Roundtable Discussion: Shari‘ah Law and State Law. 18 June 2013 - event notice available here.

Our first in a series of events on Shari‘ah Law and State Law was held at SOAS, University of London on 18th June 2013, in partnership with the SOAS Centre of Islamic and Middle Easter Law (CIMEL).   


This was our first attempt at convening an event in roundtable format; we feel it worked, though we value any feedback from those who were there. In any case the event had a very high turn-out that exceeded our expectations.  If it all goes to plan, it will most certainly not be our last roundtable event! Key to the event’s success was the energetic discussion among the expert members of the roundtable and the contribution of a good set of questions from a well-engaged audience. The theme focused mainly on the relationship between Islamic law and state law in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring.”  The topic, of course, has become particularly salient in the recent past because of the consequent rise of Islamists to the seats of rule and the ensuing public role of Islam at the level of the state.  The rising demands for the enforcement or adoption of Islamic law or some form of “Shari‘ah” law as state law was infused by a desire to understand the relationship between the two systems of “law” and the surrounding debates and resulting polarisation in societies.  A question that lingers – and surfaces now with the events in Egypt – is whether “Arab Spring” states are truly ready to embrace democratic values of inclusion, openness to disagreements, amenability to change and – above all – the acceptance and clear understanding, of the democratic process in its entirety.  Competing notions of democracy range from winning a majority in the ballot box to the consolidation of a “tyranny of the majority”.

The roundtable event lasted ninety minutes.  During the first forty-five minutes the moderator (Rob Gleave) asked questions and steered the discussions of the contributors to the roundtable: Sami Zubaida, Haleh Afshar, Charles Tripp, Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron and Ian Edge.  The discussions from the roundtable and the questions that followed from the floor - in the second forty-five minutes – included attempts to define Shari‘ah, highlighting that definitions of Shari‘ah may vary depending on context.  In this respect, the discussants alluded to the idea that the rulers’ definition or envisioning of Shari‘ah and what it constitutes and implies may be very different from the definitions and visions of different sections of the people.  Other discussions addressed the extent of the significance of the status of Shari‘ah within the Muslim society, which makes it appear to be the “default” legal option for many Muslim states, and whether there is something distinctive about Shari‘ah Law that makes it incompatible with state law, in the modern sense of statehood.  The attachment to the idea of Shariah law may contribute to understanding why opponents of the idea of Shari‘ah law as state law are so adamant in their opposition. Discussions also addressed the implications of the adoption of Shari‘ah as state law on civil, political and socio-cultural rights of citizens and whether the adoption of Shari‘ah law inevitably leads to authoritarianism. 

The processes of constitutional and judicial reforms that may result out of states adopting Shari’a law came under particular focus, with reference to the Egyptian case after the rise of Islamists to power, the ensuing policy and legal restructurings, the different wording of various articles of the new constitution and the possible implications and future trajectories.   The Egypt-focused discussions led to broadly questions the “essentialism” of enshrining Shari‘ah in constitutions of Muslim-majority states and whether it is of any significant importance for the operation of Shari‘ah law as state law in the modern period. And more specifically, how might the Shari‘ah fit into, and operate within a constitutional framework.

Finally, questions from the floor and the replies that followed from the roundtable addressed the edifice of Islamic banking and its historical emergence, the mandate of Shari‘ah committees and the system of “checks and balances” on such committees within banks that provide Islamic products.  The mandate and modus operandi of Shari‘ah Councils in the UK and the status of hudud ordinances in case of the adoption of Shari‘ah law as state law were all discussed.

The timeliness of the topic of this event and the ongoing events in the post “Arab Spring” countries leave the questions and discussions that were taken up, open-ended and un-concluded as everyday brings forth new possibilities for different future trajectories.

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