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Exercises in Interpretation


Ambar Ahmad

SHARIA: THEORY, PRACTICE, TRANSFORMATIONS
By Wael B. Hallaq
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 614, Rs. 595.00

AN INTRODUCTION TO ISLAMIC LAW
By Wael B. Hallaq
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 200, Rs.250.00

THE ISLAMIC LAW OF INHERITANCE: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF RECENT REFORMS IN MUSLIM COUNTRIES
By Hamid Khan
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2007, pp. 249, Rs. 195.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 3 March 2011

In the contemporary world, the use of the term Sharia inevitably evokes for the layperson visions of a rigid, doctrinaire and calcified code of law resistant to change and modernity, violating human rights, especially those of women. This understanding is based amongst other things on a lack of knowledge regarding the subject matter compounded by stereotypical media reports and popular culture depictions. Given such a situation, these three books serve the important purpose of expounding in careful detail the genesis, evolution, actual practice and impact of the sharia, especially the form that it has taken in the modern world. Hallaq’s Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations is a comprehensive and detailed account of the sharia and how it has come to be what it is today. In the second book—An Introduction to Islamic Law, he presents the same arguments in a condensed and relatively simplified form. The former is intended for the advanced reader and contains specialized vocabulary and minute theoretical and technical discussions. The latter is an abridged version. Hallaq’s central argument is that the sharia in the form that it was practised in pre-modern Muslim societies was a flexible and pluralist system of moral law and that its principles and practices in the past should not be confused with its modern, highly politicized reincarnations. The two books give a historical account of the sharia and how it changed from being an example of the rule of law to becoming a fertile political arena. Hallaq discusses in detail the question of who made Islamic law. The role of the mufti, author-jurist, judge/qadi and law professor in the making and recording of the sharia have been explained. An important factor was that the ruler/Caliph/Sultan could appoint judges but they could not influence what law should be applied. In this sense, pre-modern Islamic law was fundamentally different from the modern state regulated law, wielded and controlled by the nation state. If not the ruler, who then created the law? This is where the role of the mufti, author-jurist, judge/qadi and law professor is important. The mufti was a private legal specialist , who was considered morally and legally responsible to the society in which he lived and not to the ruler. His task was to issue fatwa, or legal answer to questions asked. With time these answers were compiled as ‘law books.’ The fatwa was a product ...


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