DAVID S. POWERS: The 1,000-year period during which Islamic law provided stability in Muslim societies across the globe came to an end in 1798. This is the year in which Napoleon invaded Egypt. And it is the beginning of the colonial takeover of the Muslim world. Over the course of the next century, European countries, including Britain and France and Italy and the Netherlands took control of almost the entirety of the Muslim world, from Algeria in the west, across to-- and including-- India, and beyond that to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
At this particular moment in history, the balance of power had shifted dramatically in favor of Europe, and against the Muslim world. European society was ascendant in all areas. Its armies were stronger, its scientists were better, its philosophers were doing more important work. The Europeans who arrived in the Muslim world and took control of Muslim society regarded themselves as progressive, and enlightened, and liberal, and forward looking. By contrast, they regarded the Muslim inhabitants of these countries as backwards, and barbaric, and conservative.
The Europeans sought to remake the Muslim world and Muslim society in its own image. Law played a very important role in this process. Let me give you an example. The French took control of Algeria in the 1830s. And at first, their policy was one of indirect rule. Eventually, however, they decided that they wanted to exercise direct rule over Algeria, and in order to do so, they sent large numbers of French colonists to Algeria in order to colonize the country. The French colonists came face to face with Islamic law. Some of them purchased land from Muslims, and then, after the deal had been transacted, the Muslim would take the Frenchman to court and claim that the property that had been sold was endowment property. Remember that endowments are inalienable in perpetuity. They may not be sold, given away as a gift, or transmitted through inheritance. Clearly, if the French were going to actively colonize Algeria, they were going to have to do something about this institution. And they did.
Over the course of the next 50 years or so, French jurists became experts in Islamic law, and they taught the Muslims that endowments are an un-Islamic institution, because there's no reference to it in the Quran. Therefore, they were doing the Muslims a favor by abolishing this un-Quranic institution. And so the system of endowments in Algeria was abolished.
Remember that the endowment system supported the Madrasas, or law schools, that produced the judges and jurists who were responsible for law and order in Muslim societies. Without this important economic base, the Madrasas could not survive. Indeed, the educational system was radically transformed in Muslim countries. Western governments instituted Western style law schools. They also imported Western legal codes, criminal codes, commercial codes, administrative codes, and other codes which were made the law of the land in these different Muslim countries.
The only areas of Islamic law that continued to be applied in these colonized Muslim countries were marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Otherwise, the legal systems of countries like Algeria and Egypt and Iraq came to resemble legal systems in the west. Even after the colonial powers left the Muslim world at the beginning of the 20th century, the local elites who took power inherited the colonial legal structures, and enshrined them in the nation states that they were ruling. These new elites sought to modernize their countries.
Some scholars argue that the systematic dismantling of Islamic law during the 19th and 20th centuries has contributed to the breakdown of law and order in traditional Muslim societies. These changes in the legal system made it possible for powerful men to seize power in countries like Egypt and Syria and Iraq, and to run those countries in dictatorial fashion.
Paradoxically, Islamic law is at the center of the struggle for power in the modern Muslim world. But this law is no longer a jurist's law, developed by private individuals. It is a state law. Thus, article 2 in the Constitution of Egypt states that the principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation in the country. This does not mean that Islamic law is being applied in Egypt today in the same way that it was being applied there in the 14th century. What it means is that the modern Egyptian state wants to exercise control over what aspects of Islamic law are applied, and what aspects of Islamic law are not applied. And it does this very successfully.
At the same time, many Muslims who oppose despotism are calling for the application of Sharia in their countries. The Muslims who are calling for the application of the Sharia want to see the restoration of, for example, the Quranic penalties, dealing with crime, highway robbery, the prohibition of alcohol, illicit sexual relations, and false accusation of illicit sexual relations. These penalties are being applied in certain Muslim countries, such as the Sudan, or Pakistan, in a very harsh and brutal way. In my experience, these penalties were not applied in this manner in the 14th and the 15th centuries. That is to say, there is a discontinuity between Islamic law as it was applied in Muslim countries in the 14th and 15th centuries, and Sharia as it is being applied in certain nation states today.
Even if we do not share the values of those Muslims who are calling for the application of Sharia and the Hud punishments today, it's important that we understand the historical context in which they are operating, and the dramatic changes that have taken place in Islamic law over the course of the past two centuries. A better understanding of the history of Islamic law may help us to adopt sounder policies towards the Muslim world in the present.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to this lecture. If you want to pursue the subject, there are links available to websites. There's also a bibliography that I hope you will find useful. And I would encourage you to take advantage of the message board that is also available.
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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 7 of 7 in the What is Islamic Law? series.