Sharī'a Scripts

A Historical Anthropology

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Brinkley Morris Messick
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , January
     536 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brinkley Messick’s scintillating new book charts the historical anthropology of Yemeni legal texts and textual practice at a particularly charged time in the region’s history: the pre-Republican period of the 20th century when the Zaydi Imamate was on the cusp of modernity and before the ravages of the nation-state obliterated that era’s ethico-legal operations. This temporal and geographical focus affords Messick the opportunity to examine one of the very few modern settings of the shari‘athat avoided direct colonial rule.

Location is vital to Messick’s analysis and argument. He asserts and models the significance of studying the shari‘a as a localized practice through a focus on writing in all its genres. These range from shari‘a courts’ case records, fiqh works, fatwas, and the imam’s ikhtiyars, to leases and notarial documents in private collections. Messick’s interest lies in the relations among these various types of texts. He investigates the manner in which localized and context-specific texts (what he terms the “archive”) are informed by, but also impact, wide-ranging and unmoored intellectual traditions (the “library”). Such investigations call for painstaking, meticulous, and detailed microanalyses—a task that Messick executes to perfection. 

To explore the relationship between the library and the archive, Messick derives inspiration from critical thinkers and literary critics, prime among them Michel Foucault, Hayden White, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Foucault pushes Messick to consider power relations and investigate regimes of truth, as well as to employ the author-writer distinction. Bakhtin instigates a dialogic reading of texts and aids Messick in formulating a taxonomy for textual practices. Drawing on White, Messick argues and analyzes how all genres (forms) already possess a content. In his engagement with these thinkers, Messick follows in the now increasingly well-established trend of putting the Islamic legal tradition in conversation with critical theory. 

Messick’s focus on the local leads to several key interventions. First, it enables Messick to bridge the gap between two separate fields of inquiry, one of which is primarily performed by Islamicists who study the shari‘a through a focus on its doctrine and elite texts. The Islamicists’ emphasis on shari‘a doctrine—implicitly, and at times even explicitly—deems practice and lower-level texts as marginal to our understanding of the shari‘a enterprise. The other, an examination by social historians, focuses on more mundane, quotidian, and very localized documents ranging from court judgments to leases. Messick’s work is largely unique in bringing these disparate fields into conversation.

Additionally, by investigating the connections between the library and the archive, Messick’s work challenges studies that lament the vast chasm and disjuncture between theory and practice of the shari‘a. As Messick rightly notes, much of this criticism emerges from examinations solely of the high scholarship of the shari‘a. Messick’s fine-grained analysis elucidates the “vertical integration” (28) of the shari‘a, that is, how shari‘a doctrines and elite texts are in fact frequently deeply connected in a multiplicity of ways to more mundane and modest localized shari‘a texts. In exploring the relationship, interplay, and contrapuntal impact of these different genres on each other, Messick is able to present his readers with a concrete, contextual practice of the shari‘a while also tracking relations of power and identifying forms of authority corresponding to various genres.

Messick’s interventions resulting from his focus on the local are complemented by equally important contributions arising from his emphasis on practice. Messick’s focus on practice—and particularly on reading all discursive engagements, even doctrinal works, as practice—challenges the very division between doctrine and practice. Consequently, it turns on its head a long history of assumptions regarding categories that have largely remained unquestioned. 

A final word to all those considering reading the book: while the book’s arguments are compelling enough to merit a read, the icing on the cake is the elegant prose that makes the work a pleasure to dive into.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mashal Saif is Assistant Professor of Religion at Clemson University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brinkley Morris Messick is Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies as well as the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (1993) and a coeditor of Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas (1996).


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