“What has all this Law to do with real life?,” asked the Dutch orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (d. 1936) as he concluded his rich account of the study circles, each revolving around a “professor” of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), in the sacred mosque of Mecca. It was 1885, when following an examination by a group of Muslim scholars, the traveling Dutchman was recognized as a genuine Muslim and was allowed to enter the Holy City, otherwise forbidden to non-Muslims. From that unique experience, Snouck Hurgronje, whose main task was to monitor the activities of pilgrims from the Dutch East Indies, left us a captivating account of Mecca at the end of the long nineteenth century. Published in 1888, Snouck Hurgronje’s Mekka devoted an entire chapter of more than 60 pages to Islamic knowledge practice, particularly the study of fiqh. Interestingly, he noted how despite the vibrant scholastic tradition of fiqh that drew students from all over the Muslim world to Holy City, fiqh does not have much to do with real life. Aside from family law,
[A]ll the departments of life which should be controlled by it were from the beginning actually controlled by custom or by the caprice of the rulers…If the commercial Law of Islam were to be applied all serious business would be impossible. The criminal Law by its impossible Law of evidence and by its marvelously mild application of the punishment belong to the rights of Allah secures a way out to all offenders…[I]t remains true that the main body of this Canonical Law has never been put in practice. (Snouck Hurgronje 2007: 205-6)
Snouck Hurgronje observed that the legal scholars and teachers are the last to contradict this conclusion, emphasizing that the laws they expounded “are only fitted for a better society than that of their contemporaries” (Ibid: 206). Snouck Hurgronje thus came to the conclusion that fiqh is an ideal scenario, a detailed blueprint of how society ought to operate. It is as an aspiration that fiqh retains a position of high importance to Muslims. Even as a scholastic exercise it nevertheless remains an honorable and important, not to mention prestigious, pursuit. Scholars and their students conserve and elaborate the religious law in great details, without any corresponding attempt to pressure the state for its implementation, believing that the intellectual activity itself will accrue them spiritual rewards in the hereafter.
Subsequent scholars of Islamic law have questioned Snouck Hurgronje’s approach to fiqh that posits it as deontology, or as system or religious and moral duties, or a system of subjective rights (Schacht 1964) rather than as law (Johansen 1999; Asad 2003). Brinkley Messick also questions whether Snouck Hurgronje’s observation of the combination of nonobservance and reverence for fiqh to be “characteristic of Muslim societies in all times and places, or should it instead be understood in terms of the dislocation and attachments common to situations of colonial domination” (1993: 60-61). Messick’s own work on Yemen, for instance, attests to the reality of shari’a as total discourse with large discursive range in the society. These critiques aside, Snouck Hurgronje did make an interesting point, namely, that the function of the scholastic study of fiqh lies in its capacity to draw Muslims from different parts of the world into a shared imaginary — sustained, among others, by disseminated texts, traveling scholars and students, and intellectual linages —Islamic umma. Notwithstanding the different legal schools that divide them, they were able to develop a sense of commonality based on the dedication and commitment to fiqḥ. Despite this realistic attitude towards the law, however, scholars and students, so Snouck Hurgronje describes, were also thrilled by the expectation of the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic figure whose arrival would lead to the realization and implementation of fiqḥ.
The late nineteenth century certainly witnessed the appearance of several Islamic millenarian movements, the Sudanese Mahdi being the most famous (Layish 2016). None, however, succeeded in establishing a durable socio-political order that could serve as the ideal locus for the full implementation of fiqh. Meanwhile, the global dominance of Western powers was becoming more and more a lived reality. Along with Western imperial expansion came different socio-political visions that stood in stark contrast to those envisaged by the professors in Mecca and their students elsewhere. And yet, as Talal Asad (2003) has famously argued, along the Foucauldian line, it was precisely this latter development — that of the colonial encounter and the formation of colonial state — that brought about the reordering of social life and new experimentations with Islamic legal tradition that resulted in emergence of a novel discursive space for Islamic law, new legal subjects, and innovative distinction between law and morality. Asad shows how from the 19th century onwards, the shari’a underwent substantive changes and redefinitions from a complex and flexible tradition that hinged on open debates and legitimate disagreement into positive law. This transformation, Asad suggests, occurred in response to a set of questions of “how liberal governance (political, moral, and theological) was to be secured during the different phases of state building and dismantling” and how “liberty, modernity, and civilized life were to be achieved” (2003: 218). Notwithstanding its claim to religious neutrality, the modern state has indeed involved itself in the regulation and management of religion and religious life, thereby entangling itself in substantive religious issues (Agrama 2011; Mahmood 2016; Kloos 2018). As Asad points out:
If the secularization thesis no longer carries the conviction it once did, this is because the categories of “politics” and “religion” turn out to implicate each other more profoundly than we thought, a discovery that has accompanied our growing understanding of the powers of the modern nation-state. (2003: 200)
It is this complicated, geographically dispersed and entangled story, involving various institutions and actors — both colonizers and colonized — with different stakes, that Iza Hussin masterfully sketches in The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of the Muslim State (2016). Hussin is to be applauded for weaving a coherent narrative out of intricate political contestations taking place in three interconnected sites: Egypt, India, and Malaya. Her book enables us to comprehend how Muslim elites in the three sites “capitalized upon, negotiated, and reinterpreted the realities of colonization.” Pushing Asad’s intervention forward, Hussin traces the emergence of “Islamic law” as what she calls a “political space,” arguing that this is not something that was “made in Arabia” and spread elsewhere, but a phenomenon that emerged between 1772 and the 1900s, in-between the three aforementioned outposts of the British Empire. Colonial encounters, Hussin suggests, resulted in the delineation of Islamic legal content into limited domains. A number of landmark treaties — like the Treaty of Allahabad (1765) and the Pangkor Treaty (1874) — divided jurisdictions between local rulers and the colonial state, thereby producing different political spheres. Such treaties ushered in the emergence of a modern state with jurisdiction over most societal domains, leaving the governance of religion and culture to local elites.
While these treaties were articulated as “denials of colonial jurisdiction over Islam,” Hussin shows how they established a new and discrete arena of political struggle for “Islamic law” among local elites, a domain that they fiercely defended against colonial intervention. As the power of the local elites rapidly diminished over other domains, religion became a highly fraught political space. New kinds of legal professionals and authorities emerged, while modern bureaucracies of Islamic law empowered by the modern state and simultaneously restricted to the domains of ritual, personal status, and the family took shape. Islamic legal contents, once dizzyingly plural and subject to an intricately unending scholastic enterprise, were codified into a set of texts that can be concretely used for litigation and appeal in modern courts. These developments constituted Islamic law as a delimited space, but one that is symbolically central to the state. This, in turn, made Islamic law, and its delivery, pertinent to the state’s legitimacy. Whereas for the professors of law that Snouck Hurgronje encountered in Mecca, the term shari’a most likely referred to an Islamic way of life in a holistic sense, the term gradually denotes “positive law or the work of legislation.” By the 1930s,
shari’a had become symbolically central to the political platforms of Muslim reformists, anticolonialists, and many Muslims within the state structure, in Egypt, India, and the Malay States. With the establishment of the nation-state in the postindependence period, shari’a had become understood as a necessary part of the law of the state, but shari’a transformed…as codified law in a limited by symbolically central domain. (Hussin 2016: 177)
A major strength of Hussin book lies in its ability to bring together historical developments in three vastly different Muslim societies that had come under the dominion of the British Empire into a coherent — albeit oftentimes daunting and challenging— narrative. Complementing this achievement is Hussin’s masterful use of a wide range of sources from legal codes and treaties, to colonial and local newspapers, travel accounts, private letters, censuses, maps, and photography to give thick and vivid accounts of the law as a lived reality. In doing so, Hussin is able to form a persuasive final concluding argument on the hybrid nature of Islamic law. Islamic law is not simply an aggregate made up of multiple threads. Rather, it is a hybrid creation of a new legal system that materialized from the layers of multiple legal systems.
Hussin’s meticulous narrative of the emergence of Islamic law as a political space in the colonial period is further complemented by Brandon Kendhammer, whose book, Muslim Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria (2016) offers an intricate explanation of the persistency of “shari’a politics” — to use Robert Hefner’s term (2011) — in Northern Nigeria. The growing popularity of shari’a politics has culminated in the implementation of Islamic law across twelve northern states of Nigeria since 1999. Rather than seeing this phenomenon as resulting from the growth of religious fundamentalism and aspirations for theocratic rule, Kendhammer shows how shari’a politics is part and parcel of local public reasoning through which Nigerians make sense of, engage with, and modulate democratic ideals and practice. Shari’a politics, Kendhammer suggests, is “inseparable from the slow evolution of democratic politics” (Kendhammer 2016: 215). Through a close reading of various historical records and newspaper articles, Kendhammer highlights how politicians and activists describe democracy “in terms of Islamic experiences” and talk about Islam “in the context of democratic politics,” thereby generating “a vocabulary for making political claims in Islamic terms” (ibid.: 13). Such a vocabulary is subsequently reproduced by ordinary Nigerian Muslims who Kendhammer conversed with both in informal settings or in focus group discussions (FGD) during his fieldwork. Productively weaving historical, ethnographic, and media frame analyses, Kendhammer’s signal contribution in this book lies precisely in showing, close-up, what this public reasoning process actually looks like, or more aptly, how it sounds.
Not unlike Hussin, Kendhammer traces the complex history of Nigeria’s shari’a politics back to the moment of colonial modernity when the agendas of the colonial authorities, Muslim reformers, and local political elites converged to constitute a top-down and state-centered Islamic legal system based on codified Islamic laws. This move empowered political authorities, namely the emirate elites, to define the contour of the shari’a and enforce it in accordance to their political interests. By 1960, this top-down, state-centric version of Islamic law, together with endless partisan conflicts among elites over its institutional form and practice had become the political norm across Northern Nigeria. Following the civil war in 1967-1970, Northern Nigerian elites began to utilize shari’a as leverage to demand recognition and resources in the framework of the federal state and its oil-rich economy. Concurrently, Muslim activists used the federalist framework and the state’s commitment to balance public life to demand a greater role for Islamic values and symbols in the public sphere. After the return of civilian rule in 1999, politicians supported the top-down implementation of shari’a to build political coalitions and attract grassroots support, albeit to limited success. This political process, Kendhammer argues, generated popular aspirations for shari’a and democracy, with the former being posited as both a dividend and guarantor of the latter. While such aspirations were framed by the political elites, they were subsequently employed by ordinary Muslims to criticize corruption and elite impunity. For the ordinary Nigerian Muslims Kendhammer conversed with, the implementation of the shari’a is seen as a means to stimulate economic development, promote social justice, and ensure a share of national resources. Generally speaking, the poor performance of local governments in realizing such aspirations has not weakened the mass support for either shari’a or democracy, although there are those who resorted to radicalism out of downright frustration with the slow and convoluted political processes. The majority of Nigerian Muslims, Kendhammer concludes, remain committed to improving the democratic system through the implementation of shari’a.
Kendhammer’s work is particularly important for pointing to how the agendas for the expansion of Islamic law in Northern Nigeria were championed not by the so-called fundamentalists or radicals, but by those who can be aptly described as moderates who have also consistently expressed support for democratic governance over autocracy. Building on the works of the sociologist William Gamson (1992) — whose book title, Talking Politics, inspired Kendhammer’s — and the political scientist Kathy Cramer Walsh (2004), both of whom have utilized conversations as apertures into the process of political reasoning, Kendhammer is able to provide vivid accounts of how the relationship between Islam and democracy is continuously constructed in practice. In this way, “talking politics” becomes not merely expression or manifestation of shari’a politics. Rather it is the very mundane practice that constitutes shari’a politics. Using frame analysis, Kendhammer highlights the work of pro-shari’a politicians and activists in creating influential frames portraying shari’a as a matter of constitutional rights, a source of economic development, and a way of ensuring elite accountability. Such frames, in turn, are used by ordinary Muslims to produce political and practical demands, using those very frames to call for the state to intervene and address local matters, ranging from the affordability of marriage to religious education and tangible welfare. As the implementer and enforcer of the shari’a, the state is understood to have the religious obligation to assist individuals and communities.
While Kendhammer is trained as a political scientist, Muslim Talking Politics ought to be situated in relation to works in the anthropology of politics and the law. The book’s narrative backdrop is one that has been defined by anthropologists as the widening and diversification of the public sphere that has led to the fragmentation of Islamic religious authorities. In this regard, the book brings further evidence to the literature on the public sphere that has highlighted the role of religion in creating vibrant spaces of debates (Eickelman & Piscatori 1996; Eickleman & Anderson 2003; Salvatore & Eickleman 2004). It goes further by attending to the public reasoning of “ordinary Muslims” (Peletz 1997), particularly those who are not, strictly speaking, activists or participants in Islamic revivalist movements. In doing so, the book may be read alongside several recent works in the Anthropology of Islam that seek to focus and elaborate on “lived Islam” (Marsden 2005) and local forms of Islamic discourse and practice operating in the everyday (Osella and Soares 2010; Schielke 2015; Schielke and Debevec 2012). Kendhammer’s work also complicates the “objectification” argument initially proposed by Eickelman and Piscatori (1996) that posits contemporary Islamic thought as an artificial and reified construct of modernity. This notion has recently been criticized for not paying adequate attention to “the truth of change” and the “distinctive styles of argument and reasoning” at work (Agrama 2011: 14). Kendhammer is attentive to this critique. In his account, he brings our attention to the inconsistencies between the shari’a advocates’ invocation of “the language of individual rights to defend the viability of Islamic law in a basically secular system” and the shari’a legislation and policies that empowers the intervention of an intrusive state in the lives of its citizen (Kendhammer 2016: 53). In line with Agrama’s work (2011) on the shari’a and state power in Egypt, Kendhammer sees such inconsistencies as products of the historical “state-ification” of Islamic law under colonial rule. This historical dynamic has generated narratives of Northern Nigeria’s Caliphal past (the Sokoto Caliphate) as a “consistent, coherent, and rule-bound model rather than a complex and messy polity” (ibid.: 54), thereby downplaying the “tensions that have also defined northern Nigeria’s shari’a experiences for more than two centuries” (ibid.: 55). Consequently, the Sokoto Caliphate, as the historical paradigm that informs the vision of contemporary shari’a advocates, which is perceived through the lens of colonial state-ification of Islamic law, lends itself to forms of reasoning that seek to enhance the reach of the secular state.
The enduring political and cultural implications of the rise of the modern state, which in both Hussin’s and Kendhammer’s accounts are identified as the very locus in and through which Islamic law has been reconfigured, are also the themes taken up by Noah Salomon in For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State (2016). Like the other two monographs reviewed here, Salomon looks at state power not solely as repressive, but also productive. Following Timothy Mitchell, he sees “the task of a critique of the state” as explaining the “structural effect” of the state that allows it to be perceived “as an apparatus that stands apart from the rest of the social world” (Mitchell 2006: 180). Salomon looks at the state not as institutions but as “a series of processes that produce a novel form of modern power” (2016: 11). As such, he analyzes the materiality of the state from the vantage point of the everyday, how it is produced as, to quote the late Begoña Aretxaga (2003: 395), a “social subject in everyday life.” In doing so, Salomon is able to move beyond the aforementioned works on Islamic public spheres that posit public spheres to be outside of, or even oppositional to the state. For Salomon, such positioning is already the product of the state’s structural effect. Rather he situates the state as immanent within other institutional forms and social processes, including the public sphere. In doing so, he explores the state not as distant but as a function of human political life. In Sudan, even for the opposition, the Islamic state is becoming a less deniable reality. Hence critiques of the Islamic state remain tied to the imagination of what an Islamic state ought to be. The line between the state and the public sphere is not easy to draw. In fact, Salomon’s contribution lies precisely in showing how the Islamic state has facilitated the explosion of a vibrant public sphere and soundscape that continue to reproduce the presence and signature of the state.
Salomon traces the genealogy of the Islamic state, which can be found not in the sixteenth century with the establishment of the state of Sinnar by ʿAbdallah Jamaʿa (r. 1500-1560), but in the British colonial period, as part of the colonial project of managing religion in the aftermath of its destruction of the Mahdist millenarian state. The British, Salomon tells us, attempted to manufacture Islam that would be more susceptible to modern governance and would help Muslims respond flexibly to issues of public concern. Heterogeneous private religious practices, like those of the Sufi orders, were deemed detrimental to individual and communal development. In a place where the British did not find what they deemed to be an Orthodox Islam, they had to create one. They do so by assembling a centralized Islam through the establishment of an Islamic religious center in Khartoum, a council of scholars, an Islamic court system, and Islamic academies, all of which were mostly manned by graduates of Cairo’s al-Azhar University. The British employed a theological language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy to privilege certain forms of Islam while excluding others and thereby created a centralized orthodoxy under the auspices of the state. Such an imagination of Islam was subsequently embraced by Muslim intellectuals of the current Inqadh (Salvation) regime, an Islam amenable to state governance.
Salomon shows the close affinity between the Salvation state of the Inqadh regime and the colonial state, not only in relation to the state’s bureaucratic structure, both also in the ways both states envision their task as effecting “civilizational reform” as a means of curing the nation of what both saw as “an unhealthy and irrational relationship to religion” (ibid.: 62). This reform included the work to reform and modernize political practice and individual morality, as well as religious life and institutions. The Inqadh leaders realized how the state could not work on its own to affect the moral and political reform it was working towards, and thus they worked with the publicly popular Sufi orders and made them into a means to realize modern forms of Islamic piety and social practice they envisioned. With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that ended the second Sudanese Civil War that lasted between 1983 and 2005, however, there came the need to develop democratic governance and multicultural reform. The Sudanese regime was forced to take seriously the religious and cultural diversity of the country, thereby departing from the Islamic Civilization project that defined the early years of the Inqadh. The state project of Islamization thus moved from the legal and educational spheres to other “gentler” projects without state coercion. Salomon notes how throughout the years of the Inqadh, Islamists were focusing their work on manning state apparatuses and using them to enact social reform. This left “traditional arenas of Islamic evangelism and reform” (ibid.: 92) in a vacuum that was quickly filled by the Sufis and Salafis with different visions of Islam from that spearheaded by the state. Sufi and Salafi scholars and preachers benefited from the Islamization of society undertaken by the state to champion their own visions. Thus, the state attempted to build an Islamic state based on its monopoly of what religious vision ought to guide the country, which inadvertently led to an unbridled and certainly more colorful Islamic awakening. Salomon observes this in great detail in chapter four, where he looks at the dissemination of Sufi praise poems (madīḥ Pl. madāʾiḥ) through new media tools, including radio and cassettes. Madīḥ audition is an important Sufi ritual practice used to cultivate the individual love of the prophet. Its popularity was bemoaned by some of the modernist ideologues of the Islamic state as “ruralization of religion” (ibid.: 127). Following the CPA, however, the regime turned to such artistic forms and their affective power to “tap into those passions that made people not only tolerate an Islamic state but desire one” (ibid.: 129). Old Sufi madāʾiḥ were extracted from Sufism, while new ones on the subject of national piety were composed to emphasize abstract citizenship over sectarian affiliation. Here Salomon departs from recent works on media technology and their role as a non-discursive means of cultivating piety (Hirschkind 2006; Larkin 2004) by presenting the ways through which mediatized aesthetic experience is used as a technology of the state.
By positing Islam as the state’s political foundation, the Inqadh regime has had to face other claims to Islam that may emerge as alternatives to the regime. This may be the supernatural power of a Sufi saint that, like that of the state, is also a claim of closeness to God, or Salafi politics that do not revolve around debates about the implementation of Islamic law, but rather, attempts to transform “the social body to assent to correct doctrine” (ibid.: 185). Both Sufi and Salafi politics have made serious claims to Islam that destabilize the regime’s legitimacy. It is crucial, however, to understand how these divergent politics work and how their claims are articulated. To do so, Salomon suggests that we rethink the very category of the political itself. The tendency of social scientists to reduce Islamic politics to social scientific frameworks has occluded other forms of politics that assume divergent conceptions of time, space, power, and authority.
Salomon builds a convincing case that points to how Islamic states work, one that nicely complements and extends the works of Hussin and Kendhammer. Similar to Kendhammer, he directs our attention, in an admirable way, not to the government offices and ministries where the state is supposedly run, but to the everyday spaces where the Islamic state has become a lively social subject in everyday life. The state’s lasting legacy, Salomon demonstrates, lies in transforming “the relationship between knowledge and truth, aesthetics and the virtues, politics and piety” and structuring “the landscape of discourse and debate on which diverse expressions of contemporary Sudanese life take place” (ibid.: 196). But if an Islamic state is an aspiration for justice, autonomy, and prosperity, then the case of Sudan seems to be a failure. After ruling for more than twenty-five years, the Inqadh regime has led to poverty, civil wars, and the secession of the south. Some have tried to escape the Islamic state, either by looking towards what they deem to be a more proper Islamic state like ISIS or, like the southern third of Sudan, seceded to form a new state. Nevertheless, to most Sudanese, the aspiration to an Islamic state has become indelible.
Read together, the three books discussed in this review provide lively pictures of the substantial transformation of the shari’a as law brought about by the formation of the modern state. They complement one another in showing how this development came to be by taking state formation seriously, not by exploring what is Islamic about an Islamic state, or what is Islamic about Islamic law, but precisely by understanding the state’s exercise of power. More than just significant contributions to the study of Islam and the state, the three books can also be read as invitations to delve deeper into comprehending intricate political orders and realities that cannot simply be reduced to, to use Salomon’s phrase, “authoritarianism in religious garb” (ibid.: 215).
These books also complicate the argument that Islam and the modern state are incompatible, which was put forward by Wael Hallaq (2013), a notable scholar of Islamic law, whose skepticism of modern Islamic states seems to echo those of the Meccan professors encountered by Snouck Hurgronje in 1885. Perhaps Hallaq is correct in pointing out that Islam and the state are incompatible because the state is not neutral and that both Islam and the modern state constitute rival moral orders. Nevertheless, Muslims in different societies have attempted to work out this very difference and it seems that they will continue to experiment in the future. Such attempts may – and indeed have repeatedly – ended in failure, perhaps due to the internal (or metaphysical, to paraphrase Hallaq) contradictions between the two. But what these three books allow us to understand is precisely that we should not posit Islam, and particularly shari’a, as an unchanging traditional essence. Rather, shari’a has continued to take shape in different arenas of social and political struggle, where it has been imagined in various ways. If Foucault once juxtaposed messy history from below with a tidier legal-sovereign history from above, these books show how Islamic law, previously addressed through “philosophico-juridical” approach, is, in reality, messy, conflictual, continually shifting, and highly contingent (Foucault 1994: 60-3). While these books have enriched our understanding of how shari’a has undergone major transformations into positive law in the modern state as informed by its secular logic, it is also the hope of this reviewer that they will generate interest in similar anthro-historical approaches to questions surrounding the dynamic relationship between shari’a, politics, and the state in pre-modern contexts.
Ismail Fajrie Alatas, New York University
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