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Studying Shari’a and Shari’a Courts in light of Legal Pluralism

BS”D

 

Time for a new article. This time I’m relating to Ido Shahar’s “Legal Pluralism and the Study of Shari’a Courts”, brought in Islamic Law and Society, 15, 2008. But before that I feel the need to define what is meant by “Legal Pluralism”, as this might seem as an unfamiliar term for many.

In general a state is supposed to be run by legal monism, that is, one single law. A state alone should be able to decide on and govern laws and rules, in order that the state might “be able to penetrate society, regulate social relationships, extract resources and appropriate or use these resources in determined ways”.[1] This is rarely the case though, even in states which we believe to be governed by one law alone. Often various legal practices, custom, or other legal bodies, influence and decides, and this is legal pluralism, that is, when law in a state is decided by more than one legal body or principle.

As is clear, Israel is one such case. We don’t only have one law, the secular Israeli law (whether influenced by Jewish religious law or not, that is, Mishpat Ivrit, Hebrew law), but several bodies of law, Israeli law, Jewish religious law, Islamic law, and so on. So when I am talking about legal pluralism, I am talking about a plurality of laws within one state.

So far so good.

Mainly the scope in the use of Legal Pluralism as a theoretical tool, has been from the legal institution, that is, we relate to how the legal bodies, various courts and so on, relate to each other and litigants, but Shahar chooses to approach it from the litigant rather than the legal bodies. That is, he attempts to relate to what makes the litigants choose one court instead of another, what their needs and motives are, in order to discover the relations between the legal bodies.

In his article, “Legal Pluralism and the Study of Shari’a Courts”, he attempts to point out these relations by focusing on how Shari’a courts relate to other non-state courts under Islamic rule, the mazalim courts, and other legal functionaries, the hajibs, as well as civil courts. Besides that he also describes the relations between qadis of the various four Sunni schools of law (madhahib).

Let us look on the three examples:

The Mazalim courts existed from the time of the later Umayyad until the Ottoman abolished them, and covered many of the same cases as the Shari’a courts, which and to what extent depending on the changing power balance between the two courts, having the proponents of the mazalim courts fully aware that they encroached on cases covered by the Shari’a courts, even going so far as to establish that in cases of “Rights of Man” (criminal cases, huquq adami) litigants were allowed to attend Shari’a courts, but in cases involving violations of “the Rights of God” (huquq Allah) only mazalim courts were allowed. We even hear about examples where people stopped using the Shari’a court totally, as related by al-Kindi in Egypt, and only attended the mazalim courts.

The hajibs were based on Mongol Yasa code of law, and though it was described in less positive terms than the mazalim, it still witness of a power struggle between two legal bodies. In case of the hajibs people were forcibly moved from Shari’a courts and taken to the hajibs, rather than going to the hajibs freely and of own initiative.

In case of the civil courts Shahar explains how the Ottomans gradually removed more and more jurisdictions, until only cases of personal status were left for them, showing a transition from tradition religious courts to modernity, not happening at once and thus leaving periods where the courts overlapped each other jurisdictions.

Based on this we see that religious authority was not always the deciding factor, leaving cases of legal pluralism encouraging to competition over prestige and litigants, both by being attentive to the needs of the litigants, as well as forcing them to choose the legal body of preference, which again forced the Shari’a courts to relate to this and thus forcing them to make certain changes in practice.

In case of the relation between the four Sunni schools of law, we see another interesting example, namely that of cooperation between the qadis, so that the leniency of one school would be followed rather than the stringency of another school, such as the annulment of marriages when the husband did not provide for his wife, which is not allowed according to the Shafi’i school, then directing the Shafi’i qadi to rule according to the Hanafi or Hanbali schools, which do allow this, such as was the example in 17th and 18th century Syria and Palestine.

 

I find this interesting, the relation between legal bodies and within legal bodies, and how this changes practices and conceptions. I don’t think it has changed much today, the needs of the litigants being the most important part, and in cases where one legal body is too inflexible, and alternative bodies can be found, litigants will find these alternatives, whether these bodies are acknowledged by the state or not.

Here I can relate to the practice of ṣulḥa in Israel (and other places), which is private settlements between two groups in conflict, brokered by a neutral third group chosen by the two groups for exactly this. This is a non-state body, which is used by Arabs in Israel to solve conflicts, but the interesting thing is that the Israeli criminal courts are relating to these agreements, either in their rulings or in consideration whether a person should be in custody or not. More about that later.


[1] Yüksel Sezgin, ”A Political Account for Legal Confrontation Between State and Society: The Case of Israeli Legal Pluralism”. Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, volume 32, p. 198, 2004.


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