DAVID S. POWERS: Hi. My name is David Powers and I'm Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies in the Near Eastern Studies department here at Cornell University. My area of expertise is Islamic law or Sharia and I'm going to speak to you here today about the history of Islamic law. Islamic law has a bad reputation in the Western press and it has had this reputation for a long time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber coined the term "qadi justice" to refer to a system of law that is irrational in two respects. It is substantively irrational because it is based upon divine law and it is procedurally irrational because it uses mechanisms like the oath in order to determine truth and justice. In the middle of the 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said about the Supreme Court, "we are a court of review, not a tribunal unbounded by rules. We are not like a qadi who sits under a palm tree and dispenses justice off the top of his head, without referring to any rules or principles."
More recently, you're probably familiar with the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini issued against Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses. As a result of that edict, most people in the United States think that a fatwa is a death sentence. We read about countries in the Middle East such as Egypt and Iraq, whose constitutions contain a clause saying that the principles of the Sharia are a principal source of legislation or the principal source of legislation in the country in question.
What is at stake in these formulations and what are the consequences for the peoples of the Middle East? These are some of the questions that I want to address in my lecture today.
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What is Islamic law? Explore the history as David S. Powers explains the origins, concepts, and misconceptions of Islamic law.
This video is part 1 of 7 in the What is Islamic Law? series.