Reviews

Studies of the history of Islamic jurisprudence have challenged the view that Islamic law was immutable.  They argue that colonial empires bear responsibility for its fixation as a code of law endowed with police means of enforcement while in pre-colonial times, the shari‘a allowed greater fluidity of interpretation.  Robert Crews holds that the Russian Empire did not differ much from other empires in its attempt to codify Islamic law, but according to him, the reshaping of the law was not so much the work of Orientalist administrators or co-opted ‘ulama’, but the outcome of disputes over its definition and application by different groups of litigants.  Litigants of varied ethnic background and religion seized the opportunity to move between Russian secular and Islamic courts to win their cases, thus determining the extent of both legal systems in society.  With the conquest of Central Asia, Russians claimed that the empire’s legal system, based on universal rational principles, would liberate its new subjects from the vagaries of the pre-modern shari‘a.  But fear of popular discontent and the need for stability forced Russian bureaucrats to incorporate Islamic courts into their colonial justice system.  The Statute of 1886 gave extensive jurisdiction to the qazi courts, which oversaw most civil cases among the “natives” of Turkistan—even when those natives were not Muslim.  While the Jews of Samarqand tried to be freed from shari‘a courts and be placed under Imperial state law, Muslim elites sought to expand Islamic law in areas traditionally governed by customary law.  Crews skilfully traces the bitter debates within the Russian government over the appropriate jurisdictional boundaries of the shari‘a courts in the early twentieth century, as the Ministry of Justice argued for the superiority of positive Russian law and the Ministry of War, for the stability of the shari‘a courts.  Despite its promising title and introductory lines, the focus of the article is more on the Jews’ interaction with the shari‘a and Imperial Russian court system than about Muslim litigants and their bargaining-negotiating power over the reshaping of the law in the context of Russian colonial rule.

Agnès Kefeli, Arizona State University, Tempe
CER: I-3.1.C-186