Shari’a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics

Shari’a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics by Mark Fathi Massoud (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Reviewed by Faduma Abukar Mursal, University of Lucerne

In Shari’a InshaAllah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics, Mark Massoud challenges law and development orthodoxy in conflict and postconflict settings, especially in the Horn of Africa, where state-building and development projects work to institute the rule of law.

He argues that the problem with this orthodoxy is that it is based on the conventional view which holds that secular legal processes require strict separation from religion. By taking the Somali setting as the privileged context where state building interventions overlap and compete with religious laws, in this case Shari’a, the author argues that both the rule of law and Shari’a are ideals by which people strive for a higher purpose. As the title Shari’a, Inshallah suggests, the author elaborates on the indeterminate character of Shari’a, the rule of law, and inshallah (Arabic for “God willing”) to some extent to investigate the meanings and affective investment of Somali political elites in the ‘will of God’ and how this guides them towards the ‘rule of law’.

The introduction and chapter 7 exemplify the book’s analytical focus and argument. After Massoud sets that religion and the rule of law are indeterminate and malleable categories which can take on different meanings, he argues that rule-of-law principles are compatible with, and even indistinguishable from, religious principles. This applies also to the religious principles associated with Shari’a which are often taken as antithesis to liberal democratic principles. Instead, by reflecting on the overlaps between the rule of law and religion, the author claims that both the rule of law and religion require the belief in a higher purpose.

The book’s historicizing approach, exemplified by the historical division of the chapters, offers a dense account of successive political administrations’ efforts to regulate Islamic laws and institutions. The empirical corpus is based on extensive archival and documentary work in several cities, as well as key interviews, and observations during five nonconsecutive months in the Horn of Africa, mostly in Hargeisa.

The book uses various case studies to describe the struggle of several actors over religious authority to justify a particular political legal arrangement in the Somali context. Chapter 1 contextualizes Islam’s political history in Muslim-majority countries to situate the Somali experience of it. This chapter presents particularly interesting observations of dispute-resolution activities in courts, legal aid centers, and workshops sponsored by international and local aid groups to discuss Somali legal order and the challenges that parallel legal systems pose to international organizations’ rule-of-law programs.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover the period of 1884 to 1991 and exemplify the ways in which colonial and postcolonial regimes have sought to control religion by adopting an ambiguous recognition of it. In chapter 2, Massoud’s access to British archives enabled him to provide a detailed account of British colonial administrators’ efforts to control Islamic interpretations, including the recognition and professionalization of some religious leaders and institutions, and, most interestingly, the mobilization of religious leaders in other colonized settings, to claim religious authority and discredit anticolonial resistance. Chapter 3 in turn addresses postcolonial legal arrangements as a period of change in which successive postcolonial regimes have recognized Islam as official religion in the constitution while asserting secular judicial authority over Islamic courts. The increasing restrictions on religion in governmental structures reach their peak during Siyad Barre’s military regime.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 elaborate on three configurations of the relationship between religious leaders and governmental administrations between 1991 and 2021. Chapter 4 focuses on the development of religious legalisms outside government regulations, notably the emergence, models of legalism, politicization, and militarization of movements such as the Union of Islamic courts and the Harakat al Mujahidin Al-Shebab. Chapter 5 details the legal politics in Somaliland, where religious leaders are incorporated into the local government’s administrative units. Chapter 6 considers women activists’ mobilization in Somaliland and their efforts to favor Islamic interpretations and scholars that justify and recognize their political objectives, including the formalization of women’s participation in parliaments and their constitutional protection against gender-based violence.

One of the book’s strengths is its use of detailed and well written case studies with first-hand accounts of lawyers and aspiring sheikhs in Somali settings to provide an account of international interventions as imperial projects carried out in the name of development and the rule of law. Sometimes, however, the overemphasis on Somalis’ resistance to international interventions, coupled with a few stylistic formulations, obscure the indeterminate character of Shari’a. Shari’a becomes in these instances something that can be destroyed and restored, at times with somewhat dramatic phrasing, such as the “destruction of Shari’a,” “bringing Shari’a into battle,” “God’s will militarized,” and so forth. Despite this framing, the description of the broad range of actors who mobilize particular Islamic interpretations to assert and justify a political project, which include as much successive colonial administrators, politicians, as religious leaders, and activists, should direct our attention to the kinds of Islamic interpretations and forms that have been incorporated into and excluded from government administrations at given periods, and the determining role that international interventions play in regulating this process of exclusion and inclusion.

The book offers a welcome and elaborate contribution to understanding the shifting relationship between law and religion, under-researched Somali politico-legal institutional arrangements, legal pluralism in Muslim majority countries, and international interventions in law and development.

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