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Review of the Book ''The Politics of Islamic Law'' by Iza R. Hussin

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These three artefactual formations provide for Hussin a springboard for ‘the paradox of Islamic law’ — a thesis elaborated with respect to British Malaya, British India and Egypt under British occupation in Chapter Six, and with a reference to post-independence Malaysia in Chapter Seven

The paradox, for Hussin, lays in the fact that the institutional marginalisation of Islamic law at the hands of the colonial state was readily, and cunningly, accompanied by its symbolic centralisation. The result was a near-demise of whatever was known as pre-colonial Islamic law (which, in a way, is a restatement of the Hallaq thesis on the death of post-classical sharīʿa) and the concomitant rise of local Muslim elites as the custodians of hybrid colonial and postcolonial Islamic legal regimes, which resembled little, if at all, the Islamic law of the past.

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In The Politics of Islamic Law, Iza Hussin compares India, Malaya, and Egypt during the British colonial period in order to trace the making and transformation of the contemporary category of ‘Islamic law.’ She demonstrates that not only is Islamic law not the shari’ah, its present institutional forms, substantive content, symbolic vocabulary, and relationship to state and society—in short, its politics—are built upon foundations laid during the colonial encounter. Drawing on extensive archival work in English, Arabic, and Malay—from court records to colonial and local papers to private letters and visual material—Hussin offers a view of politics in the colonial period as an iterative series of negotiations between local and colonial powers in multiple locations. She shows how this resulted in a paradox, centralizing Islamic law at the same time that it limited its reach to family and ritual matters, and produced a transformation in the Muslim state, providing the frame within which Islam is articulated today, setting the agenda for ongoing legislation and policy, and defining the limits of change. Combining a genealogy of law with a political analysis of its institutional dynamics, this book offers an up-close look at the ways in which global transformations are realized at the local level.

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In the final chapter of the book, Hussin brings her story up to the present through an ethnographic study of contemporary apostasy cases in Malaysia. Reinforcing her key argument about the paradoxes of Islamic law, she shows how the trials simultaneously minimized the importance of fiqh in the actual adjudication while nonetheless serving as a ‘theater for the performance of Islamic legitimacy’ (p. 255)

By drawing attention to the performative power of Islamic law, Hussin takes seriously its ongoing salience in politics across the Muslim world. Recent scholarship, most notably Wael Hallaq’s Impossible State (2012), have focused on showing how Islamic law has been gutted of its pre-modern logics. While Hussin largely concurs with Hallaq’s story of radical transformation, she is less concerned with detailing what Islamic legal cultures have lost than in understanding the logics they have acquired in their place. Hussin shows that this new politics of Islamic law, while wrought with contradictions and ambiguities, is at least as influential as earlier Islamic legal forms. Her work therefore argues for the need to understand contemporary constructions of Islamic law not just as misrepresentations of past practice but also as symbolic nexuses for defining Muslim subjects and their relationship to modern states. This is a powerful argument, and should attract attention across a range of academic disciplines and regions of study. The book, while scholarly in tone, also deserves attention from non-specialists with its lucid insights into questions that top global headlines.

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In fact, only fleeting references to the relationship between gender rights and Islamic law are found in chapter 7’s discussion of women who have renounced Islam. It was a little surprising that the Malaysian regime’s politicization of Islam coupled with the growing influence of salafi-wahbabi Islam within the sharia court system and Islamic bureaucracy were not discussed more systematically in this chapter. By and large, The Politics of Islamic Law is an impressive comparative and historical study that has extended the boundaries of scholarly knowledge on a complex topic that continues to challenge the vast majority of Muslim-majority states.

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Hallaq, Wael B. (2012). The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press.

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