classification of human actions and the sources of law (both textual and extra-textual) in Islamic legal theory. The author arrives at a substantial conclusion that “as the Islamic legal traditions functioned in certain localities within the confines of one madhhabor school of law, constant disagreement and reconsideration of what the law iswould be minimized” (68, emphasis in original).

The role of Islamic law in governing social life, personal life, and national laws as well as the transnational arena is discussed in chapters 4 to 7 respectively. The role of Islamic law in global financial institutions and in the cyber world are an ample proof of its contemporary relevance beyond its particular historical and geographic origin. The last unit is devoted to a discussion of the interaction between society, law, and government. This chapter includes such intellectually demanding and engaging discussions as the issue of the caliphate, the jurisprudence of political revolution, the dialectics of law versus ethics, and the resort of different non-state and regional actors to Islamic law for meeting their ends. 

The value of the book is further enriched by the inclusion of two short units of primary source material (related to Ibadiand Hanafi fiqh) in translation. The Ibadi texts are concerned with the issues of authority in Islamic law, the unity or multiplicity of God’s truth, the choice of one among different conflicting but equal opinions, and the relationship between scholars and laity vis-à-vis the truth. The Hanafi text is related to the tension between general and specific authority as exemplified in the conflict between legal and executive authorities within society. 

In sum, the book is an exemplary introduction to Islamic law encompassing its history, theory, as well as its diverse applications in personal, social, national, and transnational realms of human life. As a student of and researcher in Islamic law, I consider it worth recommending for inclusion in the syllabi of Islamic studies classes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in universities around the world, especially India and Pakistan. Keeping in view its contents, language, and style of presentation, along with the diversity of issues it addresses vis-à-vis the application of Islamic law, it is far better than the books on Islamic law that are currently in use in Islamic Studies classes in Indo-Pak universities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gowhar Quadir Wani is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim Universisty in Aligarh, India.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ahmad Atif Ahmad is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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